Experiencing CHI 2006: From a Practitioner’s Viewpoint: Part III

August 14, 2006

Conference: Day 2: Tuesday, April 25th

On Tuesday, I attended a full-day course, “Repositioning User Experience as a Strategic Process.” Then, in the evening, colleagues from the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) and the User Experience Network (UXnet) gathered for dinner at Buonanotte.

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Course: Repositioning User Experience as a Strategic Process

Presenters: Liam Friedland and Jon Innes

This course explored the operational, organizational, and strategic impacts of user experience groups within product development companies and provided a conceptual framework for relating UX activities to strategic business processes.

After describing the business pressures on UX groups within corporations—including shrinking profit margins, outsourcing, and downsizing, but most importantly, the fact that the role of user experience is “unclear to many key decision makers”—Friedland and Innes explained why its role is now strategic, as shown in Figure 1. “A UX team can help define a company’s overall strategy. … We want to be sure people think of user experience and innovation as related.” This is the new value proposition of user experience.

Figure 1—Why is user experience strategic?
Why is user experience  strategic?

Friedland and Innes, shown in Figures 2 and 3, respectively, told us that UX professionals need to overcome these common perceptions:

  • A UX group is a consulting or service organization.
  • “Design makes things look good.”
  • Usability testing finds problems once a product is implemented.
  • User experience is “not a core business competency.” It is “important, but not essential.”
  • UX professionals don’t understand business.

In their view, professionals working in user experience must instead ensure that

  • user-centered methods inform product planning and strategy
  • people perceive that user experience
    • is strategic and “essential to product development”
    • is capable of making “key contributions throughout the development cycle”
    • has demonstrable and wide-ranging business value
    • comprises “quantifiable, reproducible, and high-quality processes”
Figure 2—Liam Friedland
Liam Friedland
Figure 3—Jon Innes
Jon Innes

Operational Processes

Looking at key operational processes for user experience, Friedland and Innes highlighted the importance of evangelizing the business value of UX techniques and deliverables and the role of user experience in the product development lifecycle. They described research and design as “symbiotic operational skills” and outlined the respective areas of expertise and deliverables of user research and design, saying:

  • “User research is useful only when the information it creates reaches others and impacts organizational behavior.”
  • “Design is useful only when it generates specifications from which products can be built.”

After listing the user research and design activities that can potentially occur during the various phases of a product development lifecycle, they remarked, “You never have time for all this stuff.” They spoke about the “UX Sweet Spot”—the point at which UX activities yield the highest return on investment (ROI) during the planning phase of a development cycle, which relates to the ability of UX activities to influence product direction. UX activities that occur late in the product development lifecycle—like usability validation—still add value, but have less impact, because of the high cost of making changes to a product at that point. They also showed differences in emphasis upon typical UX activities, depending on whether a UX group has a design, usability, or UX orientation. Friedland and Innes emphasized, “It’s critical to move beyond cost justification to ROI.” Figure 4 shows how UX groups can avoid the need to justify the cost of UX activities.

Figure 4—Beyond cost justifications for UX
Beyond cost justifications for UX

Speaking about the importance of measuring ROI, Friedland and Innes said, “Everything becomes easier when senior management tracks usability metrics and understands how they relate to success.” ROI can highlight three different types of benefits: lower costs, increased profits, and/or increased market share. “Target your ROI talks around what the person you’re talking to cares about.” For example, one might focus on internal benefits—such as managing risks, increasing revenues, or reducing costs—or external benefits—such as increasing users’ productivity, reducing the need for training, reducing the number of errors users make, or reducing support costs. Figure 5 summarizes operational processes for user experience.

Figure 5—Operational processes for UX
Operational processes for UX

This part of the course concluded with a group exercise in which participants analyzed the current state of operations in their UX groups, including the ROI for their UX activities.

Organizational Processes

The second part of this course focused on key organizational processes. Friedland and Innes suggested that UX professionals consider their value network—“the context in which you produce your existing deliverables,” including who provides essential resources, who are our partners in creating value, and who benefits from our work. They stated that a value network

  • “limits what you can do and defines how you are rewarded”
  • “can help you determine how to improve existing offerings”
  • “may blind you to new opportunities and limit growth”

As Friedland and Innes said, “Collaboration is key. You can get things done as a team, even if you don’t report to the same manager.” They suggested that UX professionals “cultivate allies in other groups to help … drive UX initiatives” and “change the company culture.” Friedland and Innes explored the myths that product managers, developers, and quality assurance engineers hold about UX and the myths that UX professionals hold about those other roles, then showed how UX professionals can develop win/win relationships with people in those roles and outlined initiatives they can pursue collaboratively with them. For example, a win/win proposition for developers and UX professionals is building “the best product possible given the constraints.” To that end, they can jointly develop a code library for user interface elements that brings consistency to user interfaces and promotes the reuse of code, thereby reducing development time.

Discussing building relationships for success, Friedland and Innes spoke about “involving the right people at the right time, achieving results through formal and informal channels, fostering effective give-and-take relationships, understanding the perspectives and agendas of others, and knowing when to fight and when to compromise.” Figure 6 summarizes organizational processes for user experience.

Figure 6—Organizational processes for UX
Organizational processes for UX

Another group exercise followed Friedland and Innes’s discussion of organizational processes. Participants determined what groups within their companies have power, performed SWOT (Strengths / Weaknesses / Opportunities / Threats) analyses on those groups, and developed plans for influencing and collaborating with them. Then, they performed SWOT analyses on their own UX groups.

Strategic Processes

Friedland and Innes defined strategy as “determining if what you are doing makes sense from a big picture standpoