Centralised UX team vs. embedded within product teams

by Trenton Moss on 20 March 2018

Recruiting UX talent and training teams are challenges that many digital teams face, but once you have the team you need to work out where they fit in.

Simple questions such as, where do they sit within your company structure and even physically within your office can have large implications for your team.

Internal agency (centralised)

Centralised UX teams are how organisations have traditionally approached the placement of their UX resource. By having the UX team together, the business can brief requirements and the team then works out who should work on which projects.

UX - centralised user experience teams

Working this way has meant that:

  • Team members get exposure to lots of different parts of the business
  • Members of the UX team work together a lot and are able to form a central hub of excellence
  • There's lots of opportunity for collaboration within the team and for UX designers to learn from each other

What it's also meant is that product owners have historically tried to solutionise their challenges, briefing in the UX team around what they want (rather than briefing them on the problem they're trying to solve). And who can blame them when the guys in the UX team don't really understand the intricacies of the product.

The key benefit of a product manager working with a UX professional is that the UX designer helps solve the problem through well thought out user-centred design solutions - having the UX team so separate from product managers makes this difficult.

We've seen a hybrid model working really well, with most of your UX designers embedded in product teams with a small centralised team of subject matter experts supporting them.

Embedded (decentralised)

Many brands have moved away from a centralised internal agency model, preferring to have UX and UI specialists embedded within product teams alongside the product manager, developers etc. (This is part of a wider move to us all working continuously on products and not just on projects).

UX - decentralised user experience teams

This means that UX designers:

  • Can gain intricate product knowledge so work faster and add a lot more value
  • Work closely with the product team to define problems/challenges and collaboratively solve them (and therefore add more value)

That's the theory anyway... In reality, this does happen but UX designers can quickly become isolated and get too close to the product, and you can sometimes see a long-term decline in original thinking and the quality of output.

We've seen a few other problems occurring with this setup:

  • UX designers can get bored after a while as they feel a bit isolated and like they're no longer learning anything new - recruitment is tough so it's more important than ever to keep your UXers happy!
  • Product teams can get a bit siloed so it can be hard to ensure consistency and joined up thinking across product teams (pattern libraries and design language documents often can't keep up with the pace of feature development)
  • UX designers can sometimes be expected to be a mythical UX Unicorn - no one is skilled in all different aspects of UX!

Centralised/decentralised hybrid model

What if there was a way to gain the benefits of both models? We've seen a hybrid model working really well, with most of your UX designers embedded in product teams with a small centralised team of subject matter experts supporting them.

To do this you need to:

  1. Create a competency framework (if you don't already have one) covering all aspects of UX and UI
  2. Work with your UX designers to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses against each item in the framework, and then make all scores public
  3. Give everyone the same job title (e.g. UX Designer) and make it clear that they're all responsible for all aspect of UX and UI for their product
  4. Create a central resource of specialists across the competency framework (recruit based on where the most gaps are with your UX designers) and have them support your embedded UX designers as required; if you're not big enough to support this then use an agency like Webcredible
  5. Share the UX designers strengths and weaknesses with product owners and explain how no one is a UX Unicorn and your central resource will make up for skills gaps

Competency Framework

Your competency framework will help you identify the skills gaps in your team

You should then also create some rules to keep your UX designers motivated and able to learn from each other, for example:

  • Set minimum and maximum time periods for which you're embedded with a product team (with 3-monthly windows to allow people to swap) - the time you set depends on the complexity of your products
  • Specify that all UX designers need to be in the office on a Friday and that they need to sit together that day; have structured show and tell sessions
  • Have people go on secondments to a pattern library team (to keep this up-to-date) or an innovation stream (to run experiments and create proof-of-concepts)

It's hard work implementing and then maintaining all of this - do so and you'll have happy UX designers contributing real value to your business.

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