Building the UX Dreamteam – Part 2

As we discussed in “part one”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/building-the-ux, the skills in research, information architecture, interaction design, graphic design and writing define the recognized areas of User Experience design. However, there still remains much to discuss about what makes a UX team dreamy.

Each UX Dreamteam has a finely tuned mix of skills and qualities, as varied as the environments in which they operate. Part two will address whether a person has the right ‘hard’ skills and ‘soft’ qualities like communication style, creativity and leadership ability to fit your particular organizational context. We’ll also touch on the quality of an individual’s personality that may or may not complement the others on your team.

Personality

Perhaps the most important consideration in forming your Dreamteam is mixing the personalities of your superstars. As mom used to say “It’s not just about how you look, it’s what’s inside that counts.” A candidate may look ideal on paper, but until you have them in front of you, talking and interacting, you won’t know if what is inside will be a fit. Your group spends almost as much time together as apart, they need to respect and like one another to work well together. Personality typing tests hold the promise of quantifying the immeasurable, but you would be ill advised to use them as part of the interview process. Myers Briggs, DISC and plenty of others use various axes to measure the intrinsic tendencies of a person.

As cool as it sounds, the science is just not exact enough to act as the basis of any decision. This is not to say that these tests are not illuminating in their own right – they certainly foster greater understanding and empathy among teams. Generally speaking, though, people under pressure may answer personality tests as they think they should rather than honestly.

Collaboration is a big part of design best practice and the ability to work well with teammates should be of paramount concern. Selflessness indicates that a candidate is a team player as they seek to raise not only their own reputation, but equally those with whom they work. Humility, humor and empathy are virtues particularly relevant to the creative industry and should be sought after in UX professionals. Each player on the Dreamteam accepts when they’re mistaken, keeps each other creatively entertained and feels for the users they serve.

As much as any skill or quality we have already discussed and will explore in this article, finding the right personality type you need is the classic answer: ‘it depends’. It depends on the personalities of existing Dreamteamsters, the type of work they do, and on the organization into which they must fit. There is no magic formula, but there is one thing to always avoid: toxicity. Morale and productivity can be totally undermined by a “toxic person”:http://bipolar.about.com/od/support/a/070315_toxic.htm. Having one aboard can turn your Dreamteam into a nightmare.  So, do your homework to avoid inadvertently hiring them.

Screening Tips:

Look for signs of toxicity by asking about previous work places and their interactions with teammates. Did they voluntarily leave the last job? Do they mainly talk badly about their last workplace? Remember, a toxic person is often manipulative and they may seem great on the surface, so check references. If you misjudge a new hire and you realize you have a toxic person aboard, waste no time in jettisoning them, no matter how skilled they may seem.

Creative and Analytical qualities

Most jobs in the UX Dreamteam involve a level of creativity and analysis, but it’s a rare gem who is a rock-star operator in both these modes. But visionaries and analysts are equally necessary, ensuring great ideas and the ability to organize and actualize them.

A creative person doesn’t see a glass half empty or half full, but instead asks why it should be a glass at all. An ability to think laterally, meaning" to escape from a local optimum in order to move towards a more global optimum" (“Edward de Bono”:http://www.edwdebono.com/debono/lateral.htm) – is the talent from which innovation is born. A Dreamteam accesses their creativity readily and regularly to push beyond the obvious for an appropriately innovative solution. Ensure a proportion of creative genius in your Dreamteam to increase business success and thereby the team’s reputation.

Your analytical superstars can process vast amounts of information and distill it into a concise and cohesive experience for the user. They are methodical, account for every detail, and question inconsistencies. They grow solutions by breaking a system into its component parts, then creatively reassemble it in logical order. Good analysts are passionate and detail-oriented when identifying patterns in data and behavior.

Screening Tips:

Given how ideas are often difficult to credit to the interviewee, gauge creativity from the dialogue and candor during the interview. A truly imaginative person effortlessly surprises you with a fresh, off-beat approach to old problems. Responses to tangential or seemingly random questions can help illuminate this quality. If they can link the absurd back to realistic solutions coherently and with humor, you can be sure there’s creativity within. Analytical people are interested in details. Does your candidate flinch at the idea of auditing the content of large information system? If they have they done data analysis before, did they jump into it enthusiastically? How did it go?

