Last week I switched jobs and moved from a large, established financial organization to a young, enthusiastic tech company. While there’ve been a lot of changes to deal with (wait—I DON’T have to wear a suit everyday??? And the coffee is how much??? FREE?!?! WHAT SORCERY IS THIS???), I felt confident that my day-to-day responsibilities as a UX Designer would remain the same.
And there was a lot of familiarity: Usability Tests were still Usability Tests. Research was still research. OmniGraffle was still OmniGraffle. However, when I actually rolled up my sleeve and began working on my first assignment, I quickly stumbled on one dramatically different tool that I had always leaned on: my teammates. And they did not come with instruction manuals.
Over the years at my old company, I had learned the ins and outs of the people I’d worked alongside. Steve liked big picture ideas, while Helen preferred the Joe Friday Approach (just the facts, ma’am). Susan was great at working off sketches, while Charles would follow specifications to the letter.
Thrown onto a new team, I realized for the first time just how much I relied on my knowledge of the people around me in order to create high quality work. It was suddenly clear just how much I altered my approach and even my deliverables based on my relationship with the intended audience. Often without even realizing I was doing so! Here I was, starting at zero in my knowledge of the people around me. Fortunately, they’re a capable, creative and friendly group; but it got me thinking about just how important the relationships on every project are.
Recalling the work I’d done in the past, it became blindingly apparent that the biggest difference between the successful and unsuccessful projects wasn’t the focus, the scope, the tools or the technology: it was the relationships—the stakeholder with the project manager, the project manager with the designer, the designer with the developer, the team with the users, and (most importantly) the user with the product. When the relationships were good, so was the project. When the relationships were bad, so were the results.
All of this led me to wonder: is relationship building the most important (and least discussed) technology skillset? Is it the single biggest key to building great things? Would we all be more successful if we focused first (and harder) on relationships before writing a business plan, sketching a UI or typing a line of code?
At this point, you might be thinking of a project you were on where everyone got along, but the product crashed and burned. Or the time where you all fought the whole time yet produced an enormous success. Many extremely capable and successful people are antisocial, and many nice people are failures. Don’t these examples disprove the importance of relationships in success?
Not necessarily. What I’m talking about isn’t how much you like someone. It isn’t related to being an introvert or an extrovert. And it’s not about being charming or infuriating. It’s looking critically at the way in which you interact with the people around you and doing so effectively. Not necessarily likably, charismatically or agreeably (though that will certainly win you more friends and make life easier for everyone), but getting what you need in order to deliver and giving others around you the same. Clear communication, understanding and reliability are more likely to produce success. Otherwise, you’re stuck relying on star talent and dumb luck that people will work together well and build something that anyone will like.
So how do we improve our relationships quickly and effectively? How can we facilitate easy communication with people we know little or nothing about, mend difficult relationships, and take effective collaboration to the next level? As a User Experience Practitioner, I turned to my own field to find the answers and the results proved fascinating.
The fundamentals of UX are rooted in basic scientific research: Question, Research, Hypothesize, Test, Analyze and Repeat. The field has been around for decades and excels in providing insight into how people respond and interact with products and information. This is essentially what I was trying to find out and improve: what’s the best way to communicate, interact and collaborate with the individuals around me? Here are the basic steps (blatantly stolen from the UX Process) that I followed to discover this and build my work relationships:
- Question: Identify something in your workplace that is holding you back from performing at your peak and ask why. Why are projects hitting snags between design and development? Why are Samantha and I having trouble communicating? Why are we having difficulty getting time and budget for User Testing?
- Research: Watch the people around you and see how they react to good news, bad news, changes and new information. See how they work and try to get to know them (obviously!). Talk to them; ask them about their objectives, experience, philosophies and perspectives. How do they define success? If you’re about to work with someone new, seek out and talk to someone who’s worked with him or her before. They may have tips or observations to share that can be helpful.
- Hypothesize: Come up with a possible solution or approach to your problem and predict the outcome. “Prototypes will be a more effective hand-off than wireframes.” “Samantha is often rushed and irritable in the morning. We’ll work together more effectively if I give her a bulleted list of questions after lunch.” “We can get more time for testing if I show some testing sessions we’ve done in the past to the clients and the stakeholders.”
- Test: Try out your new approach and watch the reaction. Don’t be swayed too much by small sample sizes—a new approach might take some time to get used to. Be versatile enough to make changes on the fly if things aren’t working quite the way you’d hope. Solicit feedback and listen not just to what was said, but how it was said. Sometimes the answer is in the tone, not the content. Ask others what they thought.
- Analyze: This is perhaps the most important step. After you’ve tested your hypothesis, stop for a minute and mull it over. If it was successful, ask yourself why. If it was unsuccessful, ask yourself why you were off the mark. Adjust going forward.
- Repeat: Never stop learning! There’s always room to improve, innovate and refine. Eventually, you’ll probably learn things about people that they aren’t even aware of themselves.
I’m not suggesting that you keep a binder full of notes on all your coworkers. That would be weird. And creepy. As you get to know your coworkers, you intuitively begin to understand how to effectively interact with them. That discovery is organic and subconscious. Make sure that you take the time for some conscious discovery as well, even after you get to know them. Continue to push yourself through the UX process to better understand people and, in turn, improve your work and relationships.
I think you’ll find that this approach will alter not only the way you deliver, but the fundamental design of what you deliver as well. Interactions will be easier, you’ll waste less effort and you’ll be less stressed out. You’ll begin trying new things, working better with others and gain the reputation as someone your coworkers want to work alongside. Most importantly, you’ll be building your projects, career and relationships on a method of proven and repeatable success. Can you risk building them on anything else?