The Future of UX Leadership: Radical Transformation

By Jim Nieters and Pabini Gabriel-Petit

Published: October 6, 2014

“Insights on how to help companies progress from delivering mediocre user experiences, as is all too common, to producing truly great experiences that differentiate their products and services in the marketplace.”

This column is the first in a series that will offer insights on how to help companies progress from delivering mediocre user experiences, as is all too common, to producing truly great experiences that differentiate their products and services in the marketplace. Doing so requires a radical transformation in the way business executives and UX teams engage in creating user experiences.

This series is not about making incremental improvements to the way UX teams work. It is about taking a different approach and driving radical transformation within organizations. No major changes in history have ever come about by playing it safe. Having said this, all of the ideas that we’ll share in this series have proven effective in one business context or another.

In this first installment of our series, we’ll focus on three main points:

  • the problem that UX teams currently confront
  • the role that design-driven differentiation plays in business success
  • positioning User Experience for success within your organization

The Problem That UX Teams Confront

“The way we’ve done things in the past just isn’t enough any longer. The field of user experience is at an inflection point in its evolution. We have to up our game….”

Far too often, highly qualified UX teams that have budgets in the tens of millions of dollars per year produce overly complex, dreary designs. This is especially true in companies that develop enterprise software. Why does this happen so often?

Creating great user experiences requires more than just hiring highly skilled designers and design leaders who employ typical UX research and design practices. The way we’ve done things in the past just isn’t enough any longer. The field of user experience is at an inflection point in its evolution. We have to up our game because it’s just a matter of time until the executives in these companies start realizing that their UX teams are delivering less-than-stellar, undifferentiated designs. Customers now have higher expectations for the quality of product user experiences—and they’re not shy about complaining loudly when we disappoint them. So, because it’s inevitable that business executives will soon start recognizing that their UX teams are not delivering the desired results, let’s consider what might happen next?

  • Executives may think that it’s just not worth paying the premium that they currently do for their in-house UX teams and decide that they can replace them with people who are not a highly trained UX professionals—and are not adept in design thinking. Many executives already tend to engage more with Customer Experience teams than with UX teams. Perhaps they’ll decide that UX teams are redundant. We’re seeing some evidence of this already.
  • Executives might decide to fire their in-house UX team and work with a renowned UX consultancy instead.
  • Executives might decide to fire their current UX team in the hope that they can hire a new UX leader who is capable of building a UX team that can transform their company by creating user experiences that truly differentiate their company’s product offerings.
  • Self-aware executives may recognize that they have created a corporate culture that presents insurmountable obstacles to delivering great user experiences and take responsibility for transforming it. Unfortunately, this is probably not the most likely scenario. But courageous UX leaders might be able to raise C-level awareness of these cultural barriers and persuade executives to work with them in transforming their organization.

The Role of Design-Driven Differentiation in Business Success

“Great UX design differentiates companies’ products from their competition and enhances their brand.”

Great UX design differentiates companies’ products from their competition and enhances their brand. As UX leaders, we must communicate this fact to our companies’ executives. If you cannot convince your company’s leaders of the value that User Experience can provide in differentiating their products in the marketplace and driving business success, you should walk away. There’s no way to succeed within such an organization. We should no longer be willing to work for companies that do not recognize that, in reality, user experience can differentiate their products. As a UX leader, what should you do to make a difference within your organization?

Apply Design Thinking at an Organizational Level

Design is fundamentally a problem-solving exercise. Sometimes, the problems that we solve are purely UX design problems. Typically, we need to optimize discoverability, learnability, ease of use, efficiency, or delight—to varying degrees in different contexts. For example, we may need to engage customers by creating an emotional connection to our products or ensure that experienced users can accomplish their work as efficiently as possible. The design problems that we solve differ depending on many factors, including whether we’re working on

  • products or services and in what domain
  • consumer or enterprise products
  • desktop, mobile, cross-device, or cross-channel experiences
  • products for users in a particular country or region
  • projects supporting a startup or a large enterprise
  • projects within an organization and with stakeholders whose maturity around user experience and design does or does not enable us to do our best work

As UX professionals, our approach to solving a design problem depends on the context. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to UX research or design. We must first identify the right challenge to solve, then choose the right approach to solving that particular problem. As we progress in our careers, our design challenges tend to become more complex and our scope of responsibility increases.

