UX leader Litha Ramirez is smiling into the camera against a black background.
Litha Ramirez. Image: SPR

How Covid-19 could cause ‘product development debt’ for UX teams

25 Jun 2020

How has Covid-19 impacted teams in the UX industry? SPR’s Litha Ramirez explores the challenges facing those in product design and development.

Litha Ramirez is executive director of the user experience strategy and design group at Chicago-based digital transformation agency SPR. Here, she discusses how she has been navigating leading a user experience (UX) team during the Covid-19 pandemic and the current challenges facing workers in this industry.

‘Now, more than ever, it is important to put in the extra effort to build relationships, be organised and communicate’

How has the UX/UI workforce been impacted by Covid-19 and working from home?

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted everyone and UX is no exception. Design is often cut first when companies face any type of financial crisis.

Traditionally, UX addresses if the organisation is developing the right product to meet customer needs and, if so, if they’re developing it in the right way. But some organisations see these considerations as luxuries if there is enough time and resources to revisit, but not essential to getting the final product itself done.

Most of us have been around long enough to know that product development debt, whether technical or design-related, rarely gets revisited. Only when there is a product crisis related to its revenue, margin or market share does a firm circle back around to back-burned items.

Unfortunately, many of those items are what make a product adoptable and sticky. It can be detrimental for companies that take the mindset that design is not essential. A product’s desirability, usefulness and usability are UX’s greatest contribution and a company’s best weapon.

During times like this, competitors will try to wedge into the market through any small crack, which is why companies should sharpen their focus with the guidance of UX.

What have been the biggest challenges for UX professionals?

Part of what draws individuals to UX is the cross-disciplinary aspect of problem solving. UX is a highly collaborative craft and real-time ideation and concepting in a room with various stakeholders is commonplace. And with many designers being part of a scrum team, co-location work and all the crosstalk benefits it offers is also common. Since the shelter-at-home orders, many have had to find new ways to accomplish the same via digital means.

For some tasks, digital can be faster. For example, digital can be quick and easy-to-answer questions that are well suited for digital communication chat tools like Teams and Slack. But delays in responses and the absence of nonverbal cues can make complex needs more time consuming and harder to resolve, leading at times to frustration. Adding video helps, but many of us have seen that bandwidth can become an issue and create choppy conversations or awkward screen freezes.

What is critical to carry through these moments is having strong relationships with your coworkers and clients, being organised and having a flexible and well-orchestrated cloud-based toolkit that enables communication, real-time collaboration and co-authoring, design and document management.

What are some examples of new possibilities that have opened up to UX teams as a result of the pandemic?

As a result of the pandemic, some clients that were once hesitant about fully remote design work are now accepting more of this type of work. They have seen that a combination of preparation, video chat – despite bandwidth issues – and real-time collaboration tools, such as InVision Freehand, Miro whiteboarding tools, Office 365 and Google Docs, can deliver just as productive and successful outcomes.

Additionally, as things open up, we need to re-envision how we orient ourselves in our environments. UX can be a critical tool for helping organisations, communities and governments design optimal journeys through an intertwined digital and physical world that is restricted by coronavirus-fuelled measures.

What are your tips for UX teams to keep positive and productive during this time and into the future?

Now, more than ever, it is important to put in the extra effort to build relationships, be organised and communicate. Build relationships with your teams by regularly having virtual coffees or other casual sessions. Organise virtual game nights or movie nights.

The point of these is to get to know your co-workers and clients – their perspectives and attitudes, what they love and hate, their aspirations and biggest fears etc. This will make up for all the lost signalling that occurs in person, promote fun and help you carry difficult conversations.

It’s also important to be organised. Think about the types of interactions you need to have and how you can make them effective and valuable for everyone involved. This includes being clear about the goal of the interaction and its level of formality, the materials the team needs to prepare ahead of time and the communication channel you will use.

Also, make sure to set up or contribute to an easy-to-access digital information radiator, like Trello and Confluence, where all related information can be seen and retrieved.

Finally, communicate. Socialise ideas, recap conversations, share statuses and use the right communication channel for the occasion, such as chat for quick and easy questions, phone calls for complex or delicate conversations, and email for recaps. Don’t be afraid to have a person-to-person conversation to address any interpersonal issues.

What major trends do you foresee for the UX industry as a result of Covid-19 and virtual work?

We’ll see more fully remote design, user research and usability testing work. However, that will also lead to a stronger appreciation of in-person collaboration.

We’ll also see better digital tools for real-time collaboration supported across all devices that include better video compression, whiteboarding capabilities and AI audio-processing enhancements to do things like listen to a meeting’s conversation and automatically serve up relevant documents.

What are some resources that you have found useful for leading a UX team during this time?

I have found the hardest part of leading during these times is staying connected. What has been surprising to me is how old methods, like phone calls, are helping me manage through this. The phone has been my saving grace. I have had more casual phone conversations in the last three months than in the last 10 years prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Video chat has also been tremendous. As a team, we meet frequently throughout the week. Video chat has enabled us to lighten the mood through playful displays of video filters, dress and home decor.

I would advise being patient and assuming the positive intent of others. We are all struggling through this and will have good and bad days, so don’t be shy about admitting it. You might be surprised at the depth of conversation it leads to.

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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