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Building a UX Team

My thoughts and learnings on Design Leadership and Management through experiences building a UX team at Daniel Wellington.

In April 2018, I made the move from London, England, to take on the role of UX Manager at Daniel Wellington, based in Stockholm, Sweden. Over the course of the next two years, I worked to build a UX team across two locations, within a company operating with an established tech department of around 150 people. As of March 2020, UX is now an integral part of the business that drives strategy as much as it delivers on its execution.

During this time I’ve faced many challenges, old and new, that have taught me a lot about design leadership, particularly around building a team, working with stakeholders and navigating change. Outlined below are my thoughts, learnings and experiences within each area, that I hope offer an insight into my management style and the journey. If you’d like to chat about design leadership or ask a question on the below, please reach out to me via email or Twitter.

"A group of people working in unison is a wonderful thing to behold. Done well, it ceases to be about you or me, one individual or another. Instead, you feel the energy of dozens of hearts and minds directed toward a shared purpose, guided by shared value."
Julie Zhou, former Design VP of Product Design at Facebook

Building the team: Going from nothing to something

What the company wants isn’t necessarily what the company needs

Walking through the door as UX employee number one and hired as an expert in your area, it’s possible you will know more about what's required than the person who wrote your job description. Get out there, explore the business and see what you uncover. Build your own picture of the real needs and whilst doing so, assess the level of design maturity. As the new kid on the block, you have the luxury of being able to poke your nose into plenty of places and ask the craziest questions. At the least, you’ll get to meet some new people and perhaps you’ll uncover previously unrealised opportunities to get some quick wins! Even if there is an existing UX setup, a fresh pair of eyes will bring new perspective.

Hiring right makes everything easier

Analyse yourself as much as the candidates. Getting hiring right is as much on you knowing what you want as much as it is on them. The more confident you are in what you, the company and the team need, the more it will shine through. Tell a story with clarity on the journey ahead, being honest in who you are as much as what you expect from the person coming in. As you prepare ask yourself, would you want to work for you?

It’s good to remember that the best candidates aren’t always looking. From my experience, doing the groundwork and reaching out to those of interest has usually proved to be more fruitful than waiting for candidates to apply.

Create focus and set expectations

Once the team is up and running, everyone needs some guidance, including yourself. With a new or existing team there will always be a lot of noise. Creating a solid mission, vision and strategy, will help cut through that and provide focus to the team, whilst communicating to those outside it what they can expect from you. It makes clear your purpose.

Equally, it helps to set expectations on one another. Agreeing on design and leadership principles within the team helps set a foundation for how everyone goes about their day-to-day as they look to deliver on the above.

Iterate the team as much as the product

Whether it’s process, the tools you use or how you give feedback, never stop iterating. As UX matures within the organisation, needs change and trust within the team grows, you’ll need to continually look to evolve. If a team member has an idea, try it. It gives ownership to everyone to decide what works for them to consistently deliver their best and work in an environment they want to be a part of.

Lead from the back

As much as it can sometimes feel like the opposite, remember you don’t need to have all the answers. Turn the org chart upside down and lead from the back. If the team is empowered with the tools to succeed, they can thrive and show you the way as much as you show them. As a manager you’re an enabler of results, you’re not there to tackle on them on your own. Help them to shine as they take things to the next step through coaching and supporting them. Trust your team to do what they were hired to do.

Working with stakeholders across the org chart: Integrating UX into an established company

Show the ROI of UX to fuel growth

Unfortunately, not everyone just ‘gets’ that UX brings business value. Getting into the habit of building business cases and threading everything back to business outcomes, enables you to talk the language of your peers. Most importantly, it enables you to speak the language of C-level.

The positive upswing of doing this is two-fold. Firstly by showing your team has a direct impact on business metrics, it can open the door to more investment. Secondly, it enables the team to see how they contribute directly to the company’s success, as much as they enhance the customer experience. The result is incredibly rewarding and ultimately means everyone is happy. Win-win!

Education and collaboration is everything

Make yourself redundant. No, really! Stakeholder development is just as important as team development. Good UX isn’t delivered in a silo. Make yourself redundant, mature design thinking within the company and reap the rewards. You can’t do everything as a team so why not enable others to champion your customers on their own?