“As we progress in our careers, our design challenges tend to become more complex and our scope of responsibility increases.”

As UX leaders, whatever the problem that we need to solve, we can apply design thinking to solve it. Often, senior UX leaders design not just individual products or services or even software systems, but instead design—and run—UX organizations and more. When we design organizations or devise processes, the solutions that we provide can transform organizations. For example, when designing a UX team, the solution is an organizational structure and a team with which it is easy to engage and work, that fits well into the overall organizational structure, and that delivers stellar results, making the CEO and other executives delighted to work with the team. Whatever the problem we’re solving, we must engage in design thinking, strive to understand our users or stakeholders, and provide a solution that produces value.

Building a UX practice that can truly transform an organization and differentiate its products from those of its competitors requires having a number of elements in place—elements that are necessary to ensure our success. (We’ll discuss what those elements are shortly.)

If your organization doesn’t provide those elements—and if, after attempting to foster the necessary organizational changes, it seems unlikely that you can achieve them—you should leave and find work in an organization that affords many of those elements. Yes, walk away from your current role. That’s right. If you’re a UX leader who cannot be successful in a particular situation, bail. If you don’t, you’ll be judged for the quality of the team’s work and its lack of impact—regardless of the organizational reasons behind it.

Plus, if you’re a person who really values quality, but you’re working in a context that prevents your delivering it, you’ll be perpetually frustrated—locked in a vicious cycle in which nobody is happy. Instead, find an environment in which you can do great design and create a virtuous cycle that makes everybody happy. Leave the uninteresting problems and the mediocre jobs to average leaders and design teams.

All of the work that we do becomes a part of our legacy as UX professionals. Is producing anything other than stellar user experiences worth our time and energy? We should not settle for anything less than creating truly spectacular user experiences.

Deliver on the Value That User Experiences Promises

“As UX leaders, it’s our job to build UX teams that help our companies to differentiate on the basis of their products’ user experiences. … Design-led companies outperform their competitors financially by 228%.

As UX leaders, it’s our job to build UX teams that help our companies to differentiate on the basis of their products’ user experiences. We call on all UX professionals to subscribe to this manifesto:

Our goal is to deliver game-changing designs. We must deliver truly differentiated user experiences that provide maximal value to our customers and the organizations for whom we work. Nothing less will do.

We can move beyond debates about the value of user experience. Thanks to the Design Management Institute (DMI) and leaders who have conducted research over the past 20 years, we know for a fact that design-led companies outperform their competitors financially by 228%. Great design increases profit margins.

Fostering great design is important—not only for you as a UX leader, but also for the people who work for you, the customers who use the products your team designs, the company that employs you, and ultimately, the UX industry as a whole. As we said earlier, user experience is at an inflection point. While, as a discipline, we may talk the good talk, if we don’t consistently walk the walk, we’ll fail. Now, more than ever, we must deliver on the promise of user experience. If we don’t, perhaps we deserve to be marginalized.

As UX leaders, we must create corporate UX teams that can compete with the best design agencies—and even design better experiences than an agency could. The success of our industry depends on this. When we create inspiring designs that differentiate our products, our value to the organizations for which we work is clear. Differentiation creates competitive advantage, increases profit margins, drives brand value, and increases the value of our companies’ stock. Average design is a commodity. If we don’t deliver the value that user experience promises, executives might be justified in questioning whether they want to pay a premium for our skills.

Create Competitive Advantage

“Differentiation creates competitive advantage, increases profit margins, drives brand value, and increases the value of our companies’ stock.”

