Eight Organizational Challenges for UX Professionals

This article was originally published at UXmatters on April 2, 2012. The article was truly a collaboration. 

A great organizational culture is a necessity if we are to create great products.

Being a UX professional—whether a UX designer, a user researcher, or a UX leader—can sometimes be challenging. We often find ourselves in the midst of organizational challenges—sometimes bringing more to light than we actually solve. Because our work is customer facing, User Experience is an important part of the product development equation. We reflect our organizational cultures because we are so integral to the product development process.

In many organizations, there is a very high turnover rate for Directors of User Experience—just because an organization’s culture is broken. We recognize early on that many product problems are a direct reflection of cultural difficulties, but sometimes there is no way to change them.

A great organizational culture is a necessity if we are to create great products. In this article, I’ll discuss some ways in which organizations fail because of their cultures.

Talking to Customers Isn’t a Part of an Organization’s Culture

“No matter what your process is, your organization’s goal should be to have a clear understanding of your customers.”

Instead of finding out what customers really need, a product team goes off in a room where a lot of smart people start developing use cases, wireframes, and visual designs in a conference room. Months go by, the organization releases the final product, and it bombs. No one uses it, a lot of money has gotten wasted, and the product team gets fired.

Whose fault is it? It’s the organization’s fault.

No matter what your process is, your organization’s goal should be to have a clear understanding of your customers. This means customer visits or remote user interviews using Skype video and screen sharing or simple phone calls. If you fit the profile of the target audience, you can design for yourself, but beware of doing this if you don’t belong to the audience for a product.

There is no excuse for this organizational failing; no one should design a product in a vacuum. The assertion that “we shouldn’t show customers the product because competitors might see it” is stupid. If you’re creating a new product for which the barrier of entry is so low that a customer could steal the idea, maybe you shouldn’t be in that market.

Great organizations have a clear vision for customers. Your organization should work hand in hand with customers. This is an issue of organizational culture. It should be ingrained in your culture that talking to users is not only expected, but rewarded.

Manufacturers of physical products do extensive studies of their customers to maximize their profits. Supermarket store design is a great example of this, particularly the design of customer flows. Why don’t technology firms do this?

How to avoid this failing—Go on the road. Visit or talk to at least one customer a week. Users are your best subjects, from whom you can learn the most. Partner with your customers to grow your business.

Leadership Doesn’t Have a Clear Vision

If a company’s direction is always changing, and they don’t have a clear vision of where they are going, there’s no way that they can build great products.

“This week we’re going to build a product with viral features.”

“This week let’s build a comment system.”

“This week we’ll do e-commerce!”

If a company’s direction is always changing, and they don’t have a clear vision of where they are going, there’s no way that they can build great products. Achieving successful product management and user experience is highly dependent on understanding the context of the user. If that context is always changing, there’s no way to build an effective user experience.

Vision is hard to define, but not as hard as you might think. There’s an anecdote about a couple of MBAs who started a business. They did extensive research and pricing studies and spent lots of money on ever-changing priorities. Eventually, they sold the company to a small business owner who had a simplified vision of how to run the company. Under the new leadership, the company sold its products for twice as much as they cost and provided great customer service. The business became wildly successful.

Creating great products isn’t as hard as you might think: becoming clear about what you’re providing to users is about listening to them. That’s it.

How to avoid this failing—Articulate a vision, and stick to it. You may need to adjust your vision based on market changes, but the clearer your vision, the better you’re able to build products that reflect that vision.

Leadership and the Design Team Don’t Share the Same Vision

If leadership doesn’t believe their design team can build a product that can grow the business, they need to make changes to the design team.

I’ve worked in a few organizations where we’d be making great progress on a product and getting really close to launch. Then we’d be asked to do a big demonstration for a Vice President or C-level executive, and our meeting would turn from strategy to “could you make this button green.” Or they might ask us to add a few more features that require a complete redesign, destroying months of work.

I’ve seen email messages from CEOs who were intent on hijacking the design process or going around design leadership to ask their go-to guy to make changes to a product design. This is toxic behavior and reflects poorly on leadership because it demonstrates that they have failed to build a design team that they can work with effectively.

If leadership doesn’t believe their design team can build a product that can grow the business, they need to make changes to the design team, not ask for a button in another color. The best designers work hand in hand with management to understand their vision and translate it into a viable product. If management can’t articulate a vision that is consistent with the needs of the market, this creates great conflict.

In truly great organizations, vision bubbles up from the lowest levels, then management synthesizes and articulates a clear product vision.

How to avoid this failing—Management must let designers do their job and recognize that they aren’t the target audience. Leaders’ responsibility is setting the vision and building their team. If they’ve done this right, they shouldn’t have to hijack the design process.

The Design Team Hasn’t Laid a Sound Foundation by Establishing a Design Process

A good process ensures consistency across all of your products and drives you toward a consistent product vision for your users.

“Let’s go straight to wireframes.”

Sometimes that might not be such a bad thing. You might need to get a feel for where you need to go by creating a bunch of wireframes. But wireframes are the end-product of a lot of other UX design tasks and are just one part of the design process. They provide documentation for your design projects, allow you to articulate your design ideas visually and functionally, and let you communicate your ideas to multiple audiences, including management and engineering.

