If you are a UX professional, you’ve probably struggled at times to get your voice heard. Between ladder-climbing product managers, cowboy engineers, and a workload that leaves you out of breath every day, rising above the shenanigans of corporate life can be a challenge.
All you really want to do is design truly amazing experiences for your customers, but the politics and red tape of your workplace get in the way. Or do they? It’s easy to blame the “system,” but in reality, we all control our own destinies.
The following tips will help you take control, especially if you work on a product team in a corporate setting. Using any combination of these strategies will help you push past your day-to-day challenges to have an even bigger impact on your team.
Tip #1: Ask your VP out to lunch
(Or anyone else more senior than you)
You may be surprised to learn that your VP will actually make time to chat with you. It’s not everyday that she is asked out to lunch. In fact, she’s usually eating lunch in a rush at her desk. Your VP will take the invitation as an opportunity to talk to someone one-on-one who is at the “ground” level doing the “real” work. This is your chance to tell her about your vision for your product, your team, and your role within that team. Going straight to the top can be a very effective strategy.
What’s more, your VP will always (and I do mean always) pick up the tab. It’s a great way to get your voice heard and get a free lunch to boot!
Extra credit: Convince your VP to eat lunch off campus. Your conversation will be surprisingly more candid the farther away from work you are. You’ll also get more time with her since a lunch out will take longer.
Tip #2: Mentor your boss
(And other decision-makers)
The longer your manager has been managing people and hands-off with projects, the less in-touch he is with what it’s like to be you. It’s important that you look for opportunities to teach your boss about the latest technology and trends. Teach him about what you need to do your best work. You’re making his job easier and helping yourself out in the process.
Extra credit: Ask your boss out to lunch, too.
Tip #3: Don’t be afraid to spend company money
(Spend it wisely)
When you need something, buy it. When you see an opportunity to make something better, go ahead and splurge. Ask for forgiveness later if you have to, but don’t think you always need permission to run a usability test, take your team out to lunch, or buy your engineers a beer. Just be sure you have a compelling story to tell if your expenses are scrutinized.
Extra credit: Start small and enhance the office supplies in your team area. Find a well-designed office item and buy one for everyone on your team. You’ll earn a reputation for caring about the details and looking to make everything, even small things, better.
Tip #4: Be a good corporate citizen
(And emulate those climbing to the top)
Sometimes you just need to play the game by the rules. Your organization has a particular path to success. Get to know it and learn from those who have succeeded. This doesn’t mean you have to be a corporate drone, but it does mean you have to play along. Use the lingo, but make it your own. Keep in mind that using the common language actually helps others understand your point of view faster.
Extra credit: Reframe an initiative you’ve been trying to champion in a way that emulates how your VP might talk about it. Give your VP pitch to your VP the next time you see him.
Tip #5: Get involved with the marketing of your product
(Or get involved with the product you’re marketing)
The customer experience includes all customer touch points. If you are on a product team, get involved with the marketing efforts. If you are in the marketing group, get involved with the product. Lend your skills to the cause. This sounds obvious, but not everyone goes out of his way to be involved in all aspect of the customer experience.
Extra credit: Ask a product or marketing leader how you can help and get involved right away.
Tip #6: Pamper your engineers
(Make them feel special)
Your engineers make your product what it is. It’s best to have them on your side. Write clear specs. Seek their feedback on your designs. Be an ear for them to gripe to about their own challenges. Look for opportunities to compromise. Being close to your engineers will pay untold dividends down the road.
Extra credit: Buy your engineers a round (see Tip #3)!
Tip #7: Take time to think
(Translate those thoughts into actions)
It can be so easy to get caught up in your task list, forgetting to come up for air. You’re constantly being challenged to finish your work in less time, but it’s important to take time to think. Can you be more efficient? Has the team lost focus on their goals? Are you doing what you feel passionate about? Is the customer problem well understood? What could make this better?
Extra credit: Take a day off of work and spend the day mapping out all the things you could do to make your product and team situation better. Open up your mind to think outside of the constraints of your day-to-day. Think about current trends and try to envision the future. Present what you come up with to your team.
Tip #8: Seek out others who share your passions
(You’ll find them if you look)
If you are like most people, you do your best work when you’re working on something you’re passionate about. Passions cross corporate lines. They aren’t bound to disciplines, departments, or business units. If you look around and try to find others that share your passions, you’ll find them all over your organization. You’ll be surprised how much better you feel about coming into work everyday.
Extra credit: Start a stealth project with your newfound mates. You might just find yourself on a new project, one that you’re more jazzed about than your current project, sooner than you think.
Tip #9: Look for favors to do
(It’s better to give than to receive)
As the saying goes, “It’s better to give than to receive.” What’s even better is that when you give, you are almost guaranteed to also receive. This is especially true in the corporate world where favors and good will from within your network can often make the difference in getting a promotion.
Extra credit: Pick out someone more senior than you who might be a good advocate to have in your corner one day. Find a way to do her a favor and keep the relationship fresh.
Tip #10: Don’t say “no” when you can say “yes”
(Participate, be a leader)
It can be especially hard to take on more when you already feel buried. But the key is prioritization and knowing how to spot a good, high-profile opportunity when it comes along. You may be reluctant to raise your hand and volunteer (especially if you’re not entirely sure what you’re signing up for) but often those who do get the best opportunities. Leaders jump at opportunities.
Extra credit: Reverse your last “no;” go back and say, “Yes.”
