Building a high-performing UX team has been a popular topic. It is covered in scholarly research, blogs, professional articles, and other sources. A large body of information on this issue suggests that creating a UX team is not simple. You cannot get what you want by placing job descriptions, crossing your fingers, and hoping to find a well-balanced team of UX specialists. You need to select the right number of employees and fine-tune their skillsets to meet the company’s needs. It’s also important to find the team structure that works in the given setting. This article discusses what you need to know about a UX team’s functioning and structure.
Defining a UX Team
A UX design team comprises professionals whose main task is to make users’ interaction with a product enjoyable. In other words, these people make sure that the digital product or service is desirable, findable, practical, and usable.
A UX team is not homogeneous. It consists of many specialists, such as:
- UX designers
- UI designers
- UX researchers
- Information architects
- Usability experts
- UX copywriters
- UX lead
Notably, many team members can perform several duties simultaneously. For example, companies willing to save money hire one UI/UX designer responsible for user interface and experience.
The number of people in the team greatly affects the team structure. One UI/UX designer is easier to incorporate into the product team than a bunch of people responsible for various aspects of product creation.
Large teams need a UX lead who oversees the working process and promotes effective communication. A lead ensures that the team complies with deadlines and provides high-quality work. This professional also addresses emerging conflicts and creates a favourable atmosphere.
The Defining Features of a Good User Experience Team
There is a misconception that a high-performing user experience team should include many narrow specialists. People also think that it should have a complex structure. It is not necessarily the case in practice, as small teams can also be productive. Features of a successful team can be summarized as follows:
- Effective communication between departments and product teams
- Clear division of responsibilities
- Advanced skills and experience
- Understanding of company goals and vision
In other words, even several people can make a great team if they meet the stated requirements.
Types of Team Structure
Unfortunately, finding an optimal structure is down below in the list of companies’ priorities. There are always more important things to consider. These include product development, budgeting, research, and so on. Even when companies try to find a structure that works, they often face many obstacles. Teams change all the time as people come and go. New projects with more demanding requirements emerge, urging managers to adjust team structures. In other words, it’s easy to get distracted and go with the flow.
However, you need to understand the strengths and limitations of each user experience team model. Managers need to know when each of them applies, what value it can bring, and when it’s time to try something else. Let’s discuss the three most popular types of team structure used in UX design.
Centralized groups build around one team manager who controls the process. The simplest team of this kind has two hierarchal levels: designers and a user experience manager to whom they report. The structure can include many levels in larger companies, but everyone still reports to one person. The key feature of this model is that employees:
- take on different product design tasks inside the company.
- assist other departments with UX-related tasks and issues.
- work simultaneously on several projects.
The workload depends on the company’s current projects.
Let’s imagine the following situation. A project team gets to the point where no further work is possible without user experience designers’ input. The team’s lead contacts the user experience manager and clarifies the task. This manager then allocates the assignment to a UX specialist that can perform it best. The UX specialist is ready for another assignment when the work is complete. More often, though, they use someone available at the moment.
There are many benefits associated with this model. Such teams provide high-quality UX services because they comprise well-trained, experienced designers. They also boast a wide pool of UX skillsets, allowing the company to get what it needs without outsourcing specialists.
Many UX design agencies in San Francisco, for example, enjoy working in centralized teams because they provide more opportunities for career growth. Designers are engaged in different projects, thus gaining diverse multidisciplinary skills and knowledge. They can choose the areas they want to excel in (e.g., managing or design) and enjoy the managers’ support while climbing the career ladder. In other words, a well-functioning centralized team is beneficial to all stakeholders.
Yet, this structure is not immune to limitations, such as:
- UX teams are often excluded from the product development process
- UX specialists lack a deep understanding of the product
- Other departments do not understand the potential UX team’s contribution
- Staffing may be challenging due to workload unpredictability
These limitations suggest the need to include the UX team in the organizational work. It can be achieved by promoting inter-departmental communication. Raising awareness and encouraging collaborative work may also help.
Product teams, also called embedded teams, differ from those described above. They consist of different specialists, such as UX designers, product developers, managers, etc. Such teams work together on many projects, moving from idea creation to implementation and launch. UX designers thus get a chance to interact more closely and consistently with other disciplines, which is intended to add more value.
Ideally, embedded teams facilitate effective communication, allowing different specialists to contribute equally to product development. It is also believed that UX designers working in product teams have more opportunities to establish trusting relationships. In this way, they become recognized and appreciated by other team members. They are also more likely to be engaged in the design and development process. The reason is attending the same meetings and working in the same office with other team members.
