Achieving a Great User Experience Starts with An Organization’s Goals
Published: March 5, 2012
During the last few months, I have been asking colleagues how they do user experience at their companies. While all work in Hong Kong, they come from all over the world and include designers, businessmen, and engineers. I have heard a lot about different ways of working and resources being tight, but two other matters caught my attention—especially because people seem to underestimate their implications:
- the impact of an organization’s mindset on product teams
- the influence of each team member on the final product
The problems lie in the process, they told me.
There are many UX design methods and tools that guide designers in creating brilliant solutions for whatever types of products or services they create. However, I’d argue that their effectiveness depends enormously on the profiles of the individuals on a team and an organization’s understanding of user experience. If we fail to take these factors into consideration, those methods and tools alone won’t make us successful. Hence, I want to take a step back and look at what I think forms the foundation that enables and sustains great user experience.
Two Sides of User Experience
User experience is about the impressions a design solution makes on users—what they remember about a solution and whether it left them satisfied or frustrated. As psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has pointed out, the key here is not the moment when users achieve their goals, but what they actually remember about achieving them.  Kahneman differentiates the experiential moment—of what he calls the experiencing self—from its memory, by what he calls the remembering self. The former is temporary; the latter, long lasting. We do want people to remember and talk about their experiences with the solutions we design, don’t we?
Believing that the moment of experience is all that matters can mislead designers. That moment is certainly important, but it is not the crucial aspect of user experience. We often focus too much on the temporary wow and too little on designing solutions that are meaningful and have a positive impact on people’s lives. The book Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz, and the short documentary The Story of Stuff, by Annie Leonard, both illustrate this problem wonderfully. How can we consistently design products that both address users’ goals—that is, the experiential moment—and leave great memories?
Meta-users: All of the Stakeholders Who Play a Part in Creating User Experiences
When a project commences, one of the first questions we always ask is: Who's the intended user? We do user research to uncover and understand our target audience. The findings from our research provide us with insights that directly influence the creation of our design solutions. While understanding our prospective users is vital, there are other players who we, as designers, need to consider: the stakeholders who are participants in our design process. These are a project’s meta-users.
Before team members do any work together, each person on a team needs to understand all of the other team members, their motivations, and their agendas. These will have a direct impact on our design work and, thus, the resulting user experience. We need to get answers to the following questions:
- What are the company’s goals and agenda?
- Who in the company is asking for this product and why?
- Who are the decision makers?
- Who sets the constraints in the organization?
- Who are the team members creating the product?
- How do their skills fit together in helping to design and develop the product?
- What are the motivations, agendas, and influences of each team member?
Answering these questions—and it’s crucial to probe until we have the actual facts—helps us to understand our meta-users. Then we’ll know how to adapt our design process to get the best effort out of everyone. It also gives us the necessary confidence to deal with obstacles that we encounter along the way. Challenging stakeholders lets us achieve better results. To do so, we have to grasp the motivations behind each of their requests and identify the source of requirements.
For example, on two different occasions, a designer wondered why the product she was working on had to have a timer in its user interface. The businessperson in charge claimed that, without the timer, the product couldn’t get built, but gave no further explanation. Getting answers to that list of questions I outlined earlier uncovered the true reasons behind his statement. In one case, the product was part of the clock business group. All of their products had to have a timer; otherwise, they would belong to another business unit and that particular businessperson would lose the project. In the second case, the product consumed more energy in its standby mode than government regulations regarding maximum power consumption would allow. Including a timer in the display was a cunning evasive move: regulators would not then consider the product to be in standby mode.
Understanding the underlying facts makes our work much easier.
Assembling a Team: From Titles to Skills
Today’s products are complex, and great products result from the well-synchronized team effort of people in different disciplines, who have different perspectives—the UX designers, engineers, and business and marketing professionals who are assigned to a project. Rather than just following the typical steps of an iterative, user-centered design process, it’s important to adapt our UX design process to the needs of our product teams—their ways of working, information flows, decision making, people’s skills, and the roles they play. This is simply applying user-centeredness to the product development process.
