Ramp Up Gradually If Your Team Is New to UX Design

Remember your first Agile project? It took a lot to convince people to trade lengthy spec documents for a stack of index cards, but everyone knew things needed to change. Even still, success wasn’t guaranteed and there was plenty of anxiety to go around.

Now imagine that same software team changing processes yet again, this time taking their first steps to incorporate user-centered design into their work. How will everyone feel? Who’s rooting for the change? How high are the stakes?

Avoiding a Big Bang

I’d argue this team should consider ramping up gradually and deepening their design process over time. Depending on the interpersonal dynamics, a Big Bang for design can be unnecessarily risky.

When start a project with a new client, the “bang” we gravitate towards is bang for the buck. We begin with lightweight techniques that yield outsized results and give the client a taste of what user-centered design offers. Here’s a few examples:

  • Story Mapping is a lo-fi activity that uses sticky notes to take agile user stories to the next level. You start by calling out the users’ target outcomes, and then you break out the sequence of activities users actually perform to achieve each one. It’s a great way to clearly define the problem you’re solving, enabling you to work backwards and design a solution that fits.
  • Personas are very tricky for inexperienced teams; if you’re just getting your feet wet, schedule five interviews with real users and discuss what you learned with the core contributors. Most teams walk away with at least a few ways to improve their offering and a better sense of the users’ target outcomes.
  • If you think the team is ready for a more specific mental picture of the users, pull the names of your archetypes (i.e. personas) from the characters used in your marketing demos. You’ll have to pick some names to use for your demos anyway, and this gives the team a way to connect the personas to something concrete.
  • Basic usability testing can be done in the hallway; skip the fancy lab environments with one-way glass until you really need it.

Each of these methods pave the way for more extensive practices in the future while building credibility and comfort with a design-driven process. The idea is to hand out an appetizer and see how people react before serving a big plate full of UX methodology.

One step at a time

I recently saw Dr. Steve Julius, former psychologist for the Chicago Bulls, give a presentation about behavior and process change within teams. When asked about the number one mistake people make in this area, he offered this:

They try to change too much, too fast—and they become zealots.

Sometimes, slow and steady wins the race.

Further reading

Most of the tips above have been collected from the following (fabulous) books; I strongly encourage you to dig into them for more.

Five Lessons for Product Designers from Google Ventures

Braden Kowitz, a Design Partner at Google Ventures, gave a great presentation at the the 2015 Prototypes, Process and Play conference consisting of five pieces of advice for those that do product design work.

  • Work with management and redirect their energy like an akido master. Don’t fight when their design ideas aren’t great; instead, figure out a way to be “facing the same direction.”
  • Focus on working through the risky elements of your product or service first, and don’t be surprised if it pulls you out of your personal comfort zone. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be risky!
  • Avoid spreading your design team too thin by setting priorities with senior management. Make sure to include a choice for teams to complete less important projects without design, and communicate what that means.
  • Set tight “learning deadlines” to avoid over-polishing a given idea. It’s not always obvious when designers should put their pencils down.
  • Design activities should be done by everyone on the team—at least a little—to instill the sense that design is everyone’s job. Developers can watch usability tests and go on site visits, for example.

At the end of the session, there was a brief Q&A in which someone asked about how to balance science with art and go with your gut. I really liked Braden’s answer, which I’ll paraphrase:

When there’s no hard data available, make decisions by identifying who has the best instincts for that type of decision, whether they be a visual designer, sales rep, support agent, or the CEO. Let that person decide, and call out the fact that you’re in subjective territory.