It’s a phrase that can strike fear into the heart of even the most ardent extrovert: “Group Project.” Those two words conjure up an avalanche of memory and feelings, the remnants of past group projects back to haunt us:
Who’s in my group? Are they going to be nice? How do we divide the work? Am I going to have to do all the work? What if we disagree on something small? What if we disagree on something BIG? What if they think my ideas are stupid? Oh no, oh no, oh no, I hope this is going to work.
We all knew this was coming. Collaboration is an essential part of the work UX designers do, and the majority of GA’s UXDI curriculum is designed around group projects. But knowing and doing are two different things, and we still had no idea what we were in for.
BRINGING US TOGETHER
The first thing all four of us did together was a group stand-up, where we went through a list of questions provided by our instructors. Some of the questions we answered were logistical, and some required us to dig deeper into self-awareness:
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
How do you prefer to resolve conflict and receive feedback?
When and how do you want to check in with each other?
What can you teach and what do you want to learn?
I found this exercise incredibly valuable, as it helped us open up to each other and navigate some potential landmines upfront. It also kept us accountable later on, as we could use what was said in the stand-up as a baseline for our group. Moving forward, I know stand-ups will be an essential part of my UX group work toolkit.
To me, another essential part of creating a group is naming it, and my teammates were kind enough to humor me. We went with “Pegasus,” after we rejected the “UX Unicorn” label.
Armed with self-knowledge and our name, we immediately jumped in to scheduling and logistics. We had a lot of deliverables due in a short amount of time, and taking into account our separate commitments over the weekend, we had to start right away.
HOW WE BEGAN
We were tasked with designing a responsive website, which is a website that renders smoothly on both mobile phones and desktop/laptop computers. Instead of giving us a problem to solve with our site, our instructors assigned us a broad topic (Health) and told us to figure out who needed help in that space. We decided to narrow our focus to mental health and moved to the second piece of the puzzle: finding people to interview.
Given our tight timeline, we knew that the most accessible and willing users were our fellow GA students. Since they might be uncomfortable discussing “mental health” with us, we shifted our project topic to “stress” and sent out a screener survey to qualify participants. We looked for certain intersecting trends in the responses, which narrowed our pool of thirty respondents to nine. After asking about availability, we ended up with four user interviews.
I absolutely geek out over the UX research process — finding the right people to interview and asking them the right questions — so I was pleased to conduct our user interviews. In these interviews, the researcher and the user form a group of two, with the researcher actively listening to what the user is telling them. Answers can be given directly and indirectly, verbally and through body language, so it’s the researcher’s job to work out the subtext and get to the user’s truth.
One of the most interesting things I heard in our interviews was how users talked about their favorite stress-relieving websites: YouTube and Instagram. Though all our users could easily tell me who they watched and what cute animals they followed, they described the content in a largely dismissive way:
So I asked “why?” about these word choices. User 3, who previously said YouTube was her “best form of therapy,” elaborated:
While users said YouTube and Instagram content didn’t treat their underlying stress, all of our users admitted that it was ultimately helpful as a way to reset their mind. I felt this idea was something to explore, so I couldn’t wait to go back to my group to synthesize the rest of the interviews.
SEARCHING FOR OUR SOLUTION
We regrouped after the weekend to uncover more themes from our user interviews, using an affinity map as our guide.
The groups of post-it notes that clustered on our affinity map informed us visually that we were on to something. By the time we had finished, our users’ journey through stress had emerged:
We spotted commonalities in what made our users stressed (“stressors”), but we also found a pattern in how they knew they needed to de-stress. Since all of our users recognized their personal physical or emotional reactions to stress, they knew when they needed to take a break from their current situation to reset their mind. We called this moment their “trigger point.”
Our users also expressed a desire to manage their stress in a healthy or mindful way — going to the gym, yoga, running, walking, meditation, or talking with someone they trust — but sometimes, it was hard to find the time or the motivation to do these things. So they turned to something quick and easy: YouTube and Instagram.
We grouped these insights together when we crafted our persona, Peggy Sasse. Her journey map below replicates our users’ pattern of stressors leading to a trigger point, followed by stress-relief and feeling better. This map was useful in plotting out touchpoint opportunities for our website.
At last, we had found our problem space and a way we could help.
OUR GROUP BREAKTHROUGH
We started coming up with solutions, using a design studio and a MoSCoW map as a way to brainstorm and prioritize features. In my first round of sketches, I was thinking about how to present users with stress-relieving content while giving them back time and control. I wanted to move away from the endless scrolling and endless suggested content of Instagram and YouTube, so I loved the idea of a website with a timer.
Ironically, I was pretty stressed by the timed format of a design studio, which requires strict time limits on generating and presenting ideas. I do my best creative work with time to think — like our users, I have a thing about time and control — and the rapid pace of our work was getting to me.
