How to build the foundations of a UX team

Matt Tsourdalakis

Matt Tsourdalakis

UX Lead | Consultant

Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of working as a UX Lead.

I’ve led small teams and large teams.

When you think of a successful team in a sporting setting, they’re often referred to as “doing the basics really well” or “doing the little things right”.

The same applies to the workplace. If your team can’t do the basics well, you’ll struggle to achieve any consistent success.

Setting up the foundations of a team is difficult.

It’s easy to get side-tracked. There are plenty of “urgent” tasks that seem important — like meeting deadlines, churning out work, pleasing stakeholders and achieving KPIs.

We all know these “urgent” tasks are necessary for us to justify our jobs in UX, but in my time as a lead, I’ve discovered some of the foundational (one-percenter) basics to help a team become:

  • More time-efficient
  • More cost-effective
  • More successful
  • Happier 😊

So whether you’re an aspiring UX leader, or you’re part of a team that’s struggling with the basics, hopefully, you can learn something useful and be a catalyst for positive change in your work environment.

Understanding the lay of the land

Whether you’re a UX Lead or a UXer who wants to bring about positive change it’s essential to understand all the factors surrounding your team before taking the reins.

There will usually be a boatload of:

  • Legacy systems: This includes old or outdated software, hardware, methodologies and processes.
  • Red-tape: This makes rapid change and innovation extremely difficult. Almost every good idea needs to go all the way up the food chain before it can be approved and actioned.
  • Resistance to change: Attitudes that follow the “This is the way we’ve always done it” mantra can be rife. It’s a catch-22 because colleagues can complain about their current situation, but then resist suggestions for change in the same breath.

Leaders should attempt to understand:

  • What’s the general attitude from those on the floor doing the work?
  • What are the most significant pain points or blockers to productivity?
  • Who are the most influential people in the business?

It’s an overall attitude that focuses on the needs of the team and the broader business — not your own.

Image credit: Simon Sinek Globoforce Limited (2018)

Rapid and inclusive decision making - LDJ

UX teams can often have a myriad of problems — almost too many to count. This can cause action paralysis where a team stays stuck-in-a-rut even though they know something’s not right.

A leader in this position may be tempted to start diagnosing problems willy-nilly — without any input from the team. This is a sure-fire way to lose the trust of your team because they’re the ones living out the problems on the front-line, not the leader who often observes them from afar.

One problem-solving methodology that I’ve used to great effect is called a “Lightning Decision Jam (LDJ)” by AJ&Smart. It’s a workshop technique to solve any problem, with any amount of people, with minimal discussion, and all under 2 hours.

AJ&Smart have a Miro board to run remote LDJs. I often use a physical space to run the workshop, but I used Miro to document findings and share them with the team.

Workshops are great, but if you don’t document and share what was done, they offer a much lower ROI.

In my humble opinion, Miro is the best digital collaboration tool out there. It also comes in handy when collaborating remotely #covid #isolife

Finding the right tools

I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to the latest design, collaboration and productivity tools. It’s because I understand how great things can be achieved with the right tools.

A good tool improves the way you work. A great tool improves the way you think.

Jeff Duntemann, Author

There’s often resistance to trialling new tools, even if they’re going to improve efficiency. This is because people view new tools as potential time-wasters and disruptors — and they are.

For example: why switch from Sketch to Figma when you’ve already invested years setting up all your libraries, design systems, prototypes etc.?

You always need to weigh up the potential gains vs the potential losses. If the potential gains outweigh the potential losses, you should, at the very least, give the new tool a trial period. If you try the new tool and the losses outweigh the gains, park it and try something else.

TIP: Don’t shelve new tools forever. Things can change over time, and it might make more sense to hold off until the right circumstances arise.

The point is you and your team should always be on the lookout for the next best tools on the market. Provide an open forum for everyone to share their tools and how they use them. It’s amazing what you can learn just by seeing how someone else gets their work done.

Provide a better process

Feedback sessions are supposed to provide constructive feedback to help the team do better work and stay aligned to common goals.

What I’ve noticed, however, is that feedback sessions are usually unconstructive, ambiguous and subjective.