What are executives looking for when they hire UX teams? Every company wants to create disruptive innovations that will elevate them financially above their competition. Competitive differentiation drives higher profit margins and increases a company’s competitive advantage period (CAP)—that is, the period of time over which a company’s offerings provide sufficient differentiation that the company has a competitive advantage in the marketplace—as well as sustains higher profit margins. The basis of a company’s stock price is not only its current earnings and profit margins, but also its expected future earnings, which depend on its perceived CAP.

We know that design-led companies produce greater competitive advantage. Our challenge, as UX leaders, is to deliver competitive differentiation—or even disruptive innovation. If we cannot facilitate our teams’ producing user experiences that differentiate our organizations’ products and services, we’ve failed. Again, if there’s nothing we can do to succeed within a particular organization, we should find a company where we can make the difference that we know that we can make.

Embrace Purpose—for Yourself and Your Team

“We shouldn’t be willing to work in companies whose cultures and ways of conducting business are antithetical to our teams’ delivering excellent work.”

As UX leaders, our goal should never be to produce average or minimally acceptable designs. So we shouldn’t be willing to work in companies whose cultures and ways of conducting business are antithetical to our teams’ delivering excellent work. As UX professionals, we all want to feel that the work we’re doing will make a difference for our users and customers, be successful in the marketplace, and help our company to thrive.

As UX leaders, we want to lead people who are passionate about their work and have a burning need to deliver work that they’re proud of. As Daniel Pink suggests in “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Really Motivates Us,” purpose is what motivates human beings—knowing that we are contributing to something that matters to people—something that is bigger than ourselves. We also seek mastery, which enables us to do the best job possible. We all want to have a boss whose vision and plan will enable us to achieve great results and who gives us the autonomy to take ownership of our work, enabling us to do our very best work.

So, as UX leaders, if we want the best people in the world on our team, we need to be great bosses with the right leadership qualities, who give our team purpose, provide autonomy, and facilitate mastery. We must provide a strong vision and clear goals and set up both an organizational structure and processes that enable our team to deliver differentiated product user experiences. UX leaders need to have the right support system to accomplish great work—both from the top-down, our company’s executives, and the bottom-up, our employees. Accomplishing great things takes a team. If you want to achieve greatness, you must believe there’s a path to success, even if it’s circuitous.

Of course, we must be willing to work hard to push the UX rock uphill to attain relevance and value. Whenever we’re able to do that successfully, we’ll end up feeling that our effort was worthwhile—though we may have numerous scars to show for our efforts! It’s okay to start at the bottom of the hill—if you have the support you need to succeed. There are certain foundational factors that you should always evaluate when considering a new job.

Positioning User Experience for Success Within Your Organization

“One factor that is universally present in companies where design is a strong differentiator: the leader of the UX Design organization has a strong partnership with the CEO of the company.”

As a UX leader, you need to position yourself and your team appropriately in your organization—or report to a senior UX leader who has positioned User Experience for success.

As Jeneanne Rae points out in her article “What Is the Real Value of Design? there are a few key factors that ensure design-led companies outperform their competition. Let’s look at the most important of those now.

A Partnership Between the CEO and UX Design Leader

One factor that is universally present in companies where design is a strong differentiator: the leader of the UX Design organization has a strong partnership with the CEO of the company. This makes perfect sense, for several reasons.

First, having a CEO who recognizes the value of and supports User Experience and, more importantly, advocates for you as a UX leader affords you a level of power that enables you get things done. No matter how good a collaborator you are, how good your leadership skills are, or how much emotional intelligence you have, if you don’t have sufficient power in your organization, it’s hard to effect change.

Apple is everyone’s favorite example of a design-led organization, and we’ve heard much about the relationship between Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive, but there are many other examples of partnerships between a company’s CEO and UX leader—IBM for one. Ginni Rommety, CEO of IBM, and Phil Gilbert, VP and General Manager of UX at IBM, have a strong relationship. Rommety endorses and supports UX Design across the organization. When IBM built a new Design Lab, Rommety said, “I believe … that the [design] work done here will change the world. This is a recommitment to a heritage of innovation that has transcended IBM.” At IBM, any member of a product team would ignore User Experience at their own peril.

