Social Skills for UX Consultants: Communication on the Job

In the last five years, the internal and external user experience (UX) consulting business has “crossed the chasm,” as Geoffrey Moore would say. As a consultant, you have to get along with many people who hold various stakeholder perspectives and come from different cultural backgrounds. Today’s UX consultant may have to communicate with people from many departments: marketing, product management, IT, design, customer service, executive  management, and so on.

The larger a project becomes, the larger the challenge of incorporating tasks related to the user experience. The more people involved in a project, the greater the social complexity and the larger the change in dynamics that must occur when the main project has to be split into various sub-projects.

The challenge for UX consultants is to appreciate and consolidate all perspectives, keeping a balance between the technical and the political, simultaneously ensuring the best achievable user experience for the developed product or service. In order to achieve this balance, UX consultants must develop a set of social skills, in addition to their professional skills.

Here are six social skills that help UX consultants conduct projects more successfully. They are derived from “qualitative knowledge mining” of more than 300  projects conducted of different sizes and in different industries.

1. Use the Power of Social Intelligence

Problem:

Existing and new quote engines will be mixed, so the user interface will not be consistent across the overall system. The manager of an IT hub-project in an insurance company says that there is no way to adapt the 500 quote engines to the new user interface style guide. How can a win-win decision be achieved?

Theory:

Whether projects are small or large, all project members are, above all, human. Humans are not always fact-driven, rational, and selfless. People are shaped by experience and evolution, and they have selfish goals they will fight for. There are three major dimensions characterizing human behavior: cognition, emotion, and behavior. Utilizing communications and social maneuvering (the emotional and behavioral dimensions), people will try to influence others (the cognitive dimension) to advance their goals. This strategy is known as Machiavellian Intelligence. So, if you want the other players to adopt your UX viewpoint, offer arguments that will help them advance their goals along with yours. In other words, UX consultants must play cooperative games.

Solution:

The UX consultant stated that, for good system usability, a consistent UI was mandatory. He suggested that all new quote engines be developed in the new UI-style, and for the existing quote engines to be adapted only in the most critical aspects. The manager agreed—a win-win situation.

2. Use a Guerrilla Communication Strategy to Overcome Information Entropy

Problem:

Three weeks ago, the project manager decided to abandon the use of AJAX components because of security considerations. In the meantime, the UX consultant was preparing a supplementary document for the user interface style guide, describing the specifications of the AJAX UI-controls. In the next status meeting the UX consultant hears that the supplementary document will no longer be necessary. Two weeks of work for nothing.

Theory:

There are three negative effects in project communication:

The CIO (Communication Inhibition Officer) Effect: Don’t count on the official communication of really important meeting results or decisions. Relevant information is sometimes held back for “tactical” reasons.

The Whisper Down the Lane Effect: The communication of facts, especially concerns, to the next higher decision-making level, will likely be downgraded. A red flag often changes into a yellow one.

The Black Hole Effect: Sometimes you have to communicate via a proxy (your sub-project manager, for example). Often it takes a long time to get feedback from the person to whom you originally addressed your inquiry.

Large projects generally have strong communication rules and processes. On the one hand, that helps when you need to escalate issues. On the other hand, it inhibits the flow of information when you depend on decisions for your daily work.

Solution:

Staying informed sometimes requires breaking formalized communication rules. Even though you will have to abide by project communication processes, lobby for forms of direct communication. Sources may include group calendars, meeting minutes on file shares, and directly asking your boss about the outcomes of meetings. Also use more informal communication channels—pick up the phone, ask questions in one-on-one conversations. With the right information you can make an informed decision about doing the extra work now, later, or not at all. Use every information source that is available to you.

3. Be the Exotic Charmer and a Showman

Problem:

Status meeting at 8:30 a.m. Monday morning. Ten deliverables are overdue (by others, you are not in charge).

The project manager has a cold. Mood has hit rock bottom.

Theory:

Good moods tend to erode, particularly in long and exhausting projects.

Solution:

Let your personality bloom. Be the enabler for a positive atmosphere. Generate micro-peaks of fun, especially in tense times. Whatever crazy things happen, keep your sense of humor. If you are from a culture different from your client’s, contribute some of your local color to the daily project life. Start the session with a little small talk, find some nice words, discuss  your weekend. As an Austrian consultant, you can describe the wonders of Salzburg, Mozart, skiing in Kitzbühel, the famous Sacher Cake, good wine, and so forth.

4. Take on the Role of an Anthropologist

Problem:

You have just started your job in the company as a UX consultant. You don’t know anything about the employees, the social structure, or the culture of the company. You are invited to attend the kick-off meeting with the whole team. The management board speaks, the various sub-project managers speak. You meet new colleagues.

Theory:

Anthropologists approach unknown cultures by participatory observation; they take part in the events they study. It helps to understand the local thought, behavior, and inner structure. Basically, they try to study cultures in a holistic manner, looking at different levels of a society and watching cultural practices. They do this by ethnographic studies, which are based on fieldwork, and they collect empirical data.

As a UX consultant you will have to work with people of many different departments, sometimes also with other external consultants. You should gather information about the social structure and its members.

Solution:

Use the corporate intranet to gather information about departments and hierarchical relations. Observe quietly during meetings and workshops. Try to understand the motivations of different stakeholders. Unveil the cultural codes. Go out for lunch; have a cup of coffee with your teammates. Visit them in their offices; take notes, especially about who is connected with whom, and how. Use social networking platforms to connect with your colleagues. You can best develop the potential of your anthropological approach if you begin your research before your first meeting.