Practitioner vs. Managerial qualities

Managerial qualities are confused with experience in most professions, and UX is no different. Experience correlates with peer respect, but respect is not all a manager must command. Peter Merholz talks of managers needing to be either "T" shaped "Bar" shaped, referring to the profile of skills they possess. "T"-shaped people have a broad and shallow knowledge of most skills and go deep in only a few.

"Bar"-shaped people do not plunge the depths of any expertise. As “he says”:http://www.peterme.com/?p=580, they are all about the connections between disciplines, and being able to articulate the power of that integration. An "I" shape would indicate deep knowledge in just one or two areas. This profile suggests an awesome specialist practitioner (yes, there is an "I" in Dreamteam!).

Good bosses are quietly also coaches, therapists, facilitators, communicators, organizers and politicians. As leaders, they are comfortable in setting an agenda for others to fulfill while inspiring the Dreamteam to meet or beat that agenda. Your luminary leader provides ‘air cover’, also known as ‘running interference’. Making space for their reports to work by fending off interfering people or tasks, the manager ensures the Dreamteam is focused, not randomized. 

People who find less satisfaction in helping others to be effective are better placed as well-compensated senior practitioners. To presume that someone senior should be promoted into a management position is misguided. A manager’s UX skills are less important than their ability to co-ordinate a group of individuals and spot what your organization needs from them.

Screening Tips:

When seeking managerial talent, look for someone who will revel in the Dreamteam’s success, rather than their own. How have they "run interference" in the past? New managers sourced from within a team show a tendency to get the best out of others prior to their promotion. This is known as "acting up" and makes a good task to set potential managers to test their aptitude. If you’re looking for a practitioner, be sure they’re not fixated on being a manager, lest their ambitions undermine the effectiveness of your designated leader.

Strategic vs Tactical Ability

We all know guys who stand idly by, watching others do their work and wryly commenting, "You look after the details, I’m the big picture man.” Those who strategize with ‘blue sky’ ideas can raise the ire of people slaving at everyday tasks. Tactical skills are just as valuable as strategic. Each serves their purpose in envisioning and getting things done.

Conceiving an entire system and determining what both the business and users get out of it are the domains of big picture people. It is hard to imagine success without their vision to work toward. These people can be creative or analytical but find implementation a chore. They are typically well informed of industry trends and can forecast the future through them. While vision is an awesome asset, without attentive "small picture" work, it’s an apparition. Strategists think one to five years ahead and beyond and are good at depicting a vision.

Tactical people focus on day-to-day activity and on success in the one to six month timeframe. With the exception of think tanks, the organizational balance needs to skew toward small picture people in order to achieve success. Many startups and UX teams fail because of the inverse balance.

Screening Tips:

To find the detail-oriented, look for evidence of finishing products and a personal satisfaction in seeing all loose ends tied up. A strategic thinker will show evidence of helping others to see the wider context of what they’re doing, often through conceptual and architectural diagrams. Can they show you some? Also ask questions which illuminate how they’re plugged into where your organization’s industry and the wider UX field is headed.

Innies vs. Outies

In-house teams (aka "Innies") have needs different to external agencies that provide interface building/designing services or consultancy. An in-house team is working toward increasing profitability through UX. In many cases, the nature of projects does not change over time because there’s only one type of business to support. Exceptions exist, but in general those building in-house teams should discount candidates who need variety to thrive.

The in-house Dreamteam is also better suited to agile development methodologies, which rely heavily on face-to-face contact. Unless a consultant is able to work on-site for the duration of the agile project, they will not be able to fulfill some of the tenets surrounding ‘less documentation, more talking’. Aside from communicating an absent author’s intentions, documentation is a mechanism used by agencies to cover their backside if a client claims poor diligence and won’t be abandoned willingly.

