Fostering a positive and supportive company culture is a hot topic lately. Time and time again, we hear about culture being a “make or break” for organizations. Especially in the realm of knowledge work, culture and ways of working aren’t just subtle details but are crucial elements that demand our attention.
UX, user experience design, human-centered design, design thinking: These are words you’ve likely heard to describe some of the most innovative companies around. But these aren’t just industry jargon; a strong UX culture is crucial for companies to stay relevant and innovative.
Coming up with new ideas doesn’t just happen by accident or because of a CEO’s eureka moment after going to an AI conference. They happen by mixing top-level vision with human-centered iteration loops throughout the design process. At least, this is what we’ve consistently seen across companies in complex industries.
So, let’s dive into what UX culture is all about, and how you can start improving your organization’s UX culture.
What is UX culture?
Let’s take it one word at a time, first focusing on culture. In organizations, culture allows people to understand and navigate their social environment to succeed in their day-to-day work and longer-term career. At a high level, culture dictates the way things are done, behavioural standards, what’s not allowed, what’s rewarded, and the general tone or feel of a group.
Now focusing on user experience: It’s a concept that encompasses both concrete practices as well as a mindset. It’s all about focusing on the human at the heart of the interaction.
A strong UX culture ensures your company keeps that user-focused mentality in everything you do. The culture piece of the puzzle is especially important for people without a background in UX who are just discovering it’s a thing. They need to figure out how UX fits into their organizational culture and decide what needs to change to facilitate user-centered work.
What kind of UX culture do you have?
Leaders in UX often speak about a UX maturity spectrum, a way to measure an organization’s desire and ability to successfully deliver user-centered design. The vast majority of software companies are low on this spectrum, unaware of UX maturity as a concept.
Larger companies might especially struggle with adopting a UX culture. If they already own a big market share, they might think they’re fine as is. They might focus their growth and profitability on what they already know works well and find changing on a larger scale to be slower and more difficult.
For bigger companies to adopt a UX culture, change needs to happen top down. Senior leaders need to have some design credentials, and the entire organization must be incentivized to embrace UX. Employees need to be measured on their job performance as it either directly or indirectly relates to UX.
Some companies cannot actually adopt a human-centered or UX approach in what they do because they’re fundamentally in opposition to this mindset. Unless the most extreme changes happen, they would never be able to adopt this way of thinking and operating. Business models that thrive on confusion are a prime example here.
However, most companies we work with have built software in a business environment that never “needed” UX in the past because they were the only competitor early in the market, or or their clients were locked into their offering. But even in these niche markets, more nimble competitors are now cropping up, forcing many companies to work harder to maintain relevance in the market.
The impact of a strong UX culture
The big business case for UX is that you’ll be able to maintain relevance in your field and stay competitive.
Software companies in the innovation industry employ high-achieving knowledge workers —bright people who want to do cool stuff and are naturally motivated to challenge themselves. When these people are miserable, it’s often because they’re supporting old tech, putting in tons of time and effort just to make something basic.
People working on product teams want to propel their careers forward and gain the most relevant experiences possible. If your software company is bogged down with tech and design debt, these high-achieving, smart people (who you want to retain) will get bummed out. They’ll feel stifled because they have to constantly compromise the quality of their work, they don’t see the impact of their work, and what they’re doing isn’t that relevant for their careers. The last thing in the world you want to do as a leader is watch the flame of enthusiasm, drive, and creativity dampen.
But if your employees are set up to thrive, be creative, and innovate, you’ll build a self-perpetuating growth mechanism that will take the company to new heights 🚀
Whether your company has extensive resources for designers or not, growing the culture around UX will lead to greater success for all involved. Even if there are few designers, the better your UX culture is, the more successful those people will be because they won’t be spending their time and energy teaching people the basics and converting people to the “UX way” one by one.
Concrete tips for improving UX culture
For most companies, a strong UX culture leads to more product relevance, differentiation in the market, innovation, and employee morale and retention.
That all sounds great, but how do you nurture a UX culture on your team and grow it from just a seedling of an idea to a collective way of being?
