UX is an intricate and multifaceted discipline that goes far beyond “making things pop” or just increasing conversions. Its fundamental goal is to ensure that å design can satisfy the needs of both the user and the organization.
Ensuring that your UX team has the necessary collective knowledge and workflows is critical for its goals and the benefits the practice brings to the table. Given how complex this undertaking is, the UX team should have a set of professionals that can ensure good decision-making every step of the way. Aside from having an extensive skill set, these specialists should also be able to integrate into the team and be comfortable with the frameworks and models that the organization follows.
Fortunately, this is precisely what this article is about. In it, we’ll dive into the structure of a UX team, the specialists you should consider having on board, and much more.
Let’s jump right in, shall we?
The minimum viable design team
There’s great career diversity in product design. We’ll explore the different specialists that fall under this professional umbrella below, but first, let’s take a look at the essential fronts your team should be able to cover.
Product decision-making in UX is deeply rooted in research data—it’s a central tenet of the craft. If there’s no empathy, there can be no “UX.”
Your team should have people that are experienced in conducting and analyzing research. Obviously, it could be a UX researcher, but often other professionals possess these skills to a certain extent, like UX designers, UX writers, information architects, and others.
The purpose of this phase is to understand the people you design for, comprehend their wants and needs, as well as develop a certain level of familiarity with their expectations. As a result, this leads to the formulation of a product offering that makes sense to them and addresses their needs directly and effortlessly.
User experience design (UX)
Once you’ve collected enough research data and extracted enough actionable insights into your users’ needs, it’s time to start putting pixels together, which is where the actual “design” comes in (however, both are indispensable parts of the UX process). Fundamentally, its purpose is to make a design of digital experience easy to use, useful, pleasant, etc.
UX designers are often tasked with developing wireframes and prototypes, as well as testing and improving them in an iterative manner.
It’s important to think of UX design as something more than just the visual side of things. Instead, it’s all about the decisions made throughout the organization to ensure a frictionless, useful, and ethical experience.
User interface design (UI)
Oftentimes, there’s a single person responsible for both UX and UI. This specialist is often referred to as a product designer or a “UI/UX designer." Things get harder when you also need them to also do research.
Practically speaking, a single person rarely has either the time or the expertise to produce top-notch deliverables in both of these areas. As such, in our experience, the minimum viable team for product design should consist of a product designer and a UX researcher.
Naturally, as the team grows, you’ll be distributing responsibilities in a more granular manner, but we’ll touch more on that in the next chapter.
The breadth of UX talent
Digital product designers come in all shapes or forms. Again, generally, you only need to concern yourself with differentiating the different flavors of UX talent when you have large teams. Let’s quickly go over the most popular types of UX specialists.
The key responsibility of a UX researcher is to supply the design and product team with insights into user behavior. Good UX isn’t built on assumptions. The range of activities a researcher conducts usually includes workshops, user interviews, usability tests, competitor research, etc.
All digital products utilize an interaction layer intended for a human audience. Humans are not infallible and often make mistakes. They may be distracted or be dealing with a heightened level of emotions while navigating digital environments. Therefore, it is crucial that we understand that many modern digital product design challenges and problems stem from the very fact that we are human.
Typically, to do this, they use qualitative and quantitative research methods to ensure a thorough understanding of user needs and market demands.
In close collaboration with a UX researcher, the UX designer turns user insights into well-thought-out experiences. These experiences don’t encompass just in-app design—it’s way more extensive than that. From the moment a user learns about your product, they are under a UX designer's watchful eye.
The range of activities UX designers conduct includes the information architecture, user flows, usability testing, customer persona creation, and maintenance.
In large organizations and enterprise product development, the UX designer role is more focused on user experience, usability, and accessibility.
UX designers spend a lot of time understanding behavior, pain points, emotions, and other human factors to deliver products that meet user needs.
To be frank, we’re a little skeptical of this role. Yet, despite our lack of conviction, there are people who claim to be UI designers, as well as those who hire them.
Ostensibly, a UI designer, having received wireframes from a UX designer, would color the same way a child paints a coloring book. However, good UI design is meant to reflect your product’s identity and add additional value through delight. Things don’t have to be animated nicely, but when they do, it sure feels nice.
The reason we’re skeptical of the UI designer position is that UI naturally flows out of UX. UI is merely a phase an idea goes through before it gets brought to life.
In a real-world setting, you’ll more often find motion designers, illustrators, and similar professionals doing the job we’ve outlined in this paragraph.
For all intents and purposes, you can consider a product designer to do the same thing a UI&UX designer does. Generally, you would find product designers working in product companies (duh), while UI&UX designers tend to work for design agencies.
As the name suggests, the information architect is the designer responsible for the general architecture of a product. Typically, a UX designer can do that. However, if you’re dealing with products that are highly complex, an informational architect can make that job a lot more manageable. Mind you, starting with poor architecture will almost invariably result in scrapping your progress and starting over later.
UX architects invest a lot of their time into studying heat maps, analytics, research data, and other useful reports that pertain to people’s experience with the product’s structure in order to ensure that both user and business needs are met.
Copy is an extremely important part of modern design—as you can see in the image below, products like Amazon, Airbnb, and Facebook wouldn’t make much sense without it. Therefore, it’s essential to make sure that enough care and attention are invested into finding a good content strategist or UX writer.
Broadly speaking, these professionals are responsible for making copy clear, concise, useful, and on-brand.
Unfortunately, copy often becomes an afterthought in smaller UX teams. As a result, many products end up suffering from poor communication with their users, which leads to loads of friction, confusion, and frustration.
Digital design director
You may or may not need to fill this role, depending on the size of your UX team. However, that is not to say that there shouldn’t be a person responsible for spearheading UX efforts if your team is small.
Typically, these professionals are well-versed both in UX and UI design. Directors should inspire and lead a crew of UX specialists and help shape people’s experiences by bringing change through ideas and creativity.
On structuring design teams
The structure you choose will, in part, define your team’s distribution of responsibilities. Before deciding on a structure, it’s always a good idea to assess your resources, culture, product needs, and other factors. Here are the three most common structures for UX teams:
Centralized design teams
As the name suggests, the centralized team centers itself around a UX manager. The UX manager, in turn, is responsible for allocating specific designers to specific tasks across multiple projects.
While this approach is clearly useful for finding the best person for each individual task, it forces designers to often switch between projects. As such, the UX manager would have to do all the thinking while other designers just execute.
With a UX manager out of the way, a designer will, in this case, report to the product team. Each designer is allocated to a specific project and is present during team communication. A designer is always part of the larger context of what’s happening with the product.
The downside of that structure model is that you’d have to have a diverse team since they’re often exclusively committed to your project alone.
A mixed team largely works like a decentralized one. However, the UX manager’s job mostly revolves around ensuring designers’ growth as opposed to allocating specific tasks.
The bottom line
While there’s a great spectrum of possibilities of how you can arrange and structure a UX team, it’s best to be guided by your means and possibilities. At a basic level, ensuring that your team can conduct research, apply findings in prototypes, and then test solutions is a good start. More importantly, you’ll have to also think about how your team will grow in size over time and what structure would work best for you in that scenario.