You Don’t Need a Unicorn: Anatomy of a Great UX Team

| November 13, 2015
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There’s a lot of talk in the UX community about the coveted UX Unicorn. It’s that elusive candidate that can do everything. And while it’s tempting to think hiring such a glorious creature would solve all your UX hiring needs, you actually don’t need one to build an epic UX team.

Several years ago I worked for a small investment firm. On any given day, there were only two to five people in the office, with several hundred clients to manage and over $1 billion under management. That’s a lot for just a handful of people to manage.

But we were able to do it because we had a diverse team with a range of talent and experience. There were no unicorns in my office, and to be honest, they wouldn’t have done us much good—unless we had several of them. And if my Google searches are any indication, finding a true unicorn isn’t easy, so finding several sounds like a task of mythical proportions.

So what’s a hiring manager to do? You know you need an adaptive and capable team that aligns with your company’s mission. But where do you look if fairytales are off the table? What does a well-balanced team look like? Today we’re going to take a look at what kind of people you need to make up a great UX team and where you can find these unique individuals.


Who are they?

Generalists are as close as you’ll get to a unicorn. They’re one of the most important components to your team—especially if your team is new or you have limited resources. Generalists have some experience and knowledge in a variety of domains and are comfortable wearing many hats.

Where do you find them?

The beauty of generalists is that they can come from just about anywhere. In fact, having someone with a variety of experience on their resume may be just what you need. Having industry-specific experience can be really useful.But experience isn’t always everything. The unbridled optimism and curiosity that less-experienced candidates have can be a powerful catalyst for any team.

So where do you find these people?

Start with what your goals. Who’s your user? What do you want to learn from them? Once you identify that, find people who excel in areas that are directly or indirectly connected to it.

But don’t stop there. The name of this game is variety, so you’re looking for people who have a kaleidoscope of experience or interest. Pro tip: you probably won’t find this information on resumes or LinkedIn profiles, so take the time to meet with candidates and find out what they’re interested in.


Who are they?

Researchers can also come from a wide variety of disciplines. They’re insatiably curious, detailed, and dedicated to understanding how humans interact with the world they live in. And they should have a fair bit of research experience under their belt. Research is a highly specialized skill that takes years of experience to sharpen and perfect. But that doesn’t mean researchers with less experience should be passed over. Anyone with the knack and passion for research should be considered.

Where do you find them?

I’d be hard pressed to come up with a topic that wouldn’t benefit from a little research. And that means you can find great researchers just about anywhere—and they don’t even need a UX background. But there are a few places to look that align better with a UX team. Individuals with social science backgrounds (think anthropology or psychology) are great, and the more obvious choice of HCI is always a good place to start. Since these folks can be working just about anywhere, with a zillion different job titles, direct recruiting may be a challenge, so prepare yourself to do a little reverse recruiting. And by that I mean, craft your job descriptions in a way that will attract individuals who dig research.

Be sure to leave job descriptions open (but honest) and frame the job in the context of the challenge you’re addressing. And if you really don’t require a degree or certification, try leaving that off as well to encourage a more diverse mix of applicants.


Who are they?

When it comes to UX, the word “designer” has many meanings. It could refer to interaction design, visual design, and, of course, user experience design. This will vary wildly from institution to institution, but what’s important is that you have a designer of some sort on your UX team. Pinpoint what you’re really focused on, and seek out the best designer for that purpose. Different types of designers will have different skillsets, so make sure whoever you’re considering has the skills you need. Designers are great collaborators, tech savvy, and dedicated to delivering beautiful, usable results.

Where do you find them?

A great place to start with designers—of any kind—is to take a peek under the hood. Look through their portfolio and get a sense for what they’ve worked on and where their competencies lie.

And don’t forget your real world opportunities either! When you see a great visual design, find out who’s behind it. Great interaction design? Amazing user experience? You get the idea. Follow the great experiences for the products and services you interact with, and you’ll find great designers.


Who are they?

The people who craft your content are an important part of your UX team—even if they often get overlooked. The words you use, from your web copy to the microcopy of a form field on mobile, can delight or confound your users. You can get everything else right, but a few badly written lines of copy can bring it all down.

Writers possess a lot of the same characteristics as the rest of your UX team. They’re curious and obsessed with human interaction and user experience. But you don’t need a literary genius for this role. A great UX writer will be someone that has an abundance of empathy and can speak the language of their intended audience.

Where do you find them?

Great writers are hiding everywhere. And a lot of them may not realize they’re writers! Naturally it makes sense to seek out the writers who already run in your circles, but try branching out into other areas as well (like psychology or anthropology) for a broader sample of talent. But there are also writers out there who aren’t doing that as their day job (but maybe they should be). Whenever you read through an entire email, word for word, take note. Even clever ad copy or a great presentation can lead you to a master wordsmith. Whenever you find you’re compelled by copy, or just can’t put it down, find out who wrote it, and you’ll have a great lead on a UX writer.

P.S. Don’t forget technical writing, either. If you’ve ever read a privacy policy that didn’t bore you to tears or an instruction manual that actually showed you how to do what you were trying to do, those folks have highly specialized skills that would benefit any UX team.


Who are they?

Every team needs a leader. Cat wrangling can be a thankless job, and not everyone is suited for it, but without that guidance teams have a hard time finding their groove. A great leader has the capacity to trust and rely on their team to do what they’ve been hired for. They also are dedicated champions for their teams, going to bat for them with other teams, making sure their needs are met and their voices are heard. And while their team is doing their thing, they’re finding ways to optimize everyone’s performance—without sacrificing the team’s autonomy and creativity. Sounds tough, doesn’t it? It is. Great leaders are (as the saying goes) made, not born. These individuals possess maturity and humility in equal measure and tend to have at least a few years of managerial experience under their belt. But that doesn’t mean grey hairs are required. Far from it.

Great managers also happen to be generalists. They know just enough about each discipline to champion each team when needed, but the confidence to know their team can get the job done. It takes a rare balance of experience, skill, empathy, and humility to be a good manager.

Where do you find them?

Most people can count the number of great managers they’ve had on just one hand. In other words, they’re not easy to find. This is where the saying about managers being made, not born, comes from. You may have a hard time recruiting a great manager, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have one in the making on your team already. Invest in leadership training and expose your team to cross-functional teams. As your UX team starts to take shape, leaders will emerge.


Every organization will have a different blueprint for their UX team. But to have a successful UX practice, each of these individuals need to be a part of your UX team. Many UX strategies fail because they don’t have the right people in the right positions—not because they didn’t have a unicorn. If you’re building out your UX team, start with these individuals first, and you’ll set yourself up for success in the long term.