5. Say It Loud: I’m Doing UX and I’m Proud.

Problem:

You’ve heard through the grapevine,  “You never know what those UX people over there are doing. They don’t deliver any results!” What? For the last two months you kept your nose to the grindstone to raise UX awareness across the whole project team. What is your reward, getting a good scolding? Obviously something has gone totally wrong in communication.

Theory:

Once you have established a basic standing for UX within the project context, you must continually reinforce the benefits of UX processes and products. There are many possible threats to maintaining UX momentum, including unanticipated results leading to rework and a misunderstanding the role of the UX consultant.

Solution:

You will withstand any storms by gearing up with some tactical tools. This little set of tools can be adapted to many situations and should help to keep the UX momentum strong:

  • To raise awareness, distribute bits and pieces of UX knowledge. Periodically supply a link to a good article, a usability-related add-on for the browser, or a just-released book. Practice active one-on-one communication.
  • Involve the relevant stakeholders when you make design decisions.
  • Make accurate meeting minutes part of your consulting practice.
  • Archive any written communication, especially emails. Some day you may need to supply documentation supporting UX decisions.
  • Keep best-practices UI patterns in your prototype. Keep your design pattern libraries handy when the inevitable design tweaks come.
  • Adhere to your decisions and defend them.

6. Be an Active Promoter to Overcome the Innovation Dilemma

Problem:

“It won’t work,” the [wildcard] said to the UX consultant. (Replace the [wildcard] with any department member: project manager, software developer, marketing representative, etc.)

Theory:

Innovation is difficult when it comes to creative solutions for an excellent user experience. “It won’t work,” often has various connotations: cognitive resistance (“I don’t know”), psychological resistance (“I don’t want”), organizational resistance (“I’m not allowed”), and financial resistance (“There’s no budget”).

Solution:

Jürgen Hauschildt, a German pioneer in innovation management, speaks of the “troika” model in innovation management. The innovation troika consists of the technical expert who acts as the promoter by expertise, the power promoter to gain management support, and the process promoter,  to get things done.

If there is a general commitment to finding a win-win solution, you might assign the role of promoter by expertise to the [wildcard] skeptic; he or she has the knowledge of possible alternatives. Someone from management should take the power promoter. Then you, the UX consultant with your innovative bag of tricks, can become the process promoter. Together the three of you will develop all possible solutions, and in the end, “It will work.”

7. Form Your Team of Untouchables

Problem:

In any company or project there are usually some skeptics regarding the value of a UX team. You have to demonstrate that UX is a good investment. In the setup phase of the project you convinced the steering committee that this was the right project for starting UX activities. Now you have a small but motivated UX team for the upcoming project. How to build a UX team and, once formed, how to keep it running?

Theory:

If you have a UX team, you will have to do basic team-building activities to ensure high performance, and not leave your team open to unwarranted criticism. The confidence in the UX team will be higher the better they do their job in the eyes of others. Thus, imagine your team as an external agency with your company as its client. Customer satisfaction is the key to success. Shine with competence, reliability, and on-time delivery.

Solution:

Develop a code of conduct together with all members of the UX team. The code should cover these three topics:

  • What are the overall values of the team?
  • What can team members expect from the team lead?
  • What will the team lead expect from the members?

Also be a reliable team leader, and in return, your team will be loyal to you. Finally, nourish and cherish your teammates. Take them out for dinner or a bowling night.

8. Make Multiple Friends Within the Project

Problem:

Speaking with a single stakeholder will probably require lee iteration, but at the same time jeopardize the quality of decision itself. First deliverables are in the queue, some of them have technical implications, and others require input from the CIO’s department. You have met the key people. Now it’s time to make friends in different sub-projects.

Theory:

Well-grounded UX decisions are by definition multi-dimensional. You have to take measures to reduce this risk from the very beginning of the decision process. Do everything to make the UX team an ally rather than an enemy. Install a cooperative atmosphere between your team and your “new friends.”

Solution:

Involve the IT, Marketing, and CIO people actively from the beginning. Talk with them. Conduct regular workshops and teleconferences with the IT people to answer usability questions. Insist on the involvement, even if your project managers say
otherwise. Insist on an appropriate forum for design discussions.

9. Know Yourself and Live the UX Life

Problem:

In a meeting you pull out the latest smart phone. You sit on an ergonomic office chair. You write with a pen that was especially designed for the left hander. You can quote several of the recognized “UX gurus.” You have installed some really great add-ons in your browser. You can’t pass a ticket machine without observing customers and how they still fail to get tickets printed.

Theory:

Passion for the profession is what all user experience people should have. UX consultants should learn to love to think in terms of human centeredness. For inspirations UX’ers should flip through the biographies of Bill Buxton, Alison Druin, Henry Dreyfuss, Doug Engelbart, Buckminster Fuller, Stuart Card, Brenda Laurel, Bill Moggridge, Donald Norman, Rosalind Picard, and other great HCI pioneers and industrial design visionaries.

Solution:

Express your HCI passion through a “UX lifestyle.” The entire project team will appreciate your commitment and recognize you as an engaged and dedicated professional. Not only will your team benefit, but the project you’re working on will gain a deeply engaged, professional colleague.

Summary

We argue that, with the maturing UX consulting business, the development of additional skills becomes important to our role. We see this as the dawn of an interesting discussion within the UX community.

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