Sarah Bloomer

UX teams: An interview with Sarah Bloomer

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Download (mp3: 6.6MB, 27.16) Sarah Bloomer talks to Gerry Gaffney about UX teams. How many people? Where should the team be positioned? What skills are needed?

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Transcript

Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience Podcast. I’m very happy to be here with a long-time friend of mine. We’re sitting in a hotel room in Shanghai, China at User Friendly 2013.

My guest today cofounded the Hiser Group in Australia in 1991 which really was I think responsible for establishing the field of usability in Australia or certainly for giving it the profile that it reached. She returned to her native USA in 2002 and currently lives in Boston. She set up her current company in 2006 and she works delivering design research, UX strategy and UX design training.

She’s also delivered papers, tutorials and training in Asia, the USA and Australia.

Sarah Bloomer, welcome to the User Experience Podcast.

Sarah Bloomer:

Thank you, Gerry.

Gerry:

The reason I wanted to talk to Sarah specifically today was about user experience teams because that’s something that she’s very interested in at the moment and she helped, for example, take a small number of people at Constant Contact over a period of three years up to a full-fledged UX team consisting of writers and researchers and designers and so on.

Can I start by asking, Sarah, when do organisations set up the user experience teams in the first place?

Sarah:

Well that varies. Sometimes people hear that user experience is really important and so they’ll decide they have to have one too. Other times it comes from inside so they discover that they have an issue with their product and somebody puts up their hand and starts to do user experience and just takes it on. So they may be coming from another discipline. So I find that it varies quite a lot.

I was teaching a class here in China a couple of days ago and we had developers who had decided that they needed to have a user experience team and they were trying to set one up all the way to somebody who’d been given a mandate to build a team and was given the funding to do it.

Gerry:

Does it matter if its called a ‘user experience’ team because you get a lot of, I’m thinking for example some of the banks back in Melbourne that have got, I think they call it interaction design teams or interaction teams or product design teams.

Sarah:

So that’s interesting because that, I haven’t encountered that in the States where I’ve been doing a lot of this, in the States obviously, and there they’re all called user experience teams. They don’t, I would be interested if people did give it those names because they’re multi-disciplinary and so sometimes calling it a product management team might make more sense because user experience is just part of product management.

Gerry:

You’ve got a sort of four pronged approach to your thinking about user experience teams, am I right in saying so? There are four elements?

Sarah:

Yeah.

Gerry:

What are those elements?

Sarah:

Well, I talk about it in four elements in order to help people think about what about they have to consider and the four elements are:

Who are the people?

What method are you using or what method are you working within? So I have some clients that work still in a sort of pseudo waterfall method. Most people are working in Agile and then how do you fit the UX processes into that?

The third one is location. Where do you position your team within an organisation because that can have a big impact on your success or not?

And the last one… What’s the last one?

Gerry:

Goals.

Sarah:

Thank you. [Laughter.]

The last one is goals or sometimes I call that, sometimes I call that something else, vision, right? And that may have to do with the product and what you’re trying to achieve for the product but it may have to do with the team and what you’re trying to achieve with the team. So that can mean something different. So, for example, when I’m talking to teams that are just getting started I tend to call it goals because I think it’s an easier thing for them to grasp.

This afternoon I’m going to be talking to experienced user experience managers and they are going to be talking more about the vision because we’re trying to take it to the next level of maturity.

Gerry:

Yeah, sure. So when you talk about setting up, to bring you back, you talked about when teams are first getting set up, who are the key people? If somebody’s responsibility, for example, is to set up a UX team, who are the key people they’re going to need to get to join that team?

Sarah:

Well, again that depends on what they’re trying to achieve. So, back in Australia when I was helping companies set up their usability teams and usually they were not software companies, they were the banks, the insurance companies, the government, and what we were trying to do there was understand the culture and then figure out what the right skills were for that culture.

So you might find that the culture of the development group was more predisposed to responding to usability testing so you’ll start with somebody who has skills in usability testing. But in another situation it might be better to go with somebody that’s more design oriented and doing the interaction design. So you really want to understand the culture and the organisation before you start figuring out who that person is.

There’s just no one way to do it. In fact I’ve really been doing a lot of work looking at the different types of organisations and how they set things up differently. So one of the interesting things about moving back to the States was working for software companies for the first time. And so how software companies set up their teams is different than how non-software companies set up their teams, which is different again from how agencies or consulting companies set up their teams. And the skills are going to be different, as well.

