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The Adventures of Usability Girl

by Stephanie Arnold
10 min read
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How UX went from a one-person task to a strategic priority with a large team at AT&T Interactive.

As UX professionals, we chase the dream that we’ll land a position in a company where UX is already a passion. A passion that everyone in the company knows, understands, recognizes, and invests in as the principle to guide corporate direction. A passion that all employees evangelize, and a passion that reaps rewards and riches for the company and its customers. But the reality is that in any place we work, chances are we’ll find ourselves in the position of dividing time among being a UX practitioner, a salesperson, a teacher, and a soldier in the UX revolution.

Everyone has different experiences building the legitimacy of UX in their workplace. Three years ago at AT&T Interactive (ATTi), I embarked on a UX journey where there was terrific potential: a company dedicated to solid technology and a super-motivated sales force that was always adding customers. Engineering and sales were firmly in place, and UX joined in to help give consumers the best experience possible.

Taking a look back, I can see how far we’ve come. Today, UX is an integral piece of the company, and a cornerstone in the product lifecycle. From all the challenges we’ve tackled at ATTi, I’ve pulled together a few ideas that any UX soldier can apply again and again, whether introducing UX to a new company or building on an existing process.

1. Get the Lay of the Land

When faced with the task of changing a culture that has not yet drunk the UX Kool-Aid, it’s imperative that you forge relationships with teams outside of UX. Understanding the responsibilities, roles, and challenges of other teams will allow everyone to find the best ways to help each other be successful. If they don’t know you, why would they trust you or utilize you?

Get to know the product managers and show interest in what they’re working on. When you gain the trust of product managers, you can help them see that UX isn’t a competitive corporate structure. You’ll also be able to find the most efficient way to add your expertise to their product development efforts. When you work together with a common goal in mind—creating better experiences for customers—products get stronger.

The same approach is critical in communicating with people in engineering and marketing. Don’t know much about engineering? Learn. Reach out, keep talking. It’s amazing how much people are willing to offer when your interest is genuine.

When you accomplish this, your allies and advocates will help you spread awareness of the value of UX. Legitimizing UX within a company is a lot easier when you have others vouching for you. And hopefully word will eventually bubble up to the executive level, and that‘s where the most change can happen for UX. When you have executive buy-in to the importance of UX, it’s a lot easier to make it a standard part of product processes and timelines.

UX can’t operate as an island. As much as we all believe that other teams in a company need us, we also need all those other teams. Yes, you’ll face adversity and frustration once in a while, but at the end of the day you all have a common goal. The sooner you find a way to work towards that goal together, the sooner you’ll be able to prove the value that UX brings to an organization. So put on a smile, get interested, and be patient. UX cannot be successful if it’s siloed within a company.

2. Show & Tell

One challenge in convincing a company that UX is a “need to have” as opposed to a “nice to have” is that the employees of a lot of companies still don’t have any familiarity with UX. I’ve found that the best way to introduce UX is to provide opportunities for others to see firsthand what our team can do. Even when I started out as a team of one—the sole information architect and usability researcher—I welcomed opportunities to give others a peek into what I was working on. Pretty soon I came to be known as “Usability Girl,” and when you get a superhero-like nickname, you know you’re doing something right.

When people got interested in learning more about usability testing, I asked them to be participants in sessions testing new products. When I built out the in-house usability lab, I gave group tours to coworkers and asked them to view a session from the observation room. I put together highlight reel presentations of our testing and shared it with other teams.

Even as UX at ATTi has grown from one person into a full business unit, this show & tell practice has continued. When the usability team runs testing each week, we send out an announcement of what will be tested and open up our observation room to everyone. When the information architects create wireframes or Axure prototypes, they share them with not just the stakeholders, but also the rest of the project team and anyone else who may have a vested interest in the project. The same goes for the comps that the design team creates.

It’s surprising to see how interested others are in the UX process. And there’s no better way to educate people about UX and the amazing benefits it can bring to a project than showing them firsthand with tangible experiences and outputs. Everyone loves to see a project come to life via the UI.

Letting other people see UX practices firsthand stokes their interest and makes them feel like part of the UX process. Giving people an open window into UX has been a great way of building trust in UX as an integral part of the product process, and of creating advocates for UX within ATTi. It’s making believers out of people! I stop and smile when I hear “wireframes,” “usability testing,” and “design comps” being used in conversations by people who aren’t on my team. And it happens all the time now.

As you create buzz about UX, people will start telling you about articles they’ve read about UX concepts such as eye tracking, and they’ll ask you why we have a usability lab that does not have one (gasp!), but look at it this way—it’s a sign of interest in UX!

3. Prove the Value

Even after forging relationships within the company and introducing others to what UX is, a UX team can’t be successful without proving its value. If UX isn’t moving the needle in a positive way, whether by positive consumer feedback or by increased engagement numbers, it will stay stuck in the “nice to have” bucket. Once a product is set loose into the world, your work isn’t finished—it’s actually only beginning.

You can prove the value by showing how user research has informed the direction of product features and functionality, how usability testing has improved the ability of a user to work intuitively through a UI, and how applying human factors principles in information architecture has improved the interaction for the user. You can show how the new look-and-feel has improved a user’s complete interactive experience and improved their attitude towards your brand.

