Putting User Experience in Context: Tips for Using Collaboration to Improve UX Maturity in Your Organization

Illustration: Justin Cheong.
Putting User Experience in Context: Tips for Using Collaboration to Improve UX Maturity in Your Organization
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For many UX designers, growing their design craft and skillset is just one part of the puzzle. As a career in UX progresses, so does the need for a more holistic and inherent understanding of UX. This includes seeing the bigger picture of where, when, and how UX fits in to a project, team, and business. It also means collaborating with diverse team members and stakeholders, who often have a very different world view.

Rachel Grossman is a UX designer with an interesting past; she started her career by working on anti-corruption initiatives at the Center for International Private Enterprise. After taking a front-end development class where she built an interactive map to aggregate all of the anti-corruption initiatives in Ukraine, Rachel fell in love with UX, and pursed it as a career path. She’s currently working as a designer at Publicis Sapient. In her career so far, she’s encountered many of the challenges of putting UX in context. We chatted about what those challenges are, and how she’s approached them.

A photograph of Rachel Grossman and her classmates posing outside of the General Assembly campus.
Rachel and her classmates at General Assembly, where she studied UX design.

Ego tripping: UX at the center of the universe

Designers can have a reputation of being ego driven. In his 2018 talk at UX London, Paul Adams of Intercom declared that it was time for UX to “stop navel gazing and putting itself at the center of the universe.” It’s natural, when starting out, to be fully immersed in the world of design, but soon it can actually start holding back your effectiveness as a designer and reducing the impact of your contributions.

A slide from Paul Adam’s talk on the end of navel gazing in UX. Contains a collage of UX diagrams that demonstrate the prevalence of ego in current ux thinking.
A slide from Paul Adam’s talk on the end of navel gazing in UX. “You might notice that UX is in the middle of all the pictures.” Image credit: Intercom.

“I’ve definitely noticed it. We all know that ego is a big problem in design, the idea that design ‘owns’ creativity, which is hugely problematic as it tends to create barriers around participation in creative problem solving. UX designers often put themselves at the center, and it leads to dynamics where other people are less comfortable contributing,” said Rachel.

One question that arises is, if UX isn’t necessarily the center of the universe, who takes the lead? Rachel’s suggestion is that, rather than UX being at the center of everything as a driving force, there is an opportunity to think of the process as a continuum, where UX steps in to take a leading role at the moments where it’s appropriate. “How do we step up when needed, and also allow others space to lead?” asked Rachel.

A certain humility is needed for design to recognize that the world doesn’t revolve around any one discipline. I find that continually asking yourself, ‘How can I best contribute right now, with my skills, experience, and knowledge? What does the team need most? A leader? A facilitator? A sounding board?’ is really powerful. Experiment with different modes of contribution and see what emerges.

Where does UX’s role end and others begin?

One of the reasons I wanted to talk to Rachel about these topics was a tweet she posted, saying “I still struggle to understand/decide where my role ends and others begin.” UX can seem like a fuzzy role at the best of times, and this is a sentiment I’ve heard echoed by lots of designers. Rachel shared her perspective that:

“There are so many parts to UX, for example collaborating with other people and their clients, as well as understanding where the line is between a design practitioner and a manager. A big question for me a few years in to working in UX is, ‘how do I relate, not just to other departments, but to other, perhaps more senior UXers and product managers?’ Our field is still not that well defined, and it can be confusing!”

Attempting to define and differentiate all of the different roles, skillsets, and career paths is something that the design industry struggles with on an ongoing basis. And of course, it is also something that is continually evolving as new domains (such as UX research or content strategy) gain importance and slot in to the picture. In my experience, being open and curious goes a long way. A growth mindset will help you dodge the feeling of ‘being threatened,’ and seeing potential in the contributions that adjacent domains can make. Additionally, this ambiguity, while frustrating at times, allows for immense potential to carve your own unique path.

