Leah Buley – UX as a Team Sport

Sean Carmichael

August 7th, 2014

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Leah Buley

User experience is rarely something you do completely alone. Even if people on the team don’t necessarily focus on UX, they could be indirectly acting in favor of it. Sometimes it comes from a lack of understanding exactly what user experience is or means. People with different approaches and skillsets can be valuable assets when incorporated into the larger human centered design focus.

Though Leah Buley is the author of UX Team of One, she believes it’s uncommon that there is a superhero UX professional who flies into the room and saves a project. More often it’s a collaborative endeavor. You have to get the entire team involved in the process. Once the value of UX is apparent, you can exercise the collective skills and intelligence of the group and all work toward a better experience for a customer or user.

Part of the responsibility of the UX professional on the team is to constantly frame decisions made in the context of what will be best for the users. Facilitation is an important skill in general for the user experience field. Introducing the theories and practices into the larger team will get everyone moving in the same direction and working collaboratively.

Attend a daylong workshop with Leah at UI19

Leah’s UI19 workshop, UX as a Team Sport, in Boston October 29 will orient your team to customer needs so you can build the “right thing at the right time.”

Register with promotion code LEAHCAST and get $300 off the current conference price.

Explore Leah’s workshop

 
Recorded: June, 2014
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Full Transcript.


Jared Spool: Hello everyone, welcome to another episode of the Spoolcast. I am so excited because I have yet another chance to talk with the amazing Leah Buley.

One of my favorite things to do, and you’re going to enjoy today. Leah wrote a fabulous book called “User Experience Team of One.”

Published through Rosenfeld Media. It’s a great book. We’re having her come and talk at the User Interface 19 Conference this year. She’s coming back the Interface Conference.

In the past, she had a fabulous workshop that was always one of the most popular things we’ve ever done, and she’s doing an updated version of it.

Taking into account all the things she learned while researching the book and it’s going to be fabulous. We’re going to talk about doing research and user experience work, when you are outnumbered by the people who don’t understand UX. Leah, welcome.

Leah Buley: Thanks Jared. It’s nice to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Jared: I’m very happy to have you. You’ve always been a huge hit with us and our audience. It’s always a pleasure.

Leah: It’s mutual. Your audience and you have always been a huge hit with me. It’s fun to come back together. It’s a mutual appreciation society.

Jared: Yes. I want to start with the world’s smallest criticism. Your book is wrongly named.

Leah: [gasps] Tell me, tell me more.

Jared: Other than, it should be something like “Leah’s Amazing Tricks for Getting the Better UX out of Your Company,” “The User Experience Team of One” thing is a misnomer. It’s extremely useful even when you’re not a team of one.

Leah: Yes, I have heard this criticism, which is not a criticism. It’s a good thing, because it means the book applies to people who are in a variety of situations. I take your point.

There’s an implication in the title that, if you’re a solo person in an organization, the only person who has ever done or even thought about user experience, it’s the book for you. Even if you’re an independent.

Jared: Yeah, you’re like a deep undercover mole deep in the organization, and no one is allowed to know that you do UX.

Leah: Right, that’s what the title seems to imply. That is what inspired the book to begin with, back when I was in that role 10 years ago, 15 years ago. A lot of people are in that role.

Over the course of my career and then over the course of talking to different people in researching the book, I met a lot of people who are in rather large organizations that have pretty big and complex user experience functions, who still have the same frustrations and who still have the same needs.

The book started to morph into something that addresses more of a situation, and less of career problem. The situation is, as you said, when you’re out numbered.

That happens in a lot of context. The more I think about it, another good title of the book might have been something like “UX As a Team Sport.” That’s what it’ s all about. It’s very rare to do UX work completely alone.

The vast majority of time when you’re doing everything related to user experience, you’re doing it with other professionals who bring a different set of experiences, and a different expertise.

Your job is to help hold the line. That human centered way of doing work. How do you do that effectively? That’s what the book’s all about, and then when you get into the book, that entails a couple of things. The mindset involved in that.

The mindset to look at every opportunity to make a decision about a product as an opportunity to reconnect to customer needs, to help focus that decision around what would be good for the customer.

Also, to support what the business is trying to accomplish, but there are some tools, and there are some exercises, and there are some methods that in my experience have proven to be more helpful when dealing with cross-functional teams, who may not know what UX is.