Gerry:

Is there a particular pathway you see, is it normally the case that organisations have used external resources and now are deciding to bring that in-house or what do you see?

Sarah:

That’s another question that I have. I think in the States more companies hire people into their organisations rather than going externally or they’ll have an internal team that they then beef up with external consulting companies. You know if they have to grow and shrink they’ll bring in people from outside.

So, there’s a bit of both. What I hear about in Australia is that there’s a lot more ad hoc teams being put together. I don’t know, you can answer that question better than I can but in America I think our economy is set up in such a way that they would rather hire somebody in a lot of the time unless they have special projects. So that’s not to say… there are a lot of consulting companies and independent UX-ers who are doing very well.

Gerry:

And you alluded to skills sets there and one of the things that crops up in the various user groups from time to time is somebody who’ll say, ‘Oh you can’t be a user experience person if you don’t know how to do X’, like it’s, you know, coding or visual design or child-minding or whatever it happens to be, something that seems a bit random. [Laughter.]

What’s your take on that? Is there a core set of skills that you need to have within the team?

Sarah:

Well, again that depends on the… I think that’s kind of a religious discussion. I feel really strongly that it’s hard to be a unicorn by which I mean somebody that does coding, visual design and interaction design and usability research.

Gerry:

A mythical creature then, yeah?

Sarah:

That’s the mythical creature. But on the other hand you’ve got somebody like Jared Spool who’s saying you have to be a unicorn in this world today. So, you’ve got both ends of that spectrum and I think that needing a unicorn is very realistic, so companies might say I can only hire two people so I can’t hire somebody that is an expert in each one of those areas. So I had that problem in Constant Contact when I had, when I went in there they had three people that did the coding, visual sign and interaction design and I said: ‘You guys are now interaction designers. I want to get a coder and a visual designer.” But I only had one head count so I found somebody who could do both visual design and coding.

But over time we did split that up to visual designers, front-end coders and interaction designers and researchers. But I had to start with people that did multiple skills because those were the constraints I was working with.

Gerry:

And then presumably it’s going to be very important to get those people communicating with each other and not sort of going off in their own direction, particularly if you’ve got different skill sets you’re typically going to have different personality types as well. How do you ensure that the team is as cohesive as it needs to be?

Sarah:

Well, that’s a challenge too. Another thing that I’ve learned from working with people is there’s basically four types of teams that you can have out there. There’s the team of one who has to be all things to all people and work across multiple applications and then what they have to do and Leah Buley talks about this in her Team Of One workshop and presentation, you have to create an ad hoc team around you. You have to turn the people you’re working with into user experience champions and they, not just champions, they have to actually do some of the work for you.

Then you’ve got a centralised team where you could say all those people have to work on the same projects together.

You can have decentralised teams where you’ve got people on individual projects and you find that I think a lot more with Agile because you really want collocate your UX people with the Scrum teams.

And then you’ve got hybrids so you might, a hybrid might say all our usability testing and all our usability research is going to be centralised by one group and then the interaction design and maybe the visual design and front-end coding is going to be done by a person that’s on the individual product teams.

So in those cases, one of the most interesting models I’ve heard about is something that Spotify started but other companies are starting to use which is the guild model. The guild model in one example they have a decentralised team, they have managers who let’s say each has four or six people under them, UX people under them. But every Tuesday all of those people come together as the user experience guild and they share their projects with each other. And that’s how they keep things consistent, that’s how they build up their skill base so that they have a consistent way of talking about their craft.

Spotify does something similar but this company’s actually taken it and put their own spin on it and what that really is is a kind of community of practice. So you’re starting to see that pop up a lot as well. And if you have a community of practice that means you can bring other people that aren’t UX-ers into that guild, if you will. So I think that’s a really interesting way to do it. What I did at Constant Contact is we had interaction design meetings every week where people had to bring their work and show it to each other and then if we saw any components that were coming along, any consistencies or inconsistencies across the product then we could resolve it in those meetings. And, again, people were learning from each other and giving feedback to each other because if you worked in isolation everything started going off in different directions.

Gerry:

Yeah, I guess a risk with that sort of thing is you have to make sure that that’s a priority because otherwise project deadlines and pressures would mean people not attending those guild meetings.

