August 2, 2012

Storming and Norming in UX/UI Design

In 1965 a researcher named Bruce Tuckman, later a Professor of Educational Psychology at Ohio State University, named four stages in the creation of an efficiently performing team. In the first stage, which Tuckman called Forming, members of a group first come together. Forming is a get-to-know-each-other phase, with lots of mutual observation and a general avoidance of conflict. Forming is usually polite and comfortable, but productivity tends to be low.GroupFormation

Things begin to get interesting in what Tuckman called the Storming stage, when team members open up and start confronting each other’s ideas, discuss the degree of autonomy each will have, and settle on what leadership model will operate. In contrast to Forming, the Storming stage is almost always uncomfortable, but it’s just as necessary to the growth and eventual productivity of the team. One might say it’s the process by which a collection of individuals becomes a team, so it’s important to go through it and not get stuck there. In the next two stages, Norming and Performing, some ideas and personal agendas within the group are given up, a mutually agreed-upon plan and shared set of priorities emerge, and things start to hum along.

At Waverley we’re familiar with this cycle. We’ve seen it within our own organization (changing circumstances and new hires can partially reset the cycle) and in many new client relationships. A a new project kicks off and bright, talented people who have never worked together form a new far-located team. When the stakes are high (and in software design and engineering they usually are), there’s always a moment when the new team is finding its legs, the clock is ticking, and the temperature rises. We’ve learned to harness this heat to improve outcomes, to cook tastier applications. While the team Storms and Norms synergies are created, and these synergies are a big part of what brings us to work in the morning.

On a recent project, the first in which Waverley’s new in-house UX/UI team was asked to produce a complete cross-platform mobile app design for a visionary entrepreneur, Tuckman’s phases were right there, textbook-style. The concept was so exciting that our lead designer started envisioning features and opportunities well beyond what was initially presented. And although the enthusiasm was welcome, it wasn’t long before we were busier sketching version 3 than writing a spec for version 1. The client, who was on a very tight budget for the UX design phase of the project, started to push back while our designer maintained that the only way to stress-test the flow and interrelation of certain features was to project them out into future versions. All good, but the clock was ticking and before too long the design of actual screens had to take priority.

This was classic Storming. In those early conversations, framing and reframing functionality, we weren’t just debating abstractions, we were getting to know the app, and each other: observing how we each responded to challenges while stress-testing assumptions about everything from on-screen help to the potential for social networking. Our designer was getting his head around the app’s proposed features, something the client had long-since done, but fundamental to what happened next: an elegant set of screens started to emerge, informed by the concerns of all stakeholders: market knowledge, cost constraints, user needs, and aesthetics, in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Respect doesn’t come easy, and politely pretending to agree doesn’t cut it when people are demanding the best of themselves and each other. Storms have a way of focusing our minds and sharpening our senses. Faced together, they bring out the best in a group.