Mission possible: Align your UX team with a mission statement

Around the middle of last year, I was looking for collaborative exercise for the UX team here at IAS. I wanted something that would really motivate and engage the group. An exercise where everyone had a voice and the outcome was lasting and meaningful — not just for our team, but our entire company. Preferably, it would be something we could complete ourselves, without requiring outside stakeholders.

Our team had already done some introspective brainstorming on our purpose and what differentiates us from other groups at IAS. It was a rewarding exercise that has certainly influenced our subsequent conversations, but there were no tangible outcomes or artifacts that would have lasting company-wide impact. So to build on our previous collaborations and to add some closure to the topic, I decided our next exercise would be to craft a mission statement.

What’s a mission statement?

A mission statement is a short expression that describes an organization’s purpose. It typically aims to answer the following questions:

  • Why does the organization exist?
  • What are its goals and values?
  • What products and services does it provide?
  • Who are its customers?

Mission statements come in all shapes and sizes. Some are long and specific, leaving nothing to the imagination, like this one from NYC’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA):

To collect, preserve, study, exhibit and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all in the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards.

It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it’s effective. Other mission statements are short and ambiguous (but so much more fun!), like this one from TED:

Spread ideas.

Just two simple, inspiring words that perfectly describe what they do. Love it!

Why have one?

Companies develop mission statements because they provide the organization (and even people outside the organization) with clear sense of identity and a common set of values. They anchor and align teams so that everyone is on the same page. They are great self-affirmation that everyone is doing the right things for the right reasons.

Mission statements aren’t just for companies, though. Any group can draft a mission statement — including a design team! After all, our UX team of 10 has many of the same challenges as our company of 600:

  1. We all need to work together in alignment towards a common vision.
  2. We provide a product — in our case, it’s research, strategy, design, and guidance.
  3. We have customers — yes, it’s the paying customers who we indirectly support with our services, but more importantly for the purpose of this exercise, it’s the 10+ scrum teams that develop a product UI who we support directly.
  4. We need to constantly ensure we are providing the right service to our customers.

I was sure that having a team mission statement would make it easier for us to stay unified, to decide on the best approach to our design problems, and prevent us from spending energy on the wrong things — if the work doesn’t align with our mission, why even consider it?

How we did it

We collaborated over multiple sessions to craft our mission statement, each time getting closer and closer to our goal.

Rather than blocking out a half day workshop and doing it all in one go, I’ve found that it’s often better to break these non-critical, high-level exercises into smaller chunks to be more considerate of everyone’s schedules and to give people time to reflect and reset between sessions. “Hurry up and be creative!” resonates with no one, especially when we all have other commitments.

So, to prevent burnout, I carved off 15 minutes of each weekly team meeting and dedicated it to getting us a little further along. No pressure, folks! It’s just your regular old weekly team brainstorm time. Most of our group is co-located, but three members are remote, so to make it work, we gathered on a video conference (as we often do) and recorded notes in a shared Google doc as we brainstormed.

There were four steps we took along the way.

1. Our vision

We started by reviewing our team vision. This was a list of priorities that I defined as aspirational goals for our team to achieve over the next 12 months. The group had seen this list before, but it was worth reviewing it again so it was fresh in our minds. This list included things like:

  • Improving our usability testing quality and frequency
  • Hosting more cross-functional collaborative workshops
  • Leveraging our visual storytelling skills to help spread knowledge throughout the company

2. Our purpose

Next, we discussed the reason our team exists, what value we provide, and what greater good we serve. We made sure to define it from our customers’ perspective. Not just customers of our company, but also internal customers of our services — the tech leads, product owners, and engineers in our R&D group. Some themes that emerged were:

  • Advocating for the user
  • Improving efficiency for the end user — and also our colleagues throughout the company
  • Instilling confidence that we are building the right things
  • Filling gaps in internal processes

3. Our values

Next, we worked to identify our values. These are the underlying core principles that guide our day-to-day decisions and actions. What are our standards and our ideals? What’s right and fundamentally important to us? Some of the things we identified were:

  • We are curious
  • We value collaboration and knowledge sharing
  • We challenge the status quo

4. Combining it all

Finally, we reviewed the results of our brainstorms, identified the most important concepts, and began combining them into sentences. We aimed for a statement no longer than 25 words, with enough clarity that a stranger could read it and immediately know our team’s focus and the benefits it provides.

This is what we arrived at:

“To be relentless user advocates and promoters of innovative experiences with positive impact.”

It’s a relatively straightforward statement, but it alludes to so many of our core values and services.

Relentless — It’s not always easy to do what you know is right, but we never give up in the face of adversity.

User advocates — Our users need a hero. There are plenty of other people at IAS that are concerned with revenue growth, ROI, and market fit — and they are doing a great job of it! We, in contrast, are first and foremost concerned with making sure the user is not forgotten.

Promoters — We propagate human-centric design thinking and solutions through our empathy and influence, not authoritarian power.

Innovative experiences — We always ask “what if?” We think outside the box and strive to be proactive, not reactive.

Positive impact — We always endeavor to make things better. If the outcome won’t be positive, then why waste time pursuing it?

Why it was valuable

We now proudly display our mission statement on our team home page for everyone in the company to see, and I take every chance I get to evangelize it throughout the organization. The more people are made aware of our mission, the more they will understand our goals and motivations. It’s a low-effort, organic way to advertise the value that we bring to the company.

Internally to the team, our mission statement is already shaping our conversations and making an impact. Having agreed on our mission and published it, everyone is now accountable to honor it. Plus, the more widely publicized it becomes, the easier it is to tell when we are falling short — as I can personally attest. On more than one occasion, I’ve said something in a group meeting which was met with sideways glances from my team. I knew immediately that I was forgetting to be the relentless user advocate that I promised to be.

As a leader, I found the process to be an invaluable group bonding experience. It was enriching and gratifying to hear the individual values and perspectives of each team member and see them all combined into a shared point of reference that can guide our decisions now and in the future. It’s not always easy to convince a group to collaborate on something outside of their normal work responsibilities, but in this case I was happy to see that the team really rallied. They were engaged and invested throughout the entire process, and ultimately now they own the result.

If your design team doesn’t have a mission statement, I highly recommend you take the time and draft one.