A cohesive, robust and talented UX team can be the difference between mediocre results and widespread adoption. Irrespective of whether your company is focused on selling products, signing customers up to a service or building long-term relationships with B2B clients, bringing the right talent in-house will help you to engage your target audience, and retain more customers.
In 2008, ESPN’s UX team managed to drive a 35% increase in digital revenue by pushing for a revamp of the ESPN site’s homepage, and it was the UX team at Microsoft who made the call to switch Bing’s brand colour – a decision that’s widely credited for generating the search giant an extra $80 million in revenue.
It’s not just international news sites or multi-national search engines that are beholden to their UX teams either. Global giants like Spotify, Netflix and Facebook also spend eye-watering amounts of money building in-house departments because they know that a good UX team will help them to grow their user-base, and ensure that their product is an integral part of our modern lives.
Building a successful UX team isn’t easy though, particularly if you’re starting from scratch. You need to know what skill sets you’re looking for, and you need to know exactly what you want the finished team to look like in terms of:
• Role overlap
• Working processes
You’ll also need to lay the groundwork, and get everyone from the C-Suite down on-board with the shift towards a design-centric model.
If you’re not already up-to-date on the latest trends, it can be hard to know where to start. Most of us would struggle to explain the difference between an information architect, a UI designer and an interaction designer, or decide whether or not the team should be kept separate from your developers.
Unfortunately, lack of knowledge has a cost. If you dive in without a clear goal in mind, there’s a strong chance that you’ll end up building a team that’s unfocused and disorganised: The sort of team that can’t drive results, because they’ve been handicapped from the word “go”.
Here, we’re going to provide a detailed analysis of our favourite UX departments; exploring the reasons for their success, the structural blueprint they’ve settled on, and the way that they’ve gone about building a team that can generate consistent results.
Regardless of whether you’re just starting to develop the blueprint for your own UX team, or you’re still in the early stages of requirement gathering, this article will help you to understand how the big brands are tackling the issue.
It will also provide you with some tried-and-tested options that can be adapted to suit the needs of your business, and a better understanding of the way a successful UX team is built.
Netflix’s pioneering approach to autoplay, content selection and content publication have redefined the way we consume TV, and the company’s UX team are widely credited as the architects behind the so-called “streaming revolution”.
In fact, it was Netflix’s decision to start making entire series of original content available from day one that created the trend for “binge-watching” TV, and it was A/B testing conducted by their UX team that inspired that concept.
In recent years, a focus on personalisation, accurate recommendations and an intuitive UI have helped to the company to keep growing despite competition from a host of new rivals, and they’ve won a number of awards for their ground-breaking UX development.
In many ways, Spotify is a mirror of Netflix: Daniel Eke’s pioneering company has also managed to cement itself as a pop-culture icon, and transform the ways that we interact with digital media. The business has become synonymous with the idea of listening to music, and their user base continues to grow despite the bad press surrounding their treatment of artists, and they way they pay royalties.
The reasons for their success are familiar too: Easy track selection, an intuitive interface, and a strong focus on user-friendly design. In spite of stiff competition from Apple and Alphabet’s YouTube, these are the three main reasons that the platform managed to dominate the music scene.
And all of these innovations were driven by Stanley Wood, and the rest of the UX team over at Spotify HQ, which just goes to show how much impact a good UX team can have.
Facebook has always focused on providing a good user experience, their survival depends on it, but recent years have seen them redefining the way we think of social media.
The ability to react to status updates with a single click; the ease with which stories can be shared between the main platform and the messenger app and the way that content curation has been gamified by the audio-visual cues provided by new likes or comments bely a deep understanding of the way that good UX can be used to retain customers, and a strong focus on building one of the world’s best UX teams.
In this article, we’re going to explore the UX departments that are driving these businesses forward, starting with a look at their respective similarities:
The structure, framework and organisation of these three UX teams couldn’t be more different, but there are a few common factors that they all share:
Analysing interviews it’s clear that the best UX teams never stop learning.
New models for sharing ideas, new ways of iterating on each other’s work and new ways of building basic toolkits that can be used to rapidly develop a new feature are common fixtures in all three institutions, and it’s clear that every member of their respective UX teams has been selected because of their passion for user-centric design.
It’s a tired adage, but passion really is the best indicator of success, and we’d always recommend selecting team members who genuinely care about UX design. People who are interested in their work will drive results, irrespective of how they are organised.
Famously, Netflix’s UX department doesn’t make a clear distinction between senior and junior roles. Instead, everybody mucks in on the same level, and authority is relative to someone’s merits.
This kind of organisational anarchy won’t be a great fit for many businesses; hierarchy does play an important role in establishing a team’s priorities and ensuring that organisational needs are met, but it is interesting to see just how dedicated some groups are to communication and teamwork.
Anything that you can do to forge a sense of combined purpose will help your new team to grow, and enable them to meet challenges head-on.
Netflix, Facebook and Spotify all employ people from a wealth of different backgrounds and take great care to ensure that they don’t discriminate on the basis of social standing, background or religion.
For Spotify’s creative director, this has been the key to their success; allowing the business to draw on a range of different experiences, and ensuring that things never become sterile. Diversity in employment also ensures that your staff will learn from one another, and develop as individuals. This might seem like a secondary concern, but the long-term needs of your business are better served by individuals who can draw from a variety of perspectives.
