How To Build An In-House UX Team
The needs of real users are increasingly driving enterprise software design and development. Since 2013, IBM has hired close to 1500 designers and UXers, establishing the largest design studio network in the world. Art dealership and realtor Sotheby’s plans to boost its UX and product design team from 3 to 40 people in 3 years. Multinational manufacturer of product ranges Procter & Gamble (P&G) created a 12 person in-house design team, dubbed Clay Street that came up with innovative ideas which managed to revive an ailing brand.
IBM, Sotheby’s and Procter & Gamble are just the tip of the enterprise UX iceberg. Global organisations are increasingly moving to create their User Experience teams, swapping the external agency model for in-house teams working hand in hand with product developers. It is a brave new world of enterprise UX out there.
That being said, while adopting user experience approaches is vital for global enterprises, it is a challenging endeavour. Building an in-house enterprise UX team requires organisational, structural and attitudinal changes.
A successful enterprise UX overhaul means you have to:
- Be sure that having an in-house UX team is the way forward. (If, yes, proceed to point 2, else stop here.)
- Lay the groundwork for an in-house UX team.
- Hire that team.
- Structure it.
- Integrate this new UX team into the culture of the company.
Before we Begin: The Rise of UX in the Enterprise
It is tempting to ask – if introducing UX into an enterprise is so difficult, why bother? Why not just keep legacy software systems and hire agency UXers for occasional troubleshooting? Nice idea, but not viable. User experience has ceased to be an optional add-on and is now considered central to enterprise product development concerning profits, people, and productivity.
User-friendly software makes more money than unintuitive software. Take Walmart’s redesign of their e-commerce site, which resulted in a 214% increase in visitors. Or Bank of America, which increased online banking registration by 45% after a UX redesign of the process. In fact, according to D3 Infragistics, investment in UX gives a return of between $2 and $100 for every $1 spent, thanks to factors such as increased conversion or engagement, reduced drop-off rates and fewer internal training sessions.
Or more specifically enterprise employees. These are the individuals who have to suffer through unintuitive enterprise software for 40+ hours every week. In the past, employees accepted bad software as the norm. These days, thanks to rising software consumerization and the growth in software competition, teams are freer to choose their enterprise products and to change them if the experience is not up to scratch. Clumsy enterprise software just is not going to cut it in a world where start-ups like Slack and Zendesk are eating into territory formerly held by established software builders.
As a rule, the better your software functions, the better your business functions. For example, Oracle enabled administrators to do their job 20% faster by improving their internal database software. In large organisations, these incremental improvements in productivity add up to millions.
As Jordan Koschei points out,
Fortune 500s tend to have a ‘just get it done’ attitude toward internal tools, resulting in user experiences that are not well designed or tested. By giving those tools the same attention to experience that you give consumer-facing products, you can improve the lives of your users and support the organisation’s values and brand.
1. Deciding Whether an In-house UX Team is the Right Move
The advantage of having your in-house UX team is that you will have a dedicated team of professionals that operates from the company’s offices and is fully committed to contributing to the benefit of the business and its product/s.
The downside to this is that you incur the financial and human resource burdens associated with managing and operating this team. If you can guarantee a steady stream of work, then the benefits will probably outweigh the costs as in-house will always be cheaper than outsourcing. However, this is too much of a simplistic view. In this case, the following considerations need to be made:
Long and Short Term Considerations
Agency UXers will have extensive experience in working on many projects. They will be typically skilled and collectively can execute a design project from start to finish. They also have established workflows and procedures in place and the appropriate mechanisms to ensure their monitoring and effective execution. These are clear advantages over building your UX team in the short term. In the long run, however, an in-house team will reach the same level of efficiency. Your in-house team will also evolve within the company culture – a great advantage since they would always put the business and its clients first. So the question here is whether you can afford to invest in the long term. This will probably require a two-pronged approach by hiring the services of a UX agency for short-term needs while you are building your team for the handling of long-term needs. Having your in-house team working with an external agency will also be beneficial for them to learn about industry best practices, thus lessening the learning curve.