Sarah:

Yeah, well my understanding from the client that does that is that that’s… everybody knows that they have to go to this guild meeting and that that doesn’t happen. So that’s a matter of culture and what kind of priority you give to it.

Gerry:

You said earlier on that most people you’re working with are using Agile. I’m a bit surprised that you say most. I mean I personally love working with Agile projects when they’re real Agile projects. Do you find that and do you like working on Agile? Do the teams cope well with Agile projects do you think?

Sarah:

Well my conversations with people is that it’s difficult. What’s difficult about it is, and everybody talks about this, is getting the research done and having enough ramp-up time and that was certainly something that came up in the workshop that I taught earlier to new UX- teamers. They said, “How do I create something when I have Agile? How do I do the design work? There’s no time to actually do the design work.”

So I think people are still grappling with it. And as you know everybody has their own flavour of Agile so…

Gerry:

You said you’ve got this model of people, methods, location and goals. Methods, tell us a little bit about methods.

Sarah:

Well, again, how you do UX in an Agile environment is going to be different than how you do UX in a waterfall environment. So one client that I worked with they wanted to cross-train all their product managers and they work in a waterfall environment. They do one release every year. It’s not really, it’s kind of probably a blend of the two but they aren’t pushing product out every sprint and what they wanted, they had quite a big well established UX team and a big visual design team as well but what they wanted was to enable the product managers to be able to communicate better with their team.

So we established a set of UX goals which would be shared across all the products that the company had and that’s something I really like to do with companies is just come up with these, we used to call them, what did we used to call them in Australia? Strategic usability goals. So now I call them user experience goals and so they are the flavour that you want people, the way you want people to describe your product regardless of what product it is.

So we did that. We taught to product managers, had a few design critiques. So in that case we can do a lot of training them in terms of the methodology that this company had which was quite a long methodology for doing their, for evolving their product. So, again, it depends and if you’re just starting off a brand new team you might decide all I’m going to start with is usability testing or all I’m going to start with, I’m going to start up, all I’m going to start with is user research. I’m not going to worry about that other stuff so your method is very contained.

But over time you want something that’s going to be more repeatable. So a company I’m at right now, they don’t have UX people in there at all. All the interaction design had been done by their business analysts and consequently things would get handed off and they are Agile so things would get handed off to the developers and the culture didn’t allow a lot of back and forth between that hand-off so mistakes get made, things don’t get delivered on time.

So we’re putting methods in place where we’ll have more componentised items and we’ll start to do more CSS templates so that those sorts of mistakes don’t get made and it’s really the user experience people that are bringing that kind of discipline into their methodology. So I’m using method very broadly in this context.

Gerry:

Sure. I guess one of the things that’s really important in a team is making sure that the people have got a growth path and a way to learn and continuously be engaged and do you have any take on that?

Sarah:

No, I think it’s really important and I think a lot of times people just get busy designing. I think UX people love to design so we are very focused on what we’re working on and we forget that we’re really part of a bigger system. And that’s been one of the themes of this conference at User Friendly this year is the idea that you’re part of something bigger.

UX people need to learn to communicate and work across boundaries all the time. One of the things I did recently was run a session to learn more about high performing teams and what that means for UX and I think it’s really important for UX folks because we have to work on multiple teams. So you can imagine one team is your UX team, another team is your Scrum team; a third team might be whatever your speciality is if that’s the way your UX team is set up. So you might be part of a group of researchers, for example, but you’re still UX and you’re still part of the Scrum team.

And then there are ad hoc teams that come up so UX people to be high performing team members have to be able to work on long term teams and short term and ad hoc teams and they have to have a lot of soft skills that enable them to be successful at that.

Gerry:

Well how do you impart those skills? I guess I’m thinking of somebody who’s maybe joining a team as a newcomer, what sort of skills set should they be looking at? What should they be considering? Obviously it’s going to depend on their likes and dislikes and capabilities and personality and so on but what sorts of things should people be learning and how should they be learning that? I know that’s a big question. [Laughter.]

Sarah:

Well I think one of the reasons I like doing things like interaction design meetings is because people learn from each other. So you’re going to mentor… if you have time as a UX manager and it’s an issue right now because a lot of managers don’t have time to coach and mentor people on their team.

