In Search of Strategic Relevance for UX Teams

By Jim Nieters and Laurie Pattison

Published: October 6, 2008

“What … are the most salient factors in getting you to the strategy table?”

In my last column, I talked about what it takes to be a successful first-time people manager—hopefully debunking some common myths. After reading that column, a number of people pointed out that they have a larger challenge: How can they make UX strategically relevant within their companies? I’ve been discussing this very topic with my peers in UX management for a number of years. One venue for discussion on this topic was a CHI 2007 panel “Moving UX into a Position of Corporate Influence: Whose Advice Really Works? that Richard Anderson facilitated, in which I participated. [1] Since I’ve been talking with a colleague from Oracle about this topic over the last month, it seemed appropriate for us to collaborate on this installment of my Management Matters column. So, I’d like to introduce Laurie Pattison, Senior Director of UX at Oracle.

Although our UX management peers have shared many tactics with us that have made their groups more strategically relevant, we’re presenting just a few here. We’ll highlight what we feel are the most salient factors in getting you to the strategy table. If you’re not doing these things, try them out—or contact us if you want some help. Guidance from our mentors has been critical in helping us learn how to make our teams strategically relevant.

“What does it mean to be strategically relevant? It means executives consider you a trusted advisor.”

What does it mean to be strategically relevant? It means executives consider you a trusted advisor. It also means other disciplines—such as Engineering, Product Management, Business Development, and so on—consider you a partner and want you to participate in strategic decision making, even if they are not required to do so.

At some point, haven’t we all found out, after the fact, that we weren’t included in an important meeting? That’s often, but not always, an indication that the views of UX leaders are not considered relevant when it comes to setting strategy. It’s not enjoyable when that happens—and we’ve both been there. Hopefully, learning the following lessons will help you avoid some of the challenges we’ve faced in making our UX organizations relevant on both tactical and strategic levels. We’ve organized these lessons under the following topics:

Executive Sponsorship

Executive sponsorship means someone at the executive level supports and defends you and your organization.”

We’ll talk about executive sponsorship first, because without it, trying to convince product teams that UX can deliver value won’t have the desired impact. You can do a truly stellar job of arguing the value of UX and find that nobody listens. Being right doesn’t matter. In a corporate setting, almost everyone is trying to prove that his or her views are the most important. We’re not trying to suggest that people in companies don’t collaborate. Rather, their goal is to stand out. They’re looking to boost their careers by proving they deliver the most value. So, in many companies, if senior leaders don’t give engineers and product managers incentives to listen to you, they won’t. Executive sponsorship means someone at the executive level supports and defends you and your organization.

When UX is strategically relevant, executives consider you a trusted advisor. Therefore, when you propose an idea, senior leaders listen. The key word here is trust. In fact, in our experience, trust is the most important factor in any aspect of business—or personal—relationships. We cannot stress enough the importance of building trust.

Each of the factors we talk about throughout this column promotes trust, but let’s explore this important idea a bit more now: Trust assumes an emotional bond. Senior leaders give big projects to people they trust, people who they know will jump through a ring of fire for them, and who will deliver value no matter what. More importantly, if executives trust you personally—and it is about your personal accountability—they will listen. If not, they won’t. Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) said something very apropos to the concept of trust.

“You cannot displace through logical argumentation a position that was arrived at emotionally.”—Samuel Clemens

The point is: If you haven’t earned trust, no amount of logical argumentation or proof of financial return will help.

“Sponsorship is so important that, without it, a smart and very capable UX leader may find it difficult to succeed, where with the right sponsorship, an average leader may in fact thrive.”

Sponsorship is so important that, without it, a smart and very capable UX leader may find it difficult to succeed, where with the right sponsorship, an average leader may in fact thrive. How then, do you get executives to trust you? Many of the tactics we’ll discuss in this column help promote trust and increase the relevance of UX. Our goal is for UX organizations to have the same influence as Product Management and Engineering.