We’ve compiled a few concrete things you can integrate to build a better UX culture, brick by brick. 🧱
Reach a common understanding of UX
A lot of people have a vague idea that UX is important without totally getting why. Some senior leaders misinterpret UX as visual design, or see it as slick interactions and transitions on cool websites. Some people interpret design as just making things pretty. Others know that you need to think about how something works before making it cute. 🎀
UX is a relatively new term, so the confusion is understandable. When companies first start on this journey, they often misunderstand UX but they know they have a problem. Maybe they’re frustrated because they’ve spent way too much money making things that aren’t working. Or they’re seeing those overachieving individuals on the team become miserable.
Before getting to the complicated operational stuff, make sure everyone in the organization has a common understanding of user experience. This will avoid misunderstandings around the scope of UX, what it touches, and how it works.
We’ve seen it happen a lot, where we introduce a team to this simple concept: “We care about people, and that’s how we’ll make decisions and prioritize things. We don’t build stuff that doesn’t matter. And if we’re not sure whether it matters, we’ll find out.” There’s this aha moment where things click, and people are like “Well when you put it like that, it sounds amazing.”
Clarifying this base-level knowledge about UX can be transformative and lead to a huge mindset shift within the team. It changes the conversation and the nature of arguments that people would spend so much time on.
🔥 Level up your product team in our short but sweet course: Intro to UX for teams.
Increase the cadence of user testing touchpoints
Getting outside input from your users is the single most high-impact practice you can adopt to directly impact the bottom line—even if it’s just avoiding unnecessary costs at first. Why, do you ask? You can immediately stop building things that don’t matter to your users, and adjust your direction on things that matter, but aren’t well thought out.
We recommend starting this process with a few simple techniques in a wide field of user experience research (UXR), that is:
- Running interviews: Q&A sessions with users to better understand their pain points, motivators, workflows, etc. Running interviews gives the team overarching context, which helps inform choices on roadmap and direction.
- Running usability tests: Getting users to run through some tasks in live software or a prototype to understand what’s easy vs. hard to use. Usability testing helps the team finetune and understand where things are working and where they are failing.
- Mapping user workflows into a user journey map: Finding out the particular pain points and high points of their experience with your product, and the before and after steps that are relevant to them. Putting this into a map everyone can see on your team will have a huge impact on how you make decisions.
Speaking to users reduces the amount of speculation and arguments within teams, and helps you make evidence-based decisions rather than go with your gut feelings. Although our intuition as product professionals can be great, we need to regularly check our egos and our assumptions—and speaking to users is a mechanism to do just that. It also sets the precedent that users matter and their inputs are required to create value.
If you have a hard time involving users, you can also involve people who aren’t your customers—they can be people who don’t know about your product but fit your ideal customer profile.
❗How much risk are you willing to take on with product development?
If it’s higher than average, then your incentive for user testing should also be higher.
Add sophistication to how you collaborate
This is all about removing anything that drains your team’s energy, and better using their brains to boost creativity in the room.
As external consultants, we see the work habits of many product teams. There’s a wide range of styles and efficiency levels in how people tackle their tasks. When we consult with more “traditional” companies, we see a lot of meeting burnout. Many teams that have gone remote have resorted to synchronous discussions on video conferencing tools as the primary way of doing all types of work. As a result, people show up to design sessions distracted and out of energy. You can tell this is happening when people multitask, zone out, and need questions to be repeated.
Many bright, creative, and talented individuals are being drained by a somewhat lazy cultural practice around respecting each other’s time. And the meeting formats themselves aren’t fun or fulfilling.
When companies adopt more of a design culture, they recognize this creative waste and sound the alarm. The aim we have as consultants is that smart, capable, creative people have outlets for their individual creativity and opportunities to act as conduits for others’ creativity, building off one another’s ideas to create design work that no one individual could create on their own.
Instead of slapping a meeting onto the calendar, companies can adopt more intentional asynchronous practices. For example, you can communicate ideas to a group of people via video message (using a tool like Loom) so that people can take time within their schedule to reflect and maybe create their own idea based on that original touchpoint.
By the time the team meets to ideate together (using a collaboration product like Whimsical), they’ll know the context, be engaged, and can bring creativity. This type of session is not just a “meeting” but synchronous collaboration that produces a specific result.