In an interview with Aquent, Spotify’s creative director pointed out that no UX team can survive without the staff needed to manage their workload, organise projects and focus the group’s energy, and we think this is one of the things that people tend to overlook when building a UX team.
Integrating the team properly, and ensuring that they respond to the needs of your organisation is key to guaranteeing their success. It’s important to make sure that they iterate in ways that generate results, and that their time is used well, which means ensuring that a good framework is in place before you start hiring.
In an interview with Inside Design, Andy law – a product designer at Netflix – stated that Netflix’s UX design teams sit apart from the engineers, coders and developers: forming a tight-knit department of dedicated UX, UI and interaction designers that only communicate with other parts of the business when they had a cohesive design to share.
These design teams are platform specific (mobile, tablet, computer etc) but they are all comprised of UX/UI designers from a variety of backgrounds.
He also stressed that the UX teams were very freeform; stating that they made no distinction between junior or senior members and that the whole group was run like a meritocracy, where the people with the most to contribute would be allowed to take the lead.
The appeal of a centralised UX team is fairly plain to see: This kind of approach allows the team to be focused and coordinated, but reactive: it ensures that the look and feel of the platform is always consistent, while allowing a lot of resources to be focused on a single problem, project or objective.
The only downside? The risk of compartmentalisation. Grouped together, a UX team can develop something of a hive mind; reinforcing widely held beliefs and failing to challenge the status-quo where – had they been grouped with people that had a different perspective – they might have driven the company forward.
There is also a risk that they will become detached from the bigger picture: Losing sight of the concerns that developers and engineers have to wrestle with, and finding solutions that don’t necessarily match the needs of the business.
All in all, it seems sensible to conclude that a centralised and independent UX team makes sense for Netflix’s business model, because they’re targeting each user as an individual, and using a one-size-fits-all template to deliver a very customised product.
The customisation is driven by machine learning algorithms, and the company doesn’t have to worry about different user journeys, which means that the design can afford to be homogeneous and critical decisions about infrastructure or resource can be driven by one team.
Spotify is a different story. Reading this interview with Stanley Wood, their VP of design, it’s clear that the organisation has actually tried a few different models: First, the designers were all grouped together, like the team over at Netflix, and there was little (to no) integration with pre-existing teams.
Where Netflix see this as a strength, Stanley Wood states that this structure actually caused some pretty huge problems for Spotify: Citing a lack of integration, a lack of focus, and a tendency to end up iterating based on design trends, rather than the needs of the company.
Instead, he seems to advocate for a model where UX designers are attached to teams developing specific parts of the user journey, but he has also generated something called GLUE. This group is a mix of designers and engineers charged with keeping the disparate UX teams united and providing a set of brand guidelines that help to ensure that the platform has a consistent look and feel.
He cites a conversation with the VP of design at AirBnB for the inspiration behind this model, and we can certainly understand the appeal.
This idea of a decentralised, but co-ordinated UX team with representatives in every part of the business, does seem like it would ease up a lot of roadblocks faced by a centralised UX team, and allow for a process that was collaborative, and relatively well managed.
It’s also a sensible way to ensure that individual designers stay responsive to the needs of other departments, and don’t become cut off from the rest of the organisational culture.
An article published in Forbes shows that Facebook has settled on a team structure that’s very similar to Spotify’s blueprint.
Originally, UX, UI and interaction designers were annexed to specific projects (or products) where they would work alongside engineers and developers to create a robust feature that could stand alone, and drive engagement.
Unfortunately, this encouraged UX designers to start adding individual flourishes to the features they were working on; creating products that didn’t gel well, and a watered-down brand identity.
For a lot of businesses, a strong brand is the key to success, and Facebook is no different. Luckily, they stumbled across a simple solution: A small group of decentralised designers who could review the work done on individual projects and a strong set of processes designed to ensure a certain level of conformity.
This allowed individual designers to retain their individuality, react in-tune with the rest of the business, and retain a certain level of control.
Facebook’s UX team also have frequent round-tables and meet-ups to build cohesion and ensure that they all learn from each other, and retain a shared mindset.
The UX teams assembled by Spotify, Facebook and Netflix are organised in different ways, and it’s clear that there are two or three workable structures, depending on whether you have a single product/focus, or need to cater for a variety of users.
It’s also equally clear that the key to building a successful UX team is adaptability. All 3 organisations have made significant changes to the structure and organisations of their UX teams, without damaging results or impeding progress.
They’ve also made sweeping revisions to the processes used to develop new ideas, and iterated on everything from the way their teams work, to the groups they are working alongside.
This only works if you have strong support from other parts of the business, and a good pool of diverse individuals that are willing to change the way they work. But if you put the time into finding those individuals, and you focus on building a team that’s responsive and engaged, you can experiment with different styles of management.
The key, it seems, is finding people who will work together, put the company first, and prioritise the needs of the business.
If you’re looking to grow your UX/UI team, we’d be more than happy to offer you support and advice. We’re an established recruitment agency that specialises in sourcing UX and UI talent, and we’re always more than happy to help businesses build the in-house resource that will take them to the next level. Get in touch today, and one of our experts, will walk you through the strategic advice that we can offer. CLICK HERE and get in touch today!
Author: Carl Flynn
Carl Flynn specialises in UX Design & Digital recruitment. Call Carl today for expert strategic advice on how to build your dream UX team.