Embedding User Experience Design in large organizations: issues and recommendations

As part of the inaugural “Great IxDA Debate” at Interaction 12Jeff Gothelf was asked to defend the position “Interaction design is not a respected design discipline“. He made the following point in his opening remarks:

Most of our employers still see us as wireframe monkeys and pixel pushers. They see us as annotators and documenters ““ not as problem-solvers and product designers. They evaluate us based on our portfolios of decontextualized wireframes asking not how we solved the problem or what the outcome was but instead wondering what tool we used to create the straight lines in our wireframe decks.

I agree with Jeff that there are some major barriers to getting User Experience fully embedded specifically in large organizations. I think the core problem is that most large companies still don’t see Product (the site or app) as a “profitability lever” that can be pulled. Instead, they focus on two things that have stood the test of time through years and years of MBA classes: Marketing and Pricing. These levers usually result in immediate returns, and they are easy to quantify and measure over time.

For Marketing (including SEO and PPC) the equation usually looks this: More money invested = More traffic = Increased revenue.

For Pricing, it looks like this: Lower prices = Increased sales = Increased revenue (albeit at lower margins).

But Product lacks the immediacy and simple quantifiability that make the other levers so enticing. One version of the Product equation could look like this: Investment in UX = Increased conversion and/or better experiences = Long-term effect on loyalty, trust, and profitability. That doesn’t quite roll off the tongue the same way “MO’ MONEY, MO’ TRAFFIC!” does.

The consequence of UX not being seen as an essential profitability lever is that it’s rarely adequately represented in the upper echelons of large organizations. It’s mostly seen as an auxiliary function down in the trenches as opposed to a core foundation of the business.

I also agree with Jeff that we are partly to blame for this situation:

The fact that those within the profession struggle to unify around a name for our profession hurts our credibility.

Yup. I’ve never seen an industry so intent on undefining itself (like here, here, and here). But I digress…

The fact that our leaders cannot identify in concise and consistent terminologies what it is that we do, hinders our progress into the mainstream of the corporate world. The fact that we, as practitioners, fail to consistently and convincingly describe what we do and the impact we have on our teams, products and companies, speaks volumes towards the progress we still have to make to get the respect we deserve and that is afforded to all these other professions.

So how do we begin to solve this problem? We do it by ensuring the work we do is credible, consumable, and relevant:

  • Credible: Use solid methodologies, accurate measurement, and success metrics that are clearly defined and agreed upon upfront.
  • Consumable: Tell the story really well to business stakeholders, using plain language to explain our process and its benefits, as well as the business results.
  • Relevant: Forget about squirrel projects for a while, and focus on things that are important to the business, like Checkout or Landing page optimization.

We should apply UX principles to our internal clients too. We know that organizational leaders are measured by (and therefore focused on) business results. So we need to not only design our Products to accomplish that, but we also need to design our deliverables in a way that shows the value of UX in clear and irrefutable ways. That’s how we get more CPO’s and CXO’s in large organizations.

And for the love of all that is holy, can we please just pick a name for ourselves and stick with it? I know there’s plenty wrong with the term User Experience Designer, but it’s the most recognizable thing we’ve got. It’s akin to attempts to replace the save icon – yes, it might not be appropriate any more, but why break users’ mental models about something that is so instantly recognizable?