Have you ever encountered someone you thought of as the Golden Child—that is, someone whom everyone seemed to speak of fondly and rally around and who could say or do nothing wrong—or even if he or she said something odd, everyone would forgive with a smile? These are the folks who have the emotional backing of executives and senior leaders who support them—even when they are wrong. This is what you want. You want the positive buzz.

But perhaps you’ve also seen the opposite—people who are incredibly smart, correct in their arguments, and have driven significant revenues, but have never been able to garner the support they seem to deserve? These are the people who lack executive sponsorship. Most of us have found ourselves in the latter group at one time or another. Sometimes, it’s because of the corporate culture, and sometimes it’s because of mistakes we’ve made.

If you find yourself in this latter group even though you’ve exercised the principles this column outlines, do what Klaus Kaasgard of Yahoo! once told me to do—vote with your feet and move to another company. But realize that, at the next company you go to, you’ll need to build a buzz of support for yourself and your organization. You want to be untouchable by any naysayers, which means you need to continually deliver value to your stakeholders.

Organizational Structure

“Be aware of the direction in which political winds are blowing and respond proactively—not reactively—to any need for change in your organizational strategy.”

Most people we speak with seem to believe there is one right organizational structure for UX groups. In our experience, too few people in UX management think deeply enough about this topic and, as a consequence, can find themselves blindsided as a result.

For instance, we’ve both seen UX leaders who defended a centralized UX structure much longer than was healthy. It’s not uncommon, as companies grow from small to medium to large companies, for centralized UX groups to get split up into multiple groups, each reporting into a separate business unit. It’s happened at Cisco, Oracle, Microsoft, Yahoo!, TrendMicro, Yellowpages.com, and dozens more. Many UX leaders have found themselves in such a situation. It happens.

Our recommendation is simply: Be aware of the direction in which political winds are blowing and respond proactively—not reactively—to any need for change in your organizational strategy.

Often, UX leaders do not believe they can have an impact on organizational structure, but if you pay attention, you’ll often notice at least subtle opportunities to influence your company’s organizational direction. And if not, at least approach your senior leaders with your thoughts.

“Executives look for leaders with strategic flexibility.”

Executives look for leaders with strategic flexibility. Strategically flexible leaders—whether in UX or another discipline—do not hold stubbornly to one perspective or strategy because it benefits them personally. Rather, they demonstrate their leadership capacity by showing they can smoothly navigate through the ever-buffeting winds of change. They realistically assess their context and make the right decisions about future directions. Strategically flexible leaders recommend shifts that are best for the business, regardless of whether they benefit personally. This is a difficult point to internalize, but it’s critical for leadership growth. Executives will recognize leaders who show they have the interests of the company at heart as possessing the maturity and insights that warrant their getting promoted up through the organization.

What are some organizational structures that work? Here is a sampling:

  • centralized funding model—In this model, one centralized organization receives a large budget, and one UX leader can manage the entire UX organization. Be careful, though, because executives may see a large central organization as a big cost center, and the senior VPs of business units (BUs) may feel a centralized group is not sufficiently accountable to their specific BUs.
  • client-funded model—Individual business units fund a central organization that provides UX resources to their product teams. This central organization manages all UX resources. Be careful, because leaders of the BUs may feel that UX practitioners who are not part of their organizations are not central to their business.
  • distributed model—In this case, there is no central UX group. Instead, UX practitioners belong to smaller groups, reporting directly into the divisions that develop the products on which they work. Be careful to avoid competition between UX groups. Maintain good communication and share resources, processes, and innovations across UX groups.
  • consultancy model—Product teams pay for UX resources on a per-project basis. Internal UX consultancies can deliver significant value, but typically on fewer projects at a time. Ensure that product teams are willing to give you positive testimonials, so you can prove you have helped deliver value.
  • hybrid model—Individual business units, divisions, or properties have their own UX teams, and a centralized UX group provides infrastructure, communications, knowledge, and process.

If you’re interested in learning more about these organizational structures, let us know, and we’ll answer your questions—or I’ll write more about them in a future column.