At Daniel Wellington I’ve made this a core part of what we do. As a team, we are very aware that many others can have a huge impact on the customer experience. With that in mind we actively work to engage and educate everyone who touches the end customer to ensure they’re making customer-centric decisions. It’s a long game that takes time but is what drives maturity, benefits our customers and has ultimately allowed us to take a step up to tackle the bigger, more fun challenges.

Two heads are better than one can also extend to two teams too! Utilise the skills and knowledge other teams possess and collaborate with them to achieve something better than you can on your own. Business Intelligence, Customer Services, Analytics, they all have a stack potential to elevate you and vice versa. Even if you don't land on working together on what you originally intended, you're showing others how you're thinking which could lead to them spotting golden opportunities for you down the line.

Doing nothing is as powerful as doing something

Saying no, often, isn’t the nicest thing to have to say to someone but a necessity. If you know what the customer wants and you have a good strategy, use both as a shield. Be confident in saying no up the chain as much as you do across it. You only have so much time and resources so protect it. Not only does this help others understand what is important but it also makes it clear what isn’t.

Never stop growing and nurturing your internal network

UX has a view of the big picture. We see the customer pain points, where we have gaps and know that our insights can address them. Sometimes these pain points don’t require an externally facing fix but an internal one, away from the code. As a design leader, you’re a company leader that needs to mould other teams, people and processes to be customer-centric. Sometimes that’s up the chain too! Never stop working to build and maintain strong relationships with other teams and departments to enable that to be welcomed. The trust gained is something you’ll always end up having to rely on to deliver your vision and deliver what everyone ultimately wants, a happy customer.

Operate with transparency and bring people into the magic circle

Having an open door and removing the mystery around UX will only help your cause. You’ll learn as much about others as they will about you in the process and it’s a simple way to drive design maturity. It helps others to see what exactly goes into the process, understand how to talk about design and perhaps understand why something isn’t just a ‘quick fix’.

One area I’ve seen success in is through opening the door to our critique sessions. With a few ground rules in place on how we give feedback, it enables designers to invite non-designers on a project to have their say and also those with just an interest to drop by. In order to promote this further, we’ve started to trial this in an open communal space in our office.

Side note: We’ve actually seen so much success with this that other teams have adopted critique sessions into their weekly schedule!

Navigating change: The good and the bad

Never underestimate the effects of your decisions

As small as a change may be and as much as it may have been thought through, you're only seeing it from one perspective and it has the potential to backfire. Including everyone in the decision-making process ensures all perspectives are captured and enables everyone to own the change. Circling back to iterating the team as much as the product, prioritising the voice of the team over your own, ensures this iterative change is welcomed over being resisted.

People will come and go, it’s inevitable

Always be prepared for the expected and unexpected departures across the organisation, not just from your team, and don’t forget new arrivals too. Avoiding ‘unicorns’ on both sides of the fence helps mitigate any risk posed with both. Linking back to growing a strong internal network, having others able to champion your work across the company to any new starter, as much as being able to backfill knowledge lost through a departure, will help to avoid a potential need to track back and instead keep things moving in the right direction.

Sometimes you’ll have to be ‘that person' to get the job done

Whether you’re setting up a new team or on a growth journey, you’ll at some point need other individuals, teams and departments to change their ways to align to your mission. There will be varying levels of challenge that need approaching with relevancy and tactfulness and guess what, that strong internal network is going to help again here too! You’re not always going to be liked but if you have trust, you’ll usually find a way (and hey, people always come round!).

If you’re working with someone new and have yet to build that trust, whilst it may seem obvious, something that’s worked well for me is to try a small change first before looking to do something bigger. Link the result to how it aids them, you and the customer, and subsequent changes will hopefully be a lot easier!

There is always opportunity in change

Change can be forced, unexpected and at first glance, have no perceivable positives. In moments like this, the team will look to you for answers and will be reading what you say as much as what you don’t. It’s a lot of pressure. However, in any negative there is a positive, you just need to find it. There will always be something to grab onto and an opportunity to come out stronger. The sooner it’s found, the sooner it enables the team, yourself and others around you to set a path forward and overcome the challenge it’s facing.

Accept that sometimes it’s you that needs to change!

Being humble is incredibly important as a leader. You will get it wrong, you will fail, but you’re only human after all! You can only play with the cards you’ve been dealt and sometimes you’ll read the situation wrong. That’s ok. What matters most is how you act and move on. That’s what people will remember.

Finally, above all else, remember to have fun along the way!

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