A One Man Wolf Pack

Are you the only person doing UX in your organization?

For the better part of my career, I’ve had the privilege of working in UX departments alongside others who do what I do. I’ve also had the privilege of leading a large, international team of UXers for 7+ years. But at the moment, it’s down to just me. The lone UXer in the company. Or as I jokingly refer to myself, “A one man wolf pack“. (Yes, in reference to the movie The Hangover.)

Being a team of one comes with some serious challenges, bandwidth being the biggest and most obvious. But in my case, its also helped bring into focus some of the most important aspects of the job. I won’t claim to be an expert at this just yet. But I would like to share a few thoughts on being an effective solo UXer. Here it goes, fwiw:

10 Thoughts on being an Effective Solo UXer

1. Don’t wait around for projects to come to you.

2. Beware the squeaky wheel.

3. Develop your sixth sense of customer value.

4. Prioritize your work based on the BUSINESS impact.

5. Be creative in your engagements with Dev teams, Product Management, etc.

6. Don’t be afraid to let others drive design with you.

7. Know when it’s essential to be directly involved in a project.

8. Connect with UX associations like the IxDA, UXPA, etc. to stay grounded.

9. Stay cool, be friendly, keep positive, take a deep breath.

10. Always create value.

I could write a few paragraphs explaining each one of these in detail, but glancing over the concise list above – I think the main messages come through. If there’s one theme that weaves them all together, it’s being proactive in the work that you do. Inserting yourself into situations where you can add the most value to the project and the business is what it’s all about.

Oh, and by the way… I won’t be a one man wolf pack for much longer. Believe it or not, the guy in the middle of the picture below is joining the UX team this week to help out. No joke!


Alan, Allan, and Alan.

Over and out.


A Meeting with Jared Spool

Jared Spool was recently in town for Phoenix Design Week 2014. I was invited to meet with him as part of a small group session at the Tallwave / Ethology / 29th Drive offices in Scottsdale.

Everyone who reads this blog should be familiar with Jared and his work. This is a UX design blog after all and he’s kind of a big deal! But just in case, here’s a bio that they posted on the PHXDW web site:



Jared did not disappoint. In addition to being a beacon of UX knowledge and experience the guy is quite a character and he was ‘on’ from the minute we arrived.

He broke the ice with a joke about dealing with The Cloud on his plane ride into Phoenix. He said that he was very frustrated … There he was, literally right up in the clouds and yet he could not access his data. Har-har.

Here are a few more highlights from the meeting. Some of these are direct quotes, like the ones about Empathy and Design Thinking. In other cases I’ve paraphrased what he had to say.



Jared on the role of a Senior UX Designer…

“I visit these companies all over the place and when I walk in I see Senior designers wasting their time doing mock ups and wireframes.”

That struck me odd, so I asked him, “What should the Senior Designers be doing instead?”

His response:  “Figuring out how design will increase revenue. Figuring out how to increase customer satisfaction and attract more business. Let the junior designers do the grunt work.”


Jared on building UX within an organization…

 “It’s a DNA thing. Companies either get it or they don’t. It’s like the circus. Have you ever heard of Ringling Brothers? They roll into town, put up a tent with a few animals in it, and they roll out. There’s nothing elegant about it. But then look at Cirque du Soleil. It’s obvious that the founders had an exceptional experience in mind. And that’s what they sell. They sell fewer seats than Ringling Brothers, but they sell them at a premium. They make more money by selling a great design. And that’s their choice. You’ll never see Ringling Brothers doing that.

Apple is another example. It wasn’t always that way with Apple. They put out a lot of crappy products for a while. But then there was a culture change. And EVERYBODY in the entire organization was bought in. That’s the only way you can do it. If everyone is bought in from the Executive team on down.”

Someone in the room asked, “What if you just have a single champion (who values UX) on the Executive team?”

Jared’s response: “Can that person fire all the other executives who aren’t bought in? No? Then it won’t work.”


Jared on knowing when a product is ready to ship…

 “What’s the test [to know when something is ready to ship]? Does everyone in the organization know what the test is?

Let me tell you a story about Steve Jobs. When Apple was working on the iPod Nano or whatever – an early iPod something – they brought a prototype into his office. Steve Jobs told them that it wasn’t small enough. They argued that it was as small as it could possibly be given the technology they were working with. There was nothing else they could do. Steve Jobs had a fish tank in his office, so he took the prototype over to the fish tank and he dropped it in. As it sank to the bottom these little tiny air bubbles came floating up to the top. ‘See that?’ Steve told them. ‘There’s air in there. That means there’s extra space that can be removed to make it smaller.’

They went back to the work on it and they did come up with something smaller. In the meantime, Steve Jobs had fish tanks installed throughout the entire office. It was a reminder of the mission.

