Good Partnerships Don't Happen in a Vacuum
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When trying to build the right solution for many projects, keeping the balance between what the client wants and what the end-user needs can be challenging to maintain. This is due to a lack of communication, partnership, and misalignment on scope and goals.
The relationships between the product owner (PO), user experience (UX) consultant, and the client's primary stakeholder(s) are essential to help solve some of these challenges. This article describes some best practices (effective communication, collaboration, and feature review) that can help create and maintain this essential partnership to break down silos and drive collaboration for planning, designing, and delivering the right product.
For this article, the term "product owner" can refer to a product owner, an agile business analyst, or a combination of both, depending on the project.
Effective communication between the product owner and UX is essential to driving collaboration and alignment, ensuring that the right solution is built for the right reasons and meets both user and business outcomes. A successful approach to effective communication is to schedule a regular meeting cadence, commonly referred to as a PO/UX Sync, which can consist of the following:
- Visiting the roadmap and backlog to prioritize the following areas of focus for both practices
- Identify potential solutions for features, even showing early designs and flows to help ideate
- Identify and prioritize UX action items (such as user experience research opportunities or designs that are needed)
- Review current designs and flows while soliciting feedback from the product owner and client stakeholder
- Adjusting the experience according to both client feedback and user feedback
This meeting is an organized way to keep everyone focused and collaborating on the right things at the right time. How often the meeting takes place can be fluid and will change as a project goes on. It is typical for this meeting to occur daily at first and taper off to a couple of days a week over time.
Additionally, these meetings are more effective if the client's primary stakeholder is an active participant. Their involvement helps to break down silos, create alignment, and shorten our feedback loop with the client. This kind of collaboration creates an open forum that helps build rapport and trust with the client and establishes open and honest communication.
Collaboration is one of the bedrock principles of a successful delivery team. Cross-functional collaboration is essential for a team. The best way for a team to maintain cross-functional collaboration is to embed it into the very start of the project during the planning process. If there are silos between disciplines, the effects on a team are often quite chaotic.
The roles of UX and PO can often fall into these silos, even separated from the developers on a team. It only takes one discipline falling into a silo to disrupt the development process.
For example, if UX becomes siloed from the rest of the team, the resulting designs and mocks are no longer considered a source of truth for developers, Quality Assurance, and even the client. Team meetings become cumbersome and painful, spending most of the time going over what is wrong with a mock. Designs may need revising or just ignored, in which case the resulting product is far from the customer's expectations.
Both UX and PO's need to be involved in the planning process. The two parties' participation is essential to understand what is coming down the road for application development. Features can be prioritized on what both parties and the client believe will make an application successful. When planning becomes a collaborative space, it allows for transparency into what the users need.
In many cases, with guidance from a WWT product owner, the client's primary stakeholder decides the business needs of what comes next in development. However, UX helps bring in solutions to best address those business needs and test them with users directly. During planning, UX understands the users and brings their voices to the table. Being the user's representative in these crucial conversations can achieve alignment between business and user. The transfer of this knowledge allows for the ideation process of a feature to be quicker and much more effective. Knowledge transfer will also open the door to opportunities for PO's and UX to design pair.
Design pairing can be described as a similar process to a development pair. UX usually drives the screen while others are either on a call or in the room. It enables spontaneous and real-time feedback with both parties.
The team will reach a satisfactory solution through several iterations of design pairing. Design pairing speeds up the ideation process by allowing the designer to work in partnership with the client and product owner. During the session:
- UX displays ideas of a feature and walks through potential solutions for a feature by sharing their screen or sketching on a whiteboard.
- The product owner and client-stakeholder provide real-time feedback.
- UX adjusts the designs and experience according to feedback, potentially redesigning entire flows in the moment.
- UX may have to go back and refine the solution independently and review it with other team disciplines as well as the product owner once more.
Design is just one part of User Experience Design. UX consists of visual design, human-factors engineering, psychology, accessibility, and depends heavily on user experience research (UXR).
UXR is a powerful tool that ensures a product is going to align with its users' needs. However, product owners and clients are typically not embedded in this process, which can be a significant mistake. Only with insights gained from direct user feedback will a great product emerge.
The best way to get direct user feedback and understanding is to perform user experience research. UXR gives a team the best opportunity to create the best product—one that is well tested, founded in human-centered design, and is tailored to the product's user base. This is accomplished through a variety of methods such as:
- Moderated Usability Studies
- Contextual Inquiries
- Cognitive Task Analysis
- Journal Studies
By allowing a product owner and the primary client-stakeholder to sit in on a usability session, they can fully grasp the user's perspective. Personas can be made ahead of a project and used, but they fail to give direct feedback.
Embedding them as someone to listen to empowers the client to make effective business decisions for a product. If a user finds a particular feature useless, the team can reprioritize or drop elements from the roadmap.
Involving both the product owner and the primary client-stakeholder in the process of even one of these methods allows them to experience first-hand what a user's feedback and responses are to a product in real-time. Hearing the feedback directly from the user makes the most significant impact for both roles. It allows them to align expectations with UX and the team, reprioritize, and plan the most effective product.
Feature review meetings are an essential part of the overall application development process. The content for these meetings is a collaborative effort between the product owner and UX. The meetings allow for several important things to happen:
- The product owner describes the feature to be delivered, discussing why it is important and the business problem it is intended to solve. Feature level acceptance criteria are also described.
- UX gets the opportunity to showcase things like mockups or prototypes that were developed for user testing, allowing them to describe in detail what the user experience is intended to be for the feature.
- Additionally, if any business process flows were created to help the audience better understand a user's journey through the feature, they are reviewed with the team.
- Plenty of time is allotted for the team to ask questions, raise concerns or risks, and help break down how the feature will be developed. It is a collaborative and open forum where everyone contributes to the success of the feature development.
The main point of conducting feature review meetings is to allow both the PO and UX to bring a clear picture of the next prioritized feature to the team for review, ensuring transparency and alignment across the team and giving everyone the needed context for what work is coming next.
It is critical to create and maintain partnerships between PO/UX in order to help break down silos and drive collaboration for planning, designing, and delivering the right product that balances business and user needs. The recommendations for how to get to this partnership and balance is (because yes this cannot be created in a vacuum) through:
- Effective communication
- Collaboration: collaboration is critical during these activities - planning, design pairing and UXR
- Feature Review
Following these best practices can help drive partnership so that we can build the right thing and properly balance what the client wants and what the end-user needs.