Originally Published in ACM Interactions Magazine: http://interactions.acm.org/archive/view/september-october-2018/lean-ux-communication-strategies-for-success-in-large-organizations
Download PDF: Greg Nudelman. 2018. Lean UX communication strategies for success in large organizations. Interactions 25, 5 (August 2018), 80-82. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3236683
Lean UX is an approach to UX design that has consistently gained popularity over the past few years. Our field has produced multiple books [1,2,3,4] and myriad articles on various lean UX flavors, promising robust improvements in the productivity and success of digital projects. Today, eight years after the publication of Lean Startup , there is little doubt that Lean UX is a potent approach to product design. Unfortunately, when lean UX is applied in large, complex organizations, especially at companies whose culture is traditionally dominated by engineering, the expectations of instant success must be tempered by reality. In the words of Alfred Korzybski, “the map is not the territory” .
This article details a way to make your lean UX design practice more collaborative and productive by employing four sophisticated yet straightforward lean UX communication strategies. They are especially adapted for success in large, distributed organizations:
- Employ a design framework (A.K.A. “Design System”) to help document your designs to communicate precisely within highly distributed design/dev teams.
- Maintain multiple prototypes in parallel to, on the one hand, provide product vision, while on the other hand servicing the needs of development partners with detailed Minimum Viable Prototype (MVP) designs for the next product milestone.
- Match the media fidelity to the communications need (executive or not) as opposed to the stage of the design process.
- Leverage the agile use cases as a communication vehicle to align the team across enterprise silos.
Let’s take a closer look at these strategies and discuss how they help solve various communication challenges of large organizations.
Employ a Design Framework
A design framework is an excellent tool to help communicate your design on a daily basis with high precision and consistency, without requiring an outrageous amount of effort to do so. A design framework is particularly useful for distributed remote teams because it drives consistency and standards in design communication in a way that meets the goals of the remote developers. As a result, developers feel included in the process and are empowered to build the best possible product.
The basic design framework consists of three parts:
- Four or five pages of basics: navigation patterns, widget behaviors, search, tabs, breadcrumbs
- Five to 10 sample pages (home, search results, form, modal window)
- Visual design and content guides.
Together, in one place, accessible and communicated to all engineering and design team members (and not just development leads), these three items represent your design framework. This framework is the law. It is much more stable than the individual wireframes and always overrules and supersedes every other deliverable you make.
A design framework minimizes the need to specify routine functionality in great detail, eliminating the overhead of having to create and consume this design communication material in every design. You can keep the design deliverables bare-bones and accept slight deviations from ideal in your wireframes. Have a question about how to show form errors? Spacing and fonts? Search results? Autocomplete? Breadcrumbs and navigation? Consult the framework!
Ideally, the design framework should be created in close collaboration with the engineering leads and architects, and accurately describe widget classes needed to implement various objects. That way, it quickly becomes an indispensable reference and a unifying force for the entire product team.
This effort need not take long: Three to four weeks should be sufficient to publish a basic design framework. For most organizations, you don’t have to build something as elaborate as Google or Apple human interface guidelines. It is enough to employ a simple plugin like Zeplin.io (http://Zeplin.io) that creates a self-describing visual framework of red lines, sizes, and styles directly from your Sketch (https://www.sketchapp.com/) files, minimizing any additional work. At one of the Fortune 500 companies where I recently worked, my team’s Zeplin.io design framework site was sought after by other design teams who wanted to implement it in their own projects. So much so that the design framework gained far more companywide importance than the relatively minor project for which my team developed the framework.
Maintain Multiple Prototypes
Often a capable UX team at a large organization occupies a highly strategic role. A kind of Swiss Army Knife: combination sprint-planning tool, marketing instrument, and even a gizmo for the sales organization. In all of these departments, UX becomes a point of coordination—and an excellent way to demonstrate the value of UX to the enterprise.
To communicate design within such a variety of goals and time horizons, capable UX teams employ two or more prototypes for the same product in parallel, each showing the product or feature at a different level of fidelity depending on the time horizon. This communication strategy neatly satisfies the needs of various teams, from long-term strategic to highly tactical.
At one large organization, my UX team routinely maintained two prototypes:
- A flexible, lightweight Sketch/InVision (https://www.invisionapp.com/) click-through prototype that provided developers and product managers with a specific design of critical features for the next milestone delivery
- A highly interactive Axure (https://www.axure.com/) vision prototype that expressed the overall product direction—a fancy affair with all of the prerequisite animations, bells, and whistles.
Although the strategy of communicating UX with multiple prototypes seems wasteful in a typical lean process focused on delivering the MVP, the Axure behemoth proved to be extremely useful. Sales and marketing used it as a demo to communicate the product vision to key stakeholders, partners, and customers, while leadership even used the Axure prototype as a basis for negotiating a $3 billion acquisition!
