Xiaodan has 20 years of industry experience as a user experience design leader. She has worked for multinational companies, unicorn start-ups and consulting firms, and has built 6 international multidisciplinary design teams in Europe, Asia and the US. She is an expert in cross organization collaboration, product & design innovations and agile development. She is passionate about getting talented individuals together to build something bigger and better than each could alone.
Xiaodan has been a guest speaker at various international industry events, a freelance writer and photographer. She has written for 20+ design, travel and lifestyle magazines including National Geographic Traveler, Art & Design, Marie Claire etc. Her book was published in 2008 with UK publisher Thames & Hudson.
Whatever our jobs are, most of us want to work in a world class team. But what does it mean to be world class in the user experience design world? And why does it even matter whether your company has a world class design team or not?
Having worked in a global context as a user experience leader, I have observed some key ingredients for building a world class design teams, there are of course other factors to consider:
1. Cognitive diversity
2. Craftsmanship & process
3. Communication & collaboration.
Why does it matter? Better designs drive better business outcomes.
Building a top notch design team starts with understanding your business and industry. What business goals are you trying to achieve? What design disciplines are required to enable these business objectives in your industry?
For example, Grab, a ride hailing unicorn start-up in Southeast Asia, wants to be the Everyday Everything App that connects millions of consumers to millions of drivers, merchants, and businesses. To enable such ambition, a conventional User Experience (UX) design team of visual & interaction designers is not enough because it does not offer full innovation capabilities the company needs. We needed a multidisciplinary innovation powerhouse that could materialize and validate product concepts to completion, from native mobile experiences for passengers & drivers, to wearable products for safety motorbike rides & food deliveries, to architecture & interior design for driver centers, to service design for in-car physical riding experience, to enterprise solutions for corporate users, etc. To acquire such complex capabilities, we need multidisciplinary diversities in the team set up: visual designers, interaction designers, industry designers, service designers, content strategists, user experience researchers, UX engineers, architects, design program managers and so on. These cognitively diversified professionals work coherently to ideate concepts, to build prototypes, to validate with users, and to achieve business goals.
Craftsmanship & process
Design is a commercial creation process. Like any industry that creates a product, quality matters. That’s why luxury brands generate higher profits; their products are finer and usually last longer. Birkin bags are great examples. Its value appreciates over time due to quality and limited quantity. This is applicable in the digital product space.
A better thought through user flow and end to end product experience, a more refined visual and emotionally delightful experience will attract and engage more users, hence more business success. Facebook’s Instagram is a great example. It is visually appealing, intuitive to use and emotionally satisfying, somewhat addictive. There is only one way to create fine craft - that is to find top talent and inspire them to be part of your business.
By looking at design portfolios, follow Dribble accounts, finding out who is behind your favorite products, you can usually identify good designers. Good interaction designers will consider all possible product solutions and narrow them down to the 1 or 2 best options. They can offer design rationales to every question you may have.
Good visual designers have amazing aesthetic tastes and are meticulous with details: colors, typography, illustrations, iconography, spacing, animations, transitions are all pixel perfect. And pixel perfect is actually a thing - as trained artist and designer, if you misalign something by a couple of pixels on the screen, I can tell, that comes from years of training.
Over the past 20 years, within my teams and teams I worked directly with across the world, just over a dozen designers I could recall as world class (far less world class product managers, that’s another story). Without exceptions, with such talent, these designers seek meaning in what they do. We have always worked together wanting to create something beautiful and make this world a better place - this is the foundation of attracting top talent, coupled with top pay.
However talent alone don’t always yield results, rigorous processes do. Best practices of building successful designs fast are prototyping, user research, deck check, bug bashing, iterative release planning and performance data review.
User research should be done on a weekly basis, every feature and every stage of the design should be tested and improved rapidly. This is the cheapest and quickest way to discover usability issues and get user reactions early on. If a problematic design gets into engineer development cycle, the costs of changing the designs would be much higher. And sometimes, it takes years to fix, or it never gets fixed at all and affects subsequent experience in the long run.