May not care a lot about what UX is or do care about what UX is, but might be prioritizing things differently because that’s what they bring to the table. Yes, your criticism is well taken. [chuckles]

Jared: This is mostly intended to be constructive. I want to go back to this idea of team sport. That’s a fascinating thing, because team sport almost implies that being the solo UX person that comes in and saves the day, is not the most effective way to get things done.

That in fact not only are you bringing UX to a larger team, but you need that larger team to make the user experience better.

Leah: Yeah, that’s exactly my experience. There’s this myth in the user experience field. It’s a pack of all stories.

There’s some type of talented people who can come in, and they bring a clear and incisive vision for the customer, and such a refined taste level around user experience.

All that needs to happen is, the field needs to be cleared for them to exhort their vision, and their great experiences will follow.

What’s a lot more common is, people who need to work together to figure it out. The collective intelligence of the group in most cases is often a lot more powerful than what any one particular person is going to bring to that kind of group dynamic.

The challenge, then, is how to get the most of the collective potential of the group without exercising the most of the collective potential dysfunction of the group, which can happen a lot when groups work together.

As I think back on the user experience folks I’ve met, some people work a group better. You know it when they do, because their people are excited about user experience, and those representatives of UX are feeling they’re making good relationships with their colleagues.

They’re being brought into decisions and they’re getting to be more involved further upstream in the process.

They’re getting the seat at the table and they’re not invited in at the last 15 minutes to do a rubber stamp on a bit of work that somebody else has completely done.

I sat back and thought about, what is it that makes some people find themselves in that situation, versus some people who are bringing UX to the table, who do it in a challenging way or in a way that feels like it’s bringing conflict.

In a way where it feels like they’re frustrated all the time, and people feel that and don’t want to bring them into the process and ice them out.

What makes for that difference is subtle. It’s the mindset. It’s about an attitude that you take when you walk into conversations with your colleagues.

It’s also about different kind of tricks for making engaging, in the process of user experience, more fruitful and more fun for the whole cross functional team that needs to get involved.

In my book, what I’m trying to do is something kind of hard. Which is to say, how do you unpack charisma with a group, and turn it into skills and an attitude that can make you more successful with that group over time? Because that’s necessary.

Because you’re not going to be able to decide to do research on your own, completely do research on your own, completely get everyone on the team to accept that the research is what matters most, without bringing them into that process.

You’re not going to be able to design something that’s technically feasible, and that makes sense for the customer in that accounts for business concerns and that is not brittle, but enduring without getting other people involved.

I always say that’s like the other 50 percent of the work, the getting other people involved. It’s a very hard, tricky and powerful thing to do when you do it well.

Jared: You’re bringing up this interesting idea. I’ve been having these conversations lately about this notion of leadership, micro leadership.

This idea that you’re not the CEO of the company or the head of the organizations, but in fact, at that moment in that meeting, you’re the one who leans forward and says, “Hey guys, I have a way we can work through this.”

Then you bring out the Post-its and you bring out the technique and you say, “Let’s write some ideas down and put them on the wall, and then we’re going to organize them in this interesting way and see what happens.” For that brief moment, you’ve become the leader of the group.

That skill, being able to know when to do that, how to do that, how to be effective at it, and then how to sit back and say, “OK, group, someone else has to take over at this point, because I’ve done my little piece,” is a core UX skill that we hardly ever talk about.

Leah: Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. I often think about the role of the UX person as facilitative leader, which is different from top down, imposing a strong point of view.

More like in a role of helping to read what a whole group of people needs to get to the right next decision.

It’s interesting that you mention the Post-its, because in my experience, that is a pivotal tool in that process. Not even Post-its, but something analog. I’ll tell you what I mean.

Prior to my current job, I work at Intuit now, but before that, I was at Adaptive Path, the user experience consulting firm.

There was a bunch of people there who were good at sketching, because they’d come from disciplines where sketching was taught, like industrial design.

What would happen is, when we’d be in group discussions where we’d be spinning and spinning and spinning, somebody would silently get up from their seat and go over to a whiteboard and pick up the whiteboard marker, and start sketching on the whiteboard.

The conversation would continue for a few minutes, but then once it petered out, everyone would turn to the whiteboard and say, “OK, what have you sketched over there?”