ATTi’s YELLOWPAGES.COM homepage (now YP.com) was due for a facelift. Analytics were showing that user engagement was not what we hoped for, so it was time for a redesign. We worked with a great product manager who understood and appreciated UX, and he allowed for us to fully utilize our UX toolkit. We started off with contextual user research and formal usability testing on the existing homepage to get a good grasp of who our users were, what they were looking for, and what were they finding problematic on the existing site. The findings from this research helped the product manager decide how we should approach the features and functionality of the page, and also helped the information architects and designers in designing the UI and the look-and-feel.

When all was said and done and the new homepage went out, the project’s success was evident. The new page performed well in the next round of usability testing, and internal and external feedback on the page was positive. The product manager invested in the UX team and the time to go through the whole UX process, and his return was definitely evident as the page was, and still is, a success.

You also need to show how you are making things better for other teams in the company. This starts with a clear, efficient, and thought-out process that illustrates how UX fits within the bigger project lifecycle. In my experience at ATTi, it was best to start with finding out what the needs of each the teams within the company were, and what their existing internal processes were. From there, I worked with my own UX team to develop a process that aligned the work of our three principal focus areas (information architecture, design, and usability) with the overall product process. We then rolled that out to teams across the company to ensure that everyone understood and was on board. Walking through how the UX process would work with real project examples that each team was intimately familiar with helped illustrate how the process works, and also helped generate buy-in to its value.

How do you prove the value of these internal process improvements? You’re providing value to the project (and, thereby, to the company) if your role as well as your process allow you to work collaboratively with your project team to enhance the quality of the end product. For example, your team’s user research, wireframes, site maps, and designs should serve as valuable assets to a product manager who is making sure that all features and functionality has been accounted for in her product. Those same deliverables should be helpful to the developers who will be building the product by allowing them to visualize the end result while also seeing what the components are.

4. Hire Great People

You can’t build out a legitimate UX organization in a company on your own. And you can’t do it by approaching it as a task of filling open headcount. I went from a team of one to a team of 20 over the course of three years. The team that started as just a usability group grew to encompass information architecture and creative design. But it’s about quality over quantity. I took my time. I hired quality, even if it meant that the lack of quantity was making my plate too full.

If you want a UX team that will make a difference within a company, you have to hire the right people for the job, as well as for the team. You should only hire “A players” from whom everyone, including yourself, can learn.

It is also important that the team meshes well. You need a team that gets along and gets better at what they do because of each other. It’s amazing how true the saying “one bad apple spoils the bunch” proves to be in a workplace setting. So take your time hiring the right people. Wait for the “A players.” Find them, hire them, and grow them within the team. I’ve always had the best luck asking people I trust for candidate recommendations. Do your due diligence in checking out their portfolios, speak to anyone in your network who is familiar with them, and run thorough interviews including the team they will be working with.

When I was just starting out as “Usability Girl,” I went several months working until the early morning hours just to keep up with all the UX projects across the company. I knew I could just settle with the next candidate to apply for a job and thereby regain some work–life balance. But to make a splash with this new team, I was going to have to hire strong people.

So I waited to hire until I came across A players—candidates with a good balance between passion and the skill of compromise, and with portfolios that showed attention to detail while also demonstrating creativity and the ability to think holistically. I look for people with likeable personalities who also show an ability to communicate ideas and their rationales.

5. Persistence Is Key

When building UX within any organization, you’ll come across roadblocks. There will be setbacks. You may doubt that you are making a difference. But you have to keep at it. Remember that there’s a good reason to keep at it: the end user. You have to continue to build relationships with other teams around the company, because you all want the same thing: more customers.

You have to continue to fine-tune your UX process to provide the best ROI, and allow other teams to have visibility into your work. Even when things are going fantastically from a UX perspective, you still need to put in the work to improve the ways in which UX is ingrained in the company and the culture. Remember that UX is a “need to have,” and continually work to prove that to be the case.

It took almost two years to get to a point where my team got a chance to fully utilize our UX toolkit with the YP.com homepage redesign. Up until that point, we just didn’t have the time to invest in contextual user research, or the opportunity to really push the limits with a fresh, new design. But we never gave up, and continued to push. As success stories like that one are becoming more common, I can confidently say that UX has made its mark within the organization and is here to stay as an integral component of ATTi. We still have a lot of work to do, but we have definitely transitioned from “nice to have” and found a solid home in the “need to have” bucket.

post authorStephanie Arnold

Stephanie Arnold, Stephanie Arnold is the Executive Director of User Experience Design at AT&T Interactive, the cross-platform local advertising branch of AT&T. She leads a team of information architects, usability researchers, and visual designers that support AT&T Interactive's consumer and advertiser products. Stephanie has worked in the UX industry for 8 years, having previously worked at Kelley Blue Book, Perot Systems and Travelocity. She has a strong background in Human-Computer-Interaction (HCI), with a B.A. in Psychology and an M.A. in Human Factors, and is a strong believer in the saying "Keep It Simple." Besides being a UX fanatic, she is also an Apple gadget geek, a die-hard UCLA fan, and someone who gets the breaking news from her Facebook news feed.


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