CHI'09: Moving UX into a position of Strategic Relevance

Thoughts from the CHI 2009: Digital Life New World conference in Boston, MA.

This panel session explored many of the issues which I’ve discussed with people in UX (user experience) teams at large corporations. The panel focused on 5 key strategies for “moving UX into a position of strategic relevance.” The strategies were:

  1. UX evangelism and documentation
  2. Ownership of UX
  3. Organizational positioning
  4. Calculating ROI
  5. Conducting “ethnographic” research

The panel had 5 members (one was absent, and her viewpoint was represented by another member). They included Killian Evers (a PM at PayPal), Richard Anderson (Riander), Jim Nieters (UX team at Yahoo), Craig Peters (Founder of Awasu Design), and Laurie Pattison (UX team at Oracle). Each panel member was given a few minutes to share their thoughts, and then the group discussed a series of scenarios. The panel ended with a brief Q&A session.

Panel Discussion:

How do we make ourselves strategically important to an organization? We need to find the 1 big thing that makes us important and stress that. We need to show that we understand the business, and the fact that business goals surround making money. This could be accomplished by partnering with business teams to identify the most significant problems facing the company, then working together to solve that.

It’s important to deliver results quickly. We only get one chance to make a first impression, which in business terms usually means that we have one calendar quarter to make a significant impact and prove our worth. In order to prove your value, choose to do something that the rest of the company can’t do themselves. For example, when creating deliverables like prototypes and wireframes, create something really nice that others can’t produce themselves. If you are just starting a UX movement at your company, try to pick projects that matter most to the bottom line, such as those that will be demoed to the customers the most, or those that impact market share and sell the most. Also, make sure that the first few projects that you choose are projects that you can really succeed on, because if you fail, it will follow you forever.

For example, at Laurie’s company, they were having a problem with online help—even though there was an online help document, people continued to call the call center and ask the same questions. After conducting a series of user studies, she found that when users were frustrated, they just called the call center instead of trying to use the online help. She decided to address this by moving answers to key questions into the system itself. After making this change, the number of calls that went to the call center dropped, thus saving time and money. This made the value of Laurie’s contribution more apparent to those in charge.

Common Scenarios

Scenario I: You’re on a good UX team, but the sales team sells from a tech-focused point of view. The UX team is “too busy” to teach the sales team about the nuances of a user-centered point of view.

Solution: You may need to find the time to do important things like teaching user-centered point of view to the rest of the company. For example, you could give them a “crash course” about what the UX team does at a high level. This could also be accomplished through “brown bag” sessions, formal training, or answering RFPs.

Scenario II: The CEO of your company “gets” UX, but middle management doesn’t. Without middle management support, user centered design is not recognized as a real science, and is not seen as necessary for executing the CEO’s vision.

Solution: Gain buy-in from people from other groups, such as project managers, software engineers, and other tech and hardware folks. One of the panelists described a story in which he helped the hardware team to reduce a 5-hour cable setup process into a 20 minute procedure by color-coding the wires, getting rid of the big instruction manual, and introducing clear GUIs. Although the UX team didn’t do all of this by themselves, the project never would have gotten done without them. This was an example of how UX expertise was used to optimize beyond just the UX team, which leads to increased buy-in and trust from other teams. That being said, the UX team may need to reposition itself so that it owns the important and relevant pieces of projects, such as owning the UI specifications for an engineering team.

Scenario III: A large enterprise software company has branches in many different countries. The UX team has trouble understanding what matters to a project’s success because they have limited domain knowledge and are less likely than others to be invited to strategic meetings. This makes it harder for them to make intelligent compromises.

Solution: Educate the team members to fill in gaps in domain knowledge, perhaps starting with new hire training. Have weekly meetings for the team in which you invite people from other parts of the company to speak and share their knowledge, thus increasing respect given by the rest of the company. It’s important not to seem like a liability because you don’t understand the product or the business; ask questions. Also, the team needs to learn how to compromise because no one wants to work with someone who is not willing to compromise. However, there is the danger to compromise yourself out of anything useful, which might cause you to lose the respect of others. As with anything, it’s important to find common ground, rather than arguing.

Q&A Session

Q: This talk seems to assume that UX is not in a position of relevance. What if you haven’t been “invited” to take on a position of relevance at your company?

A: You might need to invite yourself. Figure out where you could be useful and go knocking. Where could you have the greatest impact? Take on that project and do your best work to make sure that the project gets noticed.

Q: What if you are an internal supplier of UX whose job it is to make others’ jobs easier?

A: Being an internal supplier of UX is much like any other type of UX practitioner, except your end users are internal. Testimonials go a long way for this sort of position—for example, you might want to work with QA and share success stories with the rest of the company.

Q: Is UX moving towards the role of a specialist, such as a lawyer? For example, does a farmer need a biotechnician in his employ?

A: Instead of worrying about being a specialist versus a technician, what about just being a team player? This sort of middle ground does exist. The key is to know your value proposition, and have a team that has a mix of different skills.

My Thoughts

Having spoken with many UX professionals and attended a variety of HCI talks & events, I’m aware that these are common discussion points in the HCI community. During the talk, someone asked, “How long will we be able to keep making excuses because HCI is a ‘young field’?” It does seem a little strange that this many decades in, HCI is still struggling to find its “place in the world.”

It’s a valid concern, though. Last summer, I attended a brown-bag where my mentor led a discussion about how UX can be integrated into the company’s Agile software development cycle. Clearly this methodology, which is becoming more popular in large tech firms, was not designed with the user experience in mind. It will be interesting to see if new methodologies will be able to bridge the gap between user-centered design and the software development cycle. I suspect that this “gap” is really not quite so large as it would initially seem, and I remain optimistic that if we continue to share the lessons we learn, soon we won’t need to make any “excuses” whatsoever.