Of course, UX professionals must also be great collaborators and address high-priority goals to deliver maximal value. But without the foundation of executive support and the power of influence that affords, trying to push that UX rock up the mountain just isn’t a worthwhile endeavor.

Does it have to be the CEO who recognizes the value of UX design? Would it be enough to report to—say—an Executive VP of an independent business unit who supports you and your UX team unequivocally, with the same level of enthusiasm that Ginni Rommety does? Maybe. The answer to this question depends on what organizational structure makes the most sense within a given company.

Most companies start out with a centralized UX team that needs the CEO’s support. Then, as the business grows, it splits into multiple business units, each with its own Executive VP and UX team. Later on, the UX team may become centralized again. Between 2007 and 2014, Yahoo did this twice, and they’re not the only company whose UX teams have gone through such cycles of change.

In theory, in a distributed UX model, individual UX teams should consistently be able to design differentiated user experiences. But—except in rare circumstances—they don’t. In reality, very few UX teams consistently deliver stellar, differentiated experiences. The few who do typically work for a VP or Senior VP of UX or a Chief Experience Officer (CXO) who has a strong partnership with the CEO.

“Having a CEO who recognizes the value of and supports User Experience and, more importantly, advocates for you as a UX leader affords you a level of power that enables you get things done.”

Does this mean that we shouldn’t work for companies with distributed UX teams? No, but it does mean that there needs to be a VP of UX in each division. It’s essential that the UX leader sit at the same level in an organization as the leaders of other disciplines such as Product Management and Engineering. Back in 2007, Pabini wrote an article about this titled “Sharing Ownership of UX.” While what she wrote then still holds true, software development has evolved considerably since then. So, we’ll take a fresh look at this topic in a later column in this series.

Another reason that User Experience needs to have visibility and support at the highest level in an organization: you want senior leaders to feel genuinely excited about your being on their team. They’ll share their excitement with the entire organization and build enthusiasm and support across the company. You should never join a company unless there’s significant buzz and genuine excitement about your joining—enthusiasm that executives share broadly throughout the organization. You’ll need this level of enthusiasm and broad-based support when you take the helm. As a new leader with executive support, you’ll have a brief honeymoon period during which you can set expectations, drive process changes, build alliances, and get teams excited about User Experience—in ways that you could not if you were just another hire. At a minimum, you need to be either a VP of UX or report to a VP of UX to effectively lead User Experience in an organization.

Finally, you need regular exposure to and the mindshare of the head of the organization for which you work. This leader must recognize the value that UX design can deliver. If you do not have this level of visibility and support, you must do everything possible to create it. If you are unable to achieve this yourself, either encourage the company to hire someone at a higher level to whom you can report—who will have high visibility on the executive team—or move to another company. The leader of your business unit must recognize that great design can help their organization to differentiate its products from those of competitors and that this is just as important as technology innovations and their product roadmap.

As a new UX leader in an organization, you need to make sure that you have your boss’s mindshare, that the two of you see eye to eye, and that your boss is excited about the vision of what you can accomplish together. Of course, your boss also needs to believe that you can execute and deliver results, but you want your boss to be emotionally invested in your success. When an executive hires you and speaks highly of you, he or she will become emotionally invested in your success and even come to your defense, if necessary. Executives’ credibility depends on other people seeing them make good decisions. Since one of the decisions was to hire you, it’s in your boss’s best interests for you to succeed. That’s the dynamic that you should be looking for when joining a new company.

“The leader of your business unit must recognize that great design can help their organization to differentiate its products from those of competitors and that this is just as important as technology innovations and their product roadmap.”

