Nine patterns among great UX teams
This is a written version of my keynote presentation at 2013 Future Insights Live.You can also watch the keynote video.
Crafting a user experience (UX) team that iterates, builds, and ships quality products is one of the most challenging things to master in our industry. And to ship quickly and consistently? Even more challenging.
What follows are nine patterns that I’ve found common among great UX teams. I draw on interviews with several teams at companies like Twitter and Kickstarter, as well as my own background running Authentic Jobs.
1. Net effect matters most.
Great teams evangelize not just the end result, but the net effect from the end result. In other words, the impact a product has on the lives of its customers and users.
charity: water is a non-profit organization focused on bringing clean, safe drinking water to nearly one billion people throughout the world without access to it. To date they’ve received millions of dollars in donations and have completed hundreds of water projects around the world. I’ve seen some of these projects first-hand in Ethiopia.
For charity: water, the end result are the freshwater wells, tap stands, and BioSand filters it provides communities in developing nations. The net effect, on the other hand, are the lives that are changed dramatically. Communities that receive clean water projects generally enjoy healthier, longer lives. Education is improved as school children, especially girls, spend more time in school and less time walking with their mothers to distant water sources, sometimes hours away from villages without a well or tap stand.
And that’s what charity: water evangelizes—the number of lives changed, not just the number of wells drilled. Among teams like these, net effect matters most, and it’s an integral part of their internal and external narratives.
2. Hiring matters second-most.
Great teams understand that hiring is critical to success, as it is the human mind and spirit that drives everything we do as an industry.
“Hire smart, or manage tough.” –Red Scott
Firing someone is one of the most stressful things for a manager to endure, and one of the most demoralizing things for teams to suffer through. Yet, poor hires can largely be prevented with better hiring practices. Lou Adler’s Hire With Your Head can help with this. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a superb book, but I’d comfortably say it’s a pretty good one.
A few key takeaways from my recent reading of Adler’s book:
Treat hiring like any other process your team has mastered. Give it the structure it deserves.
Understand that accurate interviewing is about fact-finding, not about asking clever questions. The questions you ask are actually less important than the quality of the information you obtain. Gather lots of information about the candidate’s major accomplishments. Dig deep. Focus on fact-finding, not clever answers to clever questions.
Measure job competency, not interviewing aptitude. Nobody likes interviewing, and even the best candidates flounder and get nervous in interviews (sometimes really nervous).
Define the job to be done, and ask: “How has your background prepared you for this position?” It’s your responsibility as interviewer to understand what relevant experiences the candidate has had that would indicate how well he/she would perform the objectives of the position you’re hiring for.
For great teams, hiring is second only to net effect in importance.
3. Culture & team fit are imperative to the work.
Great teams have a strong, unique culture, and they ensure each member fits, and improves upon, that culture.
“Skills can be taught, but working with a jerk is no fun for anyone.” –Noah Stokes
Culture begins with hiring. In my research for this topic, I spoke with Charles Adler, co-founder of Kickstarter. I asked him a question about Kickstarter’s culture, and his response was intriguing. “The kinds of people we hire,” he remarked, “influences the kinds of users we attract.” His point was that, to your users, you are who you hire. Culture within a company is often synonymous with the culture amongst its audience.
At a previous company, one of the questions we would ask each other when debriefing helped expose the fit of each candidate: “How much would I enjoy a one-hour commute to work every day with this candidate, just the two of us for 60 minutes each way?” Answering this question would provide an objective look at the candidate’s fit amongst existing team members.
Each team’s culture is different, yet the need to ensure team members positively influence and gel well with the established culture is constant among great teams.
4. Great teams do what works best for them, not others.
Without fear of harassment, great teams do whatever works best for them, not others. Not the A-listers, not the respected thought leaders, but what works for their team, their company, their users.
However, great teams selectively embrace new thinking, too. New ideas, new methods, and new tools.
There are countless things I cherish about working in our industry. But one of these is not how we sometimes prescribe absolutes; how we persecute those who don’t use what, in our minds, is the “best” software, or the “best” method, or the “best” whatever. We can do better voicing our opinions without demanding that everyone subscribe to these opinions.
