Recap of "Being a UX Team of One"

by Leah Buley of Adaptive Path - a talk given on March 15, 2009 at SXSW 2009.


There is lots of stuff that goes into user experience (documentation, usability testing, prototyping, user research, competitive analysis, discovery) but she is just talking about design, because that is the least-fleshed out process with the fewest tools and most "magic."

Her story

Leah Buley of Adaptive Path does design and IA (Information Architecture); she loves "lo-fi methods, tools, and tricks"

She also worked at Barclays – and she did ALL the parts of UX (not just design, and also evangelism) by herself - she interacted with everyone else from biz dev to development

Forrester's CX (UX) Model

  1. Interested (Sounds cool, looking into it)
  2. Invested (Resources involved but no real authority)
  3. Committed (VP support)
  4. Engaged (Everyone knows they are working on UX stuff as a whole)
  5. Embedded (It's in everything the organization does: examples - Virgin, ZipCar)

Leah says most folks are down at level 1, and many are at #2, and fewer at every point up. #2 is a common sticking point.

Her Story Again

Went to Adaptive Path to learn how to advance to higher levels of UX involvement (3, 4, 5)

Working with others, they came up with tons of ideas for each design problem.

Doing work differently on her own: Coming up with many ideas before moving on for any part of the process. Generative process: refine the best ideas.

Today's Tips

Three big ideas

  1. Brainstorm a lot

  2. Assemble an ad hoc team

    Even if you are the only UX person, you can still ask those you work with for info, feedback, & thoughts

  3. Pick the best ideas

Evite is our example of a dream project; if Adaptive Path could work on anything, they might pick Evite.

Process (currently) starts with you picking a design (using categories) for your evite, customize it, and then invite people (using address book import, etc.)

How to redesign?

  1. Brainstorm

    Here, using the 6-up template.

    Typically will start with 1 or 2 designs, will hit a wall. Your responsibility is to force yourself to have more ideas. That's right, fill up all 6 boxes (at least).

    Spectrums. Think about first timers AND experts, come up with different designs for them and in-between users! Don't worry about these designs too much; you are just generating ideas!

    2x2s are like X-Y (Cartesian) plots, two spectrums. Consider novice vs. expert on one axis and automatic vs. manual (evite creation) on the other axis.

    Grids: Example has "It's about design; it's about friends; it's about tracking; it's about fun" across the top and things we just discussed along the side

    Word associations... she has a bunch of design-related words (icons, modules, accordion, search, faq...)

    She picks two at random - icons and modules - and comes up with an interesting drag-and-drop mockup

    She also has an "inspiration library" of screenshots of websites she keeps in iPhoto. Maybe apply something you like to your current project.

  2. Assemble an ad hoc team

    Invite the project managers, developers in to come up with ideas.

    You can use sketchboards (a very standard practice at adaptive path). Pretty much paste tons of those designs up, and all stand up and talk about this! (she shows a video of making one - starts with a huge brown sheet of paper, put up requirements, then paste designs)

    Design workshops - lots of people come in and talk about it... have it be informal (buy pizza) for best ideas

    Design a product box (esp. for those that don't come in one) to force you to think about why someone would want it

    Decorate your space with the stuff you've been working on. It 1. gets supporters involved early on and 2. lets people understand what the hell you actually do.

    Tips for getting good feedback:

    • Pass the pen (much more accurate then verbal descriptions)
    • Black hat sessions - have everyone come up with everyone come up with as many objections as possible - deals with the "too nice to criticize" and "always complaining" folks at once

    We have been enamored too long of the "genius designer" idea. Your job as UX person is BRINGING TOGETHER the best ideas.

  3. Pick the best ideas

    What is the "star to sail your ship by"?

    The products we love the most are those with good quiddity.

    Quiddity: The essence of the thing

    Features aren't enough. Features can be copied. We want a good experience and a product with personality, give it some feeling.

    Examples - Tivo has design principles created before the product, "it's entertainment, stupid" "no modality or deep nesting" "it should be simple, dammit" etc. These are not features

    Evite: Make it addictive.

    PHB: "Where's that scrolling news ticker I asked you for?"

    UX Person: "Here's why this solution makes more sense for us..." (thanks to design principles)

How to get started right away!

  • Start sketching (generate many ideas)
  • Schedule workshops (invite people in)
  • Draft some design principles

Why does it all matter?

  • Your professional satisfaction / actually helping people (users) - knowing you're doing it right helps warm the heart
  • Helps the field to have good, well-articulated, effective principles!
  • Call to action: Be a UX team of one!

She got lots of loud applause, and has available "I'm a UX team of one" buttons. Fantastic. One of the best panels, for sure.


How do you work remotely, or off-site collaborators?

"a good scanner" "not as easy" "ConceptShare is coming out"

There is a question about UX teams being too pie-in-the sky; she says get them more involved (more or less).

Is it impossible for a lone genius to create the kind of products you are talking about?

(sigh) no. But it's a hell of a lot harder. (Cites Jesse-James Gardner and others as geniuses - but says they do better in the presence of others)

Another question, she says having clients participate in the process is terrific because it gets their clients involved and then it makes them stand up for your work and defend it after the consultant has gone (how terrible for a great design to be abandoned).

She agrees with another attendee who says changing designs makes things hard. She advocates agile development as making this a lot easier. If you do waterfall, do weekly check-ins (Scrum) anyway.


UX Team Of One @ IA Summit 2008 from Leah Buley

Downloadable materials

She made templates like the 6-up template available for download:

Final thought

Almost a week later, I find myself mulling over something Leah said which did not really seem important at the time.  When she was discussing quiddity -- how a product is not just features, but an experience and perhaps an attitude or mind-set -- she used two examples which I neglected to make note of above.

She said, "When I use Apple products, I feel creative.  When I use Microsoft products, I feel productive."  Naturally these statements are not true across the board, but I can see them being true in general.  At SXSW I initially assumed she was probably just "being nice" to Microsoft or perhaps seeking to avoid being labeled as an unthinking die-hard Apple worshipper, but she has given and rehearsed her very well-polished, thoughtful, pithy, content-dense presentation many times; she would not say this trivially.  And furthermore, it makes sense to me.  No one gets excited opening MS Word, but perhaps that helps users achieve their goals by writing what they intended to write, and nothing more.

Update: The book

In early 2018, I discovered that Leah has written a book of the same name. I haven’t read it, but I expect it’s superb. Anyone interested in in this page, or her talk, should find the book to be quite useful.

March 15th, 2009. (Updated: April 24, 2018 at 4:03pm.)
Alan Hogan (@alanhogan_com).  Contact · About