In theory, product teams appear reasonable, but the practice is not always as bright. Several problems can hamper the creative process:
- UX designers may get bored when the workload is low
- Other employees may expect too much from UX designers
- UX specialists may struggle to make their opinions heard
As you can see, the main solution to the arising challenges is the same as in centralized teams. Managers should ease communication and engage all team members equally.
Matrix, mixed, or hybrid terms refer to the same team model that takes the best from other team structures. Team members working in hybrid structures report to the UX lead and the product team manager. One of the managers usually has the final say in the decision-making process.
The hybrid team may be confused with an embedded team when it comes to daily operation. Employees work as part of multidisciplinary groups and have specific projects in progress. The team lead supervises their day-to-day work, and they interact with non-designers more than with other UX specialists.
However, if one looks at this team from a broader perspective, it becomes clear that it also depends on UX manager oversight, support, and guidance. Moreover, UX professionals from different product teams can communicate and share expertise via various meetings and events.
Adjustability is the major benefit of hybrid teams. They can be rearranged quickly to meet the new company’s goals. Since a UX manager oversees all projects, creating a shared vision for all teams is easier. In addition, UX specialists may feel more involved in the working process. It increases their productivity and maximizes contribution.
Still, while hybrid teams take the best out of centralized and embedded structures, one major issue remains. When any problems or questions arise, team members may feel confused about who they should speak to. So, it is important to ensure that employees understand the company’s hierarchy. They should know the responsibilities of team leaders and a UX manager.
An Alternative Team Structure
Although companies usually choose from the three types of structure discussed above, another option may work in some teams: the primary-secondary team structure. It is characterized by UX team members being assigned to several product teams. For example, a UX researcher can participate in different product areas developed simultaneously.
This structure is mostly used in smaller companies that want to maximize coverage and avoid hiring more employees. On the one hand, it allows UX specialists to gain experience in different spheres and work collaboratively with other disciplines. On the other hand, they may be torn apart between their duties in different projects, which creates unnecessary stress.
How to Choose the Right Structure?
To build a well-functioning user experience team, you first need to define the company’s short- and long-term goals and organizational context. Consider the following factors:
- The complexity of tasks
- Company size
- Existing organizational structure
- Available financial resources
- Human resources and skillsets
Choose the team structure that will fit into the company’s organizational structure and function effectively without draining scarce resources.
How to Bring Out the Best in Your Team
Whatever structure you use, best practices help make the team more effective, united, and motivated. Let’s go through the most effective:
- Promote a friendly culture where each team member’s contribution is valued
- Ensure that everyone knows their responsibilities and other team members’ roles
- Build a well-balanced team where people complement each other in terms of skillsets and knowledge
- Set clear, achievable, and measurable goals
- Align design team strategy with a company’s broader UX strategy
- Equip the team with the right hardware and software to ease collaboration (e.g., Slack, Teams, G-Suite, Jira, and others)
- Regularly assess team performance and discuss the results with team members
- Provide informative feedback
- Support team members’ professional development
- Change team structure if the current one is not working
The latter recommendation deserves more attention. It’s a common misconception to think that once you select a team structure, it cannot be changed. If you see that the existing structure stifles innovation, hampers communication, and does not allow team members to grow, it should be changed. The process may be time-consuming and stressful. Still, it will benefit the company in the long-term perspective.
Product, hybrid, and primary-secondary team structures have one issue in common – they are often held back by conflict. When a multidisciplinary team works collaboratively on a project, it may not be easy to reconcile different professional perspectives. For example, evidence shows that software engineers often argue with UX designers. Their conflict originates from the classic clash between a system-centered versus a user-centered approach. Software engineers want to create functional, efficient products. In turn, UX designers may find their efforts meaningless unless they consider users’ needs and expectations.
Project managers need to address these conflicts productively to ensure that the creative process does not slow down the work. They should identify team members that adversely influence others and create a toxic environment that demoralizes the team. Finding the right approach to managing these people helps prevent conflicts from spiraling out of control. Managers’ task is to encourage all team members’ input and navigate personality and professional conflicts. Teams that manage to benefit from conflict as an impetus for growth ultimately gain a competitive advantage.
A UX team is a vital part of any tech company. However, its structure and position in the company’s hierarchy may vary considerably based on the goals and available resources. Centralized, embedded, hybrid, and primary-secondary teams have their strengths and weaknesses. They present many ways of engaging UX specialists in the working process. These structures can bring value if the UX team is managed effectively.
Follow the best management practices to give UX professionals a chance to maximize their input. In this way, you will help create products and services that resonate with users. More importantly, you’ll notice what works and develops your own best practices and tricks. The theory is often helpful for resolving the most fundamental issues. However, analyzing the unique company’s experience and learning the lessons are also essential.
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