I’ve noticed that, when people discuss their product development process, the talk often revolves around job titles, with every role having predetermined tasks, as follows:
- designer—Gets the design brief and comes up with a solution that fulfills users’ needs. Studies users’ behavior to craft an appropriate solution. Along the way, comes up with many new ideas about how to address and solve the design problem.
- product manager—Identifies market needs and builds the business case for a product. Along the way, defines new business models and the product’s value proposition.
- marketer—Spots market gaps and helps the business to formulate market needs. Along the way, finds different ways of expanding the business’s product portfolio.
- engineer—Looks at ways of developing the product. Along the way, discovers new technologies that suit the project and address its various development problems.
When people in specific roles limit their contributions to working in just their own area of expertise, they complete their job, then hand responsibility over to a person in another role. There may be some collaboration, but designers, business people, marketers, and engineers have their own individual jobs to do during product development. While people in every role try to innovate and improve on what others have done before them, because they’re working in silos, their ideas stay within those silos.
However, a product development process can be more fruitful if a product team leaves behind narrow, siloed thinking; considers the strengths and weaknesses of the specific people they have on board; and emphasizes answering the questions and resolving the issues the team needs to tackle. Some of the questions that any product team needs to answer during the course of a project include the following:
- What goals are users trying to achieve?
- Why do people need the product? What job would it perform for users?
- Why would someone care about having the product?
- What should the product do? What features should it have?
- How should people use it?
- How could we make the product stand out in the marketplace?
- What level of performance should the product have?
- How can our team implement the product?
- When would be the right time to introduce the product?
- What should the product’s price be?
- How should we introduce the product?
- What are the right promotion and distribution channels for the product?
- How should our organization follow up with customer care and getting feedback?
A cross-functional product team can consider these issues from various angles and should address them collaboratively. Only real teamwork lets us utilize the unique skills of everyone on a team—whether it’s a product team or a UX team. However, it’s important to align the skills and motivations of all team members to ensure we have a high-performing workgroup.
Pabini Gabriel-Petit’s article “Specialists Versus Generalists: A False Dichotomy” exemplifies this principle of collaborative work.  In her article, she describes her ideal small UX team and the skills a team needs versus job titles.
When we organize teams by job titles, each person on a team sees only what other team members’ business cards tell them to see. However, if a team works together to address and solve all issues, three things happen:
- When the team discusses issues as a team, they’ll develop a common mindset and shared objectives. The team comes to have a single vision of what they want to achieve.
- Everyone gives their best, because they are working toward a common goal that they’ve agreed on. This is very different from individual team members’ working toward only the goals for which their job titles say they’re responsible.
- Everyone contributes to every aspect of the product because they’re sharing responsibility for it.
On high-functioning teams, job titles become relevant only when they’re assigning accountability for decision making. Team members should be experts in whatever role an organization has employed them to fulfill and should be responsible for making decisions in their own areas of expertise. If more than one person is making decisions about the same thing, you’ll know they’re working in silos.
Why Is Team Integration Relevant to User Experience?
We must eliminate the barriers that lie between people in different roles, as well as those between users and their goals. When team members work in silos, everyone may claim that they know what users want and are working for users’ benefit. However, instead of team members’ sharing the same understanding of what users want, everyone sees things from a different perspective. Some might say that users want a lower price, while others might argue that it’s the number of features that matters—the value for the money—or a product’s color and finishing materials, shape and feel, size, or simplicity. While all of these viewpoints may be right in their own way, they don’t tell a coherent story about the product the team needs to develop.
Conversely, when a team is truly working together as a team, they’ll develop a shared vision for a product that addresses users’ goals and needs. When a team has a shared mindset, it’s possible to successfully accomplish work either as a team or individually, because everyone is striving toward one vision. This is very different from typical discussions in which we hear us and them viewpoints. When we hear “We do this...” and “They do that...,” we’ll know that people are not working together as an integrated team.
