By Zahra Cassam Sulliman
You could be forgiven for hearing the phrase ‘User Experience’ (or ‘UX’) and not really understanding what it involves. Truth be told, having recently joined the field myself, I still regularly muddle through UX-related concepts and jargon. Although UX consultants forever find themselves explaining what their occupation involves, UX can add value to organisations in many ways, including uncovering user behaviour patterns, and analysing opportunities to improve of a product. With that in mind, how do you, as a consultant in UX (or any other non-well understood field, for that matter), ensure a fruitful relationship with a potential client who is requesting your service but is not entirely sure about what you can offer?
The answer lies beyond consulting; you must be prepared to facilitate understanding, educate about unfamiliar concepts and innovate current thinking. Not only does this assist with buy-in and an accurate understanding of your services, but it also fosters a fruitful, effective and collaborative relationship between you and your client as you embark upon your work with them.
The nature of the work means that UX consultants often find themselves heavily immersed in industries that they had no prior in-depth knowledge about. In order to produce something valuable, consultants must seek their clients’ expertise and guidance (as well as their own research) to thoroughly understand the context, and ultimately the product they’ve been asked to improve. Facilitation, education and innovation therefore become a two way street, and to ensure that both parties are on the same page. This example of mutual understanding is known in cognitive psychology as a ‘shared mental model’ (SMM) 1. A shared mental model describes an emergent state of team members, where they share an understanding of knowledge and information. In turn, this positively influences the group’s performance and effectiveness.
Shared mental models allow each member of the group to act and adapt accordingly to the task’s demands, therefore keeping them on track throughout the project. If we look a little closer, we can see that shared mental models further benefit the client-consultant relationship in the following ways:
1. The development of common goals and expectations, such as timeline outcomes, and the norms around communication type and frequency
2. Enhanced engagement between parties, as individuals feel a sense of purpose (i.e. an understanding of how their contributions help the project)
3. An increased sense of trust and cohesion, which in turn encourages individuals to be assertive when giving feedback
So how does one achieve this? Senior UX consultant, Aine Hart, talked me through some ways in which she succeeds in creating shared mental models with her clients. Here are some of her strategies, alongside practical solutions to implement in your own work:
1. Don’t leave your personality at the client’s door
At the top of the list, Aine believes in being open, friendly and approachable with her clients. Building rapport from the start helps to increase trust, which in turn encourages greater collaboration between individuals facilitating an environment conducive to innovative ideas. For example, having a friendly and open demeanour will encourage other team members to seek clarity if unsure about something between scheduled meetings, as opposed to shying away and taking wild guesses. Platforms such as Basecamp are a great alternative to face-to-face communication. Not only does online communication become more conversational and less rigid, it allows shared knowledge to be well managed and accessible by all involved.
2. Communicate outside of the planned catch-ups
Aside from being another rapport-building endeavour, the value here is the chance to re-calibrate everyone’s thoughts and ideas at additional time points throughout the project. Furthermore, research tells us that well-coordinated communication contributes to the group’s shared mental model, thus increasing the team’s efficiency 2. If you are working on-site and within close proximity of your client, this can be as easy as having lunch with the team to briefly touch base about an aspect of the work. Working off-site may be a little trickier, but not impossible: making time to regularly talk to clients about problems you are working through, or walking them through your designs conversationally rather than in a formal presentation, can go a long way in getting your client up to speed.
3. Put all your cards on the table from the start (by clearly laying out what your work is all about).
An increasingly prominent issue in the UX world is that there is more than one way to UX! Different practitioners and companies utilise different methods, while different fields may use the same words with completely different meanings. The key is to address any such differences at the beginning of a project. It is important not to assume what people do and do not know. Aine achieves this by scheduling a meeting for all project stakeholders she will be working closely with. The purpose of this meeting is to outline what UX is, what the UX process is at Sitback, what the process will be for that particular client, and the purpose of each step. This is a great way to get key contributors on the same page right from the get-go, and to mitigate misunderstandings down the line.
4. Include all of the project’s stakeholders (even if you’re sure to hear the same ideas for a second time).
Engagement is important when dealing with a large team, and involving people in the project will encourage them to commit to the project, support the work and direction, and drive it through the organisation. This is particular important when dealing with busy senior management, who understandably may not attend every meeting and workshop. If this is the case, concisely prepare the key points you should deliver to them, such as the purpose of your work and how it will benefit the business.
5. Last but not least, aim to create and maintain your shared mental model in a collaborative way
There are likely to be multiple learning curves for everyone involved, but with a little bit of time and effort, the differences in your backgrounds and understanding do not have to hinder the success of the project. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to clarify understanding, and be receptive when questions are asked.
Working in a field that not everybody has heard of may sound daunting, tiresome or frustrating, but it’s fair to say that a collaborative mindset can help. This isn’t restricted to UX either, but an observation that is true for any field where there may be some ambiguity. A little facilitation, education and innovation can go a long way.
1 Stout, R., Cannon-Bowers, J. A., & Salas, E. (1996). The role of shared mental models in developing team situation awareness: Implications for training. Training Research Journal, 2, 85-116.
2 Tesluk, P., Mathieu, J. E., Zaccaro, S. J., & Marks, M. (1997). Task and aggregation issues in the analysis and assessment of team performance. Team performance assessment and measurement: Theory, methods, and applications, 197-224.