Surrounding Yourself with World-Class Talent

“Some UX managers have tried to justify to us the value of hiring average talent. Don’t do it! Especially when you’re first building a group, hire the best.”

So many have written about the rationale and process for hiring only top performers, it seems almost superfluous to talk about it here. Nonetheless, some UX managers have tried to justify to us the value of hiring average talent. Don’t do it! Especially when you’re first building a group, hire the best.

Imagine you’re in a life-or-death battle for relevance—aren’t you?—and you need to wow an executive. You need to deliver a stunning design. You can’t show them average results and hope they’ll be able to imagine the possibilities. You have to show them results that are so stellar and relevant they exceed the expectations of executives, who could not have imagined such a positive result. You want them to see how UX design can transform market dynamics and increase your company’s competitive advantage. You can’t do that unless you have researchers and designers who can deliver more than what you ask them to produce, who can innovate new solutions, and who know when to leverage existing design patterns. Remember—your reputation and continued survival depend on your ability to regularly deliver breakthrough solutions that change market dynamics.

Being a great researcher or designer is not sufficient to produce this kind of success. Great UX professionals are also:

  • accountable—always deliver what they say they will deliver
  • results driven
  • highly collaborative
  • strong advocates—are able to align with and defend a common vision
  • open and effective communicators
  • attuned to business and financial drivers
“ First, hire the best resources, then use these great people to help define your organization’s direction, and finally, use them to produce results that continually knock the socks off your stakeholders.”

As suggested in previous columns, every organization needs to define what great means within their own context, because this can differ somewhat. However, whether you read Harvard Business Review or books from the leading management consultants of our time, they all say basically the same thing: First, hire the best resources, then use these great people to help define your organization’s direction, and finally, use them to produce results that continually knock the socks off your stakeholders.

Phillippe Piernot, a colleague of Jim’s at Yahoo! Inc., suggests hiring designers with multiple skill sets, offering a broader design point of view. For example, hiring visual designers with interaction design skills or interaction designers with technical skills. This also facilitates communication across disciplines. For several reasons, we agree with Phil.

How can you attract the best resources in the world? How do you make sure your interview and selection process supports your hiring only the best? Honestly, that’s a column in itself. How about covering that in the next column?

Delivering Spectacular Results

“The job of a UX leader is to make hard decisions. We recommend you focus on only the highest priority projects and deliver solid examples of your work.”

If you are the Golden Child, coming into an organization with an aura of greatness, you’ll probably have a honeymoon period during which you can set expectations that it will take a year or more before you can produce great solutions. But if you’re like the other 90% of UX leaders in the world, you’ll have a very short period of time in which to demonstrate your value. Nobody will tell you that you have just 90 days to show stellar results, but according to the book The First 90 Days, [2] that’s about all you have. Whether it’s 80 days or 110 doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you have just a short time to show results that knock people’s socks off.

Jim once joined a business council with several Senior VPs who didn’t know him, and in 90 days, his team did what they initially had thought was impossible: They conducted competitive research and prototyped a solution with live code that visibly solved a revenue challenge. This gave his team the recognition they needed to be included at the strategy table and led to their ownership of several highly visible initiatives over the next few years. But achieving this was not easy. The team had to prioritize this project above all others and make some hard decisions about what would not get done. So, his team had to turn down some projects and push out dates for others.

You might say: We can’t turn down projects! The job of a UX leader is to make hard decisions. We recommend you focus on only the highest priority projects and deliver solid examples of your work. If you work on too many discrete projects at one time, you’ll dilute your team’s impact on any given project. Your group will be judged on every deliverable it produces, so if you produce average work, you’ll be considered average. Reasons don’t matter.

What should you do if a product team asks you to provide you some quick-and-dirty designs, saying: Don’t worry, just give us the best you can? Right—don’t do it! A week or a year later, someone will see the quick-and-dirty design and judge you by it. At that point, explaining why the quality is low sounds like justifying poor execution, and nobody wants to listen to someone defending himself.

