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Collaboration Versus Compromise

Leadership Matters

Leading UX teams

A column by Jim Nieters
April 10, 2017

Recently, I met with another UX leader who asked me what my priorities are as a UX leader. I answered that I’ve reached a point in my career where I choose to work only with companies that are committed to doing what it takes to produce great experiences and disrupt their market. I’m no longer willing to create mediocre experiences—because, as Jim Collins points out in his book Good to Great, “Good is the enemy of great.” For me, the key question is: how do we create experiences that inspire users and disrupt markets?

Sadly, that design leader was so afraid of alienating Product Management within her company that she took my comment to mean that I do not understand the importance of compromise. But I actually recognized something very different—and somewhat insidious—in her assumption: She did not understand that, in the best companies, Product Management, User Experience, and Engineering work collaboratively, from the inception of every project, to define an ideal experience outcome. Each discipline knows that they need one another’s perspectives, and they integrate each other’s insights into their own thinking. Such early collaboration precludes the need for the kind of compromise this UX leader was concerned about. Her comment suggested a much more troubling assumption that represents a deeper challenge: that UX professionals must compromise to keep their jobs, because it is Product Management that defines features and even experiences, and User Experience must not rock the boat.

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This particular discussion was important because my goal was to determine whether that company was willing to do what it took to create experiences that would differentiate their product in their market. The answer was an unequivocal and resounding no. While their product has some interesting features and is generating revenue, the company is leaving the market open to competitors that can design differentiated experiences and steal away market share.

The thing is, this company I’m talking about is doing a lot of things right. They’re hiring a VP of User Experience. They’re conducting user research—though not as much as they need or might want. They have a design space. They even involve User Experience in some strategy decisions. They’re implementing common UX practices that we now see across the digital product landscape.

However, the issues are that they’re understaffed and, more importantly, that following common UX practices is not the same thing as engaging in leading UX practices. Just following common practices won’t help a company outperform its competition. If you want to understand how to design differentiated experiences that disrupt markets, you should pay attention to the outliers—those companies that are the very best in their industry.

I recognize that this column may seem heretical to some UX leaders and professionals. A few have gotten pretty upset with me when I’ve made my position known on this subject. One Chief Experience Officer (CXO) told me quite vociferously that her job is not to transform the company, but to make incremental improvements to its products over time. If she could see small, tangible improvements each year, she was satisfied. The company she works for is an engineering-driven company that prides itself on feature velocity—being able to ship features fast so the competition cannot keep up.

Time to Market Versus Time to Quality

The love affair some companies have with feature velocity and time to market causes them to dumb down the design of user experiences just to ship fast. What happens is: someone at the top commits to a ship date and that top-down dictum drives teams to compromise the experience, just to get a feature out the door.

In contrast, companies that adhere to their vision demand that teams deliver the intended experience outcome. A great example of prioritizing quality over features that I often use is the iPhone’s launching without SMS texting. Rather than launch with a substandard texting experience, Apple deferred adding SMS to the iPhone until a later release. Only when texting met their intended experience outcome did they add the feature in a software release.

Companies that put the experience first make a great deal more profitable revenue than their counterparts that don’t. Sure, figuring out how to bring new capabilities to market quickly is critical. That said, companies first have to figure out how to design and build experiences that customers will love. Only then can they figure out how to do so more rapidly in the future. Introducing crappy features rapidly does not create value for anybody.

This time-to-market focus also precludes companies from revisiting substandard features and iteratively improving their experiences. Instead of getting better every year, these experiences continually degrade as the complexity of the product increases. Such companies just ship more and more mediocre products.

Exclusion Versus Strategic Collaboration

While some companies have a VP of UX or even a CXO, which suggests that user experience matters to them, these UX leaders often face significant challenges. In many cases, either Product Management or Engineering has more power and drives the product roadmap. In this situation, for User Experience to make changes that would impact the roadmap or product requirements, either Product Management or Engineering or both must capitulate. They are not going to do that once they’ve tossed their roadmap over the wall. As a result, a VP of UX or CXO often feels compelled to compromise on the experience. These UX leaders simply do not have the political clout to drive toward a superior experience.

When this happens, it also sets a standard of compromise rather than collaboration and highlights a clear imbalance in the power dynamics of product teams. This is not uncommon at companies that choose to deliver mediocre products. However, companies that ascend to the top understand the need to balance power across the three core disciplines: Product Management, Engineering, and User Experience.

Therefore, my question for companies is whether they consistently demonstrate sufficient collaboration at a strategic level, as well as in product planning, to produce experiences that differentiate the company in its market. If they do not, it becomes the role of the VP of UX or CXO to stand up and make the company aware of its likely trajectory as a result. As a consultant, one of the things I help companies understand is that the best experiences require deep, early collaboration among Product Management, Engineering, and User Experience. Some leaders use the term three in a box when referring to the team responsible for strategic collaboration.