So at Apple, it was Steve Jobs. He set the bar for when something was ready to ship. Who has that role at your company? Who owns the definition? If you’re not sure, and if your whole company doesn’t know it by heart, then you’re in trouble.”


Jared on Empathy…

“If I hear one more  f***ing talk about empathy, I’m going to kill someone.”


Jared on Design Thinking…

“I want to see less Design Thinking and more design doing.”


Jared on where the industry is going when it comes to hiring UX…

“What companies are looking for is Unicorns. You have to be able to do  it all. You have to do the UX research and the prototyping AND write some front-end code AND work with a team to build it AND be able to do some user testing and iterate. You have to do it all. But there’s not enough people out there who can do that.

24,000 jobs. There are 24,000 UX jobs open right now … and not enough people to fill them. That is why I started the Center Centre. We’re going to train people in all of these things so they can take on these jobs.”


Jared on innovation and problem solving…

 “I was in a room at this one company that was filled with smart people. This was going to be our project team. You had your Architect and your  Engineer and your QA and they were all very bright and talented.

As we were talking all of these great ideas starting to come out. There was no shortage of things that we could do. The only time we had trouble finding a solution was when we didn’t know what the problem was.

It became very clear as we moved into the kick off that the business couldn’t state what problems it was trying to solve. And so we had to back up and figure that out. Because it doesn’t matter how smart your team is – you won’t be successful solving anything if you can’t identify what the problems are.”


[ End of Post ]



“The opposite problem for some executives is that they can be too close to customers (for instance, IT managers who buy a solution) without understanding end-users (the people who actually use the solution on a daily basis) They get so much feedback from their sales teams that it leads to feature creep — adding features to satisfy every customer. Along the way, any semblance of a coherent user experience is lost. The result: a highly-reactive product development culture in which extra features are continuously bolted on, making the company vulnerable to more pro-active competitors who have a laser-like focus on UX, which can be a potent disruptor in many industries.”

– Robert Fabricant, “The Rise of UX Leadership“, for the Harvard Business Review

Managing & Team Work

I have the same passion for being a UX Manager that I do for promoting good design. I can definitely be happy as an ‘individual contributor’ (warning: business-speak alert) but for the last decade and counting my time has been equally divided between crafting good design and building strong UX teams staffed with skilled UX Analysts and Product Owners who can fly on their own.

I bring this up now because I’m lucky enough to have been a Director, UX; Senior Director, UX; and VP, UX over the past seven years. So when I talk about design, I’ll frequently be talking about projects that I help drive with or through other UX team members. Please keep that in mind as you read on…

Lumension UX Team, Scottsdale, AZ 2014

Being a good manager is an art in itself. There’s a basic formula I’ve developed for new UXers that’s consistently brought success:

  1. When filling a UX team position (UX Analyst or Product Owner in my case), give as much weight to the characteristics of a successful UX team member as you do to their resume and work samples. Is the person a good conversationalist? Can he or she size up the role and opportunity quickly and say how he or she will contribute? Did he/she do their homework to research your company / industry ahead of time? Can he or she be honest and own up to both strengths and weaknesses? Can he/she talk about areas of expertise and things they still have to learn? Spending time on getting to know the person as much as their past work provides the real insight into future success. I’ll often make a hiring decision based more on potential and what I see as ‘building blocks’ than on how slick a person’s resume or portfolio may be.
  1. Start with a solid training and orientation
  1. Set the person up with a strong support system including peers and other team members.
  1. Setup a series of 1:1 meetings for the first 4-6 weeks, then ask the person if he/she would like to continue?
  1. Back off at that point and trust the person to do good work and know how to leverage his/her support system, and when to escalate things to me for additional input.

Managing over a duration of time is another topic altogether. I could go on… Ask and I’ll be happy to do so.


Now the other part of ‘Teams’ that I want to talk about is team work: as in working as a team.

Long before Agile development got hot and took over the industry I would preach to anyone who would listen about what I called my “Big Brain Theory”. The idea was simple: Designers, or any other technology role for that matter, should never work in a vacuum. They are always better off work-shopping their ideas with others to see how they are interpreted (or misinterpreted) and to learn about what thoughts their ideas spark in others.

I like to bring my research and prototypes for review with a full cross-functional development team that included architects, developers, QA analysts, and yes, even technical publications. It’s pretty common for someone to see something I didn’t see or ask about something I didn’t think of or offer some new angle that I hadn’t considered. I take the feedback and go back to the drawing board then work-shop it again. And soon, after a couple of cycles, I end up with something that feels really good; really solid. Or – wait – more accurately, WE have something that we all feel good about.

That was the ‘Big Brain’ at work. It was the collective brain of the team.

Image created by Allan Bashah for Lumension UX team

Yes, I’ve heard about the ‘too many Chefs’ metaphor, but there are ways to avoid that. And I understand that you don’t have to workshop everything with everybody all of the time. But as a rule, getting team feedback is a good thing and I’ll stand by that.