The 5 Key-Elements For a Thriving UX Design Team

We know that successful design of great user experiences requires not only skill but also the magic of fruitful teamwork. UXD is a dynamic field of work in which definition of roles, deliverables and responsibilities constantly change. One thing is certain: UXD teams need to evolve quickly. So we asked ourselves and some topnotch professionals the following questions: what is the secret of a thriving UXD team and how can we UXD-ers adapt to change and keep on thriving?

Let us introduce ourselves first: we are Floor Hickmann and Wendy Thio. Both of us work at Jungle Minds, a digital product development agency in the Netherlands, strongly focused on creating meaningful user experiences. The last 5 years, both of us have worked in many teams on a wide variety of product development projects. Every team we have collaborated with is unique and that is what we love about our work. But sometimes we need to remind team members that UXD is a team sport. We can’t do it alone and we need each other, not just to deliver, but also to explore how and what to accomplish together. Sure, it’s a bit of a cliché. But when the team setup, the culture or design processes are not clear, a successful outcome is almost impossible.

We have identified 5 key-elements that are crucial to come to this shared understanding when working in a UXD team.

#1 Mindset:
A true UX mentality: the only thing a competitor can’t copy easily.

#2 Flexibility
Roles of members in project teams should vary

#3 Autonomy
Create ownership and no distractions

#4 Tangibility
Visualize and work at one central location

#5 Evolve
The way a team works is never set in stone

No great designer has ever produced anything on their own; there are always other people who have inspired them in some fashion.” — Donny Guy, UX manager at Zappos

First, what is our definition of a UX Design Team?

Countless people have written about the definition of UX Design. They have tried to do this by defining and/or debating what roles and skills are needed to design a digital service or product and visualized this in all kinds of diagrams.

We’ve read many articles and talked with several people within our industry. The conclusion that we have come to is the following: we don’t think there is one definite answer for a fixed set of roles or skills needed because it keeps on changing just as new technologies, tools and processes are constantly being developed.

Whether your task is to research the user’s needs, to design the user interface or to develop the business strategy, we all contribute to the same outcome. We all impact the user’s experience of a product or service. As a result people are starting to add ‘UX’ to our job titles, such as UX engineer, UX researcher, UX architect, UX strategist, UX manager etc. In other words: UX professionals.

Since these labels are not set in stone we can’t define a fixed set of titles, but we do need to clarify what everyone’s role and responsibilities are when we work in a team.

#1 Mindset

A true UX mentality: the only thing a competitor can’t copy easily.

We want to encourage every individual team member to partake in a shared mindset within the team in order to achieve an effective collaboration. So we’ve listed 6 characteristics of the UXD mindset.

  • Team > ego: The result of the team is more important than one’s own personal result. Don’t let your ego stand in the way. We have a shared ownership, because we’re all responsible for the end result.
  • Empathic: A fundamental soft skill that enables you to develop concepts, products, services, strategies and systems that are both innovative and responsive to real users’ needs and desires. Empathy also helps to respect each other’s perspectives and to communicate well.
  • Critical & conceptual thinker: Critical thinking is clear, rational, open-minded and informed by evidence. After critical thinking comes conceptual thinking. Conceptual thinking is the ability to understand a situation or problem by identifying patterns or connections, and addressing key underlying issues. You need both to achieve a great solution.
  • Attentive to details: Design is a result of many details and, as they say, the devil is in the details. Be meticulous and review your own and each other’s work for minor and major mistakes.
  • Eager to learn, experiment and develop: The essence of a growth mindset. Try new things. Succeed or fail and learn as you go, as a person and as a team. Don’t wait for opportunities, but create opportunities.
  • Implementation-driven: The ability to pragmatically move forward without knowing all the details and requirements. You have to accept uncertainties and focus on the bigger picture. Be optimistic and break through barriers.

#2 Flexibility

Roles of members in project teams should vary

Every project has a different problem that the team needs to solve and different skills are needed to achieve a successful outcome. This means that there is no standard team possible and every team should be customized. So how do you choose these team members?

Choose people by their roles
First, these team members should not only be chosen by their job titles. We should also choose them by their skill set, tasks, and responsibilities. We define this as their ‘role’ in the project. We believe a team member is not limited to just one role and one role is not limited to one member: they have shared tasks and responsibilities. You have to find out how the different roles and members can be complementary to each other in a team.

Make sure that the roles are clear
In many projects, we’ve noticed that there is a lot of overlap in skills when you have an UXD team, which is a great luxury. The important thing is that every team member must know beforehand what their role is within the team and project. And everyone in the team must agree on the division of roles. Plan a project kick-off meeting to get everyone aligned.