You can add sophistication to how you collaborate in many ways by getting curious. Even if you don’t see yourself as a facilitator, try piloting asynchronous communication on a small project and continue to test that out, getting people on board with you.
Amazon, for example, requires that you have a structured memo prepared if you want to call a meeting. At the start of the meeting, the participants read the memo to get a clear idea of the context and purpose of the discussion.
🕐 Rethink at a cultural level how you want meetings to run.
Do a post-mortem on a specific workflow, considering how long each step took, how many meetings you had, the hours spent on synchronous work, and what the back-and-forth looked like between people.
Then ask yourself: What aspects could we have worked on outside of synchronous meetings? What do we want this workflow to look like in the future?
Communicate visually and illustrate abstract concepts
When your team can quickly generate and represent ideas, you can quickly test them with users, establishing an efficient feedback cycle that minimizes the risks associated with your project.
A large part of our work in product development involves highly abstract concepts and complex logic. We spend a lot of time verbally discussing this logic in product teams, which is when the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words” hits home.
Picture this: you’re working on a password reset flow. It could take you 5 to 10 minutes to describe the logic of what happens when a password is entered incorrectly, where the user goes, and what actions they need to take. But everyone could align around a flow diagram in a minute.
Example of a user flow describing the login process
We also often discuss solutions in the abstract, which creates a lot of argumentation and speculation in the process. Even the most visual people struggle to translate abstract ideas into words. This is where teams can externalize ideas into a visual format—whether through whiteboarding, flow diagramming, wireframing, or adopting logic diagrams like Venn diagrams. Having literacy in both verbal and visual communication can not only bring clarity to conversations but also improves the fluidity of ideation.
During work sessions at P&P, we often create and refine flows and wireframes, which serve as focal points for ongoing development. We’ll often spark an idea, say “hold on a sec,” and create a wireframe in about a minute so we continue working around it.
Teams that can take command of visualization techniques to better collaborate and express ideas, including complex logic, are way more effective than teams that need to do this, but don’t.
Collaborate to build better products
Many companies don’t realize how many people need to be involved to create well designed, user-centered products. Strong UX workflows are interdisciplinary—you have to leverage all the brains in the room to come up with the best possible solution. Developers, data analytics, machine learning specialists, and subject matter experts can all contribute to design in different ways.
Designers and developers need to work together from the start—if a designer hasn’t seen a new feature, or it hasn’t gone through a UX quality assurance process, it shouldn’t be pushed to production.
In some companies, the CEO might become too involved in the product (even though product direction is not their forte), which could hold the team back and hinder their creativity. You want to avoid a situation where only one person’s voice is heard, and they make key decisions that are super consequential, just based on their personal opinion.
To overcome these challenges and build stuff together, companies need a product process that involves user involvement, key performance indicators (KPIs) related to UX, and possibly some kind of A/B testing. Anything here that allows you to take a more objective approach and support design choices with evidence.
Collaborating together when implementing new features takes some getting used to, and it’ll take time for the team to form those relationships.
Adopt a design system
Many companies spend surprisingly too much time sitting together and talking through design decisions like “Should we use a radio button or a checkbox here?” 🤔 The solution is to adopt a design system.
Whether you call it component standardization, UX standards, or non-functional requirements, the goal is to have consistent, high-level UX rules everyone can refer to—you don’t want to reinvent the wheel every time you create form components.
Your product design is made up of things like components, copy, interaction behaviour, language, information architecture, and more. Software with a lot of design deficits (that look like a dog’s breakfast) typically has a lot of inconsistencies.
Getting a design system in place adds consistency across all areas of design. Since people will come to it as a central resource, a design system is something that needs to be taken care of—and taken seriously.
Alright folks, we’ve unpacked the whole UX culture thing, covering both the practical stuff and the mindset shift that needs to happen. With everything that goes into improving your team’s UX culture, it’s smart to take it step by step.
To get through bumps in the road, just keep trying things, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and communicating with the team. Be aware of how your workflows are going, and keep on modifying things as needed. Once you get into a rhythm of what feels good, don’t forget to document it so that you can spread that knowledge with everyone else.
What to dive deeper?
We’re creating products and resources especially for product people to up their UX game, start with the basics in our new course for teams.