What would happen is, the person who had done that sketching had suddenly commanded the attention of the room and, in the meantime, had sketched out a framework that then became the framework for the way the conversation was going to get resolved.

The physicalization of that conversation and being willing to take the conversation out of the air and out of the ether, in between everybody and turn it into a tangible thing that people could start to react to absolutely solved the stuck conversation that was happening.

That was so powerful for me and so anxiety inducing, because I didn’t feel much of a sketcher at the time. I felt like, “Oh God, if I don’t have that skill, I’m never going to be the facilitative leader of UX that I want to be.”

I’ve spent a lot of my career trying to get more confident at working with sticky notes, working with the white board marker, doing all that kind of stuff to have these low five tools to be a bit more leaderly in conversations. I love that you mentioned Post-Its.

One other observation on the topic of leadership, where I work we do a lot of training for our own user experience team around what leadership means in a UX context.

One of the big things we try to remind ourselves regularly through this training is that, leadership for UX is not about convincing other people to do what you want to do.

It’s about listening and being, there’s a term we use a lot which is sway, being able to sway with what the needs of the group are to know when is the right time to put your back up and put forth a strong vision.

When is the right time to put your back down, be more receptive, to understand, and to truly seek to relate to what the non UX people are trying to accomplish, and figure out how you can support that using the method of user experience.

Again, Post-Its, sharpies, and all these kind of facilitative exercises that involve getting people in a room to do something other than sit at a table and have a conversation, those all become essential tools for being a good listening leader and also a good talking leader at the same time.

I couldn’t agree more, and it’s fun to think about leadership not as what you say, but as a set of practices that you know how to deploy in the perfect moment in time.

Jared: It’s interesting, because I’ve been having this conversation with folks. It’s sort of become a theme as I’ve been talking to all the UI19 speakers about the difference between, artifacts and deliverables.

We used to have this heavy focus on these finished deliverables, these documents that were going to set the direction of where we go from now. They were going to be the thing that explained to the wider group, why we were here and what we were trying to do.

Now, there seems to be this shift to create artifacts. Artifacts are more like discussion pieces. They’re drawn on the white board and say, “Did I capture this right?

“Is this what we’re thinking? Help me talk through this and figure out if there are holes in it or if the direction is wrong.”

They’re very different things. Even though I might use a journey for one and a journey map for the other, the way I use the journey map is completely different, if it’s an artifact versus a deliverable.

Leah: Completely. I hadn’t heard it articulated that way before, but that’s a pretty insightful observation. There’s definitely, with Lean and Agile and all that stuff, a move away from the idea of these big, heavy deliverables as the end goal of what user experience brings to the process.

We still make stuff, and we still are in this challenging position of needing to make tangible experiences that a whole group of people can see, understand, and approve.

Artifacts are an interesting way of framing up exactly what you just described, this part of the process where you’re giving people things to react against essentially, giving people visual elements or conceptual elements, frameworks, or things to think about.

They can help you understand what’s wrong about those things as a starting point, to getting to what’s right about those things.

It’s very interesting. My title officially is design strategist, and I find myself often trying to explain to myself what a design strategist even does.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about artifacts as a core component to that story, where what we do in the design disciplines is help teams use a problem solving framework that’s grounded in design thinking, to get to a variety of different solutions.

We use design artifacts as a way to do that, so in the course of the process design artifacts help grease the skids in terms of getting teams to those solutions.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you use the same artifacts every time or that every artifact is appropriate to every problem.

The idea is we have a different kit of parts for how to solve problems using a design thinking structure. That’s true specific to user experience as well.

It’s not the case in every project that the right outcome is wire frame, or the designs for a mobile app.

When you’re doing your work well as a user experience professional, you’re doing a lot of up front problem framing with the whole team as well, to understand what is needed as far as a solution in this case.

I hear a lot of stories of great user experience folks who got the brief to design an app, and they came in and helped unpack what was a bigger set of organizational challenges, or unpack a need for a broader strategy that was about different touch points in the end.

That’s so exciting to me about the work that we do. It reiterates and reinforces for me again and again that UX is so much more than UI.

It’s funny that little things like artifacts and how artifacts are frames can make that possible. That’s an interesting topic. I’d love to noodle on it some more, artifacts versus deliverables.

Jared: It’s been fascinating me. You mentioned early on that there’s a mindset component to this. Part of this is the mindset of what we’re supposed to do when we walk into the room. I’ve often been hesitant.

