The Multidisciplinary Nature of Product Teams
So, who owns UX? An entire product team must consciously share responsibility for UX—or ownership of UX—because the members of a multidisciplinary product team impact the success of a product’s user experience in different ways. Three different disciplines that play key roles are
- product management—It’s the role of the product manager to ensure that the product team develops a viable product—the right product for the right market—with a business model that can lead to success in the marketplace. The product manager prioritizes marketing requirements and features, according to business goals and user needs. Today, user research, Web or other usage statistics, and usability testing ideally play a major part in defining digital products. User research helps us understand who our users are and how they work, as well as their wants and needs. Recording and analyzing usage statistics lets us better understand what users are doing with our products. Usability testing identifies problems users are encountering with our existing products. The product manager must also take into account technical considerations that impact either the cost of development or the likelihood of the product’s adoption by users. So the product manager’s success in defining the product customers or users need depends to a great extent on leveraging the knowledge of and working collaboratively with other members of the product team—particularly, the UX architect and system architect. Even so, the product manager is responsible for the product vision.
- user experience—UX is itself multidisciplinary. UX designers, interaction designers, industrial designers, information architects, information designers, visual designers, user researchers, usability specialists, accessibility specialists, technical communicators, and in some cases, packaging designers all play roles in creating successful user experiences for digital products. Once the product manager has defined the marketing requirements for the product, the UX professionals on the product team work collaboratively to conceptualize, design, specify, and prototype a digital product. Ideally, the UX architect involves all members of the product team in the process of conceiving a UX design solution—particularly the product manager, system architect, and user interface developers. Doing so ensures the UX team designs the right product for the market, engineering can build the product as designed and specified, the engineering team buys into the UX design solution, and the design gets built. However, the UX architect is responsible for all design decisions and the UX vision.
- engineering—The system architect and engineers keep the other members of the product team aware of technical factors that constrain the definition and design of the digital product. Software engineering also implements and tests features that facilitate the gathering of usage statistics, which will inform the definition and design of future versions of the product. The system architect develops a software design that optimally satisfies the marketing requirements. The engineering team develops a feature or product, according to the marketing requirements and UX specifications for that feature or product. Quality assurance plays an important role in ensuring defects that would mar the user experience are discovered and fixed before a product launches. If a product is not robust or its performance is poor, everything the product team has done to provide a good user experience will be for naught. It doesn’t matter that a product has the right features and is well designed if it just doesn’t work. Thus, it’s the responsibility of engineering to develop a sound system architecture and high-quality code for the product.
Figure 1 summarizes how successful multidisciplinary product teams share the ownership of UX. Product management defines products that customers need and, therefore, have value to both customers and the product development company. By defining product requirements, product management provides the input the UX team needs to design products that are usable, useful, and desirable. UX design specifications provide the input engineering needs to create real products. Engineering both constrains and realizes product requirements and UX design—what is possible and what’s not.
Two UX gurus have written about what a multidisciplinary product team must accomplish to provide the best possible user experience to customers:
“Too many companies believe that all they must do is provide a ‘neat’ technology or some ‘cool’ product or, sometimes, just good, solid engineering. Nope. All of those are desirable (and solid engineering is a must), but there is much more to a successful product than that: understanding how the product is to be used, design, engineering, positioning, marketing, branding—all matter. It requires designing the Total User Experience.”—Don Norman
“Key objectives always seem to focus on the big three: usability, usefulness, and appeal (or desire, delight, or other approved words of emotional rapport). Key concerns revolve around including all possible stakeholders; merging design with business and marketing, not just engineering; showing return-on-investment (ROI) value; valuing storytelling and story ‘selling’; and looking for very innovative or radically creative or disruptive (in a good sense) solutions.”—Aaron Marcus
Achieving all of this requires a team effort!
Barriers to Shared Ownership of UX
I’ve described a well-balanced, smoothly functioning product team in a healthy corporate culture. But what happens when the dynamics on a product team or between functional groups within a company are less than ideal or even dysfunctional? In those cases, teamwork and collaboration among disciplines suffers—sometimes to the point where using the term product team seems oxymoronic—creating barriers to the shared ownership of UX.
According to Don Norman, “Thinking that one’s own discipline is the most important of all gets in the way of teamwork.” And if a particular discipline such as marketing or engineering dominates a product development corporation, the other disciplines often suffer. I’ve never encountered a company where UX dominated the culture to the detriment of other disciplines, but marketing-driven and engineering-driven cultures are common. In such cultures, a problem of balance that a company should solve organization wide affects every product team, and UX professionals must wage the same battles over and over again.
The Dominance of Marketing
In marketing-driven cultures where marketing, product management, and sales concerns dominate, there is often a desire to satisfy the wants and needs of customers. In a company that does the user research and analysis that is necessary to truly understand users’ needs, this can create a culture that is sympathetic to and supportive of UX.
Unfortunately, marketing-driven cultures often engage in feature wars with competitors. Sales demands the addition of features that will help them to close specific sales deals—perhaps to satisfy the demands of just one customer. Some product managers prioritize adding new features above all else, and the user experiences of their products fall prey to featuritis. Such forces are hard to resist, but it is incumbent on UX teams to do everything they can to dissuade product teams from creating products that are bloated with features most users won’t find useful.
Kim Goodwin of Cooper once said, “Features are meaningless. They mean nothing to users. A coherent product user interface is the product to users.” She compared the results of developing products to satisfy lists of required features to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, which grew by accretion and has stairways that go nowhere and unexpected precipices.
A dictatorial product manager can destroy all sense of the teamwork that would result in shared ownership of UX. On one occasion, I saw an all-powerful product manager refuse to have UX involved in a project at all, because his only concern was adding new features. His product was one of the most poorly designed products the company ever produced.