One reason that’s hard for lot of UX managers is I’ve found some come up the ranks and were UX practitioners, other ones come across from somewhere else so you’ll get a product manager that takes on a UX team but really hasn’t got a clue what sort of skills they need and how to assess whether somebody’s good at interaction design.

So you’re going to want to teach them to be good at interaction design. I think sometimes we’re very black and white about it. I like to spend a lot of time helping people see the nuances that really give you a powerful experience or how do I interpret your research to be a more powerful or effective experience. And then the soft skills, what I try to do with my teams is set goals that are one-on-ones. You know, you’re scared to present but that’s a really important part of what we do in terms of our communicating what we do. So we set goals for ourselves about how to do that.

Gerry:

So your background is design because you did a, is it Masters in Interactive Software Design in New York? Is that your original starting point?

Sarah:

My background’s kind of eclectic. I have an undergraduate degree in music and then I went and did that degree which was a, I designed it myself at New York University because I love design. So I’m sort of a self-taught designer.

Gerry:

So how do you find them dealing with the business management aspect of things? Is that… because sometimes I find that people who are in UX really like the soft skills and they like doing that and they like the design stuff but they might not like the hard-nosed business type of stuff.

Sarah:

And I think that’s a problem. I know that back in the ‘90s I developed a course called Strategic Usability and it was all about, it was very similar to what Donald Norman was talking about. How do I identify what the goals of the business are and how do I transform those into goals for my team?

So if you think of it, if your company has a particular type of goal or today Paul Adams was talking about the mission of the company, that you should tie everything you do to whatever that mission is. Why does this company exist? Donald Norman was talking about the ROI and being able to sell to your boss and your boss’s boss and your boss’s boss. I think that’s really, really important because at the end of the day when you’re designing a product or a service it’s in order to support whatever the business is.

In Australia because we designed internal software a lot, I used to say when you’re designing your software, you’re designing your business and I still believe that. So we tend to forget that because we can do so many cool things with interaction design that we forget that we’re really there for these people and this business.

So those are two things I try to keep in front of my teams that I work with all the time. What is the goal of the business? And then let’s work out how the goals of this product fit into the goals of the business and then how are we going to communicate that to the right people? And there’s lots of different ways to communicate across an organisation. So it’s not just up, I think you need to learn to communicate adjacently as well and down to other stakeholders that you can benefit. And I also think it’s important to look for those allies so very often user experience folks can help across lots of other companies. You’re trying to get user experience into a company for the first time, you want to find a group that really needs your help so you can demonstrate your value so when you communicate. You communicate in two ways and we tend to talk about, if you talk about ROI then you’re trying to speak in the language of upper management that care about cost.

But there are other organisations in a company that can benefit like the support desk, like if you can go to them and find out what the real problems are with the product and then make their lives easier by fixing it and demonstrate your value, I think that that’s even more important today than telling people what you can do for them.

Gerry:

Is there a particular method or particular artefact that you find is especially powerful at convincing people of the value of user experience work?

Sarah:

I run a survey every two years with user experience teams and I ask that question and it really varies but it’s shifting. So it used to be the old, you know, find your senior or your executive champion, get people to come and watch usability testing and people still say that. But I think today it is more about demonstrating value, so being able to show what you can do and what the difference is.

People talk about Net Promoter Score but I think it’s very hard to demonstrate how user experience fed into Net Promoter Score.

So I guess the short answer… It’s too late for that [Laughter]. But the short answer is it depends on the organisation and what is important to the organisation. That’s why they’re all different, there’s no one answer. I hate it when I see these questions online that say, “Where should my team be located? Should it be with marketing or should it be with product management?” And I want to say: “Well what kind of organisation are you? Are you building a website or an application? Or a web application? And what is it for? And who are the people?” And then maybe we can answer that question.

Gerry:

So, and you’re not allowed to answer “it depends” to this question: Do you have in your mind an ideal size for a UX team?

Sarah:

I can’t say “it depends”, Gerry?

Gerry:

No, you can’t. [Laughter.] You’re not allowed. You’ve used that too many times.

Sarah:

The ideal size will depend [laughter] on the number of products that you have and how big the company is and how if you’re a company that’s global and you have people all over the world. But in terms of a core team, because you could break into individual teams, I think if it gets too big then you’ve got to get creative about how people stay in touch with each other and that’s something I’m trying to explore now. Most of the teams I’ve worked with, the biggest teams have been about twenty. But then things start to, you know, it’s hard to keep everybody working tightly together and you have to find good ways to do that.