When I first started in this business, there was a lot of discussion about being the advocate for the user. It’s our job to be the advocate for the user, as if it’s nobody else’s job to be the advocate for the user. We picked that card out of the deck, and now we have to play it.

Now, there’s a lot of discussion about what we have to teach everybody empathy. Both of these things always have bothered me. First I feel it should be everybody’s job to be the advocate for the user, and the advocate for the business, and the advocate for the technology.

Design is about working within the constraints of all of that. Then at the same time, I believe that everybody has a basic empathy built into them. I got into this Twit storm, one of these arguments on Twitter, about this.

I had read some article about how we have to teach people empathy, and I’m like, “Oh, I’m so tired of this. I can’t wait until we move onto this.”

Somebody replied saying, “Oh no, you have to teach empathy. Sometimes there are people who just don’t have it, like sociopaths.”

I’m thinking, “If they’re a sociopath, you’re not going to teach them empathy no matter what you do.” I believe that either people have it or they don’t have it.

What we really need to do is, facilitate their ability to bring it into the context of the design. If they’re so focused on meeting their goals for the business, because they are rewarded 100 percent for meeting their goals for the business.

Our reward system is such that, we don’t give them an opportunity to have empathy, because that takes away from their ability to achieve whatever goal they’re focused on, that’s the problem. They have empathy. We lock it down.

Leah: It wasn’t the case years ago that everybody had empathy from a customer point of view, or even that everybody thought about things from the customer point of view, but what I find now is that, you meet a product manager and they think that they’re there to advocate for the user.

Good software engineers, they think that they’re there to advocate for the user. Everybody has the user and the customer in mind.

We’re lucky to be entering an age of greater sophistication around designing for customer needs. With that comes empathy as well.

People want to do what’s right for customers. In my experience that’s the truth.

What’s less common or less prevalent, is a team that’s able to function with a clear shared point of view that’s informed by real observations of users, about what the right role of the product is in the customer’s life, and how it’s going to fit and work to meet customer’s needs.

What I find in the work that I’m doing it’s that, teams want that so badly. Teams have a lot of observations and ideas and empathetic feelings about customers.

It’s not always the case that teams have a shared and clear idea of, “This is who our customer is. This is how this product is realistically and compellingly going to solve that particular need.

This is how it’s going to fit unobtrusively into the mess and chaos of a normal customer’s life.”

What UX brings is not teaching people how to feel or love or care about other people. It’s about helping form and create a informed point of view, about how to make a product that is helpful for customers and useful for customers in the way that customers want it to be and the business wants it to be.

Where the rubber meets the road is that, resources come into play. You could design the perfect solution for a customer, but the reality in the end is there are different trade-offs and decisions to be made.

As you’re getting to minimum buy of the product or the product that can be built, how do you make decisions in a way that still preserve the spirit of that vision, and don’t turn the whole thing into a sad Frankenstein of what was once a beautiful vision?

I think empathy is a great starting point, for sure. Advocating for the user is a great starting point. Then there’s a sort of a “so what” implied by all of that. We care about the users. What does that mean we’re going to try to create?

How are we as a group going to try to function effectively to create that? What are some shared goals, values and priorities around this particular experience that we’re designing in this particular customer that will enable us to all work together to do that well?

That’s what I’m interested in understanding. How do UX people make that possible?

Jared: What’s neat to me is you’ve done a very good job of making that possible by giving people a set of, as you put it, tools, exercises, and methods.

Little things, big things, that you can bring into the meetings, that you can work through with the group, that you can do this facilitative leadership thing.

Suddenly the group is asking questions. Wait a second? How does this make the user’s life better? How does this achieve the goals, we need to achieve but doesn’t piss the user off?

How do we deal with the fact that the technology won’t let us do this the way we’d like to do it, but we could — with these minor tweaks — get close to that?

Leah: That’s the hope. The hope is that, at least in the book, in the User Experience Team of One there are some tools to help people with that. It’s funny. If you look at the structure of the book, the first half is philosophy, and the second half is practice.

I’m a sucker for resource books. I love recipe books and home improvement books and anything that breaks down into a soothing structure of how to do things.