“As the leader of a UX organization, you are responsible not only for yourself, but for those who work for you, and their reputations also depend on the decisions you make. Always protect your reputation and those of the people who report to you.”

As Steven Covey says in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, [3] your reputation is the most valuable thing you possess. As the leader of a UX organization, you are responsible not only for yourself, but for those who work for you, and their reputations also depend on the decisions you make. Always protect your reputation and those of the people who report to you.

Really, delivering spectacular results derives from having the best UX talent in the world. But regardless of who is on your team, your organization needs to build its own internal portfolio of success case studies. You might print 11 x 17-inch glossy UI specs, highlighting market-changing designs, that executives can keep on their desks. You might highlight design patterns on a UX team Web site or deliver brown-bag UX presentations. But whatever you do, you need to show early-and-regular successes. We’ll talk about this more later, under “Setting Aside Time to Innovate and Evangelize.”

Part of delivering spectacular results requires delivering design assets that are highly stimulating visually—or aurally or along whatever dimension is important in your environment. You need to excite sponsors and give them something to show others. You need people to be able to touch your vision and feel it on a visceral level. Visualizations—and even prototypes if you can build them—are some of the most important things you can deliver.

Eric Bollman, Director of Visual Design, at Yahoo! Inc., points out that the aim of visual design is to wow and delight customers. You need to build confidence in executives that you can do that. Without powerful visual design, a product lacks personality, body, and substance. Great results require all of these. A future column will talk more about how important visualization is.

Focusing on Strategic Projects

“If you want UX to be strategically relevant, you’ll need to use the resources you have to work on the projects that matter most to your organization.”

Most UX organizations are not blessed with unlimited resources. If you want UX to be strategically relevant, you’ll need to use the resources you have to work on the projects that matter most to your organization. This is likely not earth-shattering news. Often, the best advice is the simplest.

The question, though, is how to do it. We recommend you work closely with the strategy leaders in your organization, so you can be part of crafting the strategy for your product releases. Define, or at least understand, what really matters from a sales and thought-leadership standpoint, and focus your resources on those projects. Your team may need to focus on just a small fraction of the UX work that needs to be completed, but if you position your focus effectively to executive management, it’s not a hard sell to have your most talented designers working on the projects that generate the most revenue.

If your organization is currently perceived as a consultancy that helps implement strategies senior leaders have already defined, progressing to being a player at the strategy table won’t happen overnight—but it can happen pretty quickly if you practice the five tactics we’ll discuss next.

1. Work to define strategy.

“In most cases, UX isn’t going to own a company’s strategy, but by bringing hard data to the table, UX can play an integral role in defining it.”

Use your talented team members to do both quantitative and qualitative research that lets executive management know what users want most. Let them know what trends are emerging and how—or if—you should take advantage of them. What are the top usability problems with your current solution? How important is it going to be to have a mobile solution? Collaboration capabilities? Community? In most cases, UX isn’t going to own a company’s strategy, but by bringing hard data to the table, UX can play an integral role in defining it.

As we discussed earlier, remember to build partnerships with Product Management and Engineering, and come to the table with data you can all stand behind. If you demonstrate you can work with other members of the business in this way, you’ll gain immediate credibility. On the other hand, trying to present such ideas without the support of your peers in other disciplines can give them a chance to shoot you down publicly. Getting credit for your UX team means you have to share credit with others. We’ve all heard the expression “A rising tide floats all boats.” The same truth applies here. If you work to raise others on the tide, not just yourself, you’ll be viewed as a better leader.

The longer your development cycle is—think Enterprise software, as an example—the more important it is for the organization to get UX involved early. If it’s going to take a few years to get software out the door, the company needs your input now to help them understand what could be important for the user experience at the time of its release versus what is important now. Different cultures appreciate different types of data. Some prefer war stories, or qualitative data, while others thrive on hard numbers. Understand your culture and provide the right kind of data.

2. Focus on strategic design.

Strategic design differentiates your products from the competition and dramatically increases a company’s competitive advantage.”

