Design partnerships: Better design with the buddy system

This article is based on a talk I gave with my friend and colleague Jacqueline Fouche.

Complex UX problems are difficult to tackle alone. Find yourself a UX buddy and build a strong, multi-skilled team to get the big jobs done.

The Golden Statuette

Nothing beats the feeling of solving a difficult UX problem. For a brief, heavenly moment you feel everything is right in the world. As you confidently show your designs off to your team and users, you seriously begin to imagine yourself as Indiana Jones as he grabs the golden statuette and nimbly places an equally weighted sack in its place.

Hey… what’s that ominous rumble?

The Boulder Moment

So here’s the incoming boulder: Your colleagues don’t ‘get’ the design . Users don’t understand what they need to do. Your boss just goes ‘Hmmm.’ The project grinds on, but you’ve lost momentum.

How do we stop the boulder from crushing us? How do we prevent morale deflation at the end of a project?

Don’t do it alone. Find a friend — a mentor if possible. Build a team that gets shit done. Build essential rituals into your design process. Back yourselves and each other.

Mentorship and Partnership

When I started out, the UX industry in Johannesburg was miniscule. Everyone seemed to be a battle-hardened veteran while I was the clueless newbie. I took job at an ad agency purely because they had other UX people there. My hope was that I would find people to talk to and learn from. I was tired of figuring it all out alone.

Jax was my boss and I was relieved to have someone tell me how to become a “proper UX,” but what she did instead was push me to believe my in my own design decisions. The guidance and support she gave me allowed me to stand on my own two feet as a UX.

Not long after I started she resigned and moved on, but as of last year we are colleagues again. our relationship has developed from mentor and mentee to collaborative colleagues. Jax and I will discuss the problems we are facing. It could be recurring problems either one of use keep facing and the first thing we usually do is the crazy check. As good as these conversations are for our sanity they are also a safe place for us to share our concerns and insecurities or to have a sounding board while we think out loud. In this space we open ourselves up to the other possibilities, you become a better designer because you are allowing one possible solution to become two or three. As much as we support each other no bullshit is allowed, we have that need to be solved and we rely on each other and honesty to help to solve them.

Don’t Design Alone

I got my first job waitering two weeks after my 15th birthday. My older brother who had waited for many years told me that if the head griller wanted money you give it to him no questions asked. I wasn’t sure why, but after a few nights I realised he controlled the kitchen. He decided to help if I forgot to put an order in on time or if I put the got the order wrong, he decided how fast the food came out. He wasn’t the boss or the owner he made minimum wage, but for me to get my job done I need his help.

We have an underlying interdependence on the members of our team. To get the work done I need everyone to want to get the work done too. If business doesn’t see value in what you do they will not give you the support you need, if I dev is just trying to push work out as soon as possible they will tell you that nothing is possible. Building relationships is one of the most important tasks to achieving success.

What we do is hard. We’re are asked to solve big ugly complex problems, problems that keep us up at night and make us horrible people for weeks on end. These problems aren’t solved in isolation, even if we have the a-ha moment at 3am, it comes from having conversations with the people around you and letting them open your eyes to possibilities that you don’t see (even when they are right in front of you). Big problems are best solved by teams.


Success is precarious: It’s all about having the right team

Jax is an avid gamer and naturally sees big problems as a quest. Like with any good quests big design problems have their share of hidden traps, sirens and sea monsters. She often talks about the way she has had to train her mind to think about design. She believes it’s a Design Leader’s role to use their knowledge to guide and protect teams, let their individual strengths shine, prevent them from falling into traps and with any luck find the treasure at the end of their quest.

There were two moments from last years PixelUp conference that have really stuck with me, one was a statement by Dan Mall saying that as designers we need to set the table or bring people along in our design process and the other was a workshop by Willem van Hekke and Jon Bell about Codesign.

Dan Mall reminded me that often we forget that the majority of the time our audience aren’t designers and it’s up to us to explain the journey we took to arrive at our solution. Jon and William highlighted the importance of including non-designers and designing tasks to suit people of different personality types, to give everyone a voice in the creative process. When we stop designing alone and include the right people in the process we make better products and have to deal with less shit.

Creating good habits

It’s easy to forget how you solve difficult people and design problems from one project to the next. Incorporating rituals and sticking to them allows teams to be proactive rather than reactive, they are also milestones to work towards in a sprint. Making rituals part of your process is a type of safety blanket for your team and they know what is expected of them, it sounds simple enough, but it’s really important for the health of a multidisciplinary team to have a shared understanding of what they are working towards.

The four essential rituals we use in our teams are:

  1. Sprint planning: Work allocation and estimation for the sprint
  2. Stand ups: Daily check-in’s where progress and problems can be shared with the team
  3. Design demo’s: Each member of the team shows what they’ve worked on during a sprint
  4. Retros: A session at the end of a sprint where the whole team analyses what has been worked and what needs to be fixed for the next sprint.

When is enough enough

My definition of done is the essential steps a project must go through before I consider it to be complete. It will be different for everyone and the process I created suits the team I work in. It makes sure we know the problem we are trying to solve and that we have spoken to right people at the right time. It defines who needs to see the work as it develops and when. It helps us plan our work, because each discipline understands what their definition of done is, UI knows that they are done when it has been shown to the right people, shared with the design team and a prototype has been created.

We have different definitions of done for conceptual and detail design, development and live software. It reminds us what we need to do to work in the way we need to work in. It isn’t a checklist of how design because each project is unique and our approach needs to be unique.

User feedback

The final member of team are our users. The topics we have touched on have been more about the importance of the relationships we build with our co-works, but our users are as much part of our design process as any member of our team.

To Recap

What it isn’t…

  • It’s not design by committee

what works

  • Sharing work early
  • It helps you work faster
  • It helps get you out of design holes
  • It ensures that you’ve considered different options and that you design is sound
  • Includes non-designers

Design partnerships and our industry

There aren’t enough User Centered Design (UCD’s) in South Africa which is great for job security, but not our industry. The majority of UCD’s work in the financial services and we need to grow the UCD maturity in all business.

Design is seen as a job title or talent, not a skill set, who hasn’t been asked if you play with crayons and glitter all day? Design partnerships help us to help others understand our methods and develop their own design skill set. Not everyone has to become a designer, but we can teach people the principles and methods of non linear problem solving.

For our industry to grow and design opportunities to grow, we need to teach people about the benefits of design. This will allow us to solve the big ugly problems we have in our country and create better opportunities for ourselves in the future.