Availability of Resources
A UX agency will work on a project and deliver it (theoretically) at an agreed-upon delivery date, irrespective of whether, say, one of their employees has quit. This is because the responsibility of what is delivered and who delivers it falls in the UX agency’s domain. Conversely, with an in-house UX team, you need to deal with HR issues as well as optimising your team’s workflow. This has the advantage that you are likely to get more flexibility from your in-house team since you manage the entire design process.
Software and Hardware Resources
A UX agency will have its software and hardware resources. This means that there are no setup and maintenance headaches or expenses to incur. On the in-house side, you need to factor in the human and financial resources to keep your in-house UX team running. This also means that with every new team member that you recruit, you need to set up their machine, while ensuring that the current infrastructure can keep up with the additional demand. You also need to take care of employee off-boarding when they leave your company. The agency approach is more advantageous here. The only advantage of the in-house UX team is perhaps that you can pick and choose the software and hardware you use.
Adaptation to Company Culture
This is a double-edged sword. A UX agency has the advantage that it can take a clinical, non-biased, external view when working on your projects. This paves the way for innovation and uniqueness. It will give you what you need rather than what you may want. However, this may lead to disagreements or, worse still, a templated approach where you get something standard that the agency gives out to its clients. Conversely, an in-house UX team will take into consideration things like the company culture, its customers and its objectives. They can pull in internal resources to say, better understand the product or service they are working on. This paves the way for customisation. However, it may also lead to conformism and a too cautious approach.
In his role as UX Consultant, Justin Mifsud, founder of this site, UsabilityGeek, has been involved in the setting up and management of UX teams across many companies, and he feels that the biggest challenge for the in-house UX person involves establishing their domain.
He states that very often they may become demotivated and frustrated when they see that company culture affects their workflow and/or may force them to go against established UX methodologies to achieve business objectives. This can take various forms, but perhaps two of the most common are:
- The decision to forego necessary steps in the system design process such as wireframing and testing;
- Interference from senior management in other departments who request system features and changes based on their personal experiences or hunches, without consulting data at hand or user testing.
So why do these things happen? It could be the urgency dictated by the environment that the company operates in, the need to ‘get to the market quickly’. It could also be a lack of understanding and / or a lack of appreciation of what UX entails.
This affects anyone within the UX department, but the effect can be more severe for those team members who come from an agency background or who have landed their first UX job with your company.
The consequences are not pleasant. Employees can quit their job, and the department will inevitably become dysfunctional. At the very best, if the UX team bows down to such pressure, then the actual benefits of having an in-house UX team will be lost. Furthermore, the innovation and specialisation of the UX team will also be lost. In the end, it is not healthy either that the UX team operates as a silo. So the best approach is a trade-off between best practice and the company’s requirements. Remember that after all you need to win key, influential employees over so as to promote a UX culture within the organisation.
2. Laying the Groundwork for a UX Overhaul
So let us assume that the decision is taken to build an in-house UX team. Before HR go on a hiring spree it is necessary to prepare the organisation, and all its employees, for this swivel towards user experience. This preparation can be distilled into two main areas – organisational and attitudinal:
Before introducing a new UX team, conduct an organisational assessment to decide where the new department will fit in, and how they will link to others in the organigram. Additionally, assess the enterprise’s current UX maturity using the UX stages outlined by Jakob Nielsen (stage 1-4, stage 5-8) to find out whether the company has existing, unacknowledged user experience skills buried in other departments.
Everyone, from the C-Suite down, will have to be made aware that a UX overhaul is happening, and why. Internal documentation assuaging any employee anxieties is helpful, and product development managers need to start promoting UX design as crucial to long-term success.
All global enterprises will have existing procedures, project management methods and product development flow that are not built with UX in mind. There has to be an acknowledgement of the importance of UX, and a willingness to make space for it before an enterprise can move onto the next step of actually building a UX team.
3. Hiring the UX Team
When it comes to recruitment, keeping the organisational analysis and proposed team structure to hand will assist in deciding which candidates fit into the roadmap. UX candidates do not necessarily have to have any experience working in large organisations, but they should have experience working in cross-functional teams and taking feedback from non-UXers. Janet M. Six gives some good advice on personality traits of great UXers in her UXmatters column.
