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9 Golden Rules for Cultivating Community on UX Teams

The team at Google’s UX Community & Culture share their best advice for encouraging thriving, user-focused teams.

Words by Mac Hasley, Visuals by Emi Tolibas

User researchers are natural culture cultivators. We come pre-equipped with the necessary tools.

Empathy, experimentation, listening, and the capacity to form connections—both between people and ideas—these are attributes core to who we are as researchers. They are also the necessary ingredients for building communities that thrive.

Amongst the UX adjacent, perhaps no one has invested more in cultivating community than the team at Google’s UX Community & Culture; facilitating community amongst UX teams is their primary M.O.

Since forming four years ago, they’ve narrowed in on a few fundamental rules for dismantling silos and encouraging supportive, collaborative, and productive teams. Core to their philosophy: find the people already creating culture—and enable them to develop passionate solutions that alleviate organizational pain points.

We talked to Margaret Lee (Director of UX Community and Culture at Google) and Mike Buzzard (Design Manager of UX Community & Culture at Google) about their process for empowering the people, and cultivating effective community, in the wake of the seismic shifts befalling our increasingly distributed workforce.

This conversation was recapped from a recent webinar with Margaret and Mike. You can stream that webinar on demand here.

1. Focus on “cultivating community” rather than “building community.”

Margaret Lee: Choosing the word “cultivating” is key because that’s what we’re doing. We’re not creating anything because community is going to exist with or without intervention from a team like ours. But we can cultivate conditions so that communities can thrive.

Mike Buzzard: You have to be comfortable knowing that you know very little in this space and be comfortable and responsible while experimenting. It’s really listening to an audience that grows and evolves quickly. Sub-communities self-organize, and they recognize shared needs. We need to be open to hearing about those needs, attentive addressing those needs, and noting what successes might be replicated elsewhere.

2. Commit to early goals and acknowledge your early limits.

ML: We were trying to cultivate the community that we would want through people. So it was natural to ask: "How do we attract the right folks? What's our hiring process for getting people in? And once they're in, what's the plan for developing them so that they have a fruitful career at Google? This is the culture "low hanging fruit"—an obvious thing we can lean into and work on because it's an obvious need. The other obvious area that we weighed into early was helping with knowledge-sharing across all the different organizations or silos. Sometimes there's so much wealth of information within the product areas, but it's harder to get that cross-pollination.

MB: Our early pillars were community talent and knowledge; culture was the derivative of all of that work, or how we could influence that work. We also, early on, had team engagement models. Sometimes we were supporting something, sometimes hoping to scale something that already existed. Sometimes we were investing in something that was trying to get off the ground. And sometimes there was something that we were fully owning. Early on, I think it was important to recognize we couldn't do all of the things that were needed. So how do we think about the work that we feel is important?

3. Meet people where they are, and they’ll start speaking your language.

ML: I wrote a one pager proposing what UX Community & Culture (UXCC) is now, but we’ve since expanded way beyond that initial one pager in terms of scope. Mike and I brought on a third teammate, Kristin, who had been focusing on how we get "design excellence" as shared vernacular across Google—figuring out how we define it, what shared vocabulary means, and how we value what comprises excellence. So we came together as UXCC and defined the program with that in mind.

MB: Working with UXCC was the first time in my life removed from making and deliverables. So, I had to put a framework and a structure to how I talk about my work. I had this idea that Google is an engineering company, and engineers read documentation. So, if we rewrite the docs, we could change the culture.

Choosing the word “cultivating” is key because that’s what we’re doing. We’re not creating anything because community is going to exist with or without intervention from a team like ours. But we can cultivate conditions so that communities can thrive.

Margaret Lee

4. Look for “culture leaders” and connect them.

MB: At some point, all through my change agent education, people would say, "You need to figure out how to scale yourself." I still hear it today. And I started to think about, what is the thing that I do that instigates change, that I might be able to communicate to others? And that's where the pain and the passion model came from. There are many examples, but the concept is: if you find somebody that has the pain, this shared need, then they have motivation.

So you look for people that are motivated, but are also passionate—meaning that they have ideas, and they have an enthusiasm for how to fix these “pains.” And that seems obvious, but there's a lot of folks who are just like, "Yeah, this sucks. It bothers me, but somebody else will fix it, or I hope somebody else does." But eventually, once in a while, you find people that have both that pain and that passion. And when you do, you just give them a lot of encouragement, like, "Okay, let's do it. I like that idea. And clearly, this is something we can fix."

ML: You can take that approach and look at who has the common pains, and common passion. Where's the overlap for what you're doing that somehow isn't getting done? And who has the other side of that overlap? And can you solve it together? Because it's really hard to do this on your own, right? Because community takes more than one person. So, you have to find who in your community is going to care about the same things.

5. Focus on what people need, not what people have needed.

ML: [In the wake of COVID-19] we really had to think, number one, what does the community need now? This means looking at today differently from anything that we might have done in the past. We thought about, if we’re canceling big events, what were the things that those other events provided? What value did it provide that we might be able to still provide in a virtual, asynchronous context? There was a sense of urgency around asking "what we could provide now."

And what we could do in a really timely manner was different from what we used to do, which was these like very polished events. It's not about the polish right now. It's about helping people.

And what we found was what usually happens with the community. A lot of people self-organize, a lot of people have ideas. They want to put them out there. People started generously offering and suggesting resources. This was anything from “if you're looking for a chair that's beyond your dining room chair to sit in eight hours a day, there's some research I've done,” to "Hey parents, I know you're juggling a lot, here's some resources I've found." What we were able to do was curate, and create a more easily accessible repository on our intranet.