When a team is focused on what users want to achieve, doing a task analysis can enable them to identify the steps users would need to take to achieve their goals. This is what every product team should be doing. The more diverse a team, the better they’re able to identify users’ tasks. This is the responsibility of every team member, from the business person to the UX designer; from the engineer to the marketer and salesman. Identify all of the actions users need to take to achieve their goals, think in depth about what steps are truly essential, and devise a solution that minimizes the number of steps users must take. Taking this approach increases the likelihood that users will remember an experience and, thus, talk about it with others. To achieve the design and development of a great user experience, a team must remove the barriers that lie between users and their desired results. Let me give you two examples.
All portable music players can play music, but often, their developers don’t pay enough attention to how users get to their goals. They don’t help users to eliminate music management, which is an unnecessary hurdle that users need to overcome before they can listen to music. Many companies even ignore users’ ultimate goals altogether and allocate UX design resources to designing what’s in between—the stuff that users don’t want. Many companies focus on creating fancy-looking players, with flashy user interfaces and loads of functionality instead of providing a great user experience.
Only one enterprise has successfully minimized the barriers that previously existed between users and their goals, providing solutions that enable users to listen to music without worrying about buying songs, organizing them, or copying them onto their devices. This company is Apple. iTunes manages everything for users, letting them focus on enjoying their music—whether on an iPod, iPhone, iPad, personal computer, or television. On the iPhone, cover-flow navigation makes it fun to look for albums. Downloading a podcast to listen to it is easy. iTunes automatically downloads podcasts whenever users connect their devices to iTunes. Now users need not even do that, because all of this happens automatically via Wi-Fi or the Apple iCloud service. This is not to claim that Apple has a perfect system, but it does provide a great example that shows what user centeredness means.
Another example of a user goal is communicating with others. Google enables users to focus on communication via chat, email, and documents, while handling the content for them. They provide a search engine so users can find their latest communications and continue where they left off. It’s possible to apply the same approach to users’ file systems. The alternative is that users need to figure out the best way to organize their files, so end up spending a lot of time managing files—from creating the right folders, to making backups, to sorting out files they’ve left on their desktop or received via email.
When all team members bring together their various perspectives and focus on how to help users achieve their goals, they can reduce the number of steps that users must take. User experience is about enabling users to reach their goals in a satisfying way. These are merely problems that remain to be solved—problems to which we must give our attention.
Some teams rely on a UX design lead or manager to lead all such efforts. In other cases, different team members take responsibility for leading the team in specific activities. Every team is different. The important thing is to have shared goals that keep the team motivated. In an article about creativity, Robert Fabricant of Frog Design uses the cartoon characters Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner to show that, with the right motivation, anyone can be creative. Fabricant points out that “[Coyote’s] relationship with Road Runner is a dynamic that constantly pushes him farther, faster, and (unfortunately in most cases) higher than he imagined.”
The main role of a team’s leader should be to ignite everyone’s creativity when solving design problems. For me, the filmmaking duo of the director and the producer presents a perfect example of effective team leadership. Brad Bird, the director of two of Pixar's Academy Award-winning animated features, has described this well. 
Why Does an Organization’s Mindset Matter?
The idea for this article came to me while I was reading about the work of Stafford Beer.  He was a pioneer in operational research, whose extensive studies have focused on companies and governments around the world. One of his conclusions from decades of studying organizations, was that “the purpose of a system is what it does.”
Seeing a company as a system enables us to understand that its reason for existence is what it actually does. Great products that provide excellent user experiences are the result of a company’s intention—its core values. A company’s role is to enable its teams to fulfill its true purpose. Some believe that an organization just needs to hire great UX professionals to produce great design solutions. But it’s the other way around: UX professionals need to work for companies that exist to create great user experiences.