Use Communication Methods That Fit Your Audience
Closely related to the idea of using multiple prototypes is selecting the appropriate fidelity to communicate your design, independent of the lean UX process stage. The traditional lean UX process is optimized for efficiency. The idea moves through various stages of development (storyboard, sketch, prototype, fully skinned specification, etc.) as it slowly gains fidelity to become the actual digital product. Typically, we do not want to invest additional resources to fully flesh out the prototype if the idea itself does not resonate with the customer or proves to have little business value.
However, optimizing for efficiency is not always the best strategy at a large company, where fidelity of design communication can be critical to getting your idea to the product stage. The key to success is to match the method and style of your presentation to the needs of the audience, not to the step of the UX process. Take sketching, for example. While sketching is an essential technique and remains the cornerstone of successful design practice, in a large company, sketching is far from the most compelling way to communicate one’s vision to the extended team.
I recently attended a quarterly design review in which one designer presented a paper prototype and a second designer presented a fancy animated prototype. Although the designer who presented a paper prototype had undeniable enthusiasm for his idea, the executives chose to fund the latter UX project with the bells and whistles. Why? The executives were unfamiliar with the design space, pressed for time, and forced to make the decision quickly, so they went for the idea they could more easily understand.
Now, under the traditional lean UX practice, such an animated proposal would be considered wasteful. However, understanding the goals of your audience could also mean understanding how to communicate your design regardless of where you are in the design process. So at least in this case, and for this audience, the expense of making the elaborately animated prototype was justified because it helped the executives understand the idea.
Communication is a large part of the lean UX design practice. The key to success is staying flexible: Instead of sticking to what’s “right,” focus on communicating effectively by understanding and internalizing the needs and goals of your audience.
Leverage Agile Use Cases
A thoughtfully worded agile use case can be used to communicate persona, goal, functionality, and benefit (who, what, how, and why) for a variety of applications. This makes agile use cases an excellent tool for alignment between various distributed, often siloed teams in a large organization.
Typically, agile use cases are worded in a standard format, such as “As a Persona X I can do Y so that I can get some benefit Z.” Appropriately edited, the same use case can be used as a development epic, design use case, and product strategy item, and even employed as a prompt for user testing. Such alignment is invaluable for clear communication across departments!
To ensure smoother communication, start the project by aligning on a few critical use cases. For example, “As a first-time customer, I can complete my purchase without registering, so that I can check out quickly and avoid the hassle of having to create and remember another password.”
Once product management confirms these use cases, the UX team can design the experience and validate them through early field research and user interviews.
As your UX team continues to design and prototype, the same agile use cases can be reworded as user tasks for RITE (Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation). For example: “Now that you found what you want to buy, complete your purchase. Is there a way to do so without having to register for the site? PROBE: For what reason might you want (or not want) to do this?”
While the UX team is refining the design, the development team can work in parallel, utilizing these same use cases as agile epics to plan the overall development progress. All the while, the prototype you used for testing with your customers efficiently communicates the key specifications for the agile epics. At any time, anyone on the distributed team can visit the click-through UX design prototype and see the use case in action. Effective lean UX communication using the agile use cases helps support continuous team-wide alignment while minimizing documentation overhead.
Many UX people mistakenly assume that “running lean” (especially when mixed with agile development processes) means providing no design documentation. Unfortunately, this often leads to miscommunication in large, complex teams distributed over multiple countries and time zones.
Even something as simple as attending agile scrum standup meetings can be tricky, especially when these meetings happen at 2 a.m. your time! Meantime, developers on a critical deadline will not wait for next week’s meeting to ask you if they are “doing it right”—they will make an assumption and move to execute. Once something is coded, it is reused multiple times, multiplying the confusion. So, if you can’t be there in person daily, to communicate effectively, you have to invest a bit more time and effort into UX design documentation.
The four strategies we discussed in this article—building a design framework, running multiple prototypes in parallel, using communication methods that fit your audience, and leveraging agile use cases—should help your UX communication be more effective across the organizational silos, without adding a great deal of overhead. Beyond the specific strategies, the best recipe for success is to remain flexible. Embrace the collaborative, experimental spirit that embodies the practice of lean UX: The best approaches are the ones that work in your organization.
At first glance, this communication overhead looks wasteful, especially if one is trying to embrace lean UX principles. However, at a large organization, effective design communication thrusts UX into a much more strategic role—embrace it. It’s a tremendous opportunity for the UX team to influence the company to take a more human, considerate, and ultimately more powerful approach to product development, one that is more likely to lead to success for the company in the long term through converting customers into lifelong fans.
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