6. Fight the tyranny of silos.

ML: “Where we can help is connecting all these sub-communities who naturally form; our job is just to nudge it into the healthy direction. And the way to do that actually is to connect the people that need to be connected in order to have that amplifying effect.

Honestly at a company the size of Google, it's really hard to see all the possible connections and networks when your day job is also to go deep into a product. But since we're not going deep into a product, we can spend our time and investment really identifying the connections, specifically, so that people can come together.

We can identify the themes that we're hearing that are UX, and not specific to a sub-community. Often, there's a lot of overlap, and there are a lot of complimentary opportunities to support one another.

Sometimes I just see our role as being the antidote to the tyranny of structural silos. I don't even think this problem just a big company problem because I think small companies often have this. It's just easy to have the mentality of, "Here's my backyard. This is my purview. That's your backyard, that's your purview." And people just don't look over the fence often enough.

I think it’s our job to be the drone over the community, and figure out where the gaps are, and how to bring it together. I don't need to claim that we're the experts in remote collaboration, parenting, etc. All of that. Because all that expertise is out there. We just have to bring them together so that the effect is greater.

It’s just easy to have the mentality of, “Here’s my backyard. This is my purview. That’s your backyard, that’s your purview.” And people just don’t look over the fence often enough.

Margaret Lee

7. Act now, polish later.

ML: Being adaptable is something that is so important right now. And however, we can also pass that capability on to the community. It;s the way that we can be helpful. One of our teammates, Kai, runs the Sprint Master Academy within Google. And a lot of that was reliant on in-person engagement. She and her team quickly pivoted to create a remote design kit that people could automatically, and very quickly, leverage. And she's been iterating on that since.

What we need to do is just be really quick. Pre-pandemic we might've focused a little bit more on polish. Now that we've been doing this for a few months, we're also seeing that a lot of what we do probably will have lasting value. It's not like we're just doing this Band-Aid thing that will service for whatever length of time. Remote collaboration will always be important. Asynchronous communication around the globe will always be important. I think this is just part of the evolution of what we have to do.

MB: There was this scene from Apollo 13, where all of a sudden the team is realizing this is a scenario they hadn't planned for, and they just dump all this stuff on the table. And they're asking: "Okay, this is what we have to construct from this stuff." It feels a little like that. Like we had things that were working in the past. We knew the purpose of those things, and how they delivered value. So, I think we are in a place having listened, and asked questions, and gained some insight both on what's going on externally, and a lot of our internal community. And again, it goes back to being just observant and looking for needs, and figuring out what we think are some good approaches. And we've started out with some small experiments. We're building on that.

8. Less focus on tools, more focus on “water cooler conversations.”

MB: People ask a lot about tools, but I feel like things have gotten for me more analog. It’s less centered around like purpose, and project.

I think the things that were most noticeable to me, and I'm still reconciling, is being a connector, a lot of important moments for community building are not in over-structured conversation. A lot of it is, but a lot of it isn't, and growing your network, and picking up information...the hallway moments, the water cooler, the kitchen, all of those moments to me, are really the valuable intangibles.

I have a printout of our team that sits in front of me, so I can try to keep them in sight and in mind. And I’m less focused on tools designed for productivity and connectivity, which naturally just adapt for the moment or the environment, but more on, how do we create these important moments that are so valuable for meaningful exchanges of information.

I think the re-purposing of tools is exciting too. It's like when there's a drastic change where somebody comes up with an idea to use something in a way that wasn't intended is always fun. And we're seeing some of that with simple internal tools, just tools to ask questions, and vote those questions for group discussions are all hands. We're starting to see those people sharing. Like there might be the food list, and people are voting recipes. So, it's like the little things like that that create the fabric of the community. And just by repurposing tools, I am changing the functionality, just making use of them in more human ways.

A lot of important moments for community building are not in over-structured conversation. The hallway moments, the water cooler, the kitchen—all of those moments to me, are really valuable intangibles.

Mike Buzzard

9. Human connection first, professional connection second.

ML: Something that we've been talking about a lot is the quality of our interactions is really important. I think as we're working from home, it's really tempting to treat each video meeting as just a meeting. But I think it's really important to just set aside a little time for just being humans.

We're humans first, and we need humanity. We need that connection. And if every connection that we have as we're working from home is cold, and informal, and structured, it's going to be really hard. I really believe that we have to just be so much more intentional about creating really quality connections because it's just harder right now. We just don't have the advantage of serendipitous interactions. So, we have to think about this differently.

And it's especially acute now because we're under incredibly stressful conditions, but what we invest in now, understanding how people like to connect, and how they possibly can connect again, is not going to be something that's only good for this period of time. It'll have lasting benefits. And I hope that because we're all here in our homes every single day, with our families, and pets, and whatnot, and people have different levels of ability to be productive, that we have a lot of empathy for one another, and that it's not a temporary condition. Because that's what's going to make a really strong culture, and a more bonded community.

MB: Look for and recognize the people who naturally have that need to connect folks and ideas, because you can only see so much. And if you find those people, and you listen to them, encourage them, then it just broadens your view of the world around you. So, you can then start to recognize the opportunities and the needs, and find the ways to address them. But, if you don't support those people in doing what they're naturally doing to surface that opportunity, then it's hard to see it.

And especially, harder today, because a lot of these exchanges used to be less structured, and formalized. It's not agenda driven. It's just something that happens organically in an organization. So, we're forced to disconnect right now. And we’ve got to encourage it proactively.

Mac Hasley is a writer and content strategist at dscout. She likes writing words about words, making marketing less like “marketing,” and unashamedly monopolizing the office’s Clif Bar supply.

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