If you don’t feel that shared excitement or you’re questioning whether a company truly intends to differentiate on the basis of stellar UX design, you need to establish enough of a relationship with the leader who wants to hire you to enable you to delve deeply into the inner workings of the company, as well as the leader’s plans. Only then can you judge whether you can believe what you’re being told or it’s just talk. Often, the leaders of companies who are trying to hire a UX leader tell candidates that User Experience is an essential part of their business strategy—after all, that’s what their customers want to hear, so they often talk about the importance of User Experience. In reality, many of them are just giving lip service to it. Perhaps this is not deception so much as it is a lack of understanding on their part about what inculcating User Experience into a culture really means—and the degree of change that entails—as well as ignorance of what it takes to produce great user experiences. They may not realize the investment of time and resources that it takes.

Far too many companies think that, if they hire just one great designer, they’ll get great UX design. Or, they may think that, if they hire one solid UX leader and a couple of designers, they’ll transform their products’ user experience—even if they have 500 developers and 50 product managers. It’s not that easy. To transform a company into a design-led organization, the company has to evolve—with the help of a UX leader who understands the goal and what it takes to drive that change. Such a leader knows how to set up an organizational structure that will enable the UX team to succeed. And that leader can inspire a culture that attracts the best UX talent, lets researchers and designers do what they do best, and fosters strategic design thinking within the organization.

We’ve both become tired of the back-and-forth dialogue about what it will take to make User Experience more relevant, so we can consistently deliver truly great user experiences. We need to lead! UX leaders need to learn the art of leadership to increase their scope of influence and transform User Experience. Step up and take the opportunity to help drive the transformation!

What’s Next?

“Attract the best talent in the industry, step into the boardroom, and gain recognition as a senior leader who can drive an organization’s transformation from mediocrity to excellence.”

What does it mean to be a great leader and, in particular, a great UX leader? Our next column will focus on the art of leadership and the specific qualities and skills that UX leaders must have to attract the best talent in the industry, step into the boardroom, and gain recognition as a senior leader who can drive an organization’s transformation from mediocrity to excellence. We’ll also describe the unique factors that make leading a UX team so very different from leading, say, an Engineering team.

Throughout this series, we’ll discuss the things that UX leaders need to do to transform an average UX team into one that consistently delivers user experiences that stand apart from their competition. In subsequent columns, we’ll discuss topics such as the following to illuminate the future path of UX leadership as radical transformation:

  • defining an optimal UX organizational structure by leveraging insights from design agencies and the most successful UX design organizations in product companies
  • working with multidisciplinary product teams
  • devising an effective UX design process—focusing less on agile or Lean UX and more on outcomes
  • making the case for what functions User Experience must own to drive radical transformation
  • measuring success for User Experience by looking at metrics from an executive’s perspective
  • meeting users’ rational needs by producing usable and useful products, as well as connecting with their hearts and driving emotional engagement
  • ensuring relevance and high-level visibility for User Experience
  • driving innovation
  • instilling design thinking throughout your organization’s culture to scale your UX organization
  • leveraging external design agencies to stimulate fresh thinking, expose your team to new approaches, drive quality, and scale your team

10 Comments

This is a great article. Lots of information and plenty to think about. I am looking forward to the next installment in this series.

Important topic—thank you! Looking forward to learning more.

Thanks for the affirmation, Roy and Edgar. Jim and I are already working on the next installment, which will come out next month.

Pabini

The points you raise are very much the pressing questions for UX professionals today. Clearly, I am very much in your target audience so much rings true.

The level of engagement of board-level people is key. I have had limited success in engaging C-level stakeholders on the interests of UX. I identify a couple of key issues.

  1. Traditionally, UX has been led either by marketing (CMO) or strategic directors (Chief Strategy Officer, for example). How do they let go of ownership?
  2. UX design is all too often seen as an aesthetic pursuit: Does it look nice? Is it on brand? This leads to a comfort zone where the board can discuss these points. It rarely leads to creating value from the board in the feedback they give on design. They pay lip service to pushing the envelope for “best in class” UX, but rarely identify or dare change organisational models that would lead to just that.

