How to Build and Lead User Experience (UX) Teams

TL;DR: This article presents 9 guidelines for building and leading UX teams. They are based on what I learned from the people who led me as well as my own experience: recruit diverse talent; set up a process (and iterate); involve other teams from the start; be fair; have regular ceremonies; pass on knowledge; have a vision; ask questions (a lot); and make UX visible.

I’ve been involved in building and developing teams since 2012. First, at Unister, where Prof. Andreas Both was creating an R&D department from scratch. Then, at bitstars—a spin-off of RWTH Aachen University—with their AR/VR web platform HoloBuilder. After that, I helped Prof. Michael Nebeling build his Information Interaction Lab at the University of Michigan; and finally, at C&A, Ulrike Otto, who leads the Customer User Experience unit, has given me the chance to build a UX practice from the ground up. In all of these positions, I was trusted with leading my own little teams and task forces, and in this article, want to summarize my most important learnings so far.

In the end, I was able to distill those learnings into 9 guidelines, divided into three groups: (A) Build, (B) Lead, and (C) Build + Lead. I’m sure most of the following has already been mentioned a gazillion times in other articles of the same kind. So, if I repeat what has already been written elsewhere, please just take it as a sign that those approaches work. The following is purely based on my own experience and what I’ve learned from the people I work(ed) with. Still, I will of course give one or two references to books that have influenced me.

Also, please note that this list of guidelines is not exhaustive. I’m pretty sure I could’ve also written down 20 or more. The ones listed here are those learnings that I found most interesting and/or relevant. Therefore, I haven’t included rather obvious things like being able and prepared to make (tough) decisions to move forward. But now, finally, for the interesting part …

(A) Build

What I mean when talking about building a team is two-fold. Firstly, it is of course about the process of hiring people, defining processes, and getting everything up to speed in the very beginning. But secondly, it is also about establishing a new team in a larger environment and integrating it well with people and teams from different disciplines. The Build guidelines are rather externally oriented.

A1. Recruit diverse talent

I myself am a trained computer scientist, but have specialized in human-centered design since 2010. Also, I have worked for large corporations, a startup, and in academia. That gives me a unique view on UX topics. In my experience, bringing together people with different backgrounds usually sparks the best ideas (I guess that’s why everyone’s still so excited about cross-functional teams).

Conducting UX research can be learned and everyone who has created something (be it a chair or a business process) has already taken the first step towards being a UX designer. So, don’t be afraid to hire curious, eager-to-learn people with unusual backgrounds, even if they don’t already know the complete UX playbook by heart.

A2. Set up a process—and iterate

There is not a single, best process for your team and it’s important to not waste too much time and resources with trying to find one. It is important to decide for an approach that seems suitable for what you want to build and stick with it for some time. For instance, in my experience, Kanban is usually a good starting point for small, fresh teams, especially in research. Once everyone has worked with it for a while, areas for improvement should become salient more or less by themselves. However, be open to change and don’t treat a process like your “baby”. Make clear that processes are always works-in-progress and that you want to optimize and iterate as a team, based on everyone’s input.

A3. Involve other teams from the start

Right from the beginning, form cross-team/cross-functional task forces for special topics or new features and hold regular workshops. However, don’t just lecture people about UX, but involve them, have them draw concepts, have them come up with great ideas, and let them be a partner throughout the whole process (as far as their schedules allow). That’s called co-creation and not only creates buy-in from non-UX people, but also makes them curious about your tools and methods and excited for the awesome things you can do for them. There’s no better way to gain acceptance from others as a new UX team.

(B) Lead

When I talk about leading a team, I mean the day-to-day interactions with your colleagues, mostly when the hustle of getting everything up to speed is over and everyone has settled a little. These Lead guidelines are rather internally oriented.

B1. Be fair

It should not be necessary to mention this, but I’m including it anyway since I have personally experienced this. Never punish your team for things they can’t control. Actually, better not use punishment as a means in the first place. Don’t yell at people, and especially not in front of others. Don’t create an environment in which people are afraid to talk to you. Being fair also includes being open and transparent, as well as being direct, but not impolite or disrespectful. Be a quiet leader. All of this is in line with Carlo Ancelotti’s philosophy of Quiet Leadership—a book I can highly recommend.

B2. Have regular ceremonies

… and I’m not talking about the usual Scrum ceremonies (they’re only semi-good at creating something like a team spirit). Have a regular UX coffee to scribble and talk about current topics (my favorite), have a jour fixe in which everyone shares the progress of their projects, have regular one-on-ones, have co-op sessions in which you work on tasks together (my other favorite), and most importantly: team lunches (we did this every week at Michigan).

