Zoosk Inc.

Zoosk User Experience Team (also known as the Zoosk UX Hydra)

What can others learn from the successes and failures of how your team was assembled and how it operates?: 

Though our team is made up of people with different strengths and levels of experience, everyone contributes to everything and it’s been essential to our success.

When people have equal say, they also have equal stake
Our junior and senior level designers have equal input on design and this lateral structure allows us to be more collaborative. There’s no art director at Zoosk, and no one person is responsible for guiding our vision. Instead, we all have equal say and equal stake in our projects. This is how our nickname “The UX Hydra” came about—there’s no one “head” of the UX department, there are seven.

Find out what doesn’t work before you find what does
It took us a while to figure out what structure worked best for us. Our first instinct was to have a senior-level designer step into a leadership role and it just wasn’t working. It inhibited open collaboration and set up a hierarchy of ideas that didn’t fit what we needed. When there was one person designated as the go-to for guidance and direction, we found that we weren’t using each other as much as we should have and our work became siloed. Now, the senior members of our team reach out to get help on a project just as much as our junior members. Asking others what they think or if they have other ideas is just part of the process. And because all ideas and opinions are equal, there’s no pressure to conform and good ideas naturally float to the top.

Hire for the team, not the position
We’ve been able to build upon the idea of design equality by hiring in a way that brings in great talent. We write job openings together as a team and interview for enthusiasm and strong, positive personalities. Throughout the process, we stress the fact that we’re looking for someone who thrives in a collaborative environment and isn’t chasing after a title or trying to climb a ladder. We’re all focused on growing in our careers but titles are secondary on the Zoosk UX team—what we’re after is the work. Our goal is to get opportunities to work on interesting, fulfilling products and to be important contributors on projects that are well-executed and successful.

Don’t forget to design your own experience
One of the main things we learned from the way that our team came together, and something we hope other teams can take away from our experiences, is that what works for other organizations may not work for you. We thought we needed a lead designer because that’s how we’d all worked before. It took a few missteps to realize that in order to approach our work in a new way, we needed to approach the structure of our department in a new way. We essentially had to design our own experience that would also fit what the organization needed.

The idea of a UX hydra probably won’t work for everyone (it is a monster after all) but it’s what works for us. Finding what works for your team can be a process, but it’s worth looking outside of the traditional hierarchies and organizational models for ideas. Maybe your inspiration comes from a baseball team or the cyclical nature of succulents and not some ancient serpent-like monster from Greek mythology. Whatever it is, it’s important to recognize that the way you assemble and define your team can have a large impact on your success.

How does your team adapt to respond to changing requirements, projects, and stakeholders?: 

At Zoosk, things change quickly and being able to adapt, and even thrive, with that change is a necessity. Nobody gets married to an idea and part of the fun of working on something that poses a particular challenge is evolving your initial ideas as the project begins to take on life.

We remember that beauty is working
As a UX team, we often get the opportunity to try something new and experiment, be it a lateral scroll or a new icon design. We try a lot of things that we may find really beautiful and elegant, but at the end of the day it also needs to work. If something doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is. We’re designing for a solution, to elicit an action, and we are after something that’s beautiful because it’s functional. The experience is beautiful when it’s accommodating and easy.

We know that everything evolves, especially UX
We may love something, but if our product management team discovers a new scenario that the current design isn’t going to work for, then it has to change. Everything evolves, especially in UX, and being flexible and open-minded is a large part of what allows us to be successful.

We fail fast and move on
We try to view everything as an experiment, even if it’s not a test. And we really do embrace failure. Zoosk as an organization believes in failing fast and moving on; and the way we work as a UX team is a reflection of that open mindset.

How do you ensure your team remains successful even as members leave the team and new ones join?: 

We communicate. A lot. Everyone says this, but not many live it because it’s hard and it takes a lot of time and effort. But it’s really the massive amounts of communication and support that creates a strong foundation for our team and makes it easy to transition as people come and go. Our strength, and where we get a lot of our creative energy, is from our rituals. We meet formally, semi-formally, and informally throughout the week in a variety of ways.

Time to “nerd out” and get excited about UX
We have two formal, weekly meetings that address different UX needs. On Tuesdays we meet to discuss new trends in UX, art, and design. This is when we’ll share information we’ve learned from a conference or article; discuss what we thought about a new logo, platform update, or editorial that came out that week; or go over our “extra-curricular” creative projects like coming up with fun decor for the office or an idea for a Halloween haunted house. These are things anyone with a UX background or creative inclinations can jump in on right away. It also provides a great forum for bringing fresh content and ideas to the team.

Semiformal critiques and progress updates
On Fridays, we go over what each person has worked on over the course of the week. This allows us to give updates on our progress and show off designs we’re particularly proud of, but also serves as an opportunity for everyone to have input on each other’s work. New people joining the team are immediately brought up to date on what projects we’re working on and can begin to contribute in critiques and discussions.

An open office that facilitates open exchanges
Throughout the day, we meet informally while requesting feedback from each other. We all sit together in an open office and it really does help. The words, “What do you think of this?” are heard constantly and right behind us there’s a wall that’s a massive floor to ceiling whiteboard. It’s easy to grab someone and go hash out a new idea.

Silliness and a little improv
We meet at the end of every day for a semi-formal “pow-wow” where we all quickly say what we did that day and get some time to catch up. It’s a great way to let off steam—our feet are often up as we lounge on chairs and couches—and, admittedly, it can get a little silly as conversations tend to veer off in random and odd directions. (Many an inside joke was started in a UX pow-wow.) Each pow-wow also ends with a short improv exercise where anything goes. It’s a nice, relaxed environment to get to know each other better, and it’s made it easier to quickly integrate new team members into the fold.

Friendships that form organically
When you get down to it, we really enjoy each other. Friendships happen organically when people who are passionate and excited about the same things get together. We all love food (who doesn’t) so we eat lunch, discover new coffee shops, and occasionally get dinner and drinks together after work. We all love great art. If there’s a new exhibit in town, you can bet one of us will invite the others. We enjoy our “nerdy” pursuits as well, and game nights and passionate discussions about our favorite books and TV series are common occurrences.

As in any organization, people come and go. A sustainable culture isn’t dependent on one leader or one person, and we need to survive as a growing, evolving team. When people leave it’s seen an opportunity for change and growth, and each time we bring a new person on it’s added such a great new dimension to what we’re already doing. It can only get better.

How does your team manage its interactions with stakeholders and, where applicable, with other teams involved in the design and execution of products or services?: 

At Zoosk, stakeholders are brought into the process early on and don’t disappear later as the project progresses. It’s part of what makes our organization open and collaborative. As a project moves forward, people and departments don’t leave the process after they’ve made their contributions. Rather, more people are added as the project grows. It’s like a snowball that builds momentum as we get closer to a project's completion.

Each project starts with an inception meeting where Shayan, the CEO, explains the main objectives of the project to the departments and individuals involved. Following the inception meeting, there’s a kick off meeting where the product manager will go over the specs with both Shayan and the rest of the team in the room. Once we’re all on the same page and have a good understanding of the project’s needs, we begin to work.

As we begin work, we don’t just IM and email each other. We get up and walk over to talk to engineering, the product manager on the project, or the CEO. It’s an open office and we take advantage of it. Because there’s not a huge intricate hierarchy in the management structure at Zoosk, it’s easy to facilitate an equal exchange of ideas. Our UX manager doesn’t talk to stakeholders for us and then pass the information on. Instead, all managers (both in and outside of the UX department) are there to connect the right people to each other and ensure that communication is open and flowing.