Agencies don’t make much money from staff who aren’t comfortable playing the consultant role. Working under pressure, answering expertly on all subjects related and sometimes unrelated to the job requires a certain type of communication style and self-confidence. Agency staff (aka “outies”) must be broad-skilled and part salespeople to make their expertise and company’s value obvious to clients. This isn’t to say that these qualities aren’t good to have on the in-house UX Dreamteam, but they’re less critical to business success and can be compensated for in other ways.

Screening Tips:

Stack your in-house team with stars who are tactical, for their willingness to roll up their sleeves, dig-in and get enjoyment from attacking a long-term goal is what you need. Strategic thinking is also attractive, but you may want to emphasize this in your management function where vision is expected. Beware hiring those with purely "innie" experience for "outie" roles and vice versa. Outies may find innie work mundane and innies can struggle in the faster-paced, higher-pressure outie workplace. Outies need to have political and sales savvy to navigate varied organizations and present value. Confidence, plausibility and magnetism will be obvious – you’ll want to hire them before they’ve shown you their ample skills. Though be sure they have those too!

Organizational Contexts

Hiring managers generally consider organizational context subconsciously when preparing their Dreamteam, usually feeling out the candidate with gut instinct rather than concrete comparisons.  It helps to abstract the organization into something you can test applicants for compatibility with, like a “persona”;:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persona for instance, then you can envision a compatible teammate for that persona. Size, work processes, project types, employees, industry and brand among other things influence the organization’s personality.

Some organizations are process-driven and others are more free-form. Process ensures that work complies with a to-do list prescribing smooth running and/or best practice. The less experienced use process like new bicycle riders use training wheels. Some people flourish within a controlled environment. Others feel hampered or oppressed by it. What are the processes used within your organization? What unique characteristics do individuals who operate within them need to be happy and successful?

A Dreamteam’s number will impact the duties each superstar performs. Small organizations can have tasks similar in number to their larger counterparts, but spread them among fewer people. This inevitably means one fulfilling multiple roles. The graphic designer might double as the interface-layer coder. The Information Architect may also be the researcher and writer. If you are in a small organization, a ‘gun’ specialist with all their UX skills primarily in only one area may not be a good fit.

Every workplace has a pace. Agile development or simply expeditious environments tend to be frenetic and mean working quickly. Some people don’t perform without time to pause, think, rework and perfect their work. Others will be frustrated if it takes a long time to get things done. They won’t always agree that crafting something perfectly, or documenting design thoroughly is time well spent. Sometimes perfection is expected, but timescales remain fixed. In this case, experience and coping well with stress is consequential. 

Screening Tips:

What kind of personality does your office have? Who would get along best with that person? Prepare to win the best fit by making a list of organizational attributes and qualities that will complement these. Agile methodologies should be coupled with experienced folk who are natural communicators; as should organizations without process to guide activities. A quiet consensus builder might suit a contentious office, etc. Use the example below to get you started – be creative and modify the attributes as you see fit.

Company Persona and Match

Here’s an example of how you might break down how a potential new team member might fit in with your organization:Take the time to analyze what your Dream Team needs and how well that fits potential talent.

Where do we go from here?

Hiring UX staff is rarely easy, but now you can take a structured approach to identifying the skills and personal qualities your team needs within your organizational context.  Like any craft, building the UX Dreamteam takes practice and the occasional mistake leads to growth as a hiring manager. Even when you think you’ve mastered it, there is still an element of luck to contend. You may be willing to compromise skills and qualities for someone who just feels right and your instincts shouldn’t be discounted. Allow them to inform your choices while thinking about the areas we’ve touched on to build the UX Dreamteam that will make your organization shine.

Posted in Learning From Others, Professionalism, Workplace and Career | 17 Comments »