Again, I want to reference Ancelotti’s Quiet Leadership, in which he describes how important eating together is. He even had a restaurant established at Paris Saint-Germain so that his team could lunch together. Of course, team lunches don’t have to happen daily or weekly, but at least once a month is nice.

The idea for co-op sessions, which we regularly do at C&A, partly comes from Richard Sheridan’s book Joy, Inc., in which he describes his company’s culture of following a very strict pair programming approach. Obviously, constant pair programming (or pair working) is not for every company, but having co-op sessions, e.g., once a week is a big step forward (and a lot of fun).

B3. Pass on knowledge

Teaching your colleagues new things is an integral part of leading a team. It might be a cliché, but it should be your goal that one day your team members know more about UX than you. Teaching happens constantly, be it in co-op sessions or workshops. Empower your team to learn and practice and make the appropriate resources (books, conferences, online courses, …) available to them. Ultimately, your team should be the ones giving talks and webinars rather than just listening to them.

(C) Build + Lead

The following, final set of guidelines applies to both, building and leading. They will motivate your team while also better integrating your team into its larger environment. Hence, they are both, internally and externally oriented.

C1. Have a vision

It is absolutely crucial to have a vision from the start, which is then adjusted as you build your team and reach your goals. I started my job at C&A with the vision of establishing a “research pipeline” that anyone can put ideas and questions into and will be provided with useful insights. Once the pipeline was up and running, I adjusted my vision. Again inspired by Rich Sheridan’s Joy, Inc., it is very helpful to formulate a vision as a kind of sneak peek into the future. It could, e.g., be written from the perspective of one of your team members. My latest one starts as follows:

Isabelle is one of the “new” UX designers. She joined the team roughly one year ago, in February 2021. Her background is in communication design …

It is important to note that having a vision also relates to defining and pursuing realistic and motivating goals for your team using appropriate frameworks, such as OGSM or OKR.

C2. Ask questions (a lot)

Admitting to not knowing something is a weakness? That’s B.S.! You should ask questions all the time. Otherwise, how would you learn new things? Always be aware that everyone knows something that you don’t. When starting to build your team, ask stakeholders and other teams about the company history, processes, how they work and what they do. Ask your team members about articles they’ve read and cool new UX methods they might have discovered. Also, identify and talk to your users—a lot!

C3. Make UX visible

Making your work and results visible is key to establishing a successful UX team and preventing UX from being a black box for “outsiders”. On top, showcasing all the cool stuff they do makes a team proud and is highly motivating. Place a whiteboard in the hallway that shows the research or concepts you’re currently working on, give regular talks to other teams, hold workshops that are open to everyone, send broadcasts with especially interesting research insights … the possibilities to make your work (and UX in general) more visible are endless.

Additionally, track your team’s success over time. I know, UX is a rather “soft topic”, often without hard numbers, but there are some possibilities. You can track NPS scores, which reflect customer satisfaction and loyalty and to a certain degree correlate with usability. The working hypothesis here is that better UX will lead to more satisfied and more loyal customers in the long term. Also, you can track a variety of UX and usability measures, like AttrakDiff, SUS, or Inuit. You can moreover use all of these metrics as a basis for benchmarks with competitors. Communicate scores and/or benchmarks on a regular basis, e.g., on a whiteboard or screen in the hallway, or in an internal UX newsletter.

Conclusion

With all this being said, I want to share one more piece of advice: No matter what you do, you won’t be able to please everyone, and that’s OK. I’ve seen that at every place I worked and in almost every team I’ve ever been a member of. The important thing is that people are not dissatisfied because you treat them badly—and I believe the chances of that happening are relatively low if you follow the guidelines above. Go out there, do your best, design some awesome things, and have fun! 🙂

Calls to Action

  1. Read Carlo Ancelotti’s Quiet Leadership: Winning hearts, minds and matches
  2. Read Richard Sheridan’s Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love
  3. If you’re a team lead: Organize a co-op session and pair up members of your team who are not working on the same projects.
    If you’re not a team lead (yet): Find a topic that has your boss’s buy-in and to work on it, propose to form a little, cross-functional task force that you organize.

Acknowledgments

Special thanks go to my awesome colleague Johanna. We couldn’t do what we’re doing at C&A without her. 🎉

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