For Rachel, it starts with trusting that UX has something valuable to offer. “Belief that your ideas and your work matter is a really important starting point. UX can be fuzzy, and I’ve seen people get really stuck in a mindset that it’s hard to ‘show’ the value of UX design, so they hold on really tightly. Instead, you need to believe and trust that your team, clients, and leadership will value UX’s contribution to strategy, to product direction, to understanding true user needs. That way you don’t get bogged down in trying to justify your work.”

Dealing with different understandings of process

One of the reasons that it can be a challenge to figure out where you slot in is the different understandings people might have of overall design process and where their role and specialty fits into that. As Rachel put it, “We all have these vague fuzzy processes but what exactly is meant by any one aspect of design process, like user research, can be different things to different people.” Perhaps this is why we see such an overabundance of design process diagrams, definitions, and attempts to pin down what exactly the design process is and what steps it involves.

One way to overcome these challenges is to become a master collaborator, and to be really flexible in how you work with your teams. An effective UX designer is also a great connector, able to weave different perspectives and priorities together, in order to help meet the project goals. The idea that UX is a team sport has been gaining traction, and making an effective contribution requires UX to stop putting itself at the center of the universe all the time.

Three coworkers engaged in a daily standup.
A daily standup is a really helpful collaboration ritual for many teams, processes like these help to build relationships and keep people on the same page.

Rituals play an important role in easing collaborations. “I’m a true believer that a daily standup is the only way to work — to constantly have that 15 minute interaction. Part of that is the relationship building. I do want the face time.” said Rachel. Regular connection points with a team helps to keep people on the same page and build rapport.

A google image search for design process. The results demonstrate many versions of design process and no singular ‘right’ way to do it.
A google image search for design process yields endless loops, double diamonds, and hexagons. There are many versions of design process and the ‘right’ way to do it.

Even when there’s an effort to be respectful and collaborative and build a shared process, UX can be a very divisive field. There are often ongoing debates and strong opinions about the ‘right’ way to do things, with lots of ambiguity surrounding agreed-upon best practices and approaches. “Something I’ve found challenging is that we don’t always have shared references as a discipline,” said Rachel. “For example, there’s such a war on certain ideas, like ‘should designers code?’, and ‘is agile compatible with UX?’ It can be hard to stay on top of where the field is headed. People really fall at different ends of the spectrum on these questions.”

The key: Build strong relationships

Of course, diversity of perspective and diverging opinions can bring richness to a field, however, they can also contribute to the very different understandings of process that people may hold. This exacerbates the challenges around understanding UX in context. Getting past this again comes down to collaboration.

Collaboration is also one of those buzzwords where people may have different understandings of what it means and what it looks like in practice. “Unfortunately it’s often a case of ‘we stuck you guys all in a room together, so you’re a team now, just do it!” said Rachel. In her experience, there are a few things that can ease collaboration between UX designers and other team members and stakeholders.

Having space in the office that allows people to develop relationships is important. “We work in an open office with a kitchen, and people go there to eat and hangout. A lot of it comes down to that fuzzy stuff that no one can quantify, but it eases collaboration in the end.” This time spent together supports the building of shared language, reference points and understanding.

In addition, physical proximity to team members helps. “On new projects, we sit with our whole team. I find physical proximity to your team really matters. It allows for the building of a shared language, and for the relationships to evolve.”

Rachel also tries to cut down on internet communication. Being inundated with notifications throughout the day impacts the level of focused work that teams are able to do, so prioritize creating that dedicated ‘maker time’ for individuals and teams to work uninterrupted.

An effective UX designer plays a part in the bigger picture

For a designer a few years into their career, the challenges of understanding where UX fits in becomes more and more apparent. Navigating the complexities of team work, process, and collaboration are challenges designers all face at one time or another. Perhaps we can never be 100% sure where design fits in, or where the UX role starts and ends, but this creates the opportunity to be humble, explore the fuzzy edges and overlaps, and build strong relationships.

To keep up with Rachel’s thoughts and work, you can follow her on Twitter.

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