Tip #11: Be a catalyst
(You don’t always have to be the one to get it done)
Sometimes you get used to being a one-man show. It’s easy to convince yourself that you have to be involved with every aspect of the UX design process. But sometimes you just have to let go. Vision and direction accounts for more than the work itself. Get clear about the goals and evangelize them to the point that others mobilize in support of the same goals.
Extra credit: Identify another team member who isn’t a UX professional and get him excited to help out. Give him a small task to do. You might find that there is more help out there than you thought.
Tip #12: Learn to articulate your concepts well
(Better than anyone else on your team)
It’s one thing to have bright ideas. It is another to be able to communicate them effectively. You’ll want to practice, practice, practice. Look for opportunities to present to your team. Let them scrutinize your work and see how well you can articulate the how’s and why’s of your choices. If you can’t articulate your vision, you’ll never find followers to support it.
Extra credit: Gather two or three team members and present to them an idea that’s been swimming in your head. Gather their feedback on the idea and the way you told the story. Repeat this with another set of two or three. Keep doing this until you feel like you have a crisp story to tell. Then gather up as many people as you can and give your pitch. The feedback you get will be enlightening.
Tip #13: Know your audience and speak their language
(Or find someone who can)
You don’t want to speak to your VP the same way you speak to your team. Treat your audience as you do your customers. Just like your customers, the audience has needs that must be met. You’ll delight them when you exceed their expectations. Every office has a few really great speakers who do these things well. Seek their help or ask them to co-present. You’ll learn directly from the best and will end up with a better overall presentation.
Extra credit: Before your next presentation, ask one of the great speakers in your office to do a one-on-one practice walk-through with you. You’ll get great feedback.
Tip #14: Volunteer to present your work
(To anyone and everyone)
Have you ever had someone else present your work (for a presentation to your VP, perhaps)? There is a sure-fire way to ensure that this never happens again. Make sure that you can articulate your work better than anyone else on the team. When it is clear that you know the material better and will make the team look their best, the presenter will always offer to partner with you. Make sure your boss or product manager knows how well you can speak to the goals and progress of your project.
Extra credit: Ask to help your product manager with her next presentation that includes your work. Your design skills will make the presentation itself better; and what’s more, you can work yourself into it.
Tip #15: Prototype your concepts
(In high fidelity, too)
Talking about your ideas is great. Showing them off is better. This is especially true when your vision is grand. Keep in mind that you may know exactly where things need to be headed, but those around you don’t spend nearly as much time dreaming about the ideal customer experience. Take them along your journey. Sketches can be good to provoke new thinking. If your concept is well thought through, you’ll want to put in a little extra time to mock it up in higher fidelity. Sometimes your team just needs to see it before they can understand it.
Extra credit: Take the words and bullet points out of your next presentation and only use screenshots or sketches. Rely on the visuals and your voiceover to tell the story.
Tip #16: Tag along to meetings you weren’t invited to
(Especially if you should have been invited in the first place)
It’s common for UX professionals to claim that they don’t have a seat at the table. While that can often be literally true, there’s nothing to say that you can’t plop yourself down in a meeting, especially if you think you can add value.
Extra credit: Ask your manager or product manager what meetings they have coming up and pick one to tag along to.
Tip #17: Speak up in meetings
(Especially when important people are in the room)
If you’re going to squat where you weren’t invited, you’ll need to make it known that you are there for a reason. It’s okay to be a fly on the wall sometimes, but you want to look for opportunities to make an impression. Find the right moment to ask a poignant question or offer up a key customer insight when the conversation is spinning out of control.
Extra credit: Try to have the last word in your next key meeting. Listen carefully throughout the meeting. At the end, before the group breaks, summarize the conversation pointing out a thought provoking insight. Leaving the group with a lingering insight or question to ponder keeps it, and you, in the back of their minds as they head out. That’s a good thing.
Tip #18: Take control in meetings
(Especially when people are missing the real point)
This is where all your experience with a dry erase marker really pays off. If the conversation is heading down the “wrong” path or if the group is having trouble staying focused, just stand up at the whiteboard with a marker in hand. Begin drawing your point of view or capturing the thoughts and words of the team onto the white board. At the next pause in the meeting, if the group hasn’t already turned to you, begin guiding the conversation.
Extra credit: You can practice this technique even if you have no need to take control of the conversation. At your next meeting, get up at the white board and begin creating a mind-map of the key points of the conversation. The attention will be drawn to you at some point and you can steer a brief discussion around what you’ve written down.
Tip #19: Create a disruptive presentation
(And don’t warn anybody)
Sometimes there is no time for subtly. When you have the floor, you don’t always have to present what everyone expects you to present. You can disrupt the entire presentation or leave some time at the end to present a new idea. This is an effective way to get a new idea of yours some exposure without having to ask for it.
Extra credit: Share a disruptive idea at the end of your next team meeting as practice. You’ll be in a friendly environment and can familiarize yourself with the dynamics of throwing something unexpected into the mix.
Tip #20: Take credit when it’s due
(It’s okay to pat yourself on the back)
Sometimes you do great work but forget to explicitly demonstrate how your own work positively impacted the overall success of the project. It’s important to be a self-promoter in such a way that speaks to how your organization measures success. Align your creative output to that criteria and shout out your accomplishments. You work hard and deserve the recognition.
Extra credit: Pick a recent accomplishment and craft the story of how you achieved your goals. Tell your manager today!