What I learned about management from redesigning my home

2017 has been an interesting and varied year for me, and one of the things I’ve achieved is a renovation project to modernise my home. It was a completely new experience and despite a very steep learning curve, I ended up with a space that I designed myself and learned some useful lessons along the way. At the centre was the collaboration with a builder to realise my ambitions of creating a brand new environment. This involved remodelling the internal structure, demolishing the old and installing all new fittings. After the dust settled (so much dust!), I realised many of the situations we encountered had taught me new ways of thinking about people and team management.

Trust is the foundation

Although I sought recommendations for who to work with, negotiating at the start of the project was stressful. I had a budget and rough timescales agreed, but we needed to figure out a way of working together. In much the same way as onboarding a new team member, I had to explain the current situation, outline objectives for the future and what the end goal was. It was a lot of work, so the builder and I broke the project down into weekly chunks. We agreed the best order for tackling things and I wrote the schedule down on one of the walls. As well as tasks to be achieved, we identified dependencies that could delay the work (e.g. if the shower hadn’t arrived, we could not complete the bathroom). We both committed to the plan and trust was established. Learning: have more open discussions about project goals and the potential blockers to establish mutual responsibility and trust asap.

Open lines of communication

There was so much about construction that I didn’t know and every day a new question arose. How far in advance do you need to order a kitchen? What size of boiler is appropriate? How many plug sockets and light fittings? I was regularly on site to meet the latest question and try to work out the answer. I was never far from my mobile phone either, so that the builder could text or call me any time. We started to learn each others’ short-hand; I became adept at visualising a 60mm gap for a cabinet and he predicted the type of tile trim I would want. Decisions could be made quickly. As we had so much regular dialogue, it was easy to flag up problems or clarify misunderstandings. Learning: Find out how your team wants to communicate and keep listening.

Facilitate problem-solving but don’t micro manage

Whilst I made sure I was on site for daily updates, I also got out of the way promptly to allow progress to made. When we ran into inevitable complications, the builder would explain to me what the problem was and how it was challenging. I would collect as much information as possible, we’d discuss the solutions and then I would privately panic. I’d spend hours researching online and asking amongst my friends to try to identify the fix. But often when I next spoke to the builder, he had already identified the best option. I came to realise that my role was to understand problems, hear the frustration, offer support but also give space to allow a solution to be found. This was the toughest and perhaps most useful lesson. Learning: it is not easy, but you can facilitate problem-solving without being the one to solve the problem.

So by building trust, openly communicating and facilitating problem-solving we got there and I moved in after 6 weeks.

The stages of UX maturity

How do you measure the maturity of UX in your organisation? This is a question I have often considered whilst developing a UX function. What are the signs that show we are moving forward? Nielsen’s stages of corporate UX maturity provide the original framework and are still relevant. More recently Jared Spool has some great observations about what takes organisations beyond the UX tipping point. Here is another take:

The first step is admitting you have a problem

In Nielsen’s 8 levels of corporate UX maturity, stage 1 is characterised as Hostility Toward Usability. Now it’s unlikely that many companies could take this attitude and survive today, but there are still organisations where UX is not fully understood or valued. In order to build a UX function, there needs to be a fundamental acknowledgement that you want to deliver a better experience for your users. This will deliver a commercial and competitive advantage, and it is the right thing to do.

Show me the money

A crucial turning point is when the powers that be recognise and value UX enough to invest in resources, equipment and training. I still hear from designers in the wider community the old chestnut ‘I wanted to do user research but we had no budget’. This tells me that the project is not utilising all aspects of the UX process and the design decisions have not been tested. Once you secure the budget to conduct regular user research and you have at least one UX person or you are training someone in UX, you’ve shown the investment that comes with a degree of UX maturity.

Collaboration and integration

Evangelising UX can be a long process! After initial investment, one or more people will typically start spreading the word about UX. This can take the form of events, talks, representation in meetings with stakeholders etc. Often by this point there is a UX team of sorts, but it can be isolated. This will typically mean UX work gets done on some projects but not others. There will be wins but the process is inconsistent. You need to sit with key stakeholders and find new ways of understanding their objectives. If things go well, the UX team start to embed themselves in other teams, working alongside Product Managers and Developers. Collaborative UX is another key milestone. As Nielsen says ‘To progress beyond…you must convince all managers and team members that user experience is part of their jobs and that user research results help them do better and more satisfying work’.

UX-topia?

Does an organisation ever become fully user-driven? I’m not sure but there is a tipping point where all of the above becomes easier. A great sign is senior level UX appointments, giving users and design a seat at the table of critical business decisions. There will be regular recruitment and an established framework for careers in UX. But UX is also a team sport and projects will be typically highly collaborative, with user research, prototyping and testing happening regularly.

As Spool points out, it’s entirely possible and likely to find teams in the same organisation at different stages of maturity. Sometimes teams have worked with a particularly strong UX advocate who has embedded values that steer the product development and they may be more mature. Others may have experienced some commercial success despite usability issues in products, and they may not yet have realised the potential of a embedded UX process. The task of a UX leader then is to adapt the approach to each team, understanding that one size rarely fits all.

How mature is UX within your organisation?

As a user…

This month the latest entrants to our UX graduate scheme started training on the fundamentals of UX. One of the sessions was about usability testing — why and how we do it: how to recruit, moderation and observation best practice and how to analyse the results.

I went along to the training session as a test participant. An informal usability lab was the setting. We were testing a prototype of a website designed for employees of a business.

As a UX team manager, I’ve moderated and observed user research many times but of course I’m rarely on the other side of the fence.

Here is what I experienced as a usability testing participant:

1. It is nerve-wracking!

Even though I know the script inside-out (thinkaloud principle, we are testing the design, not the user etc etc) I still felt a little under pressure completing the tasks. Why couldn’t I find that piece of information? Was I being slow? Did I need more coffee? It is human nature to place high expectations on ourselves to review, interpret and master technology quickly and to feel inadequate if we don’t. The gentle reassurance and patience of the moderator really was important. A powerful reminder of why empathy is the most important quality for a UXer. And don’t skip the script!

2. There is a lot of insight to be gained

We had a simple prototype with four navigation items, yet there were still plenty of times I got lost or needed to click several places to complete the task. There were also spontaneous observations about the way the design made me feel. Sometimes when we are under pressure as designers we can assume things are obvious, de-scope or postpone testing. Test early and often! It’s well-worn UX advice that still stands.

3. Participating can be fun

In this instance I was seeing a brand new design and I didn’t know what would happen next. Would I find new information or ideas that could make my life easier? Or a new product to add to my existing toolkit? Whether or not users are early-adopters, many are curious about the future and want to help shape it.

So overall a great reminder of why we work this way and I encourage everyone to try being a participant from time to time.

Thanks to the excellent team at Webcredible, our training partners!