Most of the user experience design work at Essential is with repeat clients who value the way we collaborate. Team chemistry has been a subject of personal interest and it’s also an area of particular interest with one of our favorite clients, Jed Farlow, so we thought we’d share some of our observations on best practices with regards to managing inside/outside combined teams.
Jed leads design efforts for a complex system at a large medical device manufacturer. I am a UX project lead who’s worked as a design consultant for 20 years. He and I have been the point people for our organizations over the last 3 years, managing and engaging our respective teams on a complex product platform. Jed’s company engaged Essential to supplement the UX efforts and to bring depth and experienced UX resources to the team.
As we discussed aspects of our client/consultant relationship that were successful and how they contribute to quality in UX design outcomes, we described how to structure a UX collaboration for success. Increasingly, we became aware that these qualities aren’t unique to UX, but also extend to good project and team management and basic communication practices. Here’s what we’ve determined are important elements for ensuring collaborative success between in-house and consulting teams:
What are we designing?
Define the product requirements with the consulting team.
This is one of the most important aspects of the user experience design project trajectory. The client needs to communicate these to the external UX team as early as possible and understand that often the team may challenge the interpretation of the requirements. The more depth the UX team acquires in the subject area and with users, the more they may challenge the business requirements. It’s best to establish requirement guardrails and areas for exploration with the collective team, so the UX design team can focus their ideation appropriately.
“Sometimes solution space is wide open, and sometimes it’s a cramped, dark maze. The better the UX team understands the needs and constraints of your product, the better they can help you uncover targeted, creative solutions.” – Jed
Establish success metrics.
The team leadership should discuss how to measure the design and project success. Some projects are tactical, and success means completing them on time. Others are more about innovation and finding new ways to get things done. Some are about teaching our client team how to integrate design thinking into their design process. Regardless of the project, the success metrics should be established, communicated to the team, and referenced throughout the project.
What is the vision?
Communicate the product vision and strategy
To unify a team around a user experience project, there needs to be a shared understanding of the stages of the product release including the vision so that ongoing decisions make sense in the larger picture.
MVP vs. MDP
These days we are often working on MVPs, minimum viable products. Businesses take this approach, as it is the smallest investment in the short term that gives a new product some legs. The project vision often touches on the MVP but focuses on the long-term vision. Companies opting for design help solely with the MVP and without addressing the long-term project vision has become a trend and the UX design team is often left to design a sub-par experience to the detriment of the product and the brand. Often when designing an MVP, the initial feature set may not reflect the long-term vision for the product and short-term business decisions don’t reflect the ultimate vision for the product. UX teams are reminded to keep our eye on the future and help clients future-proof by designing flexibility for future upgrades and watching out for potential conflicts between MVP and future versions.
“It’s the UX team’s job to advocate for the user – they should always push the client in that direction, to think not just about the requirements now, but about what will happen with those requirements as the product goes through testing and future versions.” – Jed
At Essential, we encourage our clients to think in terms of the MDP, the minimum desirable product. This includes the MVP but expands just enough to satisfy any basic, future user requirements. Through user research, the MDP can be defined pretty quickly.
Who is the team? What does everyone do?
Understand each other’s roles, responsibilities, and capabilities
User experience projects are complex and have many layers of decision making while developing the design. This requires many different skill sets and team members. It is helpful to know where the depth of knowledge and experience lies on a collected client/consultant team. Team members will know who to include for each discussion. A primary point of contact for both client and consultant teams can help to direct communications appropriately.
“We’ve worked this both ways on this project, on my side and the UX team side. Sometimes it has made sense to have a single point of contact; sometimes direct contact with various key team members helps expedite. I try to stay away from gatekeeping; as long as both teams can rein in communication when information gets messy or conflicting, I think multiple points of contact can work.” – Jed
Client governance is established. The team knows who is needed for approval.
Beyond the end-user, there are many other stakeholders in a project whose needs must be met. Primary decision-makers have great influence on a project’s direction, including how quickly it moves and what get accomplished. In order to avoid potential roadblocks down the line, it’s important to be clear about who will be approving and signing off on decisions. Lack of clarity might create more work or hinder the team’s ability to meet deadlines, so incorporating the needs of decision-makers throughout the process can help make sure that teams reach important milestones on time.
How will we get this done?
Agree on an approach.
Consultants integrate with different approaches to user experience design and development–agile, spiral, waterfall, etc. Some are based on a client’s feature release plan, user testing, or some other driver; the specific task sequence will be related to the project drivers. Create a rhythm and logic to the project plan, including building in idea exploration sessions and planning task cycles at the appropriate scale for the client’s delivery trajectory.
Establish ground rules for a collaborative team culture.
How are new ideas generated, considered, and folded into the design? We find that good ideas can come from anyone on the team, regardless of their role. The experienced designers know how to take the kernel of an idea, vet, develop, and integrate it into a design system. Find a way to allow the larger team to collaborate–it may not be the traditional way–but team members will be more engaged if their ideas are considered. Also, understand that ideas often build over time and with a deeper understanding of the project–so put flexibility in the plan and allow for additional idea exploration along the way.
“This is another place where the UX team’s understanding of the client team members and structure helps out; involving particular client team members in the design process is good for perspective and alignment.” – Jed
Keep an up-to-date project plan and schedule regular check-ins.
Longer and more complex UX projects need management and planning to stay on schedule. When working on long-term projects with external resources, it is important to have a clear plan and communicate any changes. The UX design team should know when check-ins are scheduled and when milestones are to be completed, and the client team knows when feedback is required.
Be ready to change course when the plan doesn’t work for the larger team. Keep the basic plan in mind, but modify the team’s tasks when needed. Sometimes innovation is part of how we do the work, not the outcome.
Be positive and keep it fun!
Try to maintain a light feeling in meetings so that the harder moments don’t dominate. Work on relationships and communicate clearly so that you can state strong preferences and opinions without offending team members or devolving into arguments. Be positive and identify and share good work with the team. Heap praise when it is warranted. Team members do better work when they know their efforts are recognized and appreciated!
“This is a big deal; I keep learning over and over how important it is. Even in crunch times, I think this approach keeps minds open, keeps brainstorms fun… it’s easy to go into meetings when you know a team has the skill of working this way. It obviously works both ways, too – the client should practice this as much as the UX team.” – Jed
Why does this matter?
A high-quality team and well-understood process are the most important ingredients in the recipe for a high-quality product. A healthy team dynamic starts with a solid process and clear, regular communication. Since you will be spending considerable time with the user experience team you engage, spend the time to hire the right team. Once you’ve done that, do everything you can to create and maintain an atmosphere and dynamic that supports collaboration and communication.
Our simple model for success looks like this:
- Clarify the requirements
- Communicate the vision
- Find the best team for each task
- Drive creativity and innovation through flexibility
Margaret Jacobi is a Principal Designer of Digital Experience at Essential Design.
Essential Design is a leading Innovation Strategy & Design consultancy. We work across the healthcare, consumer, and commercial industries, helping our clients conceive and drive to market comprehensive digital, physical, and service experiences.