Unfortunately, the problem that most often arises is that there are many, many Product Management leaders to a single UX leader, with the result that User Experience does not have the bandwidth to participate at a strategic level—only a tactical level. Thus, User Experience must respond to product roadmaps that others have defined.

Accepting Mediocrity Versus Striving for Greatness

What can a UX leader do to remedy situations like these? A UX leader might say to senior leadership, including the CEO and his or her direct reports: “I want to be transparent here: We are set up to produce experiences that would put our products roughly in the 60th percentile of our marketplace. Is that acceptable? If we want to do better, here’s what we need to do….” Telling the truth about something like that takes courage. But CEOs hire us to give them our insights. UX leaders must present such truths in a non-defensive way. The truth is simply the truth, and it is everyone’s joint responsibility to make good, dispassionate decisions that are based on accurate, honest data.

Of course, executives may or may not respond favorably, and it may take years to see change happen. Of course, whatever the response from executives, it will drive the UX leader’s decisions—for example, should he or she stay at the company or find a better company where leadership is willing to do what it takes to become great?

Unfortunately, these are somewhat widespread problems. As a consequence, companies often spend tens of millions of dollars to hire a large UX team, only to implement practices that inhibit their creating differentiated experiences. Sadly, the response from UX leaders in such companies is often to highlight all the “great things” they’re doing. That’s a real problem. When the lack of a proper collaboration model forces User Experience to compromise, we have to acknowledge the challenges this reality presents. Otherwise, things will never improve. Such challenges should not reflect poorly on User Experience, but place attention on our circumstances. The danger for the UX leader who claims success when delivering mediocre designs is that mediocrity becomes acceptable to an organization.

I’m actually seeing this mindset in many business and UX leaders across the industry: These leaders are happy to try to increment their way to greatness. These UX leaders work in Engineering- Product-, or Sales-driven companies, in which someone else sets the strategic direction and product roadmap, so their job is to influence these other disciplines to design experiences that are better than what these other disciplines think is sufficient.

What do people mean by collaboration in such companies? As Corinne Wayshak said in a recent UXmatters article, “The Paradox of Control Versus Collaboration,” these other disciplines see UX professionals as “purpose-driven idealists, intent on creating [nothing less than] experiences that users love.” They see them as artists whose goal is to create something beautiful rather than as pragmatists who realize they need to get a product out the door. In some cases, that may be true. As UX professionals, we need to be able to articulate a dispassionate truth and make sure everyone—from the top to the bottom of an organization—understands the implications of compromise. This also means articulating its implications in terms of user engagement, market adoption, customer loyalty, and profitability.

There is a better way. When we look at the outliers at the top of their industry, who design experiences that differentiate them in their market, User Experience plays an active role in product vision, strategy, and defining both the product roadmap and product requirements. The number of UX resources is roughly equivalent to the number of Product Management resources.

Lately, Jared Spool has been giving a talk titled “UX Is a Team Sport.” His premise is absolutely right. I’ve been saying this for years, and I know Pabini Gabriel-Petit, the Publisher of this magazine, has as well. But here’s a better-kept secret: The product-definition process is also a team sport. Nobody produces great experiences unless Product Management, Engineering, and User Experience each recognize the value and internalize the perspectives of their partners in collaboration. In companies that differentiate on the experience, teams build on one another’s insights to improve the solution.

Constructive Compromise and Strategic Collaboration

Let’s go back to that UX leader’s original question: Isn’t compromise important? Of course, in any relationship, whether personal or professional, there must be mutual respect and a willingness to listen. Through dialogue, people learn new perspectives and ideas. When relationships are important to us, we are open to new ideas and willing to change our minds.

In companies where teams know that they have a chance to be #1 in their market, team dynamics differ from what I described earlier. When employees know that collaborating will help them win, they are less likely to try to exert power in attempt to stand out, forcing others to capitulate. When winning in the marketplace is the goal and everybody is on board, both product definition and UX design become team sports. Everyone is ready to listen and expand their insights.

Examples of Excellence

Companies that differentiate on the experience have a powerful vision for the experience they want to deliver. They do not just define features. They define experiences that they know will deeply impact their users and disrupt their markets. Let’s look at a few of examples of such companies: Netflix, DropBox, and Airbnb. The teams at each of these companies had powerful visions of the experience outcomes they wanted to produce for their users.

DropBox

DropBox wanted to make storing content in the cloud as easy as working within the native folder structure on a computer. When DropBox started up, several other cloud-storage companies already existed. But DropBox had a unique vision to which they held firmly. Their vision was to deliver a powerful user experience that would let them capture market share. The experience outcome they envisioned for users catapulted DropBox to a valuation of between $5 and $10 billion.