On almost every project you work on, there are continually small opportunities to focus on strategic design, as opposed to tactical design. What is strategic design? Strategic design differentiates your products from the competition and dramatically increases a company’s competitive advantage. The iPod, Telepresence, and sponsored search services from Yahoo! and Google are solid examples. They created new markets and increased their companies’ profits. Of course, you’ll rarely get the opportunity to design the next iPod.

What should you do when you’re given tactical design requirements? While you need to deliver the designs on time, it’s important to take time to partner with Product Management to define strategic product requirements. In doing so, you can often deliver a much broader and more useful solution than the original requirements may have embodied.

Every corporate culture is different; therefore, the way you should approach this problem will differ as well. In some cultures, there is time during the design cycle to consider and deliver strategic design. In others, you’ll need to stand back and consider how you can identify new solutions nobody else has considered. How can you reframe the problems users face? For example, if you’re asked to design something highly tactical such as an online Help system, how should you proceed? Do you design a typical Help system, which, unfortunately, is not very helpful? Or, do you reframe your problem as helping to ensure your application provides a soft landing for users and define an entirely new educational strategy for users that integrates community, solution-level content, and case studies?

3. Get to the party on time.

“Understand where you are in the software development lifecycle and request a seat at the table when strategy is being defined.”

Understand where you are in the software development lifecycle and request a seat at the table when strategy is being defined. If, at first, senior leaders don’t invite you to participate in strategy discussions, get someone in those meetings who trusts you to invite you. If you don’t yet have anyone who trusts you, don’t worry, but do work to build relationships.

4. Show thought leadership.

Once you’re at the party, don’t be shy about highlighting the importance of UX. Regardless of where you are in the development cycle, a UX organization needs to demonstrate innovation—that UX can help differentiate your company’s products. We need to show what could be. It’s our job to educate our organizations and show them UX is both an art and a science. We need to demonstrate that we know when our knowledge is best applied to a release.

5. Provide solutions for the projects your team won’t work on.

“A UX organization needs to provide the design guidance … that would enable others to successfully deliver UX designs as well.”

Of course, we all want to work on the sexy, high-profile projects. Depending on the size of your company and your own resources, the reality typically is that the UX organization won’t do at least some of the UX work your company produces. Having the 5 to 10% of your product that your team designed provide an outstanding user experience won’t matter if the rest of the product is inconsistent with what your team has designed or just plain bad. A UX organization needs to provide the design guidance, contract resources, or infrastructure that would enable others to successfully deliver UX designs as well. This leads us to an important point.

Professional Practices

“Program Management is critical to the success of a UX organization, because it … helps translate all the brilliant design work your team does into metrics and deliverables that the rest of the organization can understand.”

Bottom line, you need to define what you can and will do and deliver as and when promised. Much to our delight, because we both spend a fair amount of our time on program management issues, there’s been a lot of interest recently in the role that Program Management plays in UX. From our viewpoint, Program Management is critical to the success of a UX organization, because it is the role that helps translate all the brilliant design work your team does into metrics and deliverables that the rest of the organization can understand.

Whether to create a role that is dedicated to this function or give the responsibility to a senior member of your staff has been the subject of numerous articles and panels, but it is important for you to have someone playing this role in your UX organization. When you start measuring your deliverables by a yardstick that is similar to that which the rest of the organization uses, you immediately gain credibility. You’re seen as an integral part of the greater organization, marching toward a common objective. And you’re no longer seen as a standalone service organization. Here are just a few of the professional practices that can help you achieve this:

