Quick summary ↬
When bad UX has lingered in a product for so long, it can feel like a mountain to overcome. In this article, Ceara Crawshaw shares her advice on how you can invoke joy and assure the quality in the work done on product teams.
Let’s take a moment to think about the time you’ve spent navigating intranets, password resets, project management software, or government websites. How many moments of technological frustration can you add up in the last few days when you think about them? Some of these websites and platforms are too important to avoid — they enable us to fulfill fundamental human transactions and operations. In today’s world, it’s become common to feel our energy is depleted by this steady stream of digital experiences.
Given our increasing dependency on digital interactions, advocating for good UX will become increasingly necessary, as our reliance on digital tools continues to grow. A new canvassing of experts in technology, communications, and social change by Pew Research Center presents a universal view that “people’s relationship with technology will deepen as larger segments of the population come to rely more on digital connections for work, education, health care, daily commercial transactions and essential social interactions.” As this shift toward what is dubbed a tele-everything world continues to unfold, the people who work in tech hold an incredible responsibility to ensure that their creations make life simpler, not more stressful or more time-consuming.
As a designer, I feel a sense of responsibility to dig deeper into why it’s so uncommon to encounter digital tools that are straight-up simple, empathetic, and helpful. In this article, we will explore the causes, as I’ve seen in my practice, look at the effects this can have on the team, and finally propose some actionable solutions that don’t just say: convince people to increase the budget.
Common Sources Of Bad UX In Your Product
If good UX has been a hot topic in the industry for years, then why is bad UX still so common? The easy answer points toward product designers and developers as individuals who create the UX itself. However, if you believe that, then your bad UX problem will persist despite hiring the most competitive talent on the job market.
Based on my experiences as a UX Designer and Design Manager, here are the top four underlying reasons why your tech product might be experiencing Bad UX:
1. Under-Resourced Dev Teams For The Size Of A Company’s Goals
These conditions place the team in a ‘starvation mode’ where delivering anything on time is already difficult enough; the steps required for quality UX are extremely difficult to prioritize. The issue here is that company leadership views Good UX as luxurious (which is quite hilarious, because UX is often a key differentiator in the most competitive products out there), even as a hindrance to velocity (which is equally hilarious, because of the disastrous impact Bad UX can have on velocity in the long run, but whatever, leadership).
“I encounter under-resourced dev teams constantly, and it’s disheartening every time. Usually, quality is the first thing to go, even though most professionals know it should be scope. Decision-makers in these contexts have a very hard time imagining scoping down, so they consistently push the team to move faster instead.”
— Aidan Gordon, Technology Lead
2. Under-Resourced Design Teams For The Number Of Developers
A recent survey of 377 professionals by Nielsen Norman Group revealed that about a third of designers are outnumbered by at least 10 developers. Imagine the pressure on designers when there’s such a skewed ratio like this. They need to pump out screens and logic for devs (short for developers) to work on every week. The team’s production velocity is wrongly measured by its dev power, and because the design bottleneck is so strong, devs have to wing it and just kind of ‘figure out’ UX independently. Thoughtful user testing falls by the wayside, as designers’ workloads are unmanageable.
3. Misunderstanding “Agile” As “As Fast As Possible”
Agile workflow tactics gained popularity without paying enough attention to the underlying rituals that enable them to be successful. According to Atlassian (the creators of Jira and Confluence), Agile calls for “collaborative cross-functional teams, open communication, collaboration, adaptation, and trust amongst team members.” Each and every one of those key aspects are easily deprioritized when a team’s strategic goals force them to operate in starvation mode in the first place. Agile, as it was designed, recognizes that good UX is the result of navigating continuous dependencies between all branches of the product team. In other words, Good UX requires a lot of back and forth, which is a kind of collaborative and communicative mode that immediately falls to the wayside when we are in a rush.
“I’ve observed companies that aren’t committed to an iterative mindset and process, but use “Agile” as a bandaid for quicker releases. Sometimes, there’s a fear coming from leadership that we might never return to fix something, or a fear that we won’t be able to sell version 1 without a fully functional feature X. Unless the whole company embraces iterations, the product team will either struggle to release quickly, or to release quality… the concern is if we release a v1 with less than perfect scope we will never go back to fixing it.”