That night, a group member called me out in most compassionate way, and we had an honest, productive conversation about where my stress was coming from. Though it was a little uncomfortable to discuss, I didn’t have to bottle it up and pretend to be fine. In fact, it was better for the group if I didn’t. (The additional irony that we were a stressed-out group of people making a website to help others de-stress isn’t lost on me. UX designer, heal thyself.)
Looking back, I can see that this was our group’s trigger point. By setting the precedent of airing out issues and talking through them, we got comfortable with each other. Until then, we had been working together, but after that moment, we started to become a team.
DESIGNING FOR OUR USERS
The next day, we did another design studio, but we relaxed the time limits and set constraints by starting with only home page sketches.
At the end of each design studio round, we came together to discuss each new feature/page and remix each other’s sketches. We kept combining ideas this way until we ended up with a fully-formed paper prototype, which we translated into our mid-fidelity wireframes. One round of usability testing later, and we were ready to kick our designs up a notch.
Moving into a higher fidelity, with real images and color choices, was really fun. We decided that our website needed a name, so we settled on MINDR.
Creating a responsive website required us to think about the layout and design of our content on two differently-sized screens. The main consideration for us was the clickability of elements, as users navigate a phone with their fingers and a desktop/laptop with a mouse. Across both platforms, we made sure our timer overlay would help manage user stress (and not add to it) by giving users the ability to mindfully set their own time or even browse without time limits.
We thought that the vital elements of MINDR. were our timer system, stress-relieving content, and easy navigation, so our usability tasks tested if users agreed. With all of the cute animals to check out, the clickable prototype looked pretty adorable, and users really liked the idea.
Based on our usability tests, we also prioritized an idea for our “next steps” — building out a user profile to save favorite content, personalize the home feed, and customize the timer — that would make MINDR. even more user-friendly.
When it was finally time to present our website to our class, we knew we’d nailed it. Our design choices were rooted in user data and carefully considered by every member of our group. “Pegasus Design Studio” came through for each other and we were flying high.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD GROUP?
So, what makes a good group? Obviously, the people. (I had great people on my team.) But putting great people in a group isn’t where making a group ends. From this experience, I took away some best practices for group work, in UX and beyond:
- Recognize your group members’ strengths, especially if they conflict with your own work process. Someone who’s fast can finish something necessary quickly, and someone who’s careful can check over their work when they’re done. A logical brain can work together with an artistic brain when they communicate well and meet in the middle. In every case, our four brains together were absolutely better than one, and learning each other’s strengths helped us to work seamlessly.
- Stick to a system for sharing work. (It will save you.) We worked collaboratively in Google Drive, which helped us talk things over and make changes in real time. It was also useful to have a single place to find group work that was done. (Documentation is important!)
- Look ahead when scheduling and assigning work. I was the most enthusiastic about this in the beginning, but everyone soon got on board with backcasting and timeboxing. Keeping all of our schedules in mind helped so much with work/life balance, and knowing about outside obligations upfront made it easier to distribute work fairly.
- Create a group culture. This happens organically, but having those shared reference points makes the work more fun. By the end of the project, we had our own group slang, nicknames, and in-jokes. We were absolutely “the loud group,” because we all liked working while talking everything over. When we were apart, we looked forward to our Google Hangouts.
- Make it a priority to take care of each other, and pay attention to people’s physical and mental needs: water, food, a break, a distraction. (Yes, we all watched a few videos together.) We were living in a pressure cooker, but having other people around who cared about us eased the worst of it.
- Actively listen to each other. (Like in user interviews, your group members are speaking both verbally and nonverbally.) We were all talkers, so we had to work to be careful about interruptions. If a group member is quiet, ask them for their input. If someone thinks something is wrong but they can’t articulate it, listen to their underlying concern. Developing the reflex to ask “why?” instead of saying “no” created an opportunity to understand and come up with solutions.
- Be patient with each other and respect each other. Every group will have tense moments — because every group is made out of human beings with their own perspectives and life experiences — but most people want to work well together within a group. Remember that the kind of energy you bring to a group is often the kind of energy you’ll get back.
Ultimately, all of the best practices above build trust — trust that everyone wants what’s best for each other, for the group, and for the project. This shared trust positions criticism as growth and kills defensiveness. Trust makes sure people feel heard, valued, and safe, and it gives people room to grow and change. Trust is the foundation that great groups are built upon.
SAYING GOODBYE, TOGETHER
The last thing our group did together was a wrap-up. We went over the last two weeks, gave each other “grows” to work on and “glows” to be proud of, and formally closed out our group experience.
Since we were finishing each other’s sentences by the end of the project, we almost knew what each other was going to say for “grows” and “glows.” Still, it was so nice to have a space to tell each other how we felt out loud. We had gone through something together, and we all emerged better for it.
I’m incredibly grateful to my group members for what we made. Heading into my next solo project — all about information architecture, or how we group information — I’m still carrying the best parts of them with me. They told me trust my instincts more, and I plan to make them proud.