UX Teams: Their Structure, Purpose, Benefits, Management

The aim of creating a highly interactive digital product has led to the companies adopting and giving more priority to UX. UX teams have gained more importance in the business scenario as compared to the yesteryears. UX teams have evolved with the increased acceptance in the business trend. Research, User Experience and User Interface design – these three key elements remain the same. However, based on the needs and resources, companies work with varying forms of UX teams.

The UX team as a whole

A UX team, as a whole, is responsible for the product ideation and design based on the foundation of user research and feedback. It plays a vital role, shaping the product for developers and marketers to work with. The UX team is an aggregate unit of three components – UX, UI design and user research team.

• UX design deals with elements that are responsible for a user’s experience with the product. It aids in achieving user goals with problem-solving. Further, they align these user objectives with the business goals. A UX design team generally relies on elements like customer journey maps to examine the various aspects of user interaction with the product to assure optimized user experience.

• The UI design is all about what the user sees and directly interacts with. UI teams handle the product interface design guided by shapes, icons, animations, patterns, and trends. They are responsible for all the visual elements in the final product. Anything the user views is a work of the UI team.

• User research aims to know what the users want. Research helps to analyze the market, looking for potential product opportunities in the market in the form of user pains and needs. These user needs create the base for the product which gets designed to solve a specific problem. A research team also conducts prototype testing and handles the user feedback and test results to improve the final product further.

The UX Structure

The above insight is a testament to the significance of the UX teams in the product development. A UX team has a diverse involvement in various aspects (research, user experience, and design) of product development. Hence, it is a concern for companies when they have to decide upon the structure of the UX team, especially when you put into the equation, the human and financial resources available along with organization’s structure.

Companies adopt team structures that favor their style of play and resources. The UX team could be divided into individual elements, in pairs of two and a single unit or treated as one separate department. Each has their pros and cons.

The lone-wolf system

In this system, the individual elements of the UX team – UX, UI, and research, are all treated as separate units. Each of these units has specific roles. Research only does the user or market research and provides the analysis, UX works on the user experience aspect and UI team designs the interface.

Pros:
• Each unit has concentrated responsibilities
• There’s adequate time for each product aspect (research, experience, and design)
• Minimized bias

Cons:
• The probability of information loss due to transmission between separate units
• Calls for management of a larger number of people<.p>

The paired-single system

Companies might opt to merge two units of the UX team and treat the remaining unit separately. There can be two permutations.

UX and UI with research

It is a cohesive arrangement where the designers are separated from the research aspects. The research team only has the job of collecting and providing data. The designers use the research information as the base of their plans for the product design process. The UX and UI designers work collectively on both the user experience and interface design.

Pros:
• Adequate research time
• Provision of unbiased design feedback from researchers
• No interruption in the design process, as both design teams work together

Cons:
• The merging of both design aspects puts a high workload on designers

UX and research with UI

Sometimes, UX and research teams are paired together in a setup. The combination of UX and research makes for a concentrated research-design relationship. This pairing streamlines the early design phases but isolates the latter stages. This diversion interrupts the product design process as both UX and UI team act separately.

Pros:
• Research directly associated with user experience design
• No scope of visual biasing
• UI designers have time for testing variations

Cons:
• Risk of miscommunication between UX and UI
• Potential research biasing by UX designer
• Lack of work for UI team

The single unit

Alternatively, UX team stays as a single cohesive unit. This UX-UI-research setup is usually preferred when dealing with limited resources. The individuals from each unit are involved in the whole process of research and design. Merging the units forms a more informed single division.

Pros:
• Every UX member has full knowledge of the process
• Ability to allocate time depending on the requirements

Cons:
• High workload on the team members
• Risk of overspending time on particular design aspects
• Risk of bias at different stages

Other roles in UX structure

UX, UI, and research are the usual answers when any business faces the question of product ideation and its development. However, in some cases, individuals with specialized skills come in and help with some of the aspects of the development process. Examples of such roles are interaction designer, information architect, audio designer, copywriter and content strategist who have particularly focused skills that aid the UX teams.

UX hierarchy within an organization

The lone-wolf, paired-single, and single system speak out about the structure within the UX team. How the UX team operates within the organization is different. Some companies see UX teams as a referential body and treat it as a separate department. Alternatively, some will use UX teams passively to act as personnel reserve for the product teams. Then there’s the option for a hybrid system originating from the combination of the earlier two systems.