  • Set up an engagement model. Depending on the size of your organization and the scope of the work your team does, this could be incredibly detailed and, potentially, an application in itself, or it could simply be a wiki or Web page to which you point your internal audience. However you define it, put it in writing. Define a service-level agreement. Include information about when and how to engage your organization, what and when you’ll deliver, and just as important, say what you will not provide.
  • Hold yourselves accountable. Advertise progress publicly. Development organizations do this as a matter of practice and are more willing to truly partner with you if they can expect the same level of accountability. Holding yourself publicly accountable builds trust.
  • Define an internal communication strategy and deliver on it. If nobody knows about all the good work your team is doing, it’s almost as though they’re not doing it. Advertise research and design activities and results. Usability statistics are like mother’s milk to executives or to a sales force seeking any advantage. Delivering a demo to customers to show how well you’ve translated their needs into a great workflow can gain you significant executive visibility.
  • Be consultative. We’ve seen many UX leaders and practitioners stubbornly stand by a UX principle that, while valid, would not in itself drive profitable growth. Depending on circumstances, doing this can turn you into an outsider who nobody listens to. When UX leaders always stand on the hill of principle rather than build partnerships with product teams to jointly solve business problems, they can lose credibility.

The issue is not that you don’t take a stand when appropriate. It’s that, even if your process supports UX as a core role—as one of the three-in-a-box team members who have to agree to decisions—you still have to repeatedly earn a seat at the strategy table. You can’t assume it. You have to treat your UX organization like it’s a corner store. If you don’t deliver business value, you’re out of business.

Being consultative is very different from being a consultant. Being a consultant means you provide consulting to teams from the outside rather than your being a core member of the team. Being consultative means you always understand the need to deliver value, build relationships, and set and meet expectations, because you are answerable for business results. You and your team need to under-commit and over-deliver, not the other way around. You want to be a trusted colleague who has a say in the business direction.

  • Be a partner to your sales force. Train them on why UX matters, and be responsive to their questions.

Setting Aside Time to Innovate and Evangelize

As leaders of UX organizations, we almost always need more resources than we have to deliver great results on all of our various projects. Even so, it is valuable to set aside time for both innovation and evangelizing our UX efforts.

Innovation

“Dedicate at least 10% of your employees’ time—and preferably 20%—specifically to innovation.”

The most innovative companies in 2006 showed a roughly 10X increase in margin growth, higher revenues, and in turn, higher stock prices. [4] Because companies hold today’s executives to strict revenue goals each quarter, they are looking for that next innovation to differentiate their products from the competition. How can you help? As a UX leader, can you lead your team to differentiate your company’s products through innovation? If so, by helping to grow revenues geometrically in a particular area, you and your UX organization immediately become strategically relevant.

However, innovation doesn’t happen without time and attention. How much time do you set aside for innovation? We recommend you dedicate at least 10% of your employees’ time—and preferably 20%—specifically to innovation. Yes, this means they’re not focused on immediate project deliverables, and that’s hard—but it’s also necessary.

Once you have set aside 20% of your employees’ time for innovation, how do you help them to innovate? There are several approaches to doing this at your disposal, and this, too, is worth a column of its own. Here are some key approaches to innovation:

  • Create a playground culture. [5] Encourage small, nimble groups to ideate, exercise the power of play, build artifacts as a group, and tell innovation stories.
  • Openly reward risk-taking—and failure.
  • Play innovation games. [6]
  • Engage your team in ideation and brainstorming sessions.
  • Engage your team in visualization sessions, during which team members collaboratively sketch, create mood boards, create prototypes, or build physical media.
  • Conduct innovation workshops. Deep dives through an intensive, week-long workshop can incorporate brainstorming, play, intentional and non-intentional design, iteration, and usability testing. They foster collaboration, trust, and expression. Participants align on proven solutions that would not otherwise have come to fruition.

All UX teams must rapidly deliver designs that are intuitive, useful, and delightful. Those goals are foundational. More important, can you be a UX leader who structures a team and creates an environment that stimulates innovation? If so, you are a leader who is valuable and rare. A later column will explore the topic of innovation in greater depth.

Evangelism

“Find a way to make people aware of the value your group has contributed.”

We’ve already touched on this, but let us expand on the role of evangelism, or marketing, in UX. As a UX leader, a big part of your job is to make sure senior leaders—and your peers—understand the value you and your team have contributed to your company. Some UX professionals we know say they don’t like to “toot their own horns.” Nonetheless, you can—and need to—find a way to make people aware of the value your group has contributed. As we said earlier, if nobody knows what you’ve done, you may have wasted your effort. First, produce great work, then build your group’s brand value and recognition by demonstrating its results.