Gerry:

So you’ve got this, the model again is people, methods, location and goals; I think we already talked about location when we were saying what’s, how should the team be positioned. Is that what you mean by location?

Sarah:

Yeah, well I often say that, I always say you should be located with the people that make product decisions. So, who was I talking to today? I was talking to a guy at breakfast who said if you put your team next to reporting into CEO then they’ll be fine. And I said, “Well, I’ve seen situations where they could be reporting into the CEO but the product management team or the development team feel like they don’t, they’re too separated from them to really understand the product.

So, again, it’s the culture that’s going to inform the best place to put somebody. My research has shown that software companies tend to collocate either with product development or with product management; that’s where they collocate. When you get into enterprises, it’s marketing or product management because often those are websites and so marketing makes more sense.

Gerry:

The final aspect was goals. I think you’ve already talked about goals and in terms of aligning what you’re doing with the organisation’s goals. Do you see the goals of the UX team as being independent from the goals…

Sarah:

No, they should be, they should be, one should be serving the other.

So when you decide what the goals are for your team and those might be very operational goals [like]: I’m going to grow my team from 3 to 10 within the next year. That’s getting harder for people because there’s such a demand now for user experience people and they want experienced people and they just aren’t out there. There aren’t enough out there at the moment. So people are having to be a lot more creative about how to grow their user experience teams internally or bringing more junior people in or hiring from within so that you have some of the knowledge, like you might have the product knowledge but not the UX knowledge.

So, that’s I think, people are, companies are really challenged at the moment with finding good resources.

Gerry:

What about an individual who’s working as a one person UX team within an organisation that perhaps doesn’t have the ability, to or the finance or the budget or whatever, to create a team of more than one person? How does that person get the benefits of a team?

Sarah:

Well you create this ad hoc team that Leah Buley talks about and so there’s usually, there’s a lot of interest in user experience at the moment so often you can find people in QA or tech writers or other people in the organisation that are interested in it. I also would spend a lot of time communicating what our thoughts are and how our decisions are made about design to product managers so product managers can pick up some of the slack.

In fact in some companies the UX person and the product manager are the same people but you don’t find that as often as you used to. So you can turn your product managers into UX so that they’re doing some of the analysis, they’re doing maybe even some of the wire-framing then you are taping that on and refining it into the final design or you can, you know, take things apart or you might find people in another part of the organisation. For example, when I went to Constant Contact and I didn’t have a head [count] for a visual designer, there was a visual designer in another group who was interested in it so I got 20% of his time to do my visual design work and then eventually he joined my team.

But that’s how I had to be creative. I went around and found another visual designer. I got permission to start using him on particular projects and then eventually he came over and I did that several times. When I needed a front-end developer I found somebody in customer support who wanted to move into my team but I didn’t have a head count then.

So there were lots of creative ways that I grew that team by creating an ad hoc team around us.

Gerry:

I know you’re short on time because you’ve got to run a tutorial in a few minutes but I did want to ask you; what are the qualities of a leader that are important in UX, a UX team leader?

Sarah:

I think the biggest challenge for a team leader is that they have to lead the team itself but they have to lead the team within the entire organisation. So, they’re the ones who are positioning the team in terms of their value to the company. Everyone on the team should be able to do that but they’re really sort of the captain of that message and whatever that’s going to be.

So, to be a good UX leader you need to understand the culture of your organisation. You need to have probably some political nous or you’ll stumble, as I often did, and you have to have really strong communication skills both ways.

I think there’s a lot of soft skills that you need to have. So in learning about high performing teams, they talk about leadership coming both from within the team and having a strong leader but the leader giving the team the ability to do their own thing so you’re not being a manager. You’re not saying, “Do it this way.” You’re not micro-managing but you’re listening, you’re mentoring, you’re enabling people to be learners and you’re fostering an organisation where there’s a lot of communication both inside the team and outside.

Gerry:

Sarah Bloomer, thanks very much for joining me today on the User Experience Podcast.

Sarah:

Thank you, Gerry.

Published: December 2013

A note on the transcripts

We make verbatim transcripts of the User Experience podcast. We then edit the transcripts to remove speech-specific elements that interfere with meaning in print (primarily space-fillers such as “you know…”, “um…”).

Gerry GaffneyUX teams: An interview with Sarah Bloomer

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