Introducing UX Watercooler

We initiated a new series at Notably called UX Watercooler, where every Wednesday at 10am PST/1pm EST we host a live Twitter space and invite a guest speaker from the UX community to join us and discuss a topic of their choice relating to UX research. 

We are excited to continue the series with our second guest, Doug Collins. In this post, we’ll share the highlights from our space, where we discussed how to set up a UX practice from scratch. 

Doug Collins, UX and UI Director and author of the UX Design Fieldbook.

Doug: I am the UX and UI director at ALC schools. So I get to have both those hats on. ALC schools is a company that does transportation for students, usually with special needs in private vehicles. So it's a bit like using Uber or Lyft to get your kid to school, but specifically designed for that. We vet our drivers very well. We have software and tools that allow our districts and parents and teachers to see where students are within the process and to coordinate different pickups and drop off times. So a really cool piece of software and a fun product to work with. 

Doug: I started my career back in 2009 when I was living out of the back of my car, a Ford Escort, which is cushy as it sounds. I got my UX basic knowledge and learning from the different tools and resources that we're out there being shared by different folks and was able to leverage that into a very solid career. I'm very thankful for the help that's been given to me. 

Doug: That relates back to the book that I put out just last month, the UX Design Field Book, which is essentially a 130ish page basic overview of UX design. All the different aspects of UX design with basic processes and principles, vocabulary, and just a good quick reference book. It's the book I would have wanted when I was starting in the industry. And to be honest, I still use it myself. 

Doug: I think one of the main things a lot of people don't realize about being a UX design professional is that even people that have been doing it for decades still look up some of the most basic things on a daily basis because it's just not in our brain at the moment. There's too much to hold in there. 

Scaling a design team from scratch inside of a technology-led defense company and a financial technology company.

Doug: Western Union has about 5,000 total full-time employees so not a small company, definitely larger and well established. They’ve been around since the late 1800s. But when I came to their design practice, they didn't really have anything. They had a couple of UI designers working on their cross border money transfer products. And that was it.

Doug:  These products have been around for years without any design support or any design experience being leveraged. They were using some contractors and a blend of in-house experience. The developers were doing a lot of the design, which you know, may work for a project here or there. But what you generally end up with is a design culture that's very fractured and inconsistent. There was definitely a lack of consistency across tools, and there was no process involved so everything was just done ad-hoc, at a moment's notice.

Doug: CACI is a company that does software for defense and intelligence purposes. The suite of six tools I worked on were essentially like the IMDB or Facebook for bad guys. And the Google Maps of bad guys allowed you to track bad actors. Both in terms of what they were doing geospatially, you could track things that were happening on maps, and also just keep track of all the information. It’s a way for these intelligence agencies to gather, share, and farm out some of these ideas.

Doug: A 20,000 person company working on a suite of tools really should have not just one designer, but a large team of designers. That was not happening there. 

Doug: And so I grew that team from two to a larger team. We had a UX Research intern, a UX researcher, I was the Senior UX Researcher, a Senior Visual Designer, and an Interaction Designer. We also brought on a UX Manager at that point as well. So kind of grew that into a larger team that honestly for a suite of six tools was still not large enough, but at least it was headed in the right direction.

Doug: E-Trade was the same thing. They essentially had a style guide and that was about it. All the developers were doing the design for each of the pieces of software, which meant that they were coming up with individual designs and solutions that worked for the individual problems, but there was no consistency applied across these pieces. So you're challenged with starting something from scratch.  

Doug: This is where I really cut my teeth with setting up a design practice. What are the pieces to be done? What are the things that you really need to pay attention to? And I think throughout all of those pieces, throughout everything that I've come across, and throughout my experience, there are really a couple of key things that that really seem to make a success when it comes down to it. How you implement those things are sort of the frills and accoutrements that you might add onto it or are a little bit different from place to place. 

The two main keys to success with setting up a design practice from scratch. 

Doug: The big key thing is to establish a process that allows us to work far enough ahead of the development teams to give you the appropriate amount of time that you need to do appropriate UX research, and appropriate UX design. Before the development team is really given the mandate to start working on those pieces, and put their digital pen to paper, so to speak, and begin the coding process.

Doug: That doesn't mean that you shouldn't involve those folks. As a matter of fact, it's tremendously important to involve your developers while you're going through the research and initial design process, to make sure that the knowledge transfer is significantly less when it comes time for them to actually start writing code. So that's been kind of the key thing. 