UX teams at both Oracle and Yahoo! regularly deliver presentations and conduct interactive sessions to demonstrate how they’ve contributed to innovation. They do road shows, capture customer testimonials, and share them with the larger organization. The goal is to make such presentations fun and engaging. The result is that, in these organizations, UX is considered a core decision maker and has an equal voice with other disciplines. At both Oracle and Yahoo!, we’re happy to say that strategic decisions require agreement and signoff by Product Management, Engineering, and UX. In the Marketing Products Division at Yahoo!, product teams regularly refer to the three-in-a-box model—also called the core team model.

There are many ways to evangelize UX. For example, you can videotape executives and customers giving testimonials. You can show before-and-after shots of products. You can get other groups involved and do a combined road show. Remember, marketing is about building a brand—one you establish through hard work and by building positive awareness about it. Doing this is also energizing for you, as a leader.

Why Didn’t We Mention ROI Arguments?

“The issue of value really comes down to personal accountability. Remember, that trust thing: If leaders trust you, they’ll listen. If not, they won’t.”

Many books have been written about ROI arguments, or cost-justifying UX. In our experience, though, generic arguments that describe how much value usability, user-centered design (UCD), or UX have contributed to other organizations seldom convince senior leaders that it can help their organizations. A senior VP once said that the cumulative savings all the teams proposed, telling him how much he could save by implementing their ideas, would add up to more than the revenue his company earns, which is clearly not reasonable! You can’t save more than you earn. Senior leaders frequently consider ROI arguments funny money. The issue of value really comes down to personal accountability. Remember, that trust thing: If leaders trust you, they’ll listen. If not, they won’t.

It’s not that ROI arguments never work. In fact, it’s useful to have some of the best ones in your back pocket to pull out if someone asks. It’s just that usually when someone asks What’s the ROI for user experience?, what they’re really asking is Can you give me examples of what you’ve done in the past? If you can generate a portfolio of your UX group’s wins, you’ll be in a strong position, because your arguments are no longer theoretical. And that’s the main issue. If you can show what you’ve actually done, executives can see practical value and extrapolate how you can help them, too. Don’t talk about what others have done. Show what you have done. On the CHI 2007 panel mentioned earlier, Jeremy Ashley, VP of UX at Oracle, suggested that instead of delivering ROI arguments, UX teams should get out there and make an impact. Showing your value speaks louder than words.

Conclusion

“To make UX strategically relevant…, you need to produce stunning results that blow away your stakeholders.”

To make UX strategically relevant—so UX is not an afterthought, but can contribute to strategy—you need to produce stunning results that blow away your stakeholders. Then, you’ll be able to hire more world-class researchers and designers. Once you have truly great people onboard, work to build trust. Achieving this, in part, depends on your organizational structure, so demonstrate your thought-leadership by recommending the right model for the organization, not just the model that’s right for you at the moment.

Once you’re in a position to deliver high-quality results, focus on strategic projects and bring a high level of professionalism to everything you do. Hold yourself and your team accountable. And, though it’s hard to find time to innovate and evangelize, you need to do both to continue building your group’s brand value. If you don’t know how, hire others who do know how. It’s okay to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are. In fact, it’s a good idea. All great leaders say they do this—and reward their employees and give them credit for their contributions.

Try out these ideas! Though they’re not easy to accomplish, nor will give you results overnight, if you continue following them, you’ll see results. If you don’t get the results you want, let us know. We’ll be happy to talk about the next steps you can take.

Call for Participation—We’re putting together an expert panel for CHI 2009—which will take place in Boston, on April 5–9—titled “The One Thing,” during which panelists from different companies and design firms will convey the most significant factor in helping their UX groups to become strategically relevant.