Great teams possess the humility to listen to others, along with the audacity to do whatever they feel works best for them—regardless of how popular their choices may or may not be in the eyes of others.
5. Prototyping happens early, often, and habitually.
Great teams make it a habit to prototype early and often. This was mentioned frequently in my research with teams at other companies, perhaps more than anything else.
However, the nature of prototyping has evolved over the past few years, especially as responsive web design has manifested the shortcomings of full-fidelity, static comps. I’m not even sure “prototyping” is the right word anymore. Is it comping? Is it visual exploration? What about functional exploration?
There are many ways to prototype, but the best teams follow these three absolutes when selecting the best approach:
- It depends.
- It depends.
- It depends.
For Twitter, their goal for prototyping is simply “something clickable ASAP.” I like that.
Regardless of the method each team uses for prototyping, great teams do it as second nature.
6. Quality & shipping are in a constant tussle for top priority.
Great teams have a relentless drive to produce quality work and to ship that work as soon as possible. But the two are often at odds with each other: Do I ship now and get it out the door, even though I know there are things I’m not happy with? Or do I postpone shipping until I’ve perfected every detail?
“Programmers don’t burn out on hard work, they burn out on change-with-the-wind directives and not shipping.” –Mark Berry
Struggling teams fail to ship consistently. Few things lower team morale more than this. Alternatively, when hyperfocused on shipping, quality often suffers.
Great teams do their best to make both a priority.
7. Pausing from the work improves the work.
Great teams schedule time to pause from the day-to-day grind. These pauses may involve work-related activities, or they may simply provide time for contemplation and instruction. They might last an hour, or they might last a week.
Regardless, the results are the same: The daily grind improves when time is spent away from the grind.
Twitter, for example, holds half-day “design studios” each week. Team members are physically located together during that time. Design problems are tackled with team members intentionally paired up in groupings that wouldn’t occur naturally in a project. These pauses and pairings help to strengthen the team and improve the work.
Great teams understand the value of pausing from work and incorporate this into their culture.
8. Collaboration & isolation are valued equally.
Great teams appreciate independence as much as they do cohesiveness. It’s easy to recognize that collaboration is critical to successful projects, but it’s much harder to realize that isolation has its place, too. Great teams strike a balance between the two.
For some companies, it’s good business to do things they way they’ve been done for decades — everyone in the office, with the only major change being the reduction of enclosed offices in favor of open floor plans. Spontaneous, serendipitous interaction is vital to workflow at these companies.
At Google, even the cafeteria is designed to encourage deliberate collaboration among employees that wouldn’t see each other otherwise. Line lengths and the arrangement of tables and chairs are designed to encourage a “Google bump” (source).
Increasingly, however, employers are recognizing that isolation and remote working yields benefits, too. 57% of employers offered telecommuting options in 2012, up from 53% in 2011 (source). Some offered partial remote working such as one day a week away from the office, while others offered completely remote working. Recently we added a remote jobs filter to Authentic Jobs to tap into this trend.
The preference to live where one chooses is often cited by those who favor remote working. But there are other reasons, such as the ability to be more productive in an environment that is largely free from interruption. Employers who favor remote working cite the ability to cast a wider recruiting net and increased job satisfaction for team members, among other things.
In the end, great teams strike a balance between collaboration and isolation, and they try to provide means to do so.
9. Every six weeks, two hours are spent watching users interact with the product.
This final observation comes from Jared Spool’s research, as explained in “The 3 Qs for Great Experience Design.” Jared’s staff have found that the best UX teams spend at least two hours every six weeks doing usability tests or field studies, formal or informal.
Jared isn’t referring to surveys or satisfaction measures. “Those are often flawed and give a very small piece of the picture,” he mentioned in an interview by phone with me recently. “Hours of useless meetings could be replaced with just a couple hours of testing to see what users are really doing.”
Focus on real user testing. Something as simple as testing with an iPad at Starbucks, or something as structured as an in-house usability lab. Among the best teams, feedback sessions happen in a wide variety of ways—the more variance, the better, Jared has observed.
“Hours of useless meetings could be replaced with just a couple hours of testing to see what users are really doing.” –Jared Spool
Great teams make time to watch real users use what they build.
My team is still working on all of these.