Will look forward to your follow up.

-Simon

Great article! This provides a lot to think about. Now how to push this type of leadership/direction at my organization is the question.

I am looking forward to the next article in this series.

This is good stuff, and I agree with most of it. However, I do still end up with two questions:

  1. You talk of the importance of ‘great design,’ but my experience has been that it can be hard to get people to agree on what ‘great design’ actually means. Design is multifaceted and, too often, I find people focusing on one facet to the exclusion of others—aesthetics over architecture or performance over aesthetics.
  2. Are we in danger of assuming that great design is the same as great experiences? I come across many examples of attractively designed systems that actually represent very broken experiences. For example, Xfinity’s TV Guide / DVR that they can change whenever they want. The design is often pretty good, but I hate it when I sit down in an evening and the UI is not the same as it was last night!

The way I resolve these questions is to argue that UX is really about the work that ensures we focus the great design efforts on the right parts of the problem. In this way, UX is not equivalent to design—or to design thinking—but they are very intimately related.

To Simon: Thanks for your comments. I agree with you. The level of engagement of board-level people can be key. But just as with C-level stakeholders, their level of engagement can differ greatly. So, in some cases, we may get better traction with C-level stakeholders and, in others, with board-level stakeholders. Personally, I’ve experienced greater commitment to User Experience from C-level stakeholders. But it is becoming quite common for venture capitalists, who often sit on Boards of Directors, to insist on startups’ investing in User Experience—even very early-stage startups. I think that’s a hopeful sign for the future of User Experience.

The ownership of User Experience by User Experience is absolutely essential to its success. The placement of User Experience under Product Management, Marketing, Strategy, or Development is, unfortunately, a problem that exists in most organizations today and invariably results in conflicts of interest that negatively impact the effectiveness of User Experience. Getting this change to happen is where we need C-level and/or board-level support.

Any organization that places any importance on User Experience should have a CXO (Chief Experience Officer) or at least a Senior VP of UX leading User Experience. That’s the only way to begin to create a balance of power among the disciplines that make up product teams. I don’t see how we can take companies who don’t have such roles seriously.

To Stephanie: Often, the best time to test an organization’s willingness to change and give User Experience a stronger leadership role in an organization is before you join it. When negotiating a leadership role in a new organization, make the autonomy of User Experience in relationship to what should be peer groups—Product Management and Development—and a title that gives you greater potential for achieving balance of power within the organization a condition of your accepting the role. Or, as we suggested in our column, try to get someone else hired in over you to take on that role.

Nevertheless, all UX professionals should actively evangelize the proper role for User Experience within their organizations. We all have to do our bit to create user-centered organizations.

To David: You’ve made some very good points about issues that most of us contend with on a daily basis—either as UX professionals or users. A commitment to great design is really about how much risk we’re willing to take to insist on doing the best work we’re personally capable of doing and inspiring our teams to do their best work as well. It’s about having the courage of our convictions and not settling for mediocrity just because it’s expedient to do so. It’s about not letting organizations snuff our passion for our work out of us.

I’d much rather have an open and honest debate about design issues with someone who has the same level of passion that I do than have my efforts to create something great stymied by someone who is passive aggressive and won’t work through the issues with me. Some of my best work has come out of working with product teams that had passionate disagreements, but worked through the issues together. It takes the attentiveness and willingness of an entire product team to address all of the important issues on a project.

Great design isn’t primarily about aesthetics, it’s about meeting users’ needs by identifying and solving their problems. Of course, every aspect of design matters.

As UX experts, we are change agents, turning over the rocks to see what squigglies are to be found—that is, opportunities for improvement.

Here at Pulte Group, we’re in our infancy adopting UX universally in our agile environment, but I am surrounded by a great team who supports UX.

To Beth: We are, indeed, change agents! To opportunities for improvement I’d add opportunities for innovation—that is, opportunities to meet users’ needs and desires more completely than others have thought of before.

It sounds like you are very fortunate in the team you’re working with.

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