I took that as a little bit of inspiration for the book. The second half is structured as a reference section that has 20 plus different methods that are spelled out, that can be plugged into different points in the UX process to help you figure out how to turn what is the next necessary step into something that gets people involved, and invites the whole group to have a point of view.

That’s the inspiration for part of the book. Then equally important is attitude and mindset, which is such a vague word.

It’s challenging, but that is where the philosophy part of the book is playing, trying to help frame up how to show up in conversations in a way that helps you to welcome the opportunity to have a conversation, even when you aren’t prepared to do that.

It’s one thing to plan a workshop and say, “I’m going to be the master of this workshop. We’re going to do X, Y, and Z.

People are going to start in this frame of mind and end in that frame of mind.” That’s awesome when it goes that way, but sometimes it doesn’t go that way.

It’s important to have the right mindset so that, even if the workshop structure or the method structure fails you, you’re still able to have the conversation in a constructive way that needs to be had. I do think mindset is important.

I’ll tell you what I mean when I say mindset. I’ve been in this situation recently where I keep sitting in meetings and the conversation is going on. I find myself asking myself, “What role am I supposed to play here right now?”

There are a million ways you could react, but by asking myself, “How can I step out of my own natural response and reframe to what will best serve the user experience and best serve the confidence of the team that we’re preceding towards the right user experience?”

It’s like then, I’m gifted from on high with the right language and the right responses.

It’s so silly, but I liken it to actual characters in a movie. Sometimes I sit there and think, “What they need right now is somebody to reconnect them to the heart of the user. I’m Norma Rae right now. I’m going to fight for the user and be full of passion.”

Sometimes it’s like, “No, they need somebody to make them feel confident,” that even though where we are in the process right now is confusing, we will figure out what’s right for the users.

I’m going to be George Clooney, super cool right now. I’m going to help them have confidence that, it’s all going to be all right in the end.

It’s so goofy, but it’s helpful, at least for me, to step out of my own actual point of view and remind myself of the higher level objectives that I have for UX completely separate from the methods which are super helpful, too. That’s my own quirky way of doing UX work.

Jared: It’s funny. When I was reading the book and thinking, “Who is going to play Leah in the movie,” I was thinking George Clooney.

Leah: You were? That’s awesome.

Jared: [laughs]

Leah: I clearly am showing my aspirations in a pretty transparent way.

Jared: Leah, I’m very excited about the workshop you’ll be teaching at UI19. People are going to come out with this amazing set of tools that they’ll be able to take with them, bring into the room and help do that facilitative leadership thing, be a bit more leaderly as you said.

That’s awesome, and it’s what we need to push to the next level here. I’m very excited about the workshop.

Leah: Thank you. I’m excited too. I confess. I came back from a conference, and there was so much talk about collaboration that I almost went brain dead to collaboration.

I realized what frustrated me about that is there’s a lot of talk, but there isn’t necessarily a lot of specific discussion about you do that in a variety of contexts.

That’s what I’m hoping to dig into at the workshop in a very tangible, practical, hands-on way. It’s going to be fun.

Jared: That’s great, digging into collaborative techniques. You’re right. We talk about collaboration all the time, but we talk about it like it’s the weather. It’s like, “We need really nice days.” OK, what do I do to make that happen?

Leah: How do you make it sunny when there’s sleet outside, which is essentially what our work requires a lot of the time.

Jared: Absolutely. The fact that you’re talking about this stuff and you’re bringing it out, it’s going to be great. I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be very popular. It’s going to be a sellout group.

Leah: I can’t wait. It’s going to be fun.

Jared: Ladies and gentlemen, if you want to learn more about Leah’s workshop, what you need to do is go to the UI19 conference site which you can find at UICONF.com. You’ll see Leah’s beautiful picture there. You click on that and there will be the description of her workshop.

You can see how awesome it’s going to be. Then, you get to use some of your leaderly skills to convince your boss to send you.

It’s going to be a beneficial project for you. It will be awesome. Let’s wrap this up here by me saying, how wonderful it always is to talk with you.

Leah: Totally likewise. I feel any day with Jared is an extra special day. It’s been nice to chat with the folks listening to this podcast, as well. I hope to meet some of you guys at the UI conference.

Jared: That would be awesome. Thank you very much. I want to thank the audience for listening to us again. As always, we love hearing from you. Please pop us a note. Thanks for encouraging our behavior. We’ll talk to you soon.

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