I have been working with virtual teams for about 20 years. There have been variable levels of virtual-ness to them. In some cases, I worked with colleagues in Europe or Asia actively on a project. In other cases, people were working on the same project in different cities. In yet other cases, we were all individual contributors working from our desks at home.
There were timezone differences, location differences, cultural differences.
In all cases, I would be working with people I saw once a year, if that. I mostly interacted with people on the phone, chat/instant message, or email.
I have given a presentation a number of times now about how to work with virtual teams as a UX professional using Agile methodologies. I never directly saw the connection between understanding what it means to work virtually and how that applies to user experience and customer experience. But there is a connection. And that connection is probably why I keep working on virtual projects.
What you get out of working virtually when you are a UX/CX professional.
Or - working virtually teaches you empathy when you don't know the full story.
When you work virtually, you don't get to see what the person at the next desk is working on today. You have no idea what's truly happening in an office - literally and figuratively. If there are rumors brewing and secret discussions happening, you simply don't know about them. You only know what you see and experience, which isn't much, especially if you work from home or in a different office. You are removed from the team and the in-office experience.
It is hard to ask someone questions and interact directly because you aren't sure what their focus is for the day or what they need to do. There are many unknowns about a virtual team member's life.
You only see what people allow you to see.
You don't know the emotional state of your colleagues, unless they tell you. For all you know, that person acting cold and aloof on the phone could be having a rough day and trying to keep it to him or herself. You can't see if that person is in distress, happy, nervous, sad, or any other emotion. People share what they want to share with you on the phone, on chat, or in email. People don't always share good or bad news, for whatever reason. And you will never know the motivation to share or not share and it shouldn't matter.
Yes - I said it. Motivations don't matter.
In the end, you need to connect with that person, regardless of his or her feelings and emotions, and get work done. You need to operate with compassion, knowing that someone may be hiding - intentionally or unintentionally - his or her feelings about a topic. And those hidden feelings hide that individual's true motivations. When you work remotely, you need to be able to consider multiple motivations for someone's actions because you simply don't know what is driving them.
And again - you aren't there to know. Your job is to listen to that person and try to understand what he or she is experiencing at that moment.
Although this makes building relationships online difficult, understanding people, their emotions, and motivations from afar is a skillset that is amazingly useful for UX and CX professionals to have.
We create experiences for people who aren't in front of us to ask us questions. We don't always know what users are feeling during an experience. We don't know everyone's motivation for going to a site or app to complete a task. We like to think we know how they are responding to content or design during an experience, but we don't. Sure, personas and ethnographic research informs us, but we honestly don't know the motivations for each individual. UX and CX professionals only understand experiences through clicks or the scroll of a screen, call records, or other data. We know people through stats. In a usability study, we can ask questions, but we are only hearing what these participants tell us, only seeing the facial expressions they are sharing, only seeing what they are clicking.
Like the virtual world, we need to keep in mind that we are getting information that a user is allowing us to see. Or information that we are able to gather. We don't always have the full picture.
Most times, users won't share what their challenges are with a site or product. We will need to explore the issue with more people to get a better understanding. Most times, users will go to a site and do what they need to do. Some users "make do" with an experience. Some complain and send emails or messages. But most just try to make a solution work.
What does it mean to communicate to someone who is pretty much anonymous?
How do we make an experience as easy as possible for someone who is right in front of you, but you don't know? And all we know about this person is how he or she is providing feedback about an experience through clicks.
It is similar to working with a virtual team. You probably don't know much about that person except what his or her job is. But you need to find a way to work with that person and get something done.
This is why I think it's key for UX and CX people to work remotely. It helps you realize:
- What it means to know someone but not know them - and to know that it doesn't always matter. We have personas and research. We understand a handful of possible motivations they may have to complete tasks, but we don't know the details of their life. Nor should we. Nor do we need to. You can still build a great relationship with someone without that information. You need to have a working relationship with the user and need to define what that means.
- What it means NOT to be part of a live and in-person experience. Users experience completing a task through what's on the screen. They don't know or understand what happens inside a company - nor should they. It's almost like working remotely. You know what happens at the company based on what you are exposed to through the phone, Web sites, emails...not what you are missing or you simply don't know.
- What it means to interact with ONLY a screen and have no other way to know who you are dealing with. That's how most customers interact with you - a screen. Or through articles that they read. Or through a phone call. Or through a chat window. These customers have a limited view into a company and that is ok. It's not necessary and it can still be successful.
- What it means to have a working relationship with someone. What do you need to know about someone to get your job done - and vice versa? Frankly, not much. You need to know some basics about the person, but knowing someone personally is a great feature. It's not necessary. When you design for people, you don't need to know the details - and these users probably won't tell you anyway in their actions with through data or other means.
Some things to keep in mind when you design knowing the virtual team experience:
- What knowledge do you as a designer or developer take for granted about the user?
- What are all of the possible motivations of someone coming to your site or app?
- What would you like someone to be feeling when they use your product or visit your site?
- What do you take for granted that a user may know about the process your company puts online?
- What do you think the users assume about your business? Are there myths to correct?
- How are new features or products communicated to users?
- What is really industry jargon vs. a word to use? Does your audience use jargon? Do you care if people outside your target don't understand what you are saying?
- What does it mean to be an outsider (new customer, prospect, outside the industry)? How can this outsider be welcomed into the fold?
What can writers teach UX/CX professionals and listening in Part 2. Stay tuned!