In the sprawling suburbs of Chicago, there existed two organizations devoted to making life better for humankind. Each one developed products and provided services intended to improve the health of its customers. But their products were not always widely adopted, their services were seldom used, and they often fell short of their missions.
Those who donned business suits and bore lofty titles spent many hours contemplating this dilemma in meetings. They spoke of new features and marketing campaigns, and tossed around words like “innovative” and “seamless” while stewing in their quandary. They renamed their meetings “workshops” to induce creative brainstorming. This, they thought, would enable them to address their dilemmas.
After many workshops (which were just really long meetings) and much discussion, they concluded that they should employ a team of professionals devoted to the user experience of their products. And thus, in each organization, a user experience (UX) team was born.
The teams were very different. Both started small. They were scrappy and nimble, with only a few able bodies to handle an immense amount of work. But one team grew while the other remained small. The team that grew—Team L—employed all sorts of experts, including content strategists, UX copywriters, UX producers, and devoted teams of researchers and visual designers. They even hired specialists to handle the design system.
The team that remained small—Team S—focused on efficiency and relationships. This was mostly out of necessity. Good relationships not only helped them build better products, but also helped them sell their designs to stakeholders and, thus, become more efficient.
Team S was more inclusive. In some sense, they ceased to be a team unto themselves. Instead, they were part of a larger team building a product and creating an experience. Team L, however, built up walls. They didn’t realize that teams, through their very existence, exclude. As the French philosopher Jacques Derrida noted, to include is also to exclude.
Team L saw developers, product managers, and business analysts as something akin to enemies. They believed the other teams would sacrifice the usability and experience of a product if the UX team did not adequately monitor them. Their insecurities were obvious, and their relationships with other teams suffered.
Team S, on the other hand, struggled to keep up with their work. Some weeks were busier than others. Their small size allowed them to adapt quickly to new situations and adjust as needed. This also allowed them to develop closer relationships, which ultimately enabled them to negotiate timelines and mitigate disagreements over design decisions more efficiently.
Team L struggled to keep their employees busy and, paradoxically, made more work for themselves as a result of having more hands on deck. Every tiny design feature became a candidate for testing. The design system, so granular and large, became an albatross in the bureaucracy surrounding its governance. Communicating and presenting designs turned into a burden that required design reviews to prepare for design reviews to prepare for design reviews with stakeholders. The size of the team also required an added management layer. These team members spent significant time managing what didn’t need to be managed.
Team S seemed to thrive despite their challenges, occasionally striking a balance between the amount of work and their resources, while Team L struggled with inertia. Creation, for Team L, became a process similar to swimming through oatmeal. The right hand clearly did not have any knowledge of the left hand’s activities, and every project took no less than three times as long as it should have.
Strong leadership and a desire to nurture a creative culture, as well as the ability to build bridges through collaboration, will make all the difference.
The leadership and direction for each team couldn’t have been more different. The director of Team S valued his team’s input and gave them free rein. He spent a great deal of time working with his product managers to understand the market while also presenting research findings to product managers and executives. This allowed executives and stakeholders to collaboratively determine future direction for the organization. He was a strategist, but also a leader who valued those he led. Leadership, to him, was servitude. He saw his team as his boss and spent no time managing up. He wanted his team to enjoy coming to work and worked hard to nurture a creative environment. His primary motivation was to create the best experience possible with the resources available. In order to do that, he understood he needed to create the right environment for the UX team.
Team L had a very different director. She ruled with an iron fist and believed she had to control nearly every aspect of the team’s activity and monitor all projects. As a result, she did a lot but did none of it very well. She routinely subjugated her leaders, negating the need for their existence as she made decisions that reflected her lack of trust. Her leadership set the tone for the culture and sent a clear message that permeated throughout the team. She inadvertently created a culture of fear, which only added to the team’s inertia. Soon the organization became a revolving door for UX employees, and the frequent departure of team members created a perpetual hiring cycle. This impeded the team’s progress on projects, and the trickle-down effect impacted the entire organization.
Team S approached design in an inclusive manner while Team L took an exclusive approach. Team L built barriers through their social interaction with other teams — product managers, business units, and engineers. Everything was a battle, and if you were not UX, you were an enemy against good design. Team S, in contrast, built bridges, nurtured relationships, and used the perspectives of different teams to create better experiences.
Creating the right culture is key to designing great experiences, and it is a multifaceted process.
Were this a story with a happy ending, our design heroes would conquer their seemingly insurmountable challenges and live happily ever after. But this is a tale, not a fairy tale. Each team continued to struggle. Team S always longed for more designers or more time to complete their projects. They routinely missed deadlines, worked longer hours, and struggled to create the best experiences within short windows of time. Team L struggled in a toxic culture where employee turnover resulted in knowledge gaps and their exclusive approach led to poorly designed experiences.