Before an interview, take a good long look at candidate’s UX portfolios. You are looking for evidence of their UX process skills and descriptions of their approach to problem-solving, as well as detailed outlines of the part they played in previous projects and how they fit into a team.
With a view to future organisational harmony, it is possible to have existing design-development team members sit in on interviews and share their thoughts on candidates. This can help increase buy-in and provide a different perspective of what is required from the UX team.
4. Structuring and Organising the UX Team
There is no one-size-fits-all-enterprises UX team, unsurprisingly; that said, most UX teams will include some or many of the UX roles below:
- Visual Designer: Similar to a Graphic Designer, the Visual Designer focuses on the big picture – the concept of graphics, typography, iconography and the colour schemes. Visual Designers attend to the aesthetics and rarely enter into the technical.
- UX Designer: Deals with how the user is going to interact with the product. The primary responsibility of the UX Designer is to ensure that the product has a logical flow so that the user can move from step to step without getting lost.
- UI Designer: Concerned with the form and distribution of graphic elements in an interface. While the UX Designer makes a design usable, the UI Designer makes it pleasant to use.
- Interaction Designer: Understands how a user interacts with an app and builds interaction and animation into the design so that it reacts to the user’s touch/instruction.
- Information Architect: Organises the design elements so that they make sense. The Information Architect deals with the structure of a website, app or any other interactive product.
- Usability Expert/UX Researcher: Deals with the user’s needs. The aim of the research is to answer two questions: who are our users? And: what do our users want and need? This profile usually conducts interviews with users and does research about market data.
- Metrics Analyst: Gathers and analyses financial and operational information for an organisation. The person performing this role may also be responsible for the analysis of costs and effectiveness of staffing practices and training programs.
- Enterprise Architect: Works with stakeholders to create a holistic view of the organisation’s strategy, processes, information, and information technology. The enterprise architect uses this knowledge to ensure that the business and IT are in alignment.
The configuration of the team will change according to need. For example, if an enterprise wants to disrupt a product space, the team might skew towards UX Research. If it needs to implement a design system, then the team will require UX Managers. There can be quite a lot of overlap between these roles, particularly for young UX teams. The same person could perform the functions of the visual designer and interaction designer, and even UX designer, in the team’s early days. This will reduce initial outlay and allow the team to find its feet.
Once it has been decided what kind of roles to hire, it is time to figure out how the UX team will work with other teams. Essentially you have two options here, as laid out by Lean UX author Jeff Gothelf in his post on integrating user experience into Agile development – the internal agency model, or the hub and spoke model.
Internal Agency Model
A UX Manager acts as a gatekeeper, intercepting and divvying up incoming work to the team based on ability and capacity. This approach means that designers have to figure out how to make their output comprehensible to developers, for example through high fidelity prototyping. It also means that product teams have little understanding of the UX team, and vice versa.
Hub and Spoke model
UXers are placed within other groups such as product design, development, and marketing or sales. This, says Gothelf, is the stronger of the two alternatives when integrating with agile because UXers “feel connected to (the) team’s focus. In doing so, the designer’s priorities become clear.” This is true, but UXers should still have a team space and take part in UX activities, to prevent them feeling isolated or misunderstood.
5. Integrating the UX Team
Now comes the hard work of building acceptance and relationships between the new UX team and the rest of the enterprise’s employees. For UX designers coming from agency or start-up backgrounds, a global enterprise may feel alien and bewildering: for the established enterprise team, having a bunch of nebulous ‘experience designers’ around may feel like a distraction.
In fact, according to Atlassian’s Design Manager Alistair Simpson,
The hardest thing any designer will have to do is to convince the rest of the team or their company of the importance of really investing in user experience and design in the first place.
Existing departments have to open up to incorporating UX processes, and UXer newbies have to learn the new jargon and hierarchies of critique.