Doug: The other thing is to make sure that the process is sustainable and repeatable. A lot of times you may be able to get that process there for a little bit, you may be able to sustain it for a while but things will fade. So you need to have a very well defined, well explained process that everybody is on board with, everybody understands, and has buy-in from the managers that are in the best position to ensure that that process is followed and respected consistently.

Doug: That's actually what indirectly led to the UX Design Fieldbook when I was a CACI establishing this process. One of the pieces our manager helped us work through was a 3000 word document “The Basics of UX Design”, that we socialized within the company. It gave them an idea of what it is that we do, why we do it, and what our process, and vocabulary so that they know what to expect from us.

Doug: That served as the spark behind writing a larger piece, something that is more in depth, more approachable, and more applicable to people that are new in their career, people that are coming at this from other areas of technology, or just individuals who have been in UX for a while that need to have a quick reference resource in front of it. And that's what grew into the 23,000 word, UX Design Field Book. So it's all kind of linked together. 

Doug: Those are the two main things for how to set up something from scratch. The hardest part, quite frankly, can be just getting yourself to a place where you do have enough time to do the appropriate research, and to do the appropriate design work without having the development team sort of right there and trying to develop as you're designing, because that does not work for anyone. Certainly a number of different approaches to that, but it makes a big difference. Having that expectation set the support from your upper level management. 

The challenges with setting up a UX practice from scratch.

Doug: Probably the hardest part of that was documenting a practice enforcing consistency and just getting partners that would help you do that. It's different in different places, you're going to work with some leadership that is more open to that you're going to work with some leadership that maybe needs a bit more of a push to make sure that you're continuing that in that direction.

Doug: In those places where you have an established product that has been around for a long time. They just don't have that sort of design rigor around it. You're fighting against every entrenched process, every entrenched thought and everybody that's already there. And then you're also dealing with preconceived conceptions about what design is and what it should be and sort of what the outputs of that should be in the interactions that should be. 

You're fighting against every entrenched process, every entrenched thought and everybody that's already there. And then you're also dealing with preconceived conceptions about what design is and what it should be and sort of what the outputs of that should be in the interactions that should be.

Doug: There's no real understanding of the the rigor that goes behind it and the process that’s involved in terms of making sure that we're doing a good job about the types and variety of UX research that we do and the the different data sources that we need in order to make appropriate estimations of what needs to be researched or done. 

Doug: There's just not a lot of knowledge of what goes on behind the curtain. And I think that leads to sometimes the viewpoint that design is either easy or quick, which we all know, it's neither of those things. It takes time. 

Doug: And and when you first start there, if you don't have a good reason why it might take you two weeks to, to create a set of icons around something or to choose a color for a particular interface or particular button on a screen, people can get really confused and honestly a little angry, because you're not responding in a way that meets their understanding of the model of how designers should work.

Doug: So that's why I say that getting that process set up and clarified and implemented as quickly as possible is really, really key. People don't have to understand everything about your job, if people want to understand everything about your job, if you have a developer or a leader is just super interested and gung ho, absolutely identify those people that are friendly to you bring them in and have them be your best friends to advocate for you as you're going throughout the design process. But in the end, they don't have to know everything, they just have to have an understanding of what the basic process is, what your timelines are and what your expectations should be.

Creating a practice from scratch in big companies versus startups.

Doug: So the great thing about [my role at ALC Schools] is that we have much more of a startup type culture. And it's great that we have a product, but the people that are there are all new. People are super open to the process, which makes things a lot easier when you have a team that is open to that process and is open to understanding what you want to do. And you're able to involve them from the beginning, give them that insight and show them the value of what you can do without having to fight against those preconceived notions of what your work is and what you provide and the value that you could get. 

Doug: So it's a lot easier to establish those practices, to document those practices, and to find the people that are friendly to you, because quite simply their minds are not are not as closed off. And that's not a result, I should say, of the people that work with you. I think that's a natural occurrence for anybody that is working within those spaces, to have an idea of what design should be based on their experience of how they've interacted with it in the past. 

Doug: But that is sort of the advantage you get out of working with a newer, fresher team and some of those less developed spaces. And it's certainly refreshing. 

