Companies have finally started to take UX seriously. As more and more UX designers and researchers get hired to make products better, we must think about how to best organize them. What does the ideal UX team structure look like? Today, we answer all your questions!
What are the 3 main disciplines forming UX?
Let’s start out with the basics. If you’ve dipped your toes into the UX realm, you’ve probably met people of various different fields.
As a UX agency working day-and-night on digital products, we often get asked what we think is best to do when you want to take UX to the next level on your team. Here’s what we know for sure.
When someone speaks about a UX design team, they probably mean a union of three disciplines: UX-UI design and user research.
1. User experience design
User (or customer) experience experts will first want to understand the user and business goals of the product, the problems it is solving. They also look at what the user does before, during and after taking them in their hands, and why.
UX-ers create models and wireframes, and rely on user feedback for proof or basis for iterations. In order to avoid bias, you first want to think in flows before screens and colors.
2. User interface (UI) design
UI design involves what the product looks like. UI design results in the pixel-perfect, final UI that basically only needs coding. Masters of this craft know design trends and patterns, while also staying aware of technological feasibility.
3. UX Research
UX encompasses a holistic environment in which not just the product, but the user also exists. User experience research holds the key to learning about that. The researcher determines which research method will get the desired evidence for a hypothesis or answer to a question, and then execute it, with usability testing, user interviews, etc.
The level of involvement of the different disciplines might vary by product, company or industry, as well as UX design team structure. Some other roles and disciplines sometimes need to be included as well, like UX copywriter, research recruiter, etc.
What discipline-combinations exist?
So, product design needs different tasks done. But how many people should actually belong to one team? And how should they divide responsibilities?
Well, we have said this before and will say it again: UX is a team sport. Most tasks also connect to someone else’s job as well. Information must flow very well, and everyone must keep aware of the latest developments.
It often makes sense to merge certain roles. People wearing more than one hat can have many advantages at times.
So, what are the most common models?
A) The lone heroes: UI design, UX design and research as separate roles
You could call this the most straightforward option. Everyone has their own thing to take care of, right? In this scenario, researchers just gather data, UX designers only do wireframes, higher-level structures and concepts, based on data from research, while UI designers take care of the pixel-perfect design, based on the input from researchers and UXers.
- Separate responsibilities for everyone.
- Minimized bias.
- Enough time for everyone.
- Information transfer – Knowledge can get lost.
- Management overhead of dealing with more people
B) The power duo: UX + UI design roles together, research separate
In many cases, the same people responsible for UX also take care of UI. Researchers still work separately, however, focusing only on data-collection. Because the designers still rely on user insights from research, in this UX team structure, user experience design becomes a shared responsibility among everyone on the team.
- Enough time for proper research still remains.
- Researchers can give unbiased feedback on design.
- No design handover from UX to UI designer. The designer can carry through the concept.
- Tasks required by these disciplines can overwhelm designers.
C) The reverse: UX design + research roles together, UI design separate
In the reverse of the previous scenario, the researchers also bear responsibility for UX design. So they gather data, based on which, they will create personas, build user journeys, design flows and wireframes. Meanwhile, the UI designer takes care of the visual side: coming up with themes and mood boards. After all this planning, the UI designer will come up with the pixel-perfect design.
- Research findings can directly to integrate into the wireframes etc.
- UX is not biased by colors or visual design elements.
- UI designers have more time to experiment with different visual design ideas.
- Timing: Supplying UI designers with enough work to do before the UI phase even starts
- Risk of miscommunication transferring information from UX to UI remains.
- UX research done by the designer can be biased by his own design
D) The one-man army: UX + UI + research all kept together
This scenario most typically takes place in small companies with not enough resources to hire separate people, or during mini projects. These magical experts called Product Designers take care of everything related to user experience
- A full overview of everything that happens, and the available information.
- They can schedule their time based on where the “biggest fire” is at the time.
- Juggling all these different focus areas can be overwhelming. Usually, time will not suffice for at least one of them.
- Bias can occur at all the different stages.
Which combination work best?
All we can talk about here is the best practice in building a team that we follow. UX studio has experimented a lot before we found our own ideal UX team structure.
We are a design firm. We aim to be able to provide long-term product design services for clients. Agile design process works best in a scenario like that. So we went with Option 2 : Our designers take care of UX and UI as well, while our researchers focus only on data collection.
- We eliminate the pain of information transfer between separate UX- and UI-responsibles, leaving enough time for research.
- We believe nothing is good enough until proven. So many teams we have met simply did not allow enough time to do proper research. We don’t want this to happen in our teams.
- When UX and UI merge, usually UX design time gets cut in order to have actual screens ready by the coming deadline. We don’t want that either.
Other types of UX team structure can also achieve amazing results. Great UX teams are many and versatile. And we must reconsider their forms every time a new product design phase starts.
What other roles fit into that UX team structure?
