Monday, October 03, 2005

UX: Growing UX in your organization

From User Experience magazine: Vol 4, Issue 3, 2005 (Article not available online)

In venues ranging from online discussions to conferences (and UXNet), consultants and employees are advocating for a strategic role in their organizations. The UX Summer issue even elevated this focus to its cover story. It sounds simple – if we acquire more responsibility and advance organizationally, user experience will inexorably drive through the company’s DNA and infuse projects and processes with the customer’s voice. Perhaps, but real management practice has a way of uncomfortably adapting to business change. I think we have a good debate started, but wonder if we are proposing the solution (“move up the ladder”) without understanding management as a problem domain.

How do we design a user-centered organization?

As UX professionals, we continue to explore ways to improve our services to employers and clients, toward designing better products. In fulfilling our mission of ensuring delightful customer experiences, we find ourselves working with people within and across the organization unfamiliar with our mission. In some cases, we find ourselves dealing with business processes and management practices adversely affecting our ability to champion the user. We often find inflexible project management practices, date-driven projects, and tight budgets. These frustrations would disappear if we were in charge, we may think. Do we then, as Don Norman has famously suggested, “change the company” to get better usability? Well, as we say in our customary response, it depends.

Organizations are usually not user-centered, and we admit surprise that the user experience value proposition is not self-evident. But executives are not centered around users, or even customers. They are business-centered. They are largely rewarded for accelerating progress toward financial goals, and extend rewards to those who capitalize on markets and turn products into market share. Usability becomes another trade-off, as much as safety, reliability, supportability, accessibility, and other product factors are traded-off and even compromised, unfortunately. As champions of user needs, we often play devil’s advocate to business needs. So to what extent do we champion (however we define it) business success?

We should step back and reflect on what we really envision for the organization. Do we want superior products with world-class ease-of-use? Do we want to create innovative products with a higher market risk and bigger long-term possibilities? Do we want organizations that listen to the user and adapt products to meet their explicit needs? Do we want organizations that drive innovation down deeply into processes, and evolve products with user participation? Do we want to help our good company become “great?” These are very different objectives, and each one assumes a different context of management. None of these visions are met in the same way. Furthermore, we all must start from where we are located in the organization now.

Now reflect on what we want as individuals. What do our values, commitments, and career call us to do? Different professionals have different personal missions. Some of us are designers, and delight in creating bold and moving products. Some of us are researchers, driven to understand human behavior and interaction, producing powerful data for business and product decisions. Others are entrepreneurial, finding better ways to do business focused on the user. How many of us are currently managers as a professional practice?

So why do we think we must become managers? To have sufficient influence? To develop and institutionalize better design practices? To oversee product development? It may be fair to say we want to have more influence, more say over products, and better organizational practices for achieving the objectives of user-centered design. But I question the need to advance in a management track to accomplish this objective.

Having been in management consulting (along the way), I have found the hierarchy often inhospitable to the UX value proposition. It is not enough to just pitch usability or good design higher up the chain. Management consultants are hired to achieve business goals, within which user experience seems a troublesome fit. It is not operational excellence, and is not necessarily a growth strategy, and its certainly not cost management. We are not even marketing, but if we push too hard for a seat at the table, we may find ourselves in marketing’s fate. Which is serving the business, and not the user.

We sound good in theory, but its not just a matter of showing return on investment, which managers know how to manipulate better than we do. It’s a problem of cultural fit in the decision-making process. At some level in the hierarchy, and it may be even be in the middle, we find our glass ceiling. Is it really worth breaking through? Do we really know what a “CXO” does? Most large firms do not even have Chief Marketing Officers.

I find the "push" approach the reverse of what really works in most organizations. User experience must get “pulled in” to its best workable level within each organization. It is not hard to locate enthusiastic sponsors in most organizations anymore – UX is not a risky value proposition. The question is, at what level does it make sense to lobby sponsorship?

Jakob Nielsen addressed the institutionalization of usability in a recent Alertbox. He identified two phases of internal support: Early evangelizing “from User Advocate to Usability Group,” and Late, “from Usability Group to Usability Culture.” If our goal is to move from one UX and no group to Usability Culture, it will not be achieved through promotions. But I consider the power of the usability culture is in making the practice so desirable, that every product and every process will want what we have. We will create a more sustainable practice, and more quickly, by cultivating an internal demand than by acquiring formal organizational status.

Yes, in some small companies, we may have CXOs or the like. Start-ups live and die by one product which they have to get right, and tying one product to a user experience strategy may be the best workable approach. But following one good design, much of the game is in marketing (see iPod). After all, start-ups also live and die by their sales and investors.

But does it make sense for IBM, or even Apple, to have a CXO? How do we effectively champion every user at that scale? Upper management turns experts into business generalists (see Microsoft). Management wants an integrated approach to organizational problem solving, and not a “new fix” from an underappreciated discipline that may already be successful right in their midst. User experience design and research advocates such an integrated approach. The key may be to integrate it as a competitive advantage within each of our organizations, uniquely. Then we may find our success in integrating UX, and with it our human and user-oriented values, within the business processes that affect the user experience. Such an integration of practice and values into process will necessarily raise UX to decision-making levels.

User experience becomes infused into projects, processes, and practices through people. Winning over the people in one project, and then one significant product, at a time. Building formal processes only to the extent projects and practices can handle, and then capturing the gains and promoting the successes. Then, we will find our project and product managers championing the successes of user-centered design,

I think there is a need to have someone in a larger organization worry about infusing UX practices in the corporate methodology.
In my blog post CXO or CMO? I argue that this responsibility may be grouped under a more general title, that of Chief Methodology Officer. I also encourage you to read Richards Anderson's take on this (I refer to his posting in mine).
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