One to Many: An Interview with Leah Buley

It’s not unusual for user-centered designers to feel isolated. In this interview we ask Leah Buley, author of the recently released book UX Team of One, how designers can cross the chasm and co-create.

Everyone’s been there: “going it alone.” Learning, prodding, and making sense of a problem – all in complete isolation. Sometimes the hardest thing in that situation is knowing that, regardless of whether or not we succeed or fail, we’ll have no one to share that outcome with. And that’s exactly what makes Leah Buley’s story so compelling. In her latest book, UX Team of One, Leah explains how we can beat the odds and feel that sense of camaraderie even when we’re the only person ensuring that our organization practices design in a user-centered way.

I first heard of Leah Buley from her presentation at UX Week 2008 titled, not surprisingly, UX Team of One. And at that time I could certainly empathize: I worked as the sole – and therefore “lead” – interaction designer at an agile development consultancy. By the end of the presentation I couldn’t help but share it with my colleagues and friends.

You likely saw something about it on UX Booth’s Twitter feed. Shortly thereafter, Leah received a book deal with Rosenfeld Media, giving her a platform to bring her message to the masses (well, the print-based masses).

Recently published by the gang over at Rosenfeld (PS: use code UXBOOTH if you decide to purchase a copy), I didn’t hesitate to reach out and ask Leah what I felt to be pertinent questions. Namely, it’s been four years since her presentation. That’s quite a while in terms of our industry. And not only that, but Leah’s made quite a transition herself in that time – from being a team of one to being an in-house designer at Intuit. Read on to hear Leah’s thoughts on her transition as well as a chance to win a copy of your own!

Congratulations on the book, Leah! To even begin to codify user experience design is an incredible feat. Now that you’re done, will you ever look at our craft the same way?

Thanks so much, Andrew! It’s pretty thrilling to have a book out and alive in the world. Truthfully, it took me so long to write it that I was secretly worried that its time might have passed. But the feedback has been really heartwarming, and it would seem that there are still lots of “UX teams of one’ in the world. So, phew! Thank heavens for that.

As for our craft, I don’t know. I feel like the more I learn, the less I know. When I look at the book, I realize how much is not included in it: responsive design, service design, lean UX, augmented reality, big data, flat design, the internet of things, retrofuturism, flying cars (well, self-driving, at least). There are so many new approaches and methods and possibilities emerging all the time. (Thankfully! That’s what keeps it interesting.) that I wince a little when I think about everything that’s not included. But it’s ok. When that happens, I take a deep breath and pour myself a glass of wine and reassure myself that my goal wasn’t to be comprehensive but rather to capture a mindset that can help user experience professionals win support and influence better work. I hope I’ve accomplished that.

You’ve made quite the transition since your initial presentation, switching companies as well as roles. How has your approach changed over the years?

When I started doing UX work I was full of misdirected bravado. I had this idea that UX designers should be able to fight for what’s right for users. I believed my job was to come in with guns blazing and challenge teams to reinvent their products.

I think the biggest change to my approach is now I focus less on the fight and more on the process. Consequently, I have less bravado and more innate confidence. I’ve become more confident because I’ve been through the research and design process repeatedly enough to know that it works. I have trust in the process. There seems to be a moment on every project where I feel like the solution is hard and unknowable, and I can’t possibly imagine how we’re going to figure out what to do. But I just let myself keep marching forward.

It sounds weird but I liken this to walking off a cliff. I walk off a cliff – into the abyss of the problem – and trust that insights gleaned from observing real people will point the way. And somehow they always do. I used to be afraid to let my colleagues know that I was in the abyss. Now, I try to be transparent about it; I try to help other people get comfortable with being in the abyss, too.

I’m actually leading a really complicated design project right now. The goal is to bring consistency to a user experience that connects a bunch of disconnected products while also bridging brand and product strategy and UX. It’s got, like, four dozen stakeholders. It’s a beast. Some days are really hard. Those are definitely falling-off-the-cliff days. But even on the hard days, I can remind myself that 1) I know how this process works and I just need to keep moving ahead, and 2) in the end we’ll have something markedly better than where we started. And I know this is true because I’ve been through enough messy UX projects to know that the user-centered design process will get me there.

You’re presently a design strategist at Intuit – a company who, I imagine, employs quite a few UX designers! In other words, you’re hardly a team of one anymore. What philosophies and practices mentioned in your book apply “UX teams of many” and what new techniques/practices have you learned?