17 Comments

  • Dan Willis

    July 10, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    Nice work on this article!
    While I’m digging most of what you say, I’m a bit uncomfortable with your overview of innies vs. outties, specifically the requirements you give for in-house staff. You write: “those building in-house teams should discount candidates who need variety to thrive.” I don’t think it’s a question of variety because in-house work can be wildly diverse and varied.
    What’s different is that an outtie may have no consistent elements of their work experience from one project to the next. As a consultant for Sapient, I recently hopped from a Web strategy project with a finance organization to a wayfinding project at the American Museum of Natural History. There was almost nothing from the first project that had anything to do with the second. The ability to shift from a strategy engagement to a wayfinding project was less about variety and more about how well an individual can start completely over … and usually at a full sprint. That’s a unique skill that won’t get much use as an in-house staff member. But that’s only a bad thing when the ex-outtie is addicted to the shifting. In that case, I’d agree that they should be discounted from consideration.
    I also think you’re underplaying the need for in-house staffers to be politically savvy. Not only are innies’ heavily affected by the politics of their organizations, they have to do so without a major piece of mojo that consultants take for granted. An innie can repeat a point a hundred times and gain no traction, but as soon as an outtie comes into the organization and makes the same comment just once, it suddenly becomes An Amazing Insight. So innies are typically navigating political waters at the same time they’re fighting for credibility.
    One last comment: I love your line that “a creative person doesn’t see a glass half empty or half full, but instead asks why it should be a glass at all,” but it’s worth mentioning that contrarian a**holes ask the same thing … and they’d be a bad fit for just about any environment.

  • Anya Kogan

    July 10, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    Great article! I’ve read competing theories on hiring as well as witnessed a number of smart (and not) hiring decisions. I believe we tend to over-estimate the value of our hiring intuition and often hire people based on our like of them rather than a solid understanding of their skill set. I would be curious to hear about the experience of others and how they have balanced their intuition with a guided interview process while making hiring decisions.

  • Christopher Butler

    July 11, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    Anthony,

    I think Dan Willis is on to something here, in that depending upon various factors, an “innie” or an “outie” could be preferable when assembling a project team. The level of flexibility is really critical for either category. For an “innie” at a smaller company, the likelihood that he or she is managing several roles is high, so being able to flex among various points of view, tasks, schedules and goals is necessary for success. For an “outie,” being able to quickly perceive and adopt goals of various organizations is necessary for success, though it’s more likely that the role or task type will be more consistent for this person.

    We’ve had a lot of success with using the DiSC assessment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DISC_assessment) to analyze individuals situational behavior when creating new roles, evaluating current roles and distribution, and hiring and promoting. While it’s not a perfect indicator of the likelihood of an individual’s success in a certain role (according to my profile, I was likely to fail at the role I spent over a year and a half in and I feel that it was pretty successful), it’s very effective in anticipating the dynamic between several people and indicating the best way to interact among them.

    Lastly, Justin Kerr (with whom I work at Newfangled) is right about the personality/character difference. It isn’t until an employee has experienced the full picture (all the highs and lows) of their job that their true character will be revealed.

    Chris

  • Jeremy Horn

    July 11, 2008 at 7:04 pm

    Excellent article. Too many people look only at the skills, and not the personalities, that make up a strong UX team. This is definitely being included within my weekend reading…

    http://tpgblog.com/2008/07/11/the-product-guys-weekend-reading-july-11-2008/

    Jeremy Horn
    The Product Guy
    http://tpgblog.com

  • Anthony Colfelt

    July 12, 2008 at 4:46 am

    Dan, you’ve made a useful distinction there between variety and context switching. Thanks. I didn’t express that very well, but was thinking more along the lines of what you’ve said when I wrote this. Quickly switching contexts (i.e. completely different environments, problems, skill requirements and even sometimes teammates) is what I was trying to express when I referred to variety in a somewhat hamfisted way. Good point about the political skills required of the in-house player too. :)

  • Anthony Colfelt

    July 12, 2008 at 4:55 am

    Hi Justin, your grandfather was a wise man. I hadn’t looked at it this way, but appreciate the difference between personality and character you’re drawing here. As you say, it really is what’s on the inside (character) that’s the important thing to try and get at when interviewing people. It’s hard to do in an interview, because you get personality, but not necessarily character. I’ve been burned by this first hand at a company I once worked for. A perfectly charming chap on the surface turned out to have a toxic character. Perhaps checking references is an avenue to explore in assessing this? But can you expect real honesty from referees who have been hand-picked for a favorable review of the candidate?

  • Robert Skrobe

    July 12, 2008 at 7:07 am

    Hi Anthony,

    Interesting and well written article. I’ve been looking forward to Part 2 for a while now.

