Senior Director of User Experience Karla Ortloff heads up global UX for legal professionals at Thomson Reuters. In July 2019, 30 members of her Minneapolis-based team participated in an in-house Facilitating Design Thinking course led by Cooper Professional Education. For our Client Spotlight series, the director shares strategies that have proven effective in fostering collaboration, incentivizing growth, and driving the design culture within a 90-person team at Thomson Reuters.
(Editor’s note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
What brought you to Thomson Reuters?
I’ve been in the industry for over 24 years and have worked at many different companies as a consultant and employee. Before I came to Thomson Reuters 11 years ago, I spent a significant portion of my career at Best Buy, so I had online retail in my blood. However, this was a great opportunity to be a part of a global organization that hadn’t yet built up a robust UX function.
It was quite a change going from building retail sites to building web-based applications for legal professionals. I’ve loved every minute of it, mostly because I just love solving problems. It’s a complex market with unique problems, so we’re always pushing our UX skills. It’s super challenging.
Can you describe the makeup of your team?
My team is responsible for designing cloud-based applications for the global legal professional market. When I took over, we were fewer than a dozen people. We’ve had a lot of highs, lows, and growing pains along the way, but now we’re 90-plus people and I’m projecting more growth in the future. Our multidisciplinary team includes user experience designers, user interface designers, accessibility specialists, front-end developers, user research, and project management. The majority of our team is based out of Minneapolis, but we also have remote workers across the U.S., UK, Brazil, and Belarus.
Could you share some of your strategies for incentivizing growth and encouraging collaboration?
- In order for us to improve our team’s perceived value and influence and improve collaboration with our stakeholders, we turned our research skills inward to find out what our internal stakeholders think about working with us. We interviewed our product managers and asked them questions like “What do you like about working on with us? Where have we been beneficial? What is your impression of us? Where can we improve?” One of the findings we found surprising is that we sometimes come across as being “above” them. I think in our eagerness to prove value and get a seat at the table we’re perceived as having an ego instead of having confidence. That was something we made a conscious effort to improve.
- I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to celebrate every small or big UX win. We have something called #UXWins, where we share even little wins people have had.
- Every week we have “thanks a latte,” where people can nominate each other for doing something effective or helpful, and they get a coffee card. A culture of affirmation and appreciation is really important.
- A lot of the things on our “UX Bingo” card reflect the culture we have in our organization. It’s not only dealing with professional development, it’s creating a culture of appreciation, a collaborative culture. One of them was simply “have coffee with a coworker.”
- For “UX Coffee,” each month team members are randomly set up with another team member for a coffee date, either remote or in person, just to get to know each other. You can connect with quite a few people each year on your team by doing that.
In what ways has your UX team matured over the years?
When we started out, we were a small team working on one product. That work contributed to the most successful product launch in our company’s history. I saw a huge opportunity to build on our win as a way to expand our learnings and best practices into other products across our organization.
In order for us to improve our team’s perceived value and influence and improve collaboration with our stakeholders, we turned our research skills inward.
By 2013 we were expanding our portfolio by taking on tactical and maintenance work, and each year we’ve been progressing our maturity. By 2016, team members were asking, “Why aren’t we doing strategy?” However, to be truly successful the team needed to be ready to do it, and the organization needed to trust us to do it. Finding that moment where the two intersect was critical and took extreme patience. Today, 30% of our project portfolio is strategic or discovery initiatives, and we’re struggling to keep up with the demand.
Our focus now is on maturing our UX operations. For years were striving to be in that strategic area of maturity where the designer is an integral part of influencing and making decisions on the product, and we’re there (mostly). I’ve now added a fourth level to our maturity model called “Goodwill” — where we’re identifying, initiating, and owning projects that solve problems beyond our traditional project portfolio. Someone needs to do it, and we’ve got the skills. It’s a great place for a UX team to be.
Where does professional development fit in to elevating your team in that maturity model?
Professional development is critical as an organization grows and matures. We’ve had to develop our own career pathing. The traditional models in place assumed people were going to be here for decades, and we needed to provide jumps every couple of years, rewarding people for sticking around, because it’s a competitive market.
We do a lot of internal team skill-sharing sessions and recently created training “ambassadors.” We also attend conferences and bring in professional training like Cooper Professional Education.
Professional development is critical as an organization grows and matures.
Since we’re growing, we need to get team members onboarded faster. We have a robust online resource and an orientation training site to get people up to speed on the training, team culture, projects, product portfolios, and our customer segments and personas. Our orientation includes one-on-one meetings with leaders across the team to talk about their areas of responsibility, current projects, pain points, customer needs, and sharing stories of their personal and professional life. It’s important to set the tone from day one that we have to have empathy for our customers. We also practice having empathy for each other.
Where do you see your team making the biggest strides; what’s working well?
We’re looking for ways to solve customer problems faster. Recently, the company brought in the function of Agility Coaches to accelerate the development process. We’ve been doing a form of Agile for over a decade, but over time best practices fade away and pockets of teams start to form their own version of Agile. Now we’re going back to basics to focus on the best of Agile, Lean, Dev Ops, Google Sprints, etc. We’re getting everyone — Development, Product Management, and UX — back in a room for a fixed amount of time. The best idea wins no matter who’s there. This is where we impress and build trust in ways that quick standups and design reviews can’t necessarily accomplish. We have the tools, skills and experience to take the lead, facilitate design thinking conversations, and provide quick concepts and ideas that can gather customer feedback in a very short amount of time.
What are your goals moving forward in building a design culture?
When we’re building products, we say a product is never “done,” and the same holds true for building a design culture. I’ve been working on some of the external blockers in the company that have impeded our maturity. It doesn’t matter how great your team culture is if other parts of your organization aren’t as mature. My goal is to solve the problems that prevent us from solving problems.
The first initiative was to introduce our Product Managers to new ways of thinking about their roles and responsibilities and find a consistent way of working across our global organization. This isn’t something a UX team would normally take on, but it was an obvious blocker preventing our team from having more ownership over our work and making it difficult to establish best practices. I proved Product Management teams had the same concerns and frustrations, which resulted in getting executive buy-in to fund training across the organization. So far, we’ve sent more than 150 Product Managers through the certification training, and their feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. They get career development training, and my team wins when we’re in meetings and Product Managers make comments like, “Oh normally I would worry about the design, but I’ve been told we’re not supposed to be focused on that.” Win-win!
When we’re building products, we say a product is never “done,” and the same holds true for building a design culture.
Another initiative was to find a way to make our team more efficient so we’re spending less time documenting and debating with stakeholders and more time focusing on the bigger-picture customer problems. A design system is one of those things every company on the maturity journey needs to address, so we’ve invested a lot of time and energy into creating a robust, accessible design system.
Finally, we’ve been improving accessibility and changing people’s minds about what it means to build an “accessible” product. We needed to address the misconception that it’s expensive and an innovation killer and prove that it’s a product differentiator as well as the right thing to do. We’ve initiated and created corporate-wide training for groups including Product Managers, Developers, Content Creators, Marketing, and more. Within the UX team, Accessibility Ambassadors champion training and make sure we’re designing accessible solutions. They also track the quality of the work as it makes its way through the development cycle.
We’ve been partnering with groups across the company, including Diversity and Inclusion and Corporate Legal Counsel, to establish standards and policies. It’s been a grassroots effort that has seen huge benefits and adoption in a short amount of time. It’s all about looking for non-traditional UX partners that may have an interest in what you are doing and can help you drive change.