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Is Your Design Thinking Showing?

Leadership Matters

Leading User Experience teams

A column by Jim Nieters
July 19, 2009

I hope so! Every discipline on a product team provides unique value—including User Experience, Product Management, Engineering, Sales, and Business Development. But each of them views the world through a different lens. When all of these disciplines deliver strategic value, their products delight users and their companies successfully differentiate themselves in the marketplace—which translates to greater revenue and profitability. Successful companies deliver a tangible value proposition. Think about it. What are the value propositions for Southwest Airlines, Apple Computer, Toyota, and Starbucks? Are they the same? No. Each is unique, and their value propositions are clear.

Just as companies need to differentiate themselves by creating and promoting a clear value proposition, so do UX groups. What is our value proposition? What can UX teams do that other disciplines cannot? We think in terms of design. We communicate visually. Nobody else can do this as well as we can. Other disciplines may do a much better job of communicating numbers in spreadsheets or giving slick presentations highlighting features. What we, as UX professionals, can do is bring possibilities to life by visualizing solutions for stakeholders and enabling them to see those possibilities in tangible form. Whether you’re in a company where UX already has a seat at the strategy table or are working toward that goal, you can help visualize big opportunities for your company.

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The premise of this column is that different disciplines have very different ways of thinking. This is not bad. In fact, by leveraging our strengths, we can bridge the gaps between disciplines. The fact is that the different disciplines need one another. Product managers may or may not want designers to help inform product roadmaps. Marketing representatives may not always appreciate user research data. But we can help one another see our blind spots and prevent group-think. We need to question one another’s assumptions, because our different perspectives can broaden each other’s thinking. This kind of cross-pollination of ideas is a critical aspect of sustaining a successful business.

In a presentation to the User Experience community at Yahoo! in 2008, Roger L. Martin, author of the book The Opposable Mind, pointed out that UX research teams think differently from business teams—such as Product Management. UX research teams tend to think in terms of validity—using the perfect methodology—while business teams think in terms of reliability—that is, how representative data is of overall customer needs. They speak different languages.

Martin also pointed out that the best leaders actually encourage contradictory points of view, so they can generate a creative resolution that contains elements of the opposing ideas, but that is superior to each. Unfortunately, most leaders appreciate people who think like they do, not those who question them or present different perspectives. This is why it’s so valuable for UX organizations to let our designs show our thinking—highlighting new ideas and opportunities. If we take a stand on the hill of principle and our ideas are just abstract ideas, they are easy to reject. It’s easy to disagree with theory. Instead, we need to do what we do best—show our thinking through great design visualizations.

One of the things we can do best is help create a common understanding of strategy. The challenge with strategy, as Jared Cole of Adaptive Path suggests in “Making Strategy Tangible,” is that it is often abstract. As such, it can be difficult to envision. This can pose challenges for leaders who want to create alignment around their strategies—that is, who want everyone to understand their strategy and follow it uniformly. When designers are part of the strategic dialogue, they can often help articulate strategies and make them real. In his article, Cole suggests creating rough video sketches. I like the idea.

In fact, one of our principal designers in the advertising products group at Yahoo!, Eric Thomason, sometimes generates rough video sketches to walk stakeholders through a storyboard, bringing a scenario to life. For these video sketches, Eric draws a series of pictures by hand, scans them, and does a voiceover to walk stakeholders through a scenario that solves a problem for users in ways that are new and innovative. These video sketches take him perhaps half a day to produce. Because they’re drawn by hand—think paper prototypes in a video format—they prevent stakeholders from getting stuck on details.

While rough video sketches enable teams to conceptualize ideas rapidly, they’re not the only way to demonstrate design thinking. In fact, in our organization, we have design engineers, who can quickly generate prototypes, ranging from complete, interactive prototypes to simple click-through prototypes to scripted Flash prototypes. All of the design conceptualization processes we follow have some things in common. Researchers and designers come together to identify new opportunities, craft scenarios that would solve a set of user challenges, and create design solutions—helping stakeholders envision the opportunity.

Whether we generate a video sketch, a low-fidelity mockup, or a high-fidelity prototype depends on several factors. These include how much thinking we want stakeholders to assume we have put into an idea, how much market or financial data we have to support a concept, whether we are going to show our solution to users, whether other stakeholders support our ideas, and many other factors. The key factor tying all of our design concepts together is that we, as researchers and designers, bring them to life through design.

While design can help bring strategy to life, I also find that it can help define strategy. As Clayton Christenson points out in The Innovator’s Solution, we cannot cling to practices that have made us successful in the past. We must constantly think anew—to realize innovation as a practice. When organizations I’m part of tend to think incrementally rather than identifying new market opportunities, I empower my UX team to identify new market opportunities. To be sure, not all of our ideas make it to market, but the more we ideate, validate, and iterate, the more likely we are to come up with an idea that delivers significant value to market.

I have to be honest here, as well. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, just trying to keep up with feature design. In fact, that’s our UX team’s primary job. We have to generate UX specifications based on agreed feature roadmaps. I found myself following this pattern just recently and talked with a colleague, Chris Jaffe, who is among the most talented design leaders I have ever met. Chris always has ideas he’s presenting, and every year, two or three of his ideas make it to market. His team is responsible for generating tens of millions of dollars in revenues per year—sometimes more—based on their ideas. He has an innovation factory that contributes to his organization’s profitability. Seeing such examples reminded me again that we need to find the time to come up with new ideas, envision the opportunities they present, and visualize our design ideas for other stakeholders, so our product teams can make our ideas real and bring new products to market.

I would be interested in hearing your stories. How have you helped conceptualize new ideas to enable stakeholders to envision a new future? Please share your unique techniques and experiences! 

Senior Director of User Experience for Travel Products at HP

Scotts Valley, California, USA

Jim NietersLeading UX Design for online advertiser products at Yahoo!, including search marketing and the open ad-management platform, APT from Yahoo!, Jim works to ensure user experience is a strategic differentiator for the business. Before joining Yahoo!, Jim built and led the central UED group at Cisco and turned it into an internal consultancy with over $200 million in revenue increases each year, resulting from his group’s achievements in design and innovation. He has worked in UX design and research for more than 16 years and has been a UX leader for 10 of those years. Jim specializes in UX process enhancement and organizational leadership and transformation. He teaches a course about leading innovation workshops and speaks frequently on innovation and leading UX organizations at conferences and universities.  Read More

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