Of course, as this column suggests, there is never just one factor. However, our goal is to learn what the single most significant factor is for a number of different UX leaders. We would like to hear from you! Please tell us about your one thing and the challenges you face in your role. What challenges do you face in becoming strategically relevant? Have you solved them? If so, how? If not, what obstacles have you encountered? Please give us your responses to these questions here, and we’ll respond. Alternatively, you can contact us at StrategicRelevance@yahoo.com, and please let us know whether it’s okay to use your name and describe the scenario you face in a future column on UXmatters and during our panel discussion.

For our panel, we’ll select several scenarios, challenges, and lessons for discussion. And we’ll invite the people who offer the most interesting and useful lessons to participate in the panel. Of course, we’re assuming the CHI organizers will select our panel. Regardless, for UXmatters readers, we plan to include the management lessons you contribute in a subsequent Management Matters column. So, let us know: What’s your one thing?

We would like to thank Philippe Piernot, Director of UED, and Eric Bollman, Director of Visual Design, both at Yahoo! Inc., for their review of and contributions to this column.

References

1. Anderson, Richard, Jeremy Ashley, Secil Tabli Watson, Manfred Tscheligi, Shauna Sampson Eves, Jim Nieters, and Justin Miller. “Moving UX into a Position of Corporate Influence: Whose Advice Really Works? CHI 2007, San Jose, CA.

2. Watkins, Michael. The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2003.

3. Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group, 2004.

4. McGregor, Jena. “The World’s Most Innovative Companies.” BusinessWeek, April 24, 2006.

5. Kelley, Tom, Jonathan Littman, and Tom Peters. The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm. New York: Doubleday Publishing, 2001.

6. Hohmann, Luke. Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products and Services. Amsterdam: Addison-Wesley Longman, 2006.

5 Comments

Excellent reading!

You have gathered some good practical aspects of UX promotion we all need. While user experience is an exciting and promising field, it still hasn’t gained the wide recognition as an absolute must, just as important as the actual execution of any project.

Some of the points you mention fit any professional who seeks self-recognition within an organization, but it is important to remember that as UX experts, even if we think sometimes we know better—and we mostly do, right?—we are still a part of a bigger team effort with goals beyond our personal and professional vision.

I also agree with Phillippe Piernot’s (Yahoo!) preference of hiring professionals with more versatile experience and skills as a key factor in promoting excellence and improving cross-team communications. How to attract and hire these top guns? Well, I would love to hear your two cents on that, as I believe they are mostly freelance at heart.

Again, great job guys.

Yanay Zohar, aboutUX.com

Outstanding article!

  • Get executive sponsorship.
  • Foster trust—must trust.
  • Hire high-end, experienced talent.
  • Get in as early as possible into the process.
  • Deliver excellent results.
  • Evangelize.

These are the take-aways, or truths, I picked out as being key elements discussed in the article, all of which are extremely important to being successful as a UX group.

I would be very interested in hearing more about your views on UX organizational structures. My team is currently organized primarily around the consultancy model and is located within the larger technology group. Hearing from you and others about the relative benefits/issues of each of the models you describe would be quite valuable.

Responding to Yanay’s comment from October 12, asking how to attract and hire the best designers and researchers in the industry, the factors differ for all employees. I find that there are, in fact, great designers and researchers willing to become full-time employees—even more in down markets. Among the most important for getting the attention of and hiring them are: prestige of the company, reputation of the hiring manager, the manager’s vision for the organization, salary, title, ability to demonstrate great design in one’s portfolio, opportunities for growth, and the feeling of community and relationships within the design or research organization. Some of these we can control, and some we can’t. I’m actually going to write about this in an upcoming article, but it’s a tough one. Does anyone have any thoughts to share?

Thanks for the feedback, Jim (jobrien)!

Henry—Your question is one we’ve mulled over quite a bit in preparing the one thing topic for the CHI panel. There are a lot of factors that are relevant when choosing the right organization model, including, to name a few:

  • size of the company
  • how decisions are made in the organization
  • depth and breadth of what the UX organization is willing or equipped to take on

Jim and I can elaborate more on these factors in a future article. Please feel free to share your own experience and views on the topic.

Join the Discussion

Asterisks (*) indicate required information.