Mapping Business Value to UX: An Idea’s Inception

By Lis Hubert

Published: October 21, 2013

“The problem for UX professionals is that you don’t have a concrete way of articulating how your profession adds tremendous value to a business’s bottom line.”—A friend

It was a cool day in January, and there I was, speeding across Interstate 80 in my car with a friend, providing support as he went to interview for graduate school. If you’ve ever driven along this particular interstate, you know it’s a pretty long, straight, boring drive. So the journey provided plenty of thinking time, and as I drove, a thought came to me: “You know what’s wrong with my profession?” I asked my friend. “What’s that?” he queried. “We don’t know how to package our value well. Therefore, those outside user experience—especially business stakeholders and CEOs—never really understand our value,” I replied. “You know what? You’re right,” he began. “The problem for UX professionals is that you don’t have a concrete way of articulating how your profession adds tremendous value to a business’s bottom line.” His statement got me to thinking more deeply, and an idea was born.

The Current State of User Experience

Before we get to that idea, it’s important that I describe the current state of our profession of User Experience. And, before that, it’s important for you to understand my background, which is what ultimately led to my conceiving of this new framework.

I started my career like any other 22-year-old, fresh out of college, with no idea of what I actually wanted to do. I had obtained my degree in Management Information Systems from the University of Connecticut School of Business, then landed a job as a Java programmer at a large insurance company. While there, I built applications that our insurance agents would use to sell our products. Not very interesting. But, as I now look back on my time working there, I recall that the company had just implemented a new team that kept interrupting my work and driving me crazy. This was the usability team.

When I was almost finished coding, these people would come to me to tell me that what I was building wasn’t easy to use. “What do they mean that it has to be easy to use?” I thought to myself. “What does that have to do with anything as long as my code works?” Needless to say, this was a constant struggle for me. I wanted to listen to them—regardless of how many times they came to me too late and gave me zero rationale to show me that their advice was valuable.

While, sometimes, my boss forced me to listen to them, many times he did not. We saw following their advice as optional—and why shouldn’t it have been? I didn’t even know why they existed or how they could make my product better! Of course, now I look back on this time and chuckle. Nevertheless, I have always kept in mind the communication gap between myself and that usability team. I’ve often thought to myself over the years, “Why didn’t I see their value back then?”

Several years later, I’d left my work as a back-end programmer and found myself doing something called information architecture (IA). I loved the work that I was doing. And, after doing some reading on Jakob Nielsen’s site, I finally understood the massive amount of revenue that usability, or ease of use, could muster on its own—without even considering all the other UX stuff. I realized why those usability people were so darn important. Why couldn’t they have explained their value to me in this way then?

In 2007, after just one year in my new IA role and when I was only 24, my boss approached me to take on the biggest project that the company—a Fortune 200 Financial Services firm—had ever taken on. He made me the lead Information Architect for a 4500-page, 12-million-dollar redesign project. It would be my job to coordinate Information Architects, Visual Designers, and Front-end Developers to deliver a brand new information architecture for the site. Yes, 4500 pages—and a look and feel that would work in any browser and support 6 million users a day.

It was during this time that I began having meetings with some pretty important people in the company, and I found myself having to explain, time and time again:

  1. Why this redesign was even happening
  2. Why it was taking so long
  3. What effect it would have on the status quo
“No one outside User Experience understood the value that a new user experience could bring. Sure, the stakeholders all knew they needed a ‘good UX,’ but none of them realized what that really meant.”

After some time trying, unsuccessfully, to demonstrate the usefulness of the project, using the terms that I’d learned—“It will create a better user experience”—I found myself needing to try another tack. It seemed that no one outside User Experience understood the value that a new user experience could bring. Sure, the stakeholders all knew they needed a “good UX,” but none of them realized what that really meant. Of course, they wanted our users to be happy, but what they really wanted was to understand how this massive project that was disrupting every system in the company would affect the company’s bottom line. That was the context in which I had to start showing that a better user experience was better for everyone.

It’s now years later, and I work as an Independent UX Consultant in New York City. Over the years that it has taken to get me to this point in my career, I have realized that, despite our having a surfeit of everyday jargon, UX professionals don’t have an effective way of packaging our services that articulates our actual value to stakeholders. As someone who constantly has to show the value of what I do to get hired, I’ve seen that, even though we have lots of tools in our toolkit, no one outside our industry really gets the value of each of our tools, no matter how much we talk about them.

Basically, UX professionals are really good at coming up with various processes and tools that can help them to solve problems. But we are not so good at packaging our toolkit as a service that meets our customers’—that is, our stakeholders’—needs. Further, because we haven’t packaged our profession as a service, our stakeholders, clients, and teammates outside User Experience just don’t get that what we do goes way beyond boxes and arrows.

What’s even more interesting is that many other professions do have a concrete way of showing the value of their work. For example, agile developers have packaged what they do as a service that gets code out faster and cheaper, while maintaining good quality. Talk about concrete. Of course, there are lots of other tools in the agile toolkit, but when agile developers describe the value of agile methods, this is the way they do it—and with great success! While UX professionals create personas, scenarios, and journey maps—that sounds expensive—what does all of this really provide to a company? What is the service that we offer? What is our value?