Netflix

Netflix seems to be everyone’s second favorite company these days, but in the next five to ten years, it may well be at the top of everyone’s list. So far, Netflix has disrupted two markets: First, they disrupted the market for video rentals—VHS, then DVD; then, they disrupted the streaming-video market. In both cases, they were able to accomplish this because of the superior experiences they consistently deliver. Because experiences matter so much to Netflix—not just features—they then decided to produce dozens of Netflix Original shows that have earned them 54 Emmy nominations in 2016. Over the next ten years, Netflix and Amazon Video will completely disrupt the TV industry, creating significant challenges for cable companies such as Comcast and Time Warner. Those cable companies may go the way of the large telecoms that suffered when VoIP hit the scene in 2000.

Airbnb

Airbnb is the undisputed market leader in the vacation-rental market today. But just five years ago, the company was all but unknown in an already crowded market. HomeAway, now their closest competitor, had 20 times their valuation at that time. What happened? Airbnb focused on creating experiences that inspired users—both travelers and homeowners.

What Do These Companies Have in Common?

Once we toss Airbnb into the mix, we see a single commonality emerge. The key for these companies is that, rather than focusing on time to market and crafting minimum viable products, they focus on time to excellence and creating minimum lovable products.

Such companies define feature and technology roadmaps only after they have defined the intended experience outcomes. The experience comes first, and there’s a reason for this: When consumers or business users discover a product they love, that product wins in the marketplace. These excellent companies create a vision for an experience that delights users—then the profits they generate delight shareholders!

Design Is a Team Sport

Getting back to Jared Spool’s point—that design is a team sport—while right, I think that statement is a bit simplistic. The reality is: in companies that produce the best experiences, Product Management, User Experience, and Engineering share ownership of the user experience, as Pabini Gabriel-Petit described in her UXmatters article “Sharing Ownership of UX.” Together, the Product Management, User Experience, and Engineering leads on a project form a multidisciplinary core trio that is responsible for experience-focused decision making. It’s not just that everyone participates in design; it’s part of everyone’s role. This core trio defines the intended experience outcome for a product. They define product strategy together, then work collaboratively to realize the experience outcome they’ve envisioned. Design is just one part of this. Because the trio works collaboratively throughout the product definition, design, and development process, they remain aligned on their vision.

This collaborative process is very different from the concept of compromise that the UX leader I mentioned earlier suggested. If a product team has gotten to the point of designing a solution without aligning the design team with the product direction, that is a big problem. If Product Management and Engineering begin working with User Experience only after the product vision and experience outcome have already been defined, they’re just designing the details at that point—not the fundamental experience. The UX team is limited to executing tactically on a vision they had no part in creating. The product team’s objective is only to figure out how Design can fulfill that intended experience outcome.

Conclusion

So I choose to work with companies where Product Management, User Experience, and Engineering do strategic work together up front that sets the product direction. I choose to work with companies I can help understand how to create differentiated experiences. The core trio works together up front to define the intended experience outcome, the product roadmap, and the technology that meets their company’s larger business objectives. Even when they argue, it’s a healthy debate, and nobody feels that their vision or creative talents were thwarted. The people in these roles understand one another, and each knows that the others understand and value their perspectives. Together, they lift one another to achieve a more transformative vision than any one of them could produce in isolation.

In this sort of context, User Experience does not need to compromise the quality of the experience because another discipline felt the need to exert control—ultimately making the company less successful in the marketplace. As an industry, let’s start talking about how we can collaborate, not capitulate. Let’s acknowledge that an entire multidisciplinary product team should own the experience, that User Experience should participate in the strategy dialogue, and our partners in Product Management and Engineering should participate in the design process. After all, isn’t creating exceptional experiences that enable our company to win in the marketplace the objective? Let’s give it a shot. 

Chief User Experience Strategist at Experience Outcomes

Los Altos, California, USA

Jim NietersA design leader for 17 years, Jim loves every minute of helping companies create competitive advantage by designing experiences that differentiate. He has worked with a range of companies—from startups to Fortune-500 companies—most recently as Senior VP of Customer Engagement at Monaker Group. He previously led User Experience at HP, Yahoo, and Cisco and has advised numerous startups. Jim chooses to work with brilliant clients, helping them unlock their unbounded potential by envisioning and designing end-to-end experiences that disrupt markets and engaging users emotionally. He often works with UX leaders to help them work through organizational challenges and ensure User Experience has the visibility it deserves and can design experiences that make the team proud. Jim also conducts design-value assessments for his clients, identifying gaps in their ability to differentiate on the experience, then helping them close those gaps and become extraordinary.  Read More

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