— Jill Hesse, Director at Genomics Data Management
4. Misunderstanding The Meaning And Purpose Of UX
Often, when I’ve been hired to work for teams, I have observed that the main issue was simply a mild and widespread confusion about what User Experience really is, both in the tech crew and the business crew. Misunderstanding the purpose of UX is akin to misunderstanding its value. If this happens on the business side of the company, then the product team will likely be under-resourced in the design department. If this misunderstanding happens on the product team level (perhaps due to a lack of designers in strategically influential positions, or lack of designers altogether), UX winds up being disregarded or thought of as just UI, which is to say: “something that can be added later.”
This summary is meant to offer a view of the operational and cultural forces that bring about UX failures. If you’re a leader in tech, I hope you draw the essential link between the happiness of your product team, the quality of the User Experience, and your business’ revenues. Your product team knows what conditions they need in place for them to produce a high-quality UX. They have some of the answers to your Bad UX problem, and they might be a heck of a lot simpler than you think.
The Impact Of Bad UX On Your Team And Company
In organizational psychology and modern ways of viewing work, like Officevibe’s Employee Engagement Guide, there’s often a theme that comes up: happier employees make more productive employees/better work. I’d add users into this cycle somewhere because creating excellent experiences creates a virtuous cycle into revenue and solidifies the meaning we find in contributing positively to others.
On the flip side, when bad UX has lingered in a product for so long, it can feel like a mountain to overcome, and it grinds down the talented and passionate humans on your team.
The effect can play out on teams in a few ways I’ve seen in real life:
Long-term ‘UX bugs’ harm team morale. Over time, the glaring UX issues product can force a continuation of being caught between a rock and a hard place, where a revamp is increasingly needed, but would require more and more resources. In this kind of scenario, you might see designers regularly churning out band-aid features instead of creating elegant solutions. The team can still produce new, innovative features, but more slowly and with more mental (dare I say emotional) labor than is necessary. It basically just gets harder and harder to create stuff that you could be proud of. It can get demoralizing over time.
Lack of opportunities to create Good UX wears down confidence. As a designer (or other people on a product team), your job, your portfolio, your sense of credibility in the space, sense of confidence — and I’ll even go as far as saying your self-worth — are directly affected by the impact you feel from your work. You know you are talented, interested and capable enough to produce great things, but anyone caught in a Bad UX situation for a long time will see those joyful and creative feelings start to dim.
“As a designer, working in a user-driven product culture is so important for your own satisfaction. If you’re working within a company or team with a weak UX culture, you can get stuck meeting one or a few people’s biased preferences instead of hundreds or thousands of users’ real needs. You know you’re letting users down. In some cases, you’re even adding *more* friction and frustration into someone’s life… Over time, your confidence in the quality of your designs diminishes, and, eventually, so does your overall engagement at work.”
— Erica Gregor, Head of Design & Product at Penrose Partners
Bad UX hinders a team’s growth and strategic value. When Bad UX pervades in such a way that it causes your team to lose time or motivation, under-delivery becomes the norm. It starts to seem like, from the outside lens, that your team isn’t relevant or competent. When it’s hard for a team to demonstrate its strategic/business value, investment in the team’s growth can slow down, and they don’t get to benefit from the innovation power of a more diverse range of skills and talents.
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Solutions For Preventing Bad UX
The discussions I’ve had in the industry about the causes of Bad UX always revolve around too little time or resources to achieve the elegant and empathetic design-dev workflow proposed by experts in Agile, Design Thinking, etc. But notice the irony of some of the biggest, most funded teams still producing Bad UX. Have you ever tried joining a Microsoft Teams call as a ‘free’ user? Not only is more time and resources a false solution to Bad UX, the very focus on “more resources as the solution to Bad UX” makes Good UX seem like a privilege that only the most funded projects can access.