Small teams, short cycles
We’ve also experienced that collaborating in a team with seven to nine people is the maximum to keep communication short and clear. By creating a small team, team members are easily approachable to ask feedback and are able to work in short cycles, thus achieve a better result. When the project asks for more people, there are numerous ways to create additional cooperative teams. But these teams should always have a maximum of nine people.

Team members can swap during a project
We also experienced many times that team members swap during a project. For example, in the ‘define’ phase the team realizes that they need other skills (besides their own) to execute this project; hence team members might need to be added or replaced. This is not always clear beforehand.

Flexible roles are needed in every workplace
Whether a team stays fixed or changes between projects also depends on the resources the organization has. Large organizations and agencies often have many specialists they can swap. Small organizations and startups often have fewer resources at their command. Though a fixed team has the benefit of previous collaboration experiences and has a predictable speed of delivery, we nonetheless think that flexible roles are needed in every workplace. It is important to keep exploring the broader and the deeper skills in order to become better team players.

#3 Autonomy

Create ownership and no distractions

Daniel H. Pink has shown that people’s motivation increase when people have autonomy, a driving purpose and the desire to perfect their craft.

There is no question that motivated teams build better stuff and that their progress is faster when they can make decisions by themselves. Once autonomous teams are deployed, they can find the best way to collaborate and define their own tasks and processes, which allows them to generate knowledge and explore innovation to achieve successful implementation outcomes. But how do you achieve autonomy?

Give ownership
A team member is intrinsically motivated to perfect his or her craft and to deliver a great product. When a team is not engaged till the end of the product lifecycle, they will be somewhat demotivated to deliver something great. This means you should strive for end-to-end teams: teams that are responsible for the whole lifecycle of a new product. This leads to more engagement, motivation and quality.

No distractions
Politics and dependencies of the organization are a daily threat to the efficiency of a team by causing delay and frustration. The teams should be protected as much as possible from these dependencies. This leads to more productivity and joy.

What does this mean? At top-level, organization leaders must embrace the transition from a traditional leadership and decision-making hierarchies to powerful autonomous teams where each team member understands their responsibilities.

On an operational level, the team should delegate the responsibility to manage dependencies to one or two persons, which could be a product owner. This product owner orchestrates politics, manages stakeholders and filters the right information to pass on to the team. And on the other hand, the product owner makes sure that the deliverables of the team fit into the overall vision of the company.

Therefore, organizational leaders are still needed to align the teams within the organization and frequent feedback with leaders is necessary. Without consulting or persuading them, conflict of ideas or personal agendas can cause disruptions and set the team on the path to failure.

#4 Tangibility

Visualize and work at one central location

Quick interactions between team members are important to keep a team moving forward. There is no doubt that sharing ideas and getting feedback is a lot easier when team members collaborate side by side, preferably working in the same room.

Producing great designs is difficult enough without having the added complications of trying to do it with a remote team. Mentoring, cross-discipline training, and the other facets that seem to contribute to the growth of the successful teams are much harder with remote teams.” — Jared M. Spool

There should be a central location where team members can visualize their progress, e.g. scrum board (to do, doing, done), ideas, insights, designs or conflicts on the wall. This makes the team’s effort tangible for everyone involved and makes communication transparent for the team.

However, cross-pollination remains really important for creativity. Sometimes, teams tend to get a bit isolated from other teams when working perfectly together in one room. This is the reason why there should be all kinds of social and educational activities organized, such as meetups with other colleagues across teams. This way teams can learn from each other. Besides that, the building itself should evoke spontaneous interactions to make the magic happen.

#5 Evolve

The way a team works is never set in stone

Each team needs time to find their best working method. There is no superior method that works for every team, such as Scrum or Kanban. It might seem logical to copy methods from a previous successful project, but in a new team this might not work. It is good to use rules, methods and tools, but change them when needed. So stay flexible: if it works, keep it, otherwise dump it.

Find a balance between rules and freedom
Don’t create rules just to have rules. Minimize the rules to allow a certain freedom in the team without creating too much chaos. As a team and organization, you always need to keep looking for the right balance between rules and freedom.

There will always be growing pains 
Keep on solving these growing pains. Every change or feedback might result in more growing pains. This way the team will keep adapting and embrace that this process is never finished.

Keep on fixing the process
We have tried different methods to capture these pains and failures of the team. The retrospective in scrum is working well: make sure that there is the possibility to give feedback on a weekly or a sprint basis. This is based on a team level but there should also be a culture that is open for feedback on a personal level. It’s hard to learn without feedback. Another method is the ‘fail wall’: keep track of the team’s growing pains and failures on a wall. When you know why you failed, don’t just fix the product but also fix the process.

Finally, UXD teams needs to iterate and learn to adapt what the future needs. Embrace that teams are evolving; they’re allowed to make decisions, they decide what roles are needed and what method works best for them to achieve this. Therefore, a shared understanding within teams and organizations has never been more important in order to achieve success.