Dedicated integration activities can do a lot of the grunt-work in this regard. Integration activities should be designed to demonstrate the value added by UX to more established departments, and tackle the uncertainties of both UX team members and legacy employees. There are plenty ways to do this, but below are some ideas:
Evangelise UX Beyond the UX Team
Evangelizing UX is an ongoing effort that aims to promote the value of user experience to non-UXers. Jared Spool identifies “exposure hours” – the minimum hours per month that staff are required to spend with customers – as an essential part of this. Companies that mandate exposure times build more successful products because they know their users better.
Successful UX evangelising does not have to be powered by the UX team itself: most enterprises will have at least one executive who has already bought into the UX ethos and will be willing to support pilot projects and initiatives and to defend the value of UX if necessary. Getting that UX-friendly executive actively on board with promoting UX is an excellent way to earn acceptance.
Also, Jeff Gothelf shares some great advice on successful evangelising in an interview with Justinmind:
One of the most important things to getting this way of working accepted is transparency: people fear change, they fear for their job, their bonus, their salaries, and if you try to change stuff too quickly without telling them why, they’ll resist. The more transparent you can be about why you’re trying to change and what that change looks like, the more likely you’ll be to drive meaningful impact in your organisation.
To build transparency, communicate with employees through the organisation’s internal newsletter or news blog, giving examples of what the UX team is working on and how it is making an impact.
Invest in Internal UX Awareness Training
There are likely a lot of people in any organisation who have no idea what UX is, from management downwards. Even IBM acknowledges this, running design thinking boot camp for executives to change institutional thinking. One-off workshops that introduce UX, participatory design sessions and cross-functional user experience brainstorms are different ways to inculcate employees in user-centricity and get new team members to interact with established departments. Or for more in-depth training, try something like UX Designer Robin Titus did at CapGemini:
We started a small education program for the whole department to create awareness about what UX really means. Explaining the different methodologies like working with personas, user interviews, usability testing, user journey maps, interaction design, wireframes, mockups and prototypes. Most important — we did this based on real cases from our business — not just theory or common examples.
There is some great advice on running UX workshops in an enterprise on UsabilityGeek.
Have the UX Team Promote Their Process
The UX team can actively explain and evangelise their worth by revealing their entire process, from research to interactive prototypes. For example, broadcasting user testing sessions to non-UX team members is a good way to explain the usability testing process, and will help UXers justify their worth. By telling the story of how they add value, UXers can overcome any lingering doubts about their contribution and possibly open up new avenues of collaboration across teams.
Collaborative Ways of Working
Find the means for new UX team members to work together, perhaps by having them sit in on each other’s weekly meetings, by displaying project/sprint timelines in the same physical or digital space, or by initiating a buddy system, in which a UXer and a non-UXer spend a morning together each week working on a product problem.
Test the Team to Make Sure it is Working
There is only one way to know if a product works, and that is to test it on users. The same goes for an enterprise UX team: conducting a little self-assessment at regular intervals will help the new team identify its strengths and weaknesses, and get an actual idea of its impact.
Start out with a team analysis, documenting each team members core competencies on a scale of 1-5, then assess those core competencies against the projects the team is involved in; if there is a mismatch (say you are doing lots of UI building, but your team is heavy on UX Researchers), recalibrate them team and table a new hire when possible.
Also, talk to your users, or in this case, the wider enterprise team. A quick survey on their experience working with the team on particular projects may reveal stumbling blocks that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
Ongoing monitoring of the integration and impact of a new UX team should come pretty naturally to UX professionals and will result in a stronger team that meets the enterprise’s needs.
Establishing an enterprise UX team is no cake-walk, but it is pretty do-able by following the core tenets of user experience design. Firstly, decide that an in-house team really is the best fit for your enterprise. If it is, listen to people, find out what they need and how they work, and give it to them. Find out what the enterprise needs, understand the individuals involved in delivering on that, and structure a UX team and workflow to meet those demands.
By encouraging a company culture that values user experience, promotes its value and supports UX projects, you will be well on the way to getting that buy-in and building products that create great user experiences. Just like the impossibly perfect product, you will never have the complete enterprise UX team … but you may end up building a team that works.