Two heads are better than one

Time to read: 6 minutes

I’ve been working with someone. This is note-worthy, because I have mostly worked alone. Most companies today think that one UX Architect is enough to fix All The Things going wrong in a project.

We are UX co-leads on a Big Fat Software Rewrite project. On our first day, a Monday, we were told that a workshop was running on that Wednesday. The ground was hit with running speed, with the most mundane of tasks: setting up a workshop space.

On Tuesday, first thing, we went to the office space where the programme manager planned to run the workshop… and stared, mouths gaping, at an office that looked like the Mary Celeste, complete with strewn shoes, multi-year dust layers, and a vibe of utter, dusty, beige, desertion.

We spent an entire day clearing, cleaning, and carting things around to set up a viable space for that workshop. A neat trick we used? Double-sided tape, to hang colourful wrapping paper on wall segments, and give the beeeeeeeige space some colour. We joked that we were the highest paid cleaners and decorators in London, that day!

It was FUN. Digging for a vacuum cleaner, picking up stranger’s old shoes, lifting desks, dragging chairs, hanging paper onto walls… was FUN. When was the last time that a collection of chores was fun for you? (yeah, me either)

We kept each other going, laughed at the mess, used our brains to get massive desks to fit through doors, and generally stayed sane.

The next day, the workshop was a great success. Having one person lead an exercise and the other instigate discussion and activity in the audience helped move things forward better! And the space we created was well used and loved. Our guests felt comfortable there. Indeed, it’s still being used today by other colleagues: They left it set up, and team meetings happen there every day.

Unfortunately, and despite our fantastic start, the project has been going a bit sideways from day one. In fact, barely six weeks in, the client killed it without any warning.

While the experience of having a long-term contract cancelled without any notice (yes, really) was painful, we enjoyed working together SO much, that we both felt that what we discovered needed sharing.

Hiring two very experienced UX Architects has many benefits.

Better memory and faster information processing
Our very first task after helping run the workshop was to extract insight from the information our participants contributed. In this instance, it meant doing an affinity sort on more than 500 nuggets of information. We’d started this during the workshop, with our participants, but needed to complete it.
With two brains on the job, we found faster ways of working. When one of us didn’t quite remember what an item meant, the other could jog their memory (or simply remember it themselves) and we could note down the clarification, have joint understanding, and move on. With two pairs of hands dancing on those cards, things literally moved much faster.
Our information processing speed was increased, as was our understanding. And with two brains for remembering, our total recall (unintentional punning) was better too! Our affinity sort was complete, and insight gleaned, in less than one day!!

Better communication
As mentioned, the project was wobbly. We exchanged glances in meetings, wondering why terms and processes were being misunderstood and misrepresented. One of us would speak up, and the other repeat, amplifying the message. Sometimes with different words, occasionally playing on the “if a man repeats what a woman said, it more people listen” practice. Sometimes, we just rolled our eyes in disbelief, and made notes to talk to our colleagues privately afterwards so as not to embarrass them or confuse the client. It kept us sane, and helped us get our points across.

Better & faster design
When it came time to design something, we worked together, coming up with as many ideas as each of us could, quietly, working alone… and then merged them together, discussing, augmenting, refining them until we knew what the final product would be like. Iterations happened naturally, and so, so fast. With our collective experience – a broader one than any one person could have, the internet really isn’t that old – we had some pretty good ideas!!
And then we split up the documentation work, so one of us wrote the spec and the other got the visual designer in the team up to speed on how these widgets would work, so he could start thinking about how to style them before the full spec was done.

Better & faster documents
Once you’ve done the work you also need to share it with the client, of course. And often this means passing around a lifeless document, which travels without adult supervision, and hope that it tells a complete story. This is tricky business, and benefits from more than one set of eyes both in the writing (adding & augmenting ideas) and in the editing (cutting & refining ideas).
We used a neat trick here too. Each of us had done work on one aspect of the project that needed documenting. We knew what the other had done, obviously, but weren’t experts. So each of us started a google slides document (we made “booklets” telling the stories – NOT slide decks) on their area of expertise, and talked as we wrote about our work. This meant that we were reviewing and augmenting each other’s ideas as we wrote them. When we were stuck, we’d ask the other person to have a look – and because of google slides, we could edit each other’s work just by changing browser tabs! When we were done, we both had access to both documents, both of which were finished thanks to the continuous writing and review process, and we could export them to PDF and send them wherever necessary.

Always moves forward
It was also handy for holidays. James had some time off booked, whereas I didn’t. So when he went away, I stayed behind, and progressed the work. It was only one sprint, but the project didn’t suffer or stall because the UX lead was away.
Because it had two UX leads.
The project was continuously progressing, even when one UX lead was away, because the other was still there. This was good, because to take a meaningful holiday, one needs to disconnect. And when you’re a single point of failure, you can’t do that. With two UX leads, there is no single point of failure. It’s a very literal win-win situation.

Higher job satisfaction
And I’ll tell you a secret. The best perk, the most underestimated perk, the one you’ll want to steal from this article and share with your buddies over coffee? RECOGNITION.
James and I both have extensive experience in our domain, and we respect each other and the work we’ve done. So when one of us wrote a document, or did a design, or created a framework or model to use in the project, and the other person reviewed it, gave feedback, and said “good job”; it really meant something.
Just having your work reviewed by a respected peer is enough to make you feel like your work is worthwhile. And that, ladies and gentlemen, contributes SO much to job satisfaction and happiness, that you’ll want to tell your friends : review each other’s work; say “well done”; share what you do. Because it will make you happier.


Working with James was awesome. He cursed loudly when I felt it might be unseemly, and I enjoyed hearing him say out loud what I was thinking, in occasionally even stronger terms. We used each other as megaphones, validators, motivators, reviewers, editors, and – of course – designers.

We did a much better job together than we would have alone. We were more than co-leads or partners. We were accomplices.

Neither of us had experienced collaboration at this level before. We both fell head over heels for it and have half-jokingly talked about setting up a product discovery & UX strategy consultancy.

And we would strongly recommend to all companies wanting to bring UX into their own processes and departments to carefully consider hiring two very skilled UX Architects, together, to lead the UX vision.

Some places are doing this already. Shunning the atom-centric way of working (person per person) and favouring particles (teams of two or more people who work well together).
Good communication and teamwork are the foundation of good work. Advertising agencies know this, and hire Copywriter and Art Director teams rather than skilled individuals. Good communication, trust and respect are built over time, and all are necessary to producing good work.

So go on. Hire a pair of UX co-leads.

Because two heads are better than one.


the two heads of this story


James O’Brien
@sparrk on twitter

Sophie Exintaris
@eurydice13 on twitter

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