Designers, product managers and researchers should plan the research together to identify research goals, methodologies, and divide the roles of facilitation, note taking and reporting for faster turnaround. Product managers, designers, engineers, and business stakeholders should all observe user research sessions and debrief together to share different perspectives and learning. Recruit users early, employee testing and virtual testing groups are all good ways of getting users.
Prototype: for concept testing, paper prototype or click through screens are fine. For complex, innovative products and mid stage designs, high-fidelity and high quality prototypes are critical. Because testing context, refined user flows, detailed interactions & animations can’t be replicated by low-fidelity prototypes, a low quality prototype will affect research accuracy and lead to product failures. This is why we need UX engineers to build working prototypes - engineers in development teams will almost never have the time to build cutting edge working prototypes for radical concept testing, or for redesigns that might be thrown away. At Facebook, we have invested in building our own working prototyping tools, this is incredibly helpful for designers to build working prototypes with shortened turnaround time.
Once designs are done and almost front end ready, designers need to sit next to engineers to do desk check, or diff review. This is to ensure design details and interactive intentions are replicated pixel perfect, what we designed is what users will see. Prior to product launch, all teams get together to do bug bashing to ensure all major issues are discovered and fixed. It is also critical to break down large releases or features into tangible milestones, so you can carefully monitor performance step by step, and able to fix unforeseen problems quickly. It is costly to bundle too many changes at once, because it will take longer and be harder to know what goes wrong when things are jumbled together. Post product launch, working teams and business stakeholders should monitor performance data together on a weekly basis for iterative improvements.
Communication & Collaborations
60-70% work of a high performing design team is communication and collaboration so stakeholders are on the same page, understand what we are trying to achieve and how success will be measured. The worst thing that could happen to a design team is to have product managers or business stakeholders give endless subjective feedback and end up with a design that’s done by too many cooks but the designer and taking too long. To overcome such a situation, and to incorporate different perspectives from different stakeholders early on, a world class design team would operate in an inclusive and systematic fashion, to create shared visions, collect different perspectives, understand user needs and business opportunities, and to come up with minimum valuable product solutions that are tangible, scalable and desirable.
Thought works, an agile design and development company, has made this framework into a fine art and breaks organizational siloes effortlessly. Every project is kicked off with a 1 to 2 week inception workshop facilitated by experienced consultants. During which time, working team and key business stakeholders are gathered together to go through a well curated agenda. A concrete list of deliverables are pre-identified to enable speedy deliveries right after the workshops. This inception workshop is flexible and usually consists of
1. Current product states sharing, to get everyone on the same page and have the same information.
2. Competitor analysis, to illustrate the industry landscape and opportunity space.
3. Shared business vision, to align everyone’s understanding of who our customers are, what products or services we want to offer, and what results we can achieve. This is usually broken down into short, mid and long term to be more realistic and scalable.
4. User persona creation, to get everyone see things from user’s perspectives instead of from individual department’s perspective.
5. Current and to-be user journey, to see how users complete their tasks in today’s world, and how that journey might be improved in tomorrow’s world.
6. Technical approach, what technologies we should use to build the product.
7. Features and stories, to break down features from user’s perspective and prioritize.
8. Estimations, to understand the scope and how long it will take to build these features.
9. Release plan, based on the short, mid and long term vision and the estimations, to form a tangible release plan.
10. Communication plan, how frequent, in what format, with whom we should communicate what.
11. Roles & responsibilities, who should be doing what, do we have the right talents and skill sets? Do we need to hire or share resources?
12. Risks, dependencies, issues and assumptions mapping and contingency plans.
With such a collaborative framework, designers become facilitators to guide stakeholders to generate solutions that are holistic, inclusive and user centric. Combined with high quality craftsmanship, rigorous design process, diversified skill sets, a world class design team is in the making.