The internal or centralized model

UX teams following an internal model have an individual presence within the company. Hence, this kind of teams has a head, who could be a lead designer or lead researcher. The team members work on projects but aren’t bound to a single project. A particular person might provide their expertise on various products simultaneously. It makes for an excellent system as any project that comes in, gets an insight of different design personnel which helps in refining the product. Collaborations within the design team are common.

That said, the centralized system does have its flaws. As any particular project could involve numerous UX members, information errors are probable. Moreover, this setup is inert to external factors as any development done stays within the team unless required to transmit the information to other departments. This tendency results in the late discovery of design constraints which leads to long design and iteration process.

Cross-functional or embedded model

Embedded models are organized in terms of personnel assignment. Cross-functional setup has designers and researchers specifically assigned to product teams. A particular individual is time-tied to a specific project until it’s over. It is more effective than the centralized model because of the early UX involvement in the process which leads to better product development ensuring problem-solving and goal achievement. The UX members have direct interaction with the product team. It builds relationships among the workforce which results in better communication and faster message transfer during the development process. There is a ‘but’ though.

Embedded models are known to isolate designers, especially if the designer-developer ratio is high. Hence, there’s the risk of bias creeping in the process from the designer’s side, being alone in the development sphere. The isolation can be mitigated by pairing designer, the way Slack did. This way, the designers have like minds to share their thoughts and opinions and support each other.

The elevator structure

Sometimes, the internal and cross-functional structure co-exist in a design sphere. Elevator structures provide the best of both cross-function and centralized system. An elevator structure is, in the face, a centralized model. However, when conditions call, people move across to product teams, thus, demonstrating the embedded model aspect. When required, product teams recruit people based on their needs.

Like the embedded model, elevator model risks isolation of designers. The risk is higher as the head cannot allocate more people than what the product team wants. This situation usually results in low designer-developer ratio, which is bound to influence the designer.

Team sourcing

Despite the obvious influence in product development, companies have mixed opinions of UX teams over their position within an organization. Some might prefer setting up their UX team while some others would prefer outsourcing.

UX teams within the organization

Some companies spend the resources and have a UX team in place. The primary aim of internal UX teams is accessibility. Internal UX teams, as situated within the company jurisdiction, make for total dedicated UX system. Besides, they will know the organization and its culture. Being always available within the work-sphere, it enables faster communication with other teams concerning the product development.

This high degree of involvement does come at some price. Internal UX teams could have a cautious approach to things because of various influencing factors, thus, limiting UX success. Also, they will need a steady flow of work. Else, the management risks idling the team. Another take on the matter is that a UX team asks for financial and human resource devotion, not something that every conglomerate thinks about similarly or afford to.

UX teams as a separate organization

The best part of outsourcing UX teams is the lack of concern for spending a massive amount of resources. Although there will be some financial resources consumed, it would be considerably smaller in comparison to the amount expended on setting up a UX team and maintaining it. External UX teams are free from ties with any organization, meaning they provide an unbiased view to the things. Their diverse experience gained by collaborating with various firms could trigger some innovative ideas. An internal UX team can work around the deadlines. But, the external ones are heavily time-constrained, hence could prove more efficient concerning time management.

External UX teams do have their strengths, but they are not entirely dedicated to a company like an internal team is. Being foreign to the organization, some of their ideas might clash with the companies’ thinking.

Managing UX teams

UX teams need control, but how do you do it? Both internal and external association of UX teams need managing in different ways.

Internal teams

Internal teams are part of the organization. As discussed earlier, these teams are headed by a lead designer or lead researcher. This person supervises the overall UX team, looking over the research and also providing some feedback to the designers. However, he/she is never directly involved in the process. The lead designer/research makes for one out of two of the accountable individuals. The Product Manager is the other head that the UX members have to answer to, especially in embedded systems where the designers directly function with the product team.

External teams

Members from external UX teams need collaborating with the existing product design team. Together, they form a product team, which has all the elements of product development. Within an organization, the external UX members work under the Product Manager.

Digital products have become much more intuitive and user-friendly. All thanks to UX. Through this article, we got to know about the UX, its components and how they are structured within itself and the organization.

I hope this article gave you some great starting points for thinking about ways to manage and setup your UX Teams inside the software development structure. If you have any insights of your own, please send me an email and I would be happy to include it as part of this article!

author: patrick algrim
About the author

Patrick Algrim is an experienced executive who has spent a number of years in Silicon Valley hiring and coaching some of the world’s most valuable technology teams.

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