Q&A: The importance of teamwork in user experience

20 Oct 2016

Catherine Madden, event director of UXDX. Image: UXDX

Ahead of the upcoming UXDX conference, we caught up with event director Catherine Madden to discuss the value of teamwork between developers and designers, and its benefits for user experience.

The UXDX conference will take place at the RDS, Dublin on 2 November.

The event will focus on how to build high performance teams that work together efficiently to create a satisfactory user experience (UX). 13 speakers will take to the stage on the day, representing both small start-ups and larger corporations, discussing topics such as product innovation and design health.

Siliconrepublic.com spoke with the event director, Catherine Madden, about team creation between designers and developers, and the overall benefits this has for UX.

Tell us about UXDX and what this event brings to the busy tech calendar.

We all come from design and development backgrounds, and even though we’re a new conference, we’ve already found ourselves in a pretty unique place on the tech scene in Dublin. We’re all about designers and developers coming together, collaborating, and exploring how to deliver better products.

There has been a rapid change in the approach to software delivery in recent years, as teams adopt more agile practices and speed up their delivery cycles. Ecosystems of products are emerging to support these new best practices and, while the benefits are clear, the path to delivery is not. This situation presents companies, large and small, with a challenge – so UXDX was created to specifically address these challenges and help teams to accelerate the success of their products.

What made you select the theme, ‘The team behind the product’?

As product leaders and team members in the industry, we’re all big proponents of lean development. Our research pointed us to four core areas for improvement among product teams in general: UX from the start, self-sufficient teams, frequent releases and automated infrastructure.

The common denominator between all of these areas of focus is the team delivering the product. Bringing the user closer to the development team is an accepted best practice, but it also demands more from the product team. UX becomes much more important due to the users’ direct input, but it also changes the roles of analysts, developers and quality assurance. So our target with this year’s conference was to focus on whether teams have the right people, skill sets and processes to accelerate their product delivery.

Do you think teamwork and collaboration between designers and developers is the biggest challenge facing effective and efficient product development? What other challenges do you perceive?

There are many challenges in modern product delivery, but the number one item that came up during our Product Design and Delivery Survey was communication. Designers are becoming more involved in projects, which is a good thing – but there is still a lot of uncertainty around boundaries and handovers. These uncertainties can lead to unnecessary delays.

Other challenges that teams face include the adoption of new processes like cloud infrastructure, DevOps, continuous integration and deployment. These processes are so new that there are no clear best practice implementations yet, and expert resources are rare.

With both sets of challenges, the benefits to be obtained are clear – but without clear best practices, companies don’t know where to start. That’s why we invited speakers who work for different sized companies and who operate in different ways. By learning from teams who have already forged this path, companies can identify the best implementation approaches for their situation.

Why, do you think, is there a history of conflict between designers and developers?

Anecdotally, you hear talk of the “loner developer who doesn’t want to talk” or hear the design department referred to as the “colouring-in department”. Almost all conflict comes down to either a difference in priorities or a misunderstanding of motives. When it comes to priorities, designers and developers traditionally worked in separate teams, so if the company didn’t place the incentive in the right area – improving the end-product – a blame game of sorts could arise between the teams.

Misunderstandings arise due to the methods of communication and the assumptions that each party brings to the table. Both of these issues can be resolved by ensuring closer interaction between designers and developers on individual projects, focusing on face-to-face communication where possible. This leads to fewer misunderstandings and helps to generate a combined sense of ownership in the outcome.

What can teams do to ensure effective collaboration between these two groups?

Place the motivation on the success of the end-product, not on individual or department performance. Emphasise face-to-face discussions over written communication to let people cut through the nuances and unintended mistakes of written text.

A good example of this is Intercom. Against popular wisdom, they say that they like large meetings. Getting multiple people from different backgrounds to listen to the same requirements brings in a wealth of different perspectives and ensures everyone is up to date in terms of the product direction. The one caveat is that you need to be very strong in ensuring that you stay focused; we all know that with a large number of people, the opportunity to go [off] on tangents increases.

As a relatively new career path, what qualities do you think someone looking to work in UX requires?

While UX is new as a job title, it’s a merging of previously separate roles. The first element of UX is research, so a person who is good at listening and empathy can more effectively uncover customers’ needs.

Once the needs have been documented, a person who has the ability to apply design thinking to the problem will be able to uncover the end-to-end requirements and flow for user interaction. The third element would be strong design skills to be able to convert the overarching experience into a series of user interfaces for the product chosen.

And finally, strong communication skills are required to ensure that the intention and interactions behind the UX are delivered upon. There are a lot of complementary skills, but that is what makes great UX experts so impactful – and also so rare.

How transferable are UX skills, seeing as there are UX teams working across tech as varied as mobile development, SaaS, virtual reality and internet of things?

User experience design is a process, and not the result of individual inspiration. There are tried and tested UX methods, which span across design, psychology and engineering. So while the skill set required for being an effective UX designer is a high bar, the benefit for people investing in those skills is that they are very transferable.

‘Design thinking’ has become quite the buzzword of late. Do you think the proliferation of the phrase is detrimental or essential to broader understanding?

Most companies are problem-focused. They look at an individual problem and try to optimise around it. Design thinking, at its core, is more solution-focused. This involves looking at the bigger picture and optimising the entirety of the system instead of the single problem area.

So I believe that the proliferation of design thinking as a concept is very positive. However, as with most new concepts that enter the hype cycle, they turn into the teenage sex analogy: “Everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.”

What people, products or companies do you hold up as UX/DX heroes?

In terms of UX, I love the work Ryanair have done recently on their new website and their mobile apps. This shows the power of investing in design for user engagement. On the developer experience (DX) side, I want to hear more about how companies like Gilt and Zalando engage their teams as they move to microservices architecture and radical agility.

And on that note, all of those companies will be sharing their experiences at UXDX on 2 November in the RDS!