Many sub-disciplines and related fields of expertise can take part in or get involved in a UX team structure. As a team grows, people can usually specialize in certain tasks and support their peers on those fields. A few good examples of other UX positions include:
- Interaction Designer
- Information Architect
- Copywriting / UX copywriting
- Content Strategist
- Illustrations / Visual design
- Audio Designer
Wow, this seems like a whole lot, right?
Well, all I can promise you is this: it will get even more complex with the dev team coming into the picture as well! This is why it is extremely important that the UX team collaborates and shares information with the developers right from the kick-off workshop.
If you want to read more about the hows of smooth designer-developer collaboration, I suggest you read our piece on the perfect design handoff.
How does a UX team fit into an existing organization?
UX team structure is also influenced by how the team related to the rest of the organization. If we’re talking of where UX stands within a company and its product team(s), there are two basic models. Let me explain each of them:
a) Internal agency model (fluid unit)
An internal team that takes on different product design tasks inside the organization, this UX team will sit together. They have fixed roles, and like any other internal agency, assist other departments with their UX-related issues. One designer or researcher will likely manage tasks related to more than one different product at a time.
Separation from the product teams can cause troubles in information-transfer.
In the internal agency model, the UX Lead will actually oversee the team of designers / researchers, but will also take directions from the managers of the respective product teams they are working with.
b) Cross-functional model (pods)
When a firm operates with a cross-functional team, the designers and researchers also make up part the product teams, along with PM’s, dev and everyone else. These UX-ers will dedicate all their time to one product.
This direct contact with the rest of the product team will help them work more effectively and have an overview of all aspects of the product’s development. However, they won’t have direct contact, or shared responsibilities with UX teams of other product teams.
In firms operating with the cross-functional team model, UX-ers usually have “two bosses”: the Product Manager of the respective product team they are working in, and the Lead Designer or Lead Researcher directing all of the designers / researchers at the firm.
Internal vs external UX teams?
We’ve discussed the most typical organizational models of UX teams. But the fun doesn’t stop here! We must also talk about how these teams integrate into your organization. First, that depends on whether you want an in-house or an external UX team.
1. Why an internal UX team?
- The team fully dedicates themselves to you.
- You have them constantly available.
- Communication happens faster.
- They have a deep understanding of company culture.
- Deep involvement can lead to conformism and an over-cautious approach.
- They pose a complete financial and human resources responsibility.
- They need a steady stream of work.
- Establishing the domain: Bureaucracy fundamentally limits UX success.
2. Why an external UX team?
- They have extensive experience.
- Objective timing: They must keep to the contract, no matter what.
- They already have software and hardware in place.
- They come with an unbiased view, paving the way for innovation.
- Despite an inconsistent presence, they keep the information flows constant.
- Ending collaboration means limited possibility for later improvement.
- They are foreign to your organization.
Can in-house and external UX teams collaborate?
Of course! Just because they come from different backgrounds, a shared goal means magical things can come out of the cooperation of these two “superheroes”. We once compared them to the relationship between Spiderman and Ironman!
Big UX teams can also work together in harmony. This picture of one of our earlier projects proves it! 😉
Want to learn more about how we at UX studio work? Here’s an article explaining everything about our self-organizing teams.
How to manage UX teams?
Who manages an internal UX team?
Management of internal UX teams varies firm by firm. As said before, it often happens that UXers have two bosses: the Design or Research Lead of the company, as well as the PM.
The Design / Research / UX Lead will also aim to have an overview of everyone’s work, making sure that it complies with consistency and high-quality across the whole organization. They will also oversee professional development, personal mentor, and organize internal events for them. One good way to do this is through design critique sessions!
UX design usually only appears in the C levels at bigger companies. In these cases, it belongs the CDO (Chief Design Officer), also called Head of Design, or VP of Design. They oversee and evangelize design throughout the whole company, make sure it has the right leverage and resources, and that people understand the design mindset of the organization. They don’t actively design or research anything, holding a more representative role.
How to manage an external UX team?
When you hire a team from a UX firm, you form a Product Team of which the external UXers are part of. Ideally, the team also incorporates one or more individuals from all involved departments (product owners, developers, marketing, sales etc.) from your company.
How can Product Owners work with UX teams?
As a Product Owner, you will likely manage the team. How can you make sure everybody on the team can successfully collaborate with each other for the best possible outcome?
Whoa, that was long!
Congratulations, now you know all the basics of UX team structure and management. The next step? Decision-making!
You must indeed consider a lot of factors. Should you go for an external or internal team? Should UX and UI work together, or would it be better to integrate research and UX? And who should lead this team anyway? See our answers above.
The reason we at UX studio work the way we do has a long history, as a result of years of experimentation and incremental improvements.
Every organization is different — the ideal UX team structure might vary, but the fact remains: UX is a team sport. And how can teams be successful? When every player, every helper, and everyone watching is synchronized with each other as well as humanly possible. 🙂
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