    Do you think the UX Dreamteam you outline can operate in a work culture that can’t meet their personal and professional expectations of success and fulfillment? For the caliber of talent and temperament the Dreamteam would contain, what type of ideal environment should exist?

  • Terry Bleizeffer

    July 12, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    @Justin : There’s a large banner in the hallway of my kids’ elementary school that reads: “Character is doing the right thing when no one is looking.”

    I always liked that line. Well said.

  • Terry Bleizeffer

    July 12, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    @Anthony: Another good article. Lots of good points there, with practical tips.

    Some comments:
    1. I liked the distinctions you made in the “Practitioner vs Managerial” section, but I disagree that the distinctions are between practitioners and managers. For example, you say “Good bosses are quietly also coaches, therapists, facilitators, communicators, organizers and politicians.” I would change that to say “Good leaders are…”, and note that people can be a leader without being a manager. Then you say, “People who find less satisfaction in helping others to be effective are better placed as well-compensated senior practitioners.” I would say, “People who find less satisfaction in helping others to be effective should not be hired, and if you accidentally hire someone like that, it will effectively preclude them from being a well-compensated senior practitioner until they change their behavior.” We probably all know examples of me-first individuals who are so ridiculously talented that they can succeed in spite having no interest in helping anyone else, but they are the exception to the rule. For me, it’s a simple arithmetic… the more experience you have and/or the higher up you move in the practitioner ranks, the more time you need to spend on mentoring and coaching as a prerequisite for additional upward mobility.

    2. Another screening tip on personality/character to avoid toxicity: During interviews, ask candidates to give specific examples of personality conflicts they had with co-workers and how they handled it, and ask them to give specific examples of situations in which they helped a co-worker without being asked and without being recognized for it. Most people have no trouble thinking of multiple positive examples… toxic people have a really hard time answering that without becoming negative.

    3. In my experience, “Strategic” thinking is something that comes with experience — “newbies” should not be expected to think strategically (it’s unfair to expect it of them), and if someone doesn’t develop an ability to think strategically with experience, it’s probably going to be career limiting. To put it another way, I think of “tactical” as a foundation, with “strategic” added to the foundation over time. The ability to think tactically should never go away, though someone might eventually get into a job role that doesn’t require much tactical focus.

    4. Your comment about Agile was interesting. I agree that Agile environments tend to be frenetic, but I think the most interesting difference between Agile and Waterfall is that Agile is consistent over time, whereas in Waterfall there are less frequent but more stressful crunchtimes. Some people like knowing that they are going to be just as busy one month from now or six months from now as they are now, other people like the idea of working ridiculous hours for 3 months then having 3 months of relative downtime before the next crunch hits. So while it’s true that in Agile there doesn’t seem to be time to catch one’s breath, the upside is that there usually isn’t periods of extreme stress like in Waterfall… the stress is spread out more.

  • Andreas Ringdal

    July 12, 2008 at 7:58 pm

    @Dan Willis
    I partially agree with you. If the aim is to maintain status quo, then discard the ones in need of variety. But if you want to take the product further, or expand into new ideas, you have to think differently. Then you will need people that use variety to thrive, you have to make sure that they have somewhere to present and realize their ideas.
    Being creative and productive, but with someone further up the hierarchy discarding the suggestions continuously just to play safe with the existing product, is demoralizing.

    Andreas

  • Andreas Ringdal

    July 12, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    @Anthony Colfelt
    I am missing one role here, the one man UX team. In smaller companies, the UX is often the responsibility of a single person. This person can’t cover all aspects of UX, but have to assign single tasks to other individuals of the team.
    Required skills
    – ability to identify the UX related skills of the rest of the development team
    – ability to delegate
    – social skills are needed both to get other members to accept the tasks you “assign” to them, and convince the project manager that it’s necessary
    – knowledge of all skills listed in part 1 and 2 of the article. And preferably experience in several of the required UX skills
    – ability to handle external consultants hired to perform some of the required UX tasks

  • Anthony Colfelt

    July 13, 2008 at 1:13 am

    Great question, Robert. A lot depends on how people measure their success and fulfillment. Lets say that is tied to the quality of their output/product, as it often is in situations where expectations aren’t met. If no space, time or money is put toward the execution of quality, it will be hard for the entire organization to feel proud of their output and in turn, themselves. The issue could lie in so many areas, it’s hard to generalize a solution. To ensure a good environment, you might investigate three ‘Ps’ of potential weakness: Process, Politics & People. A process should ensure the right people are involved at the right times, doing the right activities. The political environment should not be adversarial or so competitive that it undermines morale, productivity or the success of the company. The people in the organization need to be supportive of best practice in all disciplines, as well as be appropriately skilled and utilized. If all these are right, then your Dreamteam should thrive.

