We all know how difficult it can be to jump into a team that’s been working together for some time. There’s a lot to catch up on: the ins and outs of the product, the team’s history, the background of the project, and the company culture. It can definitely feel like you are the outsider, and that feeling can be exacerbated by the fact that most teams now are dispersed, hybrid, or fully remote. In these scenarios, you can’t exactly walk over to the development team on your coffee break and chat with them, or look over the top of your monitors and ask your team member a question. It’s harder to get a feel for how your team works when you can’t physically see them, and communication can tend to be more stilted.
This blog will be tailored specifically to those who find themselves working with teams and companies who don’t have well-established design and research practices. As consultants, we’ve grown to excel at navigating these situations over time, and we’re more than happy to share some helpful strategies for overcoming them.
Whether you are a consulting team/agency, a new hire at a company, or a contractor who is augmenting a team, you’ll likely run into some obstacles when getting to know your team, understanding your current project’s preexisting context, and achieving your goals smoothly and efficiently.
We know that UX designers and researchers in particular can experience additional struggles more deeply embedded within an established product or development team, especially if that team ranks lower on the UX maturity scale. Maybe your new client has recently decided to invest in UX design, and their company already has skilled development and product teams running the show. Or, you’re working with a singular UI designer who has been on the team for a while. Maybe you’re working with design files left behind by a vendor who had once worked on the project.
Below, we’ll cover eight practical tips that will help you meet these challenges head-on, and become a successful contributing member of a new design team:
- Establish and understand team norms
- Understand roles and responsibilities
- Get to know them on a human level (through coffee chats!)
- Forced collaboration/weekly rituals and communication
- Design in the open
- Co-design with the technical team
- End-user validation/easy win
- Establish a process/best practices
Practical Tips for Getting to Know the Team and Culture
Whether it’s explicit or implied, every team has a “way of working.” Now, what exactly does that mean? Throughout your career and your education, you’ve probably worked with various teams that like to do things differently. Some teams keep their cameras off during meetings, and others overcommunicate, using many touchpoints and keeping everyone cc’d in email threads. There are other teams that don’t like meetings, and prefer to work very independently. And there are lots of teams that strike a balance between these two extremes, to varying degrees. The point is, there are many different ways a team can work together, and your first job is understanding the current way of working before you try to make any changes or improvements.
- Establish and understand team norms: Our first tip is to understand how your new team does things and get some “team norms” in place. Team norms are specific agreements that a team makes about how they will work together. Often, when you are a new team member, it’s easy to feel disoriented! As a newbie, you might not think you have the authority to suggest that new meetings be created, let alone propose hosting an entire workshop. Find out your new team’s regular meeting cadence. Ask them how they like to communicate, and how often. Facilitating a “Team Norm Workshop” is a great way to do this. You can also call this meeting a “Project Onboarding Session” — use a term that is friendly to your team. Position the activity as a vital opportunity for you to meet the team and get acquainted. Most often, people will be open to participating, and supporting you in the onboarding process. We suggest facilitating the meeting or workshop using Miro. It’s a good idea to begin with some icebreakers, and ask team members to fill out some information about themselves and their role in the project. Create a Miro board about weekly meetings and communication, and ask your team about working hours, time zones etc.
- Understand roles and responsibilities: Next, it’s important to understand who’s who. There can be some nuance here. You are not only looking to understand people’s titles, who is in charge, who to go to when you have a specific question, or who should be included in weekly meetings vs. presentations. You also want to know who on the team has influence, who is an ally that you can ask “silly” or more delicate questions about the project, and who believes in UX design and is open to research. Who on the team seems to “lead” even if they don’t have that official title? Whose opinion seems most valued and respected, and who has a great EQ on the team? Some of this will be learned over several weeks as you start interacting more regularly with the team, and some of the information will be more explicit. Google your team members, read about their backgrounds and job titles on LinkedIn, and request an organizational chart. Ask the team who you should go to when you have questions about the product or project schedule, or who needs to provide signoff on the design. Pay close attention in meetings, so you can start to understand who your allies and champions are.
- Get to know them on a human level: Following up on tip #2, in order to understand who your allies are and who has influence, it’s a great idea to ask for a few one-on-one coffee chats with your team members. These can be as short as 15–30 minutes over lunch. If possible, schedule time with each person individually in your first few weeks. You want to connect with them: talk about things outside work, and understand their challenges. Coffee chats will help you see where you will fit in and how you can better support each team member.
- Force collaboration: Next up is forcing some more regular communication and inserting yourself in important meetings. Here’s the deal. What we typically find in lower UX maturity organizations is that they don’t have a lot of weekly or daily touchpoints. One thing to do (as an extension of tip #1) is to establish a weekly design review meeting and set up a Slack messaging channel, or another easy method for daily communication. Or, if you’re working on a true agile team, they may have daily standups. Ask to be invited, and then show up for those! Even if they consist of potentially boring “dev” (developer) speak, it’s still crucial for you to be there. It requires a bit of extra effort, but it’ll be worth it. Joining these meetings will be the fastest way for you to understand how the team works, what stage the product is at, what features are on the roadmap, what’s been done, what’s being worked on, and many more important details. It’s also a great opportunity to learn if you can get on any tools the development team is using. We know UX designers and researchers sometimes dislike using Jira, but if that’s what the dev team relies on, get your hands dirty and dive in. This shows the team you’re one of them — fully committed and excited to be a part of the team. Ask to be invited to any other recurring meetings they have, and any meetings they might have with subject matter experts. Of course, as you become more embedded in the team, you will likely have new ideas for meetings and research that you’ll want to conduct — but these initial steps toward becoming part of the team are key.
Practical Tips for “Winning” with UX Design in Your New Team
Now that you’re part of the team culture, and you’re feeling confident about how the team works, it’s time to focus on the details surrounding the UX design or research you will be doing. Starting on a new team can be a challenge, especially when you’re introducing new ideas and processes that may differ from what the team is used to! If you need to point out areas for improvement in their work, it’s important to approach the situation with sensitivity, to ensure the feedback is well received. To set yourself up for success, follow these tips:
- Design in the open: When you start working with a team that isn’t used to the UX design process, or has worked with another “behind-the-scenes” vendor in the past who threw deliverables over the wall, your involvement in the design process can feel unusual for your new team. At Outwitly, we believe it’s always best to design in the open. Share your Figma files and works-in-progress with the team. This not only helps them learn and understand how true UX should be done, but it also builds knowledge continuity across the team. Plus, if you ever leave, the next designer will be able to easily pick up where you left off, because the product team and engineering team will know where to direct them, and they’ll be up to speed on why design decisions were made.
- Co-design with the technical team: Building on the previous tip, we believe the technical team (architects and engineers) should be regularly involved in the design process. Involve them early and often, in co-creation sessions and design reviews. This will make your proposed design more robust and ensure that the development team understands how the design should behave, look, and feel, and why it is the way it is. This will open up lines of communication, and it will help ensure the design is properly implemented in the long-term.
- End-user validation: A product/development-heavy team has likely never done any discovery research or user testing. It will be an uphill battle to get them bought into the value of design research and HCD (a battle we believe is worth it!). Instead, look for quick easy wins with research. User testing is the perfect way to introduce the team to research. Be sure to involve them in the process and have them sit in on usability sessions when appropriate, or have them watch video clips and recordings. In some cases, this will be the first time they ever participate in this process, and it will be such a huge eye-opener with great ROI (i.e. small investment with a big impact). This will hopefully bring you closer to incorporating UX research into the normal design process. You might not do this within your first week on the job, but you should definitely find ways to bring up the idea to the team within the first month or two.
- Establish a process/best practices: If you’re working on a team with low UX maturity, this project will likely be the perfect opportunity to establish a more formal design process that follows best practices. Don’t just follow the status quo (the usual way of doing things). Actively look for ways to improve their processes, establish a formal design process, and introduce them to best practices. You’ll thank yourself in a few months’ time when you aren’t dealing with messy Figma files, a lack of design systems/styles, patterns, or consistencies between products, OR an abundance of designs based on assumptions instead of feedback from real users (see tip #3).
Joining an established product team can be a challenging but rewarding experience for UX designers and researchers. It’s crucial to take the time to get to know the team and understand the culture to build strong relationships and make a positive impact on the product. Some practical tips include setting up one-on-one meetings (or “coffee chats”) with team members, observing team dynamics and communication patterns, and actively participating in various team meetings. To “win” with UX design, it’s important to demonstrate your value and expertise by effectively communicating design decisions, incorporating user research and feedback into your design process, and continuously seeking ways to improve the user experience. By following these tips, UX designers can successfully integrate into their new team and make a lasting impact on the product.