The Problem

“We must watch our companies waste money on the wrong solutions to the wrong problems, then watch users’ continuing frustration with our company’s products and services. All because we don’t get the budget that we need….”

Our inability to articulate our value concretely has caused the UX industry and the professionals within it a great deal of pain. We watch as our organizations redesign their sites and applications again and again—in the hope that, somehow, a better user interface will increase sales. The worst part is that we, in the UX community, not only know the way to find the answers that would make profits soar, users chortle in glee, and the world become a better place; we also have a concrete process that can get a company there. However, because we don’t explain our process well at all, our stakeholders and teammates don’t see our real value, so we’re not able to utilize our processes to make our business better.

This is painful because we must watch our companies waste money on the wrong solutions to the wrong problems, then watch users’ continuing frustration with our company’s products and services. All because we don’t get the budget that we need to give the proper UX attention to designing our company’s Web sites and applications. In short, when businesses don’t see our value, they’re worse off, they misunderstand User Experience, and nobody is happy.

The Solution

“What if we had a tool, … like a chart, that shows clearly that the more strategic the UX activity, the more business value a company would gain? What if we could show where the various parts of our UX process lie along this business-value chain…?”

This brings me back to my January journey: How can we solve the gigantic problem of packaging what we do into a service that provides concrete value to our customers? “What if we had a tool,” I said. “A type of deliverable that people are used to looking at, like a chart, that shows clearly that the more strategic the UX activity, the more business value a company would gain?”

What if we could show where the various parts of our UX process lie along this business-value chain, adding context and meaning to what it is that we can and do provide?” (To be fully transparent, I couldn’t think of what the X axis of the chart in Figure 1 should be. It was Ray DeLaPeña who, during an informal brainstorm, helped me to realize that it should be UX activities. Thanks Ray!)

I set out to create this chart of UX activities to help me package my UX knowledge as a service to my customers. Figure 1 shows the blank chart that was the outgrowth of these thoughts.

Figure 1—Charting strategic UX activities

Charting strategic UX activities

Defining the X axis of this chart was just the first step. I then had to think about how one should fill out this chart to show that the more one moves toward Experience on the X axis, the higher the business value on the Y axis—and that user experience is all of these activities, not just one. This chart should show services, not deliverables. Plus, I wanted to illustrate this in a way that would showcase my profession as a service and base all of this on research and solid fact—not just me making up stuff because I think user experience is awesome. To achieve this goal, I worked with my UX STRAT 2013 co-presenter, Paul McAleer, to develop a workshop that taught, step by step, how to employ this method of educating non-UX professionals in his company about the real value that his UX team could bring. In Part 2 of this three-part series, we’ll explain how we implemented this workshop; then, in Part 3, we’ll be telling you about the outcomes that we achieved and sharing the lessons that we learned along the way.

The Intended Outcomes

“Our intent in employing this method of mapping the business value of user experience was to … [enable] people outside User Experience to perceive visually that the more strategic and holistic their company’s UX practice, the more value they would gain overall.”

Our intent in employing this method of mapping the business value of user experience was to achieve the following outcomes:

  1. Enabling people outside User Experience to perceive visually that the more strategic and holistic their company’s UX practice, the more value they would gain overall.
  2. Helping stakeholders to see that they were wasting precious time and money by not including strategic UX thinking and going beyond the tactical execution of user-interface design.
  3. Achieving my overall aim of exposing this gap in a way that would ensure that the company would see that UX, the service, was capable of filling that gap.

However, what we’ll see in our future articles is that there are some huge barriers that we have to overcome. Before we can begin to open anyone else’s eyes, we must first open our own eyes to the professions, clients, and partners around us.

In this first article in the series, I have established that we, as UX professionals, are not communicating our value well, demonstrated the problems that we and our companies face because we’re not effectively communicating our value, and described a potential solution for this problem. There is much more to come on how to map the business value of user experience and, thus, showcase the value of user experience to our companies. Stayed tuned!

6 Comments

I look forward to the next two parts!

Douglas from MINDBODY Inc

This article set my expectations very high. This is a tool I really need in my work. Waiting for the next two parts—impatiently…

Lis, your article came to mind as I was reading Steve Denning’s post about “The End of the Competitive Advantage.” I look forward to your next installments. UX’s value is planning, designing, and engineering the “irreplaceable experience.” Have to be able to prove/quantify it.

“Product features, new technologies, and the better mousetrap sorts of sources of advantage are proving to be less durable than we once thought. Instead, companies are learning to leverage more ephemeral things such as deep customer relationships and the ability to design irreplaceable experiences across multiple arenas.”

Very cool! Thanks for making this connection. Hope you enjoy Parts 2 & 3.

Wow! I can’t wait to read what comes next. I often made that assessment and thought about that problem, but never found a great solution. I think all UX professionals are suffering from that problem. Thank you for sharing your very interesting thoughts!

Consider checking out Experience Design: A Framework for Integrating Brand, Experience, and Value. It’s by far the best I’ve ever read on experience design and marketing more generally. It talks in great detail about many of the concerns you’ve brought forward. (I don’t work for them.)

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