  • Jamie Owen

    July 17, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    Beating the multicultural drum again, how would you adapt these strategies when situations involve assembling a dreamteam consisting of one or more members from different cultures? Communication styles are different, for example, particularly in a formal scenario like an interview, and this may affect an interviewer’s insight into the potential team member’s character and personality. Desirable traits may be obscured by mismatched interpersonal protocols, like expecting candor during an interview to be a creativity gauge for someone from a culture which practices a careful attention to position and hierarchy. Or the hiring managers mentioned in the Org Context section may have “gut instinct” fine-tuned for their own cultural familiarity, unfairly dismissing an applicant from another country or group.

    Cultural interaction and understanding bolsters opportunities and spawns solutions—creative and analytical, tactical and strategic–born of diversity within the ranks. Depending on a firm’s goals or global footprint, this may be an important dynamic for the UX dreamteam.

    Again, rhetorical questions: reflecting aloud…
    More on multi- and intercultural dynamics: “Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind” by Geert Hofstede.

  • Shane Greif

    July 22, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    Great work, Mr. Colfelt!

    You’ve touched on so many key areas. I tend to gravitate toward the area of personality. It doesn’t matter if you are designing the latest enterprise application or digging ditches, the skills-balanced group with good personality traits is a better team. These folks will respect and leverage each team member’s strengths and weaknesses, and as you mentioned, will hold their customers in the highest regard.

    Thanks for another great piece to add to the toolbox, Anthony! Cheers!

  • Robert Williams

    July 25, 2008 at 7:20 pm

    As a current ‘innie’ web manager, I agree that there is also a great internal need for those with ‘evangelism’ (is that word still being used in the UX/web strategy world?) and salesmanship skills: persisitance, organized communications, quickly being able to assess organizational cultures and narrativize business cases. My concern with outties who do have those skills is that they have been focused on using those them to acheive short-term goals– buy-in for a design, sign-off on documents, approving nods during brainstorms. For an innie, I’d be looking for someone who can prove that they won’t fizzle out over the long haul, be in tune with changing business needs and can constantly be ready with Plan B (C and D and E).

  • aparna sanaka

    December 8, 2009 at 3:15 am

    Thanks Anthony for the article.
    Although, you wrote this article a year back it is very relevant especially given the dynamic nature of the UI design teams.
    The talent / creativity, the range of expertise, the requirements themselves everything make / break design teams. No matter what people say – design teams are tough to manage especially for the long haul.

    For the “innies” working with the “outies” in situations where there are multiple vendor scenarios – so much more complex, similarly in an offshore-onsite model / virtual teams (given the distance factor) these challenges are ten fold.

    As a manager in a large Bank leading an “innie” UI design team as a ‘vendor’, working with an offshore team (in a virtual team model) plus working with “outies” at times – I find the need for the right “personalities” the most crucial point to “run” the team leave alone make it a “dreamteam”. I completely agree on the “toxic” personality mix in a team – it is an absolute pollutant to the atmosphere be it for creativity, growth, collaboration or plain functioning as a team on a day to day basis.

    Challenges:
    1. What if as a ‘vendor’ one does not have the luxury to choose it’s team – be it ‘hire’ / build the team with in-house resources?
    2. What if one is saddled with a ‘toxic’ resource – the political scenario not allowing ‘jettisoning’ the toxic resource?
    3. What is the best way to make things just “work”?? A dreamteam is a still a distant pipedream at this point?

    My question to you Anthony is – is there a rationale solution to this problem?

Sorry, comments are closed.