Doug: I think we're getting to the point in UX and design in general, where we're having to advocate less in general about our value and what we can provide and what we do as knowledge is improving. 

Doug: But if you find yourself in a job where that's not the case for you personally, it can be absolutely exhausting. You have to have the right frame of mind for it. And you have to be willing to say today I'm going to go to the gym, I'm going to put in my work, it's going to be tough, it's not going to be easy. But I'm going to make some improvement today on whatever that might be in terms of the culture, the understanding and the buy-in that you get. 

Doug: So if that's the job that you're getting into, that certainly should be something that you're asking about when you're applying for jobs, know what you're getting into and be mentally ready for it on a daily basis.

Using ratios to determine the size of your brand new UX practice.

Doug: One of the things to keep in mind is just the ratio of designers to developers. That should give you a baseline for how large a team should be. 

Doug: It's been interesting to watch that ratio come down in recent years. In 2010 a lot of major companies were at about a 20:1 developer to designer ratio. And as we've seen the ROI and the impact of UX and design be more well understood, that ratio has come down to a lot of places that are now in the 4:1 to one to 6:1 ratio.

Doug: So that should give you an idea of how big those teams should be for a couple of different reasons. For one thing, it gives you an idea of the ROI that you can get from design. Design in general pays for itself, on the impact that it has on your development team from keeping them from working on failed products or working on things that they don't need to.

Early positions to hire for in a brand new UX practice.

Doug: If I'm starting something new and I'm looking to hire a design team from scratch, the first thing that you need is somebody in a role similar to mine that has that experience. You cannot have somebody in a UX Manager, UX/UI Director that doesn't have a experience trying to put these teams together. 

Doug: You want to have somebody that has some experience instituting some of these processes and knows some of the battles that they're going to face. 

Doug: From there, it's super important to differentiate between User Interface Design and User Experience Design, because the skills involved in both are tremendously unique. You have to have a good UI Designer. I have found that a lot of UX Designers do have good visual chops, but then that's just going to take them away from the work they're doing as a UX person.

Doug: Whether that's doing the actual information, architecture, design, work, doing the research side of things, I want my UX people to focus strictly on UX. I want my UI people to focus strictly on creating great visuals and/or great interfaces. I don't want there to be distraction between those two. Certainly those people should work together, but I want to have that differentiation. 

Doug: I want to have a top flight UI Designer. Topflight does not necessarily mean that they have a lot of experience. Topflight means that they can show me that they understand things like typography and color balance. Those visual design pieces that are important from an artistic and accessibility perspective as well. 

Doug: I need to know, “Can you create designs that are truly accessible?” And that is a big piece, I think of them being a modern, informed, and capable UI Designer that a lot of UI Designers miss. 

Doug: From there. I really want a UX research person. I'm biased towards UX research, I fully admit it, that that is my jam.

Doug:  I want somebody specifically to do the UX Research side of things. I want somebody that can show me that you understand Quantitative Data and that you understand how to use Quantitative Data tools, and that you can use them as sort of starting points to figure out where you might begin additional research efforts.

Doug: And then a good qualitative researcher. Somebody that's good with people, somebody that's willing to go out into the field, do ethnographic research, watch people using the product within the context of their own environments to make those observations about how our products really work for people in terms of their workflow, in terms of their hardware in terms of how it fits in with everything else that they're doing throughout the day.

Doug: The other people I really like to have are a really good Interaction Designer, and a really good UX Writer. I think both those people are tremendously important. If I can't get somebody that specializes in either of those two things, a good solid, well rounded UX Generalist can generally do those things to enough of a level of expertise to be very effective.

Level of experience for early team members.

Doug: I don't care about your education level. I don't care if you went through a boot camp. I don't care if you've got a master's degree. I don't care if you're self taught. I just want to know that you can do the work. 

Doug: Show me you can do the work. Whether or not you're showing me through previous work experience, through other projects that you've done personally, through volunteer experience, I don't care. Get your experience out there, show me that you can do the job, and give me some confidence that I'm not hiring somebody that is completely green.

Doug: I want somebody to have at least a little bit of experience. How you go about getting that experience is an entirely another conversation at some other point in time.

Create your own AI-powered templates for better, faster research synthesis. Discover new customer insights from data instantly.

Give your research synthesis superpowers.

Try Teams for 7 days

Free for 1 project