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UX as Design Leadership

by Christijan Draper, Jared Lewandowski
6 min read
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Extending your passion for asking questions and seeking answers into relationships with your team members is an example-led way of evangelizing the power of UX.

The inherent ambiguity in the term UX has led to a broad interpretation of the role of the UX practitioner. In many cases, firms and agencies have interpreted design as a conveyor-belt type process and UX becomes just another one of what feels like eighteen random stops in the design flow—another blip in the line to a finished product. Sadly, the interpretation is often that the UX team can take a product idea, do something magical that makes it a good “user experience,” and then provide a deliverable to the “creative” team to make it look good.

For those who believe that user experience can be handed off as a deliverable—like wireframes—this process might make a little sense. For UX practitioners, however, the end product is the user experience, so the UX team needs to be involved all along the way, up until the very end, ensuring the final product is the best experience it can be. The UX team can’t just pass off a concept and turn it loose. They have to stay involved. They have to lead, and not in the traditional authoritarian sense, but with humility and by communicating the importance of user-focused design to the entire project team.

Experiencing the User Experience Team

The UX team has to be part of the project from stage one. They should play an integral role on the project—even a leadership role. The product team shouldn’t have their only experience with UX be a deliverable or document that has been handed over a wall, ready for the next person. In order for any company or team to be most effective, everyone needs to contribute, overlap, interact, and share ideas all along the way. Product managers, clients, developers, and QA professionals all have unique perspectives and a wealth of experience to draw on and must not go unheeded. By utilizing their individual strengths at each phase, it’s possible to make any product a success. UX professionals can facilitate this process of helping all members of the team be heard.

We all have a passion for making things that people want to use. And that passion keeps us asking questions and seeking answers that will inform the design of the final product. We should share that passion so that all of our teams can own the user experience with us and to trust us. In the best-case scenario, the entire team will recognize that together we can help uncover the problems worth solving and then the UX team can facilitate solutions through the various techniques and skills that we have developed.

Crossing the Divide

UX professionals have to lead. We have to evangelize the idea of making the user the center of our design efforts for the entire product team. We have to teach skills in user experience design that anyone can learn to help them make more user-focused decisions as they work on their design specialty.

At Rain, the agency where we work, we’ve been making strides in crossing the imagined barrier between management, creative, UX, development, and QA. It’s an ongoing process, but we’ve hit on some things that have helped us achieve the best user experience for our clients while juggling a variety of roles.

Learn Names

Over the last year or so we’ve gone from an agency of about 50 people to nearly double that number. What that amounts to is a lot of new faces and a lot of working with people who you don’t know. That sort of growth could reinforce the barriers between departments, further exacerbating the silo mentality. We’ve tried to combat this by helping facilitate interaction between departments. In the UX department we’ve stepped up our efforts to get out of the room and talk to our counterparts in development and creative. We’ve engaged our teams in activities that help drive the user experience (e.g. empathy mapping, design studio, and wireframing).

Part of the growth we’ve experienced was from the joining of two independent agencies: one in New York and one in Utah. We’ve flown team members from our New York office to Utah to interact with the team here and some of us from Utah have made the trip to New York. We’ve made a conscientious effort to build rapport between teams. Not everybody knows everybody else, but we’re making the effort.

foosball table at Rain

It’s amazing what a difference knowing someone’s name and getting to know him or her on a personal level can do when trying to collaborate. We try to extend our relationships outside of the work shell by playing foosball, going out to movies and lunches, and playing basketball and soccer together. We build trust in one another by interacting in less formal ways. This leads to a smoother workflow with the project teams.

Your Place is Everyplace

Naturally, a lot of people will feel uncomfortable pointing out a problem if it’s not in their realm of expertise. Just imagine how a developer would feel if we suggested a better way to write that line of HTML? We want to make sure no one feels unqualified to comment or make a suggestion. The suggestions might not end up being used, but the more information that’s available, the easier it is to make decisions that will result in the best product. We want to make sure everyone in every department feels empowered to make suggestions that improve the user experience of a product, from biz-dev to QA. Get out and include others in your UX exercises as much as possible to encourage this very effective type of cross-pollinating collaboration.

Own the Product

It’s critical not to come off like you have all the answers. This only keeps others away and demonstrates an act completely contrary to what we are trying to accomplish. We need to act as a project facilitator or strategist—working in tandem with the project manager to deliver the original intent of the design. More importantly, it’s imperative to engender a sense of ownership in everyone working on the project.

We want to make sure everyone feels empowered to make suggestions that improve the user experience

A member of our creative team recently approached our UX team with a design problem. Our response was to grab the designer, as well as a developer working on that area, and have a quick meeting, jotting down wireframes and possible solutions. The developer explicitly mentioned he had no experience with creating wireframes, but his knowledge of the technical constraints were extremely valuable. Working together we were able to give the designer a few possible ideas from which she was able to come to a solution the client approved within minutes. This is what will happen when we facilitate, lead, and encourage others to become part of the solution.

In any capacity, teams have to work quickly and communicate often. By engaging other departments in the wireframing, empathy mapping, story building, and other UX exercises, everyone gets to contribute to a project’s discovery and, best of all, it opens the door for trust and further communication. We have found this extremely useful in various projects and situations and results have been faster and more accurate.

In the End

Like we said at the start, we do not know all the answers. We might not be successful all of the time in all of these things. But, we know that this approach will be better for our clients, for our employees and for all our work. We learn from each other and we can support each other.


Image of foosball table courtesy Shutterstock.

post authorChristijan Draper

Christijan Draper,

Mr. Draper's career spans a broad swath of experience in design, development, and research across print, video, web, and mobile platforms. He is currently director of UX at Rain. Mr. Draper has completed the coursework for a PhD in instructional psychology and technology, with specific emphases in UX design, research, and collaborative creativity.

post authorJared Lewandowski

Jared Lewandowski, Jared Lewandowski began his career in the midwest in the late 90's and now currently resides in the Bay Area. He's worked on many successful medical and financial websites, improved various products, built many successful brands, and has presented on strategy, accessibility, and usability to large and small businesses around the United States. He currently manages a UX team at GoDaddy and runs his own design agency, JL Design Group.


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