Whose profession is it anyway?

XII.3 May + June 2005
Page: 20
Digital Citation

Building positive team relationships for better usability

John Ferrara

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Practitioners of user experience design have responsibility for the usability of digital products. We serve as user advocates, championing such goals as comprehensibility, task efficiency, and users' physical comfort. This responsibility isn't just a matter of conscientiously following professional best practices for their own sake. Both our products' users and our employers will ultimately hold us accountable for the usability of the digital products that we design. Our credibility and livelihood, in fact, depend on each product's ease of use once developed.

Consequently, user experience (UX) professionals need to be able to exercise control over many factors impacting usability, some of which may fall within the domains of other product team members. Who should have decision-making power over the visual formatting of screen text? The depictions of icons in toolbars? The distribution of functions between an application window and ancillary dialog boxes? 'Why, me, of course!' I'm with you. All of these decisions affect usability. However, graphic designers, engineers, content writers, marketers, and product managers may also feel tremendous personal—and legitimate—ownership of these decisions.

Attempting to influence such factors for which we share responsibility can seem threatening or even insulting to other team members, yet user experience professionals can't just cede control of them. Competing interests can lead to power struggles and rivalry. Thus, UX professionals may appear arrogant, self-righteous, or impractical to others. Or controlling. Or high strung. Such struggles can be tremendously frustrating, because professional imperatives and professional relationships are in opposition.

They needn't be. There are simple and pragmatic ways that practitioners can build and maintain positive team relationships while retaining control of decisions affecting usability. Here are six techniques to help you do exactly that.

UX professionals can successfully maintain positive team relationships without sacrificing decision-making power. Different viewpoints are inherent in project teams, but should neither cause personal offense nor harm usability.

Demonstrate your respect for others. This is the first and most important point to remember. It isn't enough to tell team members that you respect them. Only showing your esteem for their work through your actions will convince them that your respect is genuine.

For example, when you're facing a design dilemma, ask the graphic designers or programmers on your team for their expertise. They can evaluate the design alternatives or propose new ones. When you and other team members have conflicting viewpoints, avoid taking a defensive position. Listen to others' concerns carefully and ask questions to make sure your understanding is correct. Show that you take their points of view seriously. When attempting to resolve a conflict, work toward solutions that address everyone's concerns, setting consensus as your objective instead of personal victory.

Clearly define the decisions you expect to influence. Set the foundation for team harmony early by having individual discussions with each team member to set appropriate expectations for who owns which decisions. It's usually much easier to negotiate agreement when speaking abstractly than when forced to do so by a specific issue. When conflicts do arise, you can refer back to these earlier agreements.

Stay out of decisions that don't affect usability. Honor the domains of other team members, and always defer to their expertise on matters where usability isn't a concern. When you do so, let them know that you are adhering to the agreements you made in your earlier discussions.

Invite other team members to participate in the usability process. Sharing ownership and responsibility for usability diversifies qualitative input while showing regard for others. Invite everyone to observe usability testing and contribute to the report or to participate in heuristic evaluations or cognitive walkthroughs. Use their ideas, and show gratitude for them.

Make your work valuable to everyone. Listen to the needs of your fellow team members and find ways that you can make their work easier. Programmers may value a wireframe that meticulously details all field parameters for a Web form, while project managers may appreciate a cost justification of usability testing for upper management. Make others' work easier, and they will see your work as indispensable.

Appeal to common interests. We've all had frustrating experiences using technology, and the value of usability is inherently understandable. Make the case that usability supports business objectives by removing barriers to task completion, promoting brand loyalty, and reducing dependence on training and support. Also, argue that usability is altruistic: Design for others as you would have them design for you.

UX professionals can successfully maintain positive team relationships without sacrificing decision-making power. Different viewpoints are inherent in project teams, but should not cause personal offense or harm usability. Working to build positive relationships improves team synergy and leads to the design and development of better user experiences and speedier product rollouts.

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John C. Ferrara

About the Author:

John Ferrara is an information architect at Unisys. He works on a team composed of designers, programmers, and content editors with responsibility for the corporation's global Web presence. Before joining Unisys, he worked in similar capacities for Web consultancies Breakaway Solutions in Philadelphia and iXL in New York City. He holds degrees in Communication Arts and Communication Studies.

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©2005 ACM  1072-5220/05/0500  $5.00

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