The Art of Building a Strong UX Team Culture

Ward Andrews
By Ward Andrews
Cover Image for The Art of Building a Strong UX Team Culture

Good companies are run by smart and driven individuals. Great companies are run by teams unified by purpose, mission and values. As a product leader, how do you build a culture that delights your team so that they can create meaningful experiences for end users? At Drawbackwards, we recognized that our culture is a differentiator, so we developed our company values in the same way we approach work for our clients… by drawing backwards.

The Backstory:

Almost two decades ago, Drawbackwards was a small group with multiple contractors. I essentially played point guard as the owner and executive producer, passing projects to the team. We hit some home runs, which led to more work. However, we knew that if we wanted to reach the next level, we’d have to embrace the skillset of each member of our team. I couldn’t run the show alone.

We approached the buildout of our team very deliberately. We wanted to build the business from the inside out, instead of being molded by outside forces or from the top down. We needed guiding principles, a set of core values to be the foundation of the daily decisions that would build an enduring business.

The Process:

We looked inward and approached our business just like we would approach a client’s. We took a full day of team time, stepped back, and looked at the outcomes we all wanted. We built out affinity maps of our purpose and values, synthesizing a wide variety of personal values into eight core ideas. This exercise was illuminating, revealing that we all had a shared purpose of creating successful, meaningful products and services for our clients.

Together, we discovered what we were and what we weren't. The values didn’t come from me as the “boss,” because a leader/owner can’t decree downward what the culture is. The culture is what it is; the people are who they are. Trying to fight that can only end badly. That’s why it was important to us that the entire team build the values.

The Values:

  1. We create the future. Our first value orients us to understand a current state and then collaborate with our partners to design a future state that's better. Drawbackwards isn't a team you come to for production work. We create the future. We elevate the present.

  2. We are optimists. If you're with our team, you can just feel it. You aren't going to see Drawbackwards shrink or cower or say, "Oh, we can't do anything about this." Drawbackwards is going to say, "Well, here are five different ways you can do it; let's test them." We're optimists. And the bigger the challenge, the better we are at it.

  3. We love the details. Our work proves it. When we deliver a user interface, you’ll see the initial three other ways the user could experience it. We go above and beyond, in a way that focuses on the intricacies of the client’s business objectives, employee goals and user needs.

  4. We believe in the speed of trust. We work with a lot of high-growth companies and fast-moving teams. Even our Fortune 100 clients move quickly with us; they know we’re built for that and they trust us to deliver. Internally, our tasks are managed the same way. We trust each other to deliver on time and at the level we require. The speed of trust is a real differentiator for us. We hire, fire, and train to this level of performance. As a remote team, it’s essential.

  5. We deliver value every day. Simple to say, difficult to do…unless you have the right team-oriented mindset. Everyone holds everyone else accountable for their daily delivery. We use an activity called Weekly Tetris which allows everyone to know what everyone else is focused on every day that week. Now, things can change, but by setting up strategic blocks of time upfront, we empower our team to deliver maximum value across multiple projects and initiatives.

  6. We design to delight. This is a byproduct of the first five values. As a business, if we do a good job in values 1-5, we’re able to create more surprise, delight, joy, and thoughtfulness in the work that we do, resulting in five-star app store reviews and high NPS scores. When critiquing our own work, we actively look for ways to “plus” the work and create true delight.

  7. We are proactive. The next level of designing to delight is to proactively identify ways to add value…internally and externally. As a team, we constantly look for ways to add that value. When we see a challenge, we also see a solution to offer and bring balance to the effort.

  8. We are always learning. Experimentation is part of the design and development process. If we always have the mindset that we're learning (not “failing”), we’ll rarely run into roadblocks that completely stop us. In fact, we can avoid that particular block in the future because we learn from it. We move beyond it with a better process, tighter execution, and a higher level of experience. This fosters an open, loving culture that embraces innovation. What will we learn next?

Where do we go next?

We’re proud of our core values and purpose, but ultimately, these would be empty words if we didn’t live them on a daily basis. Here are some ways to keep purpose and values alive in your organization.

  1. Don’t underestimate the value of posting the values in a common area. Our purpose statement is a giant floor to ceiling vinyl print on a sliding door in our office. We read it and see it every day.

  2. As a leader, you must embody every value through and through. Remember: the quiet things matter as much as the public recognition.

  3. The values can be fun and public at the same time. We have designated specific emojis on our Slack channel for each to the values, and we send an emoji out when someone exhibits that value. It’s fun.

  4. It’s also important to give public, formal praise. At our quarterly planning meetings, each team member shares how another member exhibited a core value. It is key to do it regularly, so that it becomes part of the team ethos and mindset.

  5. Don’t be afraid to bring experts in. Culture from the outside can look very different than culture from the inside. Recently, we brought in a third party who asked some great questions about our process, our culture, and how we measure employee engagement. Don’t be afraid to invest time and energy to get another perspective.

  6. An affinity map is still a great way to get started. Just ask your team, “What matters in the work we do?” Group the responses on the wall with post-its, and sort them into 3-5 groups of shared principles. You might be surprised what you learn.