I have a great job. I get to work on ambiguous design problems that cut horizontally across a large organization with a lot of vertical structures. Sometimes I focus on product-oriented, customer-facing design problems—things that affect our products – and sometimes I focus on process-oriented, internal-facing design problems – things that affect how we work. In both instances, the key to success is (and always will be) people. My job is to find ways to bring everyone along for the ride. In that way, actually, all the philosophies and practices from the book still apply. Intuit has an extremely large user experience community, and yet I still feel like a UX team of one. And that’s not because I’m unsupported, it’s just the nature of working with a cross-disciplinary team, which just about every UX professional does.

I’ve also add a lot of new techniques to my toolkit that I picked up at Intuit. Intuit has this really phenomenal program called the Innovation Catalyst. (Not invented by me, alas. Here, I’m just an eager student.) Basically, they train hundreds of people throughout the company in design thinking skills, and then send those people back into every branch of the organization to act as facilitators and coaches for design. The Innovation Catalyst program teaches loads of methods that run the gamut from customer research to generative design to rapid prototyping and experiments. One of my current favorite methods is this poster-sized canvas called the NEXT tool. Using the NEXT tool, teams answer some really interesting questions about their product vision, their “leap of faith” assumptions, and various hypotheses that they ultimately need to test with users. The NEXT tool is really complementary to the Lean Startup approach.

Another, simpler tool that I learned at Intuit that I really love is called a brainstorm box. If you’re doing a team brainstorm on product ideas, just put a box in the middle of the table with thought starters written out on sticky notes. If you get stalled, pull out a sticky from the box and, voila, brainstorm re-ignited. Some example thought starters: “What if it had to be purely mobile?” “What would be the opposite of our last idea?” “What would get us fired?”

Many people who find themselves as the sole UX professional in a company struggle with how much they need to “teach” the rest of their team. What are the essential principles a UXer should teach his or her team in order to be successful?

First and only principle: go watch some users. Actually, I wouldn’t even call it a principle. Call it a suggestion. “Hey, let’s go watch some users.” All knowledge derives from that. The ability to envision the product from a user’s point of view is like a muscle that can be strengthened. And like a muscle, it responds well to repetition. Jared Spool has written about user exposure hours and the high correlation between the number of hours a team spends watching users and the overall quality of their product. If you can get your team to take the time to actually watch real people in action (whether it be a usability test, exploratory research, or even lean-style rapid experiments) they will be strengthening that muscle. This makes the whole team better informed about user needs. But just as importantly, it will make them more curious and empathetic about users in general, which is how a fan of UX is born.

The second half of the book is comprised entirely of user-centered design activities and methods and serves as a wonderful resource for anyone working in UX. What gave you the idea to structure your book this way?
The structure of The User Experience Team of One was inspired primarily by my deep love for reference books. I covet and collect reference books of all kinds—cook books, dictionaries, craft and activity books. In my first job out of school, when I was still muddling my way through HTML and CSS, a co-worker gave me a copy of O’Reilly’s Javascript: The Definitive Guide. It was like my bible, the first reference book for my professional career. I loved its structure—this highly glanceable, easy-to-peruse manual for making interesting things. Ever since then, I’ve loved and looked for books that have clear, reassuringly repeatable structures. Surprisingly few UX books have that ’cook book’ quality. Two books that do this well are Universal Principles of Design and Universal Methods of Design, both of which contain one utterly complete, bite-sized thought per page.


That’s a wrap, guys! Thanks, again, Leah, for taking the time to share your thoughts with readers.

As for the giveaway, here’s how that works: just follow @uxbooth on twitter and leave a comment on this post answering the question: “What user-centered design technique do you rely on most frequently and why?” Be sure to include your twitter handle in your comment and to leave it before this Thursday at midnight PST. We’ll contact three lucky winners over Twitter. Good luck!

About the Author

Andrew Maier

Andrew is a lifelong student of the design community, who co-founded the design publication UX Booth in 2008 to share his journey. He currently serves as its Editor-in-Chief. When he's not heading user-centered design initiatives for clients, Andrew dabbles in civic design. He lives in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

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2 Comments

  • Sara Blackthorne Reply

    Right now, my primary user-centered tool is user research — specifically conversations with users. I like to go out into the world and talk with real users: at coffeeshops, in bars, and in stores. It’s easy for me to find unassuming but effective ways to ask questions that open my users to a comfortable conversation without risking privacy/safety and without the sterile testing environment. Plus, I love to get my chatterbox on!

    I’m @sarablackthorne, don’t be shy to strike up a conversation!

  • Edgardo Leija Reply

    Questionnaires.

    A lot of the time it is impossible to reach the audience you need in person, especially with a UX team of one, so designing an unbiased questionnaire that could be easily shared via social networks is a great way to receive feedback, create a statistical analysis, and add weight to the decisions you take.

    Twitter Handle: @EdgardoLeija

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