I’ve seen design teams fail because there wasn’t a good foundation for the final design vision. Good designers should have at least a rough idea of where they are going, even if their destination could change.

A good process ensures consistency across all of your products and drives you toward a consistent product vision for your users.

How to avoid this failing—Put your design process in place. Establish your product vision and create branding standards, personas, patterns, and other design guidelines.

The Designers on a Team Aren’t on the Same Page

Creating a collaborative culture is very important when building a design team. When designers work together they can achieve great things.

There’s nothing more toxic than when the designers on a team are working toward different goals. Creating a collaborative culture is very important when building a design team. When designers work together they can achieve great things. When they don’t agree on a design process or share the same design goals, arguments can ensue over the silliest things—like the color of buttons or the usage of hyperlinks. Such a team cannot achieve a consistent product vision.

I’ve worked with visual designers who refused to collaborate or whose idea of design was to throw mockups over a wall. In one particular environment where I worked, the visual designers completely changed the layouts and, thus, the workflows represented in the wireframes, disregarding the deep thought that had gone into the work.

While the personalities of the designers on a team may be very different, they should be able to work together toward one common goal: the success of their company. Here’s an example of teamwork from the world of baseball: During the early 1970’s, the Oakland As were a complete mess off the field because of personality differences. But on the field, they had one goal: winning the World Series. And they did win it three years straight, in 1972, 1973, and 1974.

How to avoid this failing—Design leadership should be able build a team that is on the same page and has shared goals. Sometimes that means firing people. Design is sometimes more subjective than we would like to think. Having an inconsistent design culture can destroy companies.

An Organization Doesn’t Allocate Its Resources Properly

Many organizations believe that the answer to building great engineering and product teams is to hire more engineers. I’ve found the opposite to be true.

Look at the product teams around you. How many product managers do you work with? How many designers? How many engineers?

Many organizations believe that the answer to building great engineering and product teams is to hire more engineers. I’ve found the opposite to be true. I’ve worked on a lot of smaller teams that were able to build great products by following streamlined processes, maintaining proper staffing levels, and hiring resources with the right skill sets.

I’ll give you an example: the best team I ever worked on had a ratio of three developers, one visual designer, one product manager—that was me—and one quality assurance engineer. We were able to do enough requirements gathering to keep the developers busy, no one worked overtime, and we created a product that is still profitable today as a small business.

If the ratios or skill sets of resources aren’t right, a team cannot work efficiently. When there are too few designers, developers sit around waiting, with nothing to do, and the designers are grossly overworked. When there are too many designers, they produce too much documentation, so the developers don’t know where to start. Finding the right balance is like tuning the engine of a racing car: too much or too little and the engine runs inefficiently. Getting the right mix means winning the race.

How to avoid this failing—Adjust your staffing levels and their skill sets for optimal performance. This doesn’t necessarily mean hiring more people: sometimes too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the broth. Get the ratios right and your team’s performance will improve.

An Organization Encourages Feature Creep

Product management should work hand in hand with user experience. They should work together not only to decide what should be in a product, but also what shouldn’t be in a product.

Product management should work hand in hand with user experience. They should work together not only to decide what should be in a product, but also what shouldn’t be in a product. Most product teams don’t have the luxury of doing green-field product development with unlimited budgets. Therefore, feature creep can kill companies.

Constraints are our friends. We shouldn’t have to try to “ice skate in a phone booth,” but great teams realize the limitations and constraints of their environment and work within them. That’s the core of designing for mobile first: understand exactly what a user’s minimum needs are, then build a product to satisfy them. That’s one of the core premises of agile development: iterate to a final product within the constraints of your organization. If you force hard decisions, you’ll end up with a better product.

Poor product teams and UX teams don’t understand restraint, and they suffer because of this. Projects are rushed, wireframes undergo endless revisions, and nothing ever gets done at a level of quality that anyone is happy with. It’s in everyone’s best interest to focus on what you can do rather than some mythical and unachievable goal.

How to avoid this failing—Less is more. Iterate to a final product. Every feature that you include should provide tremendous value and be integral to the user experience. If leadership consistently asks product teams and designers to add features or make fundamental changes to a product within an unrealistic timeline, the organization’s culture needs to change.

There’s No Effort Dedicated to Fit and Finish

The fit and finish of a product … reflects directly on the team that built a product.

Would you try to sell a car with a half-finished paint job? Only three seats in the cabin? A dashboard that wasn’t cleaned?

That’s the rub: users will continually expect better and better user experiences as the Web matures. This includes the fit and finish of a product, which reflects directly on the team that built a product. Apple goes to great lengths to build products that feel complete. Most companies don’t produce products at that level, and the market reacts appropriately, declaring such products to be commodities.

Lack of attention to the details of a product reflects directly on how organizations perceive the expectations of their customers. An example: For many years, American automakers weren’t dedicated to the goal of refining the fit and finish of their products, and their customers reacted accordingly.

You must take the greatest care from the initial design of the user experience to the final implementation of its details. Customers notice when a product team doesn’t take the time to take it all the way to the finish line.

How to avoid this failing—Emphasize the expectation that your organization should be dedicated to producing products to the highest standards. Making sure a product goes out with every detail complete should always trump deadlines or any political concerns.

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