“I am not sure if I have got stuck in Groundhog Day, or have become the center of the universe. I try to log in… It says I am not on Teams yet, and asks me to “Sign up.” I am taken to the Teams home page, where I click on “Sign up for free.” It says, I already have an account setup… So I click on “Sign in.” Now it asks me to open the app… And then it says that I am not on Teams…”
— Sumit Anantwar, on being stuck in a login loop on Microsoft Teams
I’ve seen this false perception of “Good UX as privilege” lead small companies to accept sub-par UX as the norm. They assume they can’t afford the price tag and this, in turn, invites a culture of complacency around user experience and a lowering of the design standard overall. This is a huge missed opportunity because smaller teams have a huge advantage in how nimble they can be if they can manage to exploit this advantage to the highest possible degree they can blow larger competitors out of the water. The key is mastering and experimenting with your culture and workflow surrounding user experience.
If you’re in or running a product team, whatever the size, maturity or degree of suffering from Bad UX problems, I’d like to recommend a few working practices that I’ve developed over the years in an effort to invoke joy and assure the quality in the work we do on product teams.
Flip The Script Around Who Is Responsible For UX Quality
In my experience, there is a false sense across the industry that designers should be the only ones responsible for advocating for the user, ensuring UI bugs are fixed, validating use cases, designing interactions and finding potential gotchas or edge cases. Products and websites are becoming more complex, both in terms of technical possibilities and in terms of the interactions we need to make simple and easy. Does it really make sense for just designers to hold the knowledge on how to make a nice interaction? I think we’re underestimating how capable ‘non-designers’ are, and what our roles should be, and how we work together.
I’m not arguing that devs should be turned into designers, that’s the kind of a passive expectation already getting foisted on devs as it is. Shared responsibility does not mean equal effort and priority; instead, it means that we are all on the UX ship and care about steering it in the right direction. Most of this can be achieved through intentional changes to a team’s workflow with little impact on the actual time spent working.
Rewire Your Team’s Workflow, So That UX Is Touched By Many
If I liked bumper stickers, I would have one that says, “We should be just as creative about our workflows as we are about our work itself.” Certain product workflows have simply become traditional ideals in the industry because of the pressing need to bring operational structure to the natural chaos of the creative and innovative process. Just because big companies write polished articles and online courses about how they work, doesn’t mean that you should adopt their way of doing things. If a multi-million-dollar company changed their font to Comic Sans would you do it too? Some great examples of clever workflow practices I’ve seen work are:
Early and creative collaboration between designers and developers. This practice works well to prevent future gotchas like discovering a feature-defining limitation to backend or frontend logic. It’s basically just having early open conversations (and being friends).
Map out complexity in a collaborative way. ‘Complexity mapping’ is the only phrase I can think of that encapsulates the moment when you document and draw things like: edge cases, user flows, sitemaps, and system logic. Drawing things out is a very efficient way to think through and communicate if/then logic. I don’t see teams drawing things out together as a group often enough. Don’t be afraid to draw together as a way of aligning the vision and important specs of a project. You save a lot of time and effort speaking about complicated things out loud, rather than just pointing.
Make research findings accessible to all team members. After collaborating with lots of dev teams, I see consistent enthusiasm for user feedback and research data, yet it’s not as widely shared as it could be. Invite devs to take notes during interviews once in a while and casually ask for their thoughts on snippets of user insights regularly. These kinds of active practices allow devs to care about the user experience in a real way, which goes deeper than reading reports or attending presentations.
Together with your team, set a standard together for what “good quality” means. It’s simple: code doesn’t get shipped until it’s high enough quality from everyone’s perspective. Your QA specialists, developers, designers, product owners, and product managers each have functional and non-functional requirements that are important to them. Find out what they are and get serious about meeting them before sending something out the door. Having shared standards ensures we agree on what unacceptable/good/great/amazing UX is.
Let Go Of Your Assumptions About What Developers And Designer Even Mean
Almost every team I’ve worked with has a similar approach to identities on the team: management, research, design, development, and QA. For example, a designer on one team will have fairly identical responsibilities as a designer on another. These identities were designed over years of industry growth and workflow standardization — workflows that haven’t proven to be successful in producing Good UX in a widespread manner. So, I invite you to give your talented people permission to work on a project without so much attachment to their job descriptions; push them to contribute to aspects of the design-dev-QA flow that they feel drawn to, and observe what emerges.
When a product team is given an opportunity to play with their very identities, UX immediately reveals itself as not just a special thing ‘creatives’ can do. Some developers gravitate toward gaining a basic understanding of UX that would enable them to contribute to the ultimate quality of the project. Conversely, designers might discover they have a genuine need for a basic understanding of technical concepts. There are many more overlapping skills between designers and developers which can be harnessed!
With all of these practices, I’m urging you to think together better, which is absolutely needed in our intricate work scenarios as knowledge workers. The impact of collaborative pairing across disciplines has led to a lot of significant breakthroughs in my experience and creates and solidifies our connection to one another. Also, it’s 1000% more fun.
Real Life Examples Of Good UX And Great Design-Dev Collaboration
Here are some concrete examples of where I (or my crew) have used non-traditional collaboration techniques to build better UX.
Fintech Case: What Happens When Devs And Designers Map Out Complexity Together
As we were collaboratively mapping out the main flows for a fintech app with an intense application process, we discovered a big problem with the data model we were about to build everything on. As we were working on our flows, our tech lead dug into the data and found that more than 50% of applications included more than one person. Originally we assumed we could skip it, but were prompted to revisit the decision through this process. The crew immediately started the foundational backend work to enable an application to have more than 1 person associated with it, and now the majority of users have a smooth experience in the app.
Enterprise Case: How Design-Dev Collaboration Identified A Dealbreaking Project Barrier
We were tasked with redesigning a command-line tool for an enterprise product that required the download and upload of an XML file. The weakest point in the tool was the lack of guidance and feedback people received as they used the tool. When we showed the wireframes with new error messages and guidance to the developers, they revealed to us that the tool already had problems parsing errors in the right order because of the nature of the XML file and the underlying database.
Once everyone realized that the main purpose of the redesign would be impossible to fulfill within the scope of work, we decided to scrap the project until we could fix things properly.
We were designing a custom field configuration interaction and had designed a lot of cases as we went. Users of this biotech platform could create their own: number field, text field, multiline text field, radio button dropdown, toggles, and so on.
Thankfully, we had two developers review the design team’s wireframes and logic early on. One dev pointed out way more logic that needed to be defined because this scientific software had requirements that were buried deep in the code like the number of decimals to show, the maximum possible value, etc. This prevented a major scope creep during implementation and prevented users from being blocked at migration time.
Hopefully, these examples allow you to imagine just a small glimpse into the potential that these workflow improvements and collaborative culture can generate.
Our work in the tech industry can feel like a grind at times: fast deadlines, rushing, redoing work you’ve already done, and pushing sub-par final implementation out the door. This, in part, is because a company’s strategy or a team’s workflows don’t help catch complexity early enough, so devs and designers have to respond by patching in weird UX solutions just to get a thing out the door.
Here’s a recap of some actionable steps that are sure to improve the UX culture in your team:
As a product leader:
Open a discussion with your team: What needs to be true in order to deliver higher quality user experiences? This question should help you notice frictions in their team structure and their workflows.
Offer the whole team (including developers, researchers, managers, and quality analysts) a learning experience about UX like this introductory course. Celebrate the end of the course (and put it into practice) together by designing and implementing a new feature.
Same goes for working in Agile: get everyone on the same page through a common learning experience like through this book and put it into practice together through a shared project.
Implement new, quick rituals that gather your whole team during the design process, especially in its early and messier stages. Your developers, managers, and QA people might feel out of place at first, but that’s only because the world has taught them to feel that way. This simple exposure to design will grow to influence what they care about in their work and eventually shift everyone’s sense of responsibility for good user experiences.
As a product team member, do what’s in your power about the recommendations above:
As a designer, invite a developer to a 30-minute meeting showing them a new feature you’re conceptualizing or some fresh research insights you are working with.
As any team member, host a discussion with your team about how you might deliver higher quality design without needing new resources. Test it out and share your learnings with your Manager.
As a developer, get a sense of some tactical UX/UI basics with this course and try using some of the principles next time you work on a feature, note the most seamless pieces you implemented and share with your team.
All in all, we want all levels of a company and all members of a product team working with the same definition and values around UX. In companies where there’s shared responsibility for the quality of a product, collaboration flows organically and frequently. This constant meeting of perspectives and skills is our way forward if we want to honor the idea that tech should help people save time and effort in as many ways as possible.