Alone on the beach

How To Survive as Your Company’s Solo UXer

By Doug Collins, Editor, UXNewsMag.com

Editor’s note: this article originally appeared on UXMastery.com.

Landing a job as a company’s only user experience pro is an amazing opportunity. It means having the ability to shape and guide the design of an entire organisation. As a UX team of one, you’re part of a small group of pros at the coal face of an entire organisation’s design strategy.

Leading an organisation from this role is also a major challenge. It’s hard work implementing a UX focus in a company where none exists. There will be battles against corporate biases, conflicting business needs, and results-driven culture.

In such a difficult position, how can a UXer go about creating a culture of great user experience?

It’s imperative to establish a baseline process, socialise the benefits of great UX, and prepare for the long road ahead.

Above all else, establish a process

When starting a culture of user experience focus, the first step is to establish a clear UX process.

“UX process is a cornerstone of UX design, it’s a make-it-or-break-it aspect of UX design,” writes veteran UX professional Nick Babich in his blog for Adobe.

Without a solid UX design process, a designer could be completely moving in the dark. A clear and concise UX process, on the other hand, makes it possible to craft amazing experiences for users.”

Every UX professional should have a favoured baseline process. In fact, you’d expect this to be the first question in any UX interview. Part of any quality answer to this question should be to acknowledge the importance of context. No two companies or products are the same. Processes should differ depending on organisational needs, technology stacks, and delivery speed.

No process is bound to be the perfect fit. An initial process’s existence is more important than its perfection. Install a process to address the largest problems and work to resolve the kinks later.

Whatever process you choose, tailor it to your organisation’s needs. This will help you with the second facet of gaining UX buy-in: socialising UX benefits among stakeholders.

Socialise the benefits of UX among stakeholders

In his Forbes piece Good UX is Good Business, Andrew Kucheriavy, founder and CEO Intechnic, lays out the argument for the business benefits of an improved focus on user experience.

“Good user experience is clearly good for business,” he writes. “ Studies show that companies that invest in UX see a lower cost of customer acquisition, lower support cost, increased customer retention and increased market share.”

While the benefits are clear, you must be able to explain why the UX process is beneficial to your stakeholders.

UX success hinges on the cooperation and participation of the business as a whole. While you are the engine propelling the car, the whole machine must move forward together. It’s often difficult for internal stakeholders to see the progress and impact of UX focus. By clearly explaining the benefits, you’ll bring your company one step closer to fully embracing a culture of great user experience.

I’ve written previously on how big of a part UX professionals play in facilitating internal communication. We sit at the epicentre of our business. We speak with our business partners to understand project requirements. We work with our technical teams to understand what’s viable, and to support development efforts. We talk with customers to understand their wants, needs, and expectations. An established process allows UX pros to speak about the project pipeline and its direct impact to any stakeholder.

If we are successful as UX professionals, the benefits we add to our organisations should be clear. Our business partners should have a better understanding of our customers’ needs through UX testing. Our technical teams will receive projects that are both practical and well-defined through iteration and revision with our business partners. And, most importantly, our customers receive a product that exceeds their expectations.

Be aggressive in explaining your expected benefits. Take advantage of your team’s rituals and culture to discuss your roll and how your process will benefit specific projects and initiatives. This gives UX pros excellent opportunities to speak on how and why our process benefits the company as a whole, and gain allies in promoting usability throughout the company.

Cindy McCracken, a UX professional with more than 10 years of experience working for the likes of Fidelity Investments, agrees.

“The more you work with co-workers such as support, sales and development and show them the value of UX, the more support you will have within the organisation,” she writes in her article Proven Strategies to Win Over Stakeholders for Your UX Project. “These in-the-trenches supporters will see the value of your work and the successes with customers first hand, and that will go a long way toward impacting workplace culture and filtering up to senior level support of UX.”

There are a few ways UX professionals can quickly integrate themselves into the rhythms of the business.

Attend development standups. Listen for blockers and speak about how your UX process will ease these issues in the future. Pay attention for upcoming work, and ask for inclusion where practical.

“In planning meetings, be alert for extensive development work planned to go work with interfaces that clearly need to be redesigned,” writes McCracken. “Rather than just let them proceed, bring potential design problems and ideas for improvements to the team.”

Set meetings with your business partners. Work to understand their underlying problems. Explain UX’s role in fixing those issues. Find the low hanging fruit to get some quick wins on the board.

Take part in retrospectives. Retrospectives are a great platform to show the type of value you can provide for your new team.

Listen for issues on previous releases. Present your UX process after discussing these issues. Prepare to speak on your process, and how that will affect any issues raised. After your first couple of releases, plan on asking for feedback to adjust your basic process.

Get in front of your customers. Some would argue that it’s not UX unless you’re getting in touch with your users. This is where great UX starts and ends. Working with your clients shows your engaged in their needs. It allows you to talk about projects that are in development. And it allows you to understand wants, needs, and pain points. We take all this back to our business partners to help create a better product.

According to McCracken, a great way to do this early in the game is to test early iterations of projects with your clients.

“[Use] an online first-click test to see if participants go where you expect when asked to perform tasks,” She writes. “You can even ask what people notice first on a page. Better yet, run one study with an image of your current design, and one with an image of the new design to see how user performance compares. If you have a clear winner, it should be easy to get buy-in to improve conversions, which would be a great return on investment.

Prepare for the long road ahead

The road to establishing UX as a team of one can be difficult and lonely at times. Larger teams, for starters, can divide and conquer work.

A team of one, however, does not have that luxury.

As solo teams, it’s important to take some steps to avoid over-extension. With no one to pick up the slack, whiffing on an objective or project can have major consequences. What’s more, the stress of working alone can be intimidating.

So how can you make life as a solo UXer easier on yourself?

Work with your higher-ups to set reasonable goals and benchmarks. Talk about when you’d like to have processes installed and how you’d like to go about its implementation. Make sure that everyone is clear on mutual expectations and goals. Review your progress and blockers regularly.

Engage with the larger UX community. One mind rarely surprises itself. In larger teams, UXers have comrades to give feedback. In solo teams, isolation can inhibit creative solutions and stunt professional development. Go to UX meetups. Follow industry leaders on Twitter. Start a blog. Ask and answer questions on Stack Overflow. Join an online UX group like the wonderful UXMastery Community. Whatever you do, get involved with the UX world as a whole in some way. Your conscious and career will thank you.

Conclusion

Working as the solitary UX professional in your organisation is not an easy job, but it can be tremendously rewarding.

In Leah Buley’s The User Experience Team of One: A Research and Survival Guide, she makes the best case I’ve yet seen for the allure of working as a UX team of one. The team of one’s work is as close as one can get to the fundamental values of the UX community as a whole.

“UX is a force for good,” she writes. “[As a team of one,] you help spread the growth of a new and exciting field, one person, team, and company at a time.”

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Doug Collins is the editor for UXNewsMagazine.com.  

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