When a company’s products don’t provide great user experiences, we know that user experience is not truly part of that company’s purpose. When user experience matters to a company, it focuses on achieving great user experiences. When its purpose is something else, the company focuses on that. There are plenty of examples of companies whose focus is on profit, market share, creating copy-cat products, being a market follower, gaining publicity, and so forth. They put these goals ahead of user experience. The nature of a company’s business dictates the user experience of its products.
So, instead of merely thinking that a company’s processes are wrong, question the company’s purpose. Then change the processes, because they represent the company’s purpose. If a company intends to create great user experiences, its role should be to reduce the complexity of the way product teams work—and remove bureaucracy, too—so everyone can focus on its true purpose: creating great products.
UX Processes and Models Link the Goals of an Organization, Product Team, and Its Users
User experience is what people remember about using a product and, thus, what they tell other people about it. Great user experiences happen when organizations enable their product teams to create products that empower people—their users—to achieve their goals in a desirable way. How they achieve these goals is pretty flexible. How do we define desirable? That depends on users’ objectives. For example, this might be
- pleasant—when people listen to music or create a photo album
- fast—when people search
- smooth—when people wake up in the morning
- challenging—when people are playing games
- exciting—when people can see their parents in a live video from the other side of the planet
It is crucial to note that, in all of these examples, I’m talking about not just products, but goals that people want to achieve in different ways. Users who want to achieve the same goal may have different preferences for how they actually accomplish that goal. The steps or actions they need to take might differ according to their desired way of achieving their goal.
There is often too great a focus on creating objects, which stops product teams from looking beyond their preconceptions to see what users really want. Once teams understand this, they can craft systems that enable users to reach their goals.
Users create the experience of satisfaction that they remember—and the stories that they tell others about the products and services that they’ve used. For example, even getting a vaccination can become a positive experience. To replace the typical syringe, IDEO has designed a needle-free product.  After experiencing it, someone might say, “I didn't even feel it! Can you believe that there was no needle?” This is the type of result people would talk about. The story describes the users’ experience and expresses their satisfaction in achieving their goal, not a product’s features.
“The responsibility of leadership is not to come up with all the ideas, but to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.”—Simon Sinek
What I’m suggesting is that, without our considering both the personalities and skills of our product team members and our organization’s purpose, our understanding of how we can successfully design great products that solve people’s problems is likely to be incomplete. To inform the process of creating great user experiences, we must understand both our product teams and our organizations. Think of UX management as a closed-loop system, in which the organization influences the product team, the team members influence the solution they create, which then influences the organization, determining what new solutions they’ll create.
A company’s market positioning sets boundaries for its product user experiences. If a company’s purpose is create best-in-class products, it can produce great user experiences. On the other hand, if a company’s purpose is to create mass-market products for the average consumer, it will never achieve great user experiences, no matter what UX professionals it employs, because design always gets pushed toward the business goal of a mass-market, average product.
To be successful, a UX design process needs to consider a company’s purpose, a product team’s skills, and users’ expectations and goals. A UX team’s role is to make this information visible to the company. A product team’s role is to eliminate as many barriers that stop users from achieving their goals as possible. This is a systems-thinking perspective on achieving great user experiences.
 Kahneman, Daniel. “The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory.” TED, March, 2010. Retrieved February 27, 2012.
 Gabriel-Petit, Pabini. “Specialists Versus Generalists: A False Dichotomy?” UXmatters, February 9, 2009. Retrieved February 27, 2012.
 Rao, H., R. Sutton, and A. P. Webb. “Innovation Lessons from Pixar: An Interview with Oscar-Winning Director Brad Bird.” The McKinsey Quarterly, 2008.
 Beer, Stafford. “What Is Cybernetics?” Kybernetes, 2002.
 IDEO, “Transcutaneous Immunization Delivery Method for Intercell.” IDEO, 2008. Retrieved February 27, 2012.