Product teams often want more context around design decisions and UX teams often want less crappy feedback.

I believe it’s the responsibility of both parties to create a safe space for constructive feedback.

I’ve come up with an acronym for UX teams to follow that can help improve feedback sessions. This works for internal feedback sessions or even ones involving external stakeholders — C.I.D.

As the UX Lead, it’s your job to facilitate and help make sure feedback sessions stay on track and a clear process is followed. Ask your team what they plan on sharing a few days prior to the feedback session so you can send out an agenda nice and early.

Here’s the framework for your team to follow in preparation for a feedback session:

C for Context

  • No one knows as much about your project as you, so it’s important to provide background and context. What was the brief? What is the business trying to achieve? What constraints did you have to work within?
  • Keep everyone on the same page by providing adequate context prior to showing your design work. It also sets the tone for you to receive constructive and relevant feedback.

I for Insights

  • These are any insights that you’ve uncovered as a UXer. User research, competitor analysis, data analysis and anything else that helps others in the meeting empathise with the users you’re designing for.
  • It’s not always possible to come armed with a boatload of user insights. Still, this step is crucial if you want to avoid receiving subjective feedback. If a stakeholder makes a comment that contradicts the user research, it automatically gives the UXer the authority to push back. Not too many stakeholders will stand firm on a “gut feel” when user research directly contradicts that opinion.

D for Design

  • This is the part where the UXer presents what they designed. Annotated designs and rough prototypes work well to make sure people can understand what you’re trying to achieve through your design.
  • I encourage my teams to avoid going hi-fi too soon. Coming up with three or four ideas is a better use of time, rather than getting one concept pixel perfect for a feedback session. Plus, stakeholders typically like to see a few options to help with their decision making process.

Lastly…tying up loose ends

  • Make sure you take down notes and confirm any action items, decisions, questions etc. before moving on to the next agenda item.
  • Then once the meeting’s done, send the notes to all attendees and give people the opportunity to add anything that may have been missed.

Introducing a framework for gathering better feedback can be met with some resistance. So make sure to state that every new process is a trial and there’s always room for improvement or changes if it doesn’t work for everyone.

I believe if you apply a framework like mine to your feedback sessions, the UX team will be better prepared, stakeholders will be more helpful in their feedback and any ambiguity should mostly cease. It’s a win-win-win. 👏

One-on-one catch-ups

When I was a junior designer, I often craved time with my manager so I could chat about work, my career ambitions and anything that was bothering me.

Having a manager who takes the time to talk, makes you feel valued, and it can prevent negative feelings from being bottled up and festering below the surface.

In fact, I would say most of the issues that I’ve had at work have been exacerbated by the lack of time my manager had for me.

If they had been more intentional about asking me about my career goals, they wouldn’t have been surprised when I asked for a raise in my 12-month review.

If they had provided a safer space for me to share what was bothering me at work, they may have been able to intervene before I handed in my resignation.

You get the picture.

Now, I don’t want to make all my past managers seem like careless people. For the most part, they weren’t. It’s just they often didn’t prioritise time with their team.

They were often too busy with other “urgent” things to make one-on-one time with their team a priority.

I believe design leaders can do better to make sure that the team’s individual needs are always priority number one. The best way to do this is to make sure you catch up with your team (one-on-one) regularly.

Some prefer weekly catch-ups, some fortnightly and some monthly. Leave it up to each individual team member to let you know what they need, rather than you telling them how often you’re able to catch up.

In each catch-up, create a simple and flexible structure:

How’s everything going?

This is an open-ended question because some people want to talk strictly about work. In contrast, others like to open up about personal things. Your job is to ask the question and just listen. It’s up to them what they want to share, and naturally, it takes time before colleagues can really open up about how things are going. It’s a foundational question for building a relationship of trust.

Are you experiencing any pain-points or blockers that I can assist with?

This is an opportunity for your team member to offload any concerns and for both of you to creatively come up with some solutions. One of your key goals as a team leader is to help remove any pain-points or blockers for your team. Anything you can do to help them work to their strengths and help them enjoy their work more is going to be better for them and the business.

What would you like to achieve during your time at [insert company name here] and beyond?

This is a broader “career aspirations” question. It may not change every time you catch-up with a team member, but it’s still important to ask this question regularly.

You never know what situations might have changed in their lives that has caused them to rethink their career aspirations. Maybe they’ve just started saving for a house, and they’d like a pay rise. Perhaps they’ve decided they want to develop their leadership and management skills. Maybe they’ve decided they’d like to do more of one type of work and less of another.

Your job as their leader isn’t to give them everything they’re asking for. But if you’re not aware of their current career and personal aspirations, there’s no way you can look for opportunities to help them make it a reality. It may not happen while they work under your leadership, but if you can help them take a step closer towards those career goals, you will have a more engaged and a happier team member.

Gary Vee sums it up pretty well.

Is there anything more or less you’d like from me?

This question is really a round-about way of asking them for feedback. You want them to know that you’re flexible and open to improvement in how you manage them. Some team members prefer a more hands-on approach from a manager while others prefer to be left alone. The point is good leaders are flexible in how they lead their teams. Team members have enough to worry about in their day-to-day, let alone dealing with a stubborn micro-manager.

Action items

Lastly, and most importantly, make sure you’re taking notes of any action items. It shouldn’t just be a chat session — good leaders facilitate action that will improve situations for their team members. Make sure you collaboratively assign responsibilities and deadlines to keep both you and your team member accountable. The next time you catch up, look at the action items that were set last time and discuss where they’re at.

One-on-ones involve a big investment of time but it’s well worth it. It’s the most foundational way of building trust between a manager and their team.

Image credit: Simon Sinek Martech Alliance (2017)

Collecting regular anonymous feedback

One-on-one catch-ups will often uncover several recurring trends across the wider team. But it can be a challenge to document and present this information to your direct report.

This is where collecting anonymous feedback comes in. I use a tool called Officevibe.

The way it works is each team member receives weekly emails asking them a handful of multiple-choice questions. e.g:

Q. My direct manager has a good level of transparency with the team.

A. Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Neutral, Agree, Strongly Agree

Their responses remain 100% anonymous, and over time it builds engagement metrics that show team or organisational health from a culture perspective.

Engagement metrics dashboard in Officevibe from one of my teams.

Make sure you regularly take time to address the areas for improvement. You may need some more in-depth feedback on each area that still needs work, so don’t be afraid to ask your team to elaborate in a group setting.

As a leader, there’s always going to be a degree of insecurity about asking for feedback because you might be part of the problem. It really comes down to what you’re willing to do to improve as a leader. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel better about yourself, but you’ll never grow. Personally, I’d rather learn from my shortcomings and try to improve myself—no matter how crappy I might feel receiving negative feedback.

You’ll be amazed at how forgiving your team will be if you simply show them you’re a leader who’s intentionally trying to make things better.

Maintaining visibility of work

Stakeholders/executives/business owners often like to know what you and your team’s upcoming work schedule looks like. When you get a request like this you don’t want to be left guessing who’s doing what in your team.

I’ve used an application called Forecast that’s one of the tools that a traffic manager could use to plan team resourcing. It also has some additional features where you can set project milestones and easily assign resources to tasks. Its visual design is also pretty slick, and it’s simple for anyone to understand and update.

Forecast helps improve visibility and accountability on UX resourcing.

Team members hate not knowing what they’ll be working on from one week to the next so a tool like Forecast gives them a heads up on what’s in the pipeline.

Another bonus from using Forecast is how it shows utilisation percentages based on allocated hours vs billable hours. It means I can tell if a UXer is under or over utilised before it becomes an issue with upper management.

Using a tool like Forecast takes the guesswork out of resourcing and creates a more transparent environment for your team and your direct reports.

Wrapping up

Good teams have solid foundations. These foundations don’t get laid accidentally, they require close attention and regular refinement. As a UX Lead it’s your responsibility to help lay the foundations and free up your team to achieve their full potential.

If leaders focus more on improving team foundations (the one-percenters), and less on fighting “urgent” fires, it will set them and their team up to achieve success and will make others want to be a part of it.

So take responsibility, take charge and embrace the challenge of laying aside your selfish desires to lay the foundations that will leave a legacy.

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