Over one and a half year ago I decided to take on a new and exciting challenge and joined a company to start working in a brand new product where I was going to be the only UX designer.
The title of this article might be a bit misleading as I wasn't technically the only UX designer in the company, but our Aberdeen division is a "mini company" itself specialised in Asset Integrity Management software. As you can imagine this presents most of the challenges of introducing UX in a company.
I joined a team that had been evolving a piece of software for the last 30 years and they had never worked with a UX designer before. Design wasn't in any important discussion until that point and nobody had heard of things such user testing, prototyping, user research, Sketch, Figma or similar.
This situation represented an interesting anomaly (no pun intended working on such industry) for a Scandinavian company where design has a big site in the table.
This has been a really interesting time, full of challenges but extremely rewarding. I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight some of the key things I have learned:
Pick your battles
It's important to identify high value low hanging fruit or things that can easily be done and will create a lot of value for the final users or will solve some of the important issues identified.
For example, in our case one of the most cumbersome and painful parts of our software was the way in which the users would filter information. This presented many issues but the main one was that there wasn't a good visibility of what filters had been selected.
Some minor tweaks to this area made a massive impact for final users, avoiding them having to click multiple times to see what was actually selected.
One of the first things I started doing early on was to prototype things to help the team understand and visualise requirements. Until that point I really had wanted to start using Figma but never had a chance and I realised that was the the perfect moment and it became my main tool.
Reading and hearing so much in the community about Figma I had really high expectations but after start using it full time it absolutely met them going even beyond. Everyone started really liking working with this tool as they felt it provides an excellent way of sharing and communicating designs. And personally, I found it extremely appropriate for quickly mocking-up, sharing and validating ideas.
Later on as we established a common Design Team I had to move to Sketch but I still think Figma is an ideal tool for a solo designer as it simplifies a lot your workflow.
When you are part of a design team and there are plenty of designers you have the luxury of addressing most of the things you want to address but when it's just you for many developers you have to be smart about where to put your efforts and when to let go certain things.
In my case this has been one of the hardest things to do as it's not nice not addressing something you know that can easily be improved, but you have to focus on the high value issues. In any case, it's important to create a "design backlog" where to register and track all these things that can be improved later on. What I do is having this always at sight and try to bring the relevant identified issues whenever the development team works in a part of the product and there is a higher chance that the issue will get addressed.
Identify UX advocates
When you are the only designer in the office you need allies and something that I have realised is that there are always plenty of people who care about the user even if they don't have the word "UX" as part of their job title.
For this my advice would be to have a session about design thinking. During the first few weeks in my new job that is what I did and I was pleasantly surprised to have people reaching me offering to help and wanting me to collaborate with them. That is one of the most rewarding things and that definitely will keep your motivation up.
There are Misconceptions about UX
One of the most difficult and sometimes frustrating things about being a solo designer is that there are lots of misconceptions about what you actually do. That's another reason to have the session from the previous point.
You will surely find people (probably the ones who have been there for longer) who will think that you only make things look pretty or work after the development work has been done.
I think it's our job as designers to realise that that is not their fault and is our job change that vision and start "educating" the rest of the company in the design process.
Integration within the development team
Introducing new tools and skills in the team doesn't normally present a massive challenge but changing processes can be really difficult and painful when the way of working has been established for years.
In our case it has been an intense journey to get to a point where I am working at least a sprint ahead of the development teams and I work together with the different stakeholders to have a validated design before it gets into the development stage.
At the beginning I was always getting included in projects to "put lipstick on a pig" after the development had already been done, which limited tremendously the impact that any UX work could have in the final product.
The key here was to use any opportunity to get involved earlier to prove that such change would have a positive impact in the result. So I took each of those opportunities as my particular Champions League final to make this happen and I think I can now say that we have gotten to a point where this is happening most of the time.
Being the only UX designer in an organisation that hasn't worked with one before it's really challenging but rewarding at the same time. It's a long process that will put your true love for this field and that will make you grow enormously as a practicioner.
And remember, every time you feel frustrated or demotivated do the simple exercise of comparing how the product you are working on was before and after you joined :). I take this as a marathon instead of a 100 metres sprint. There might be days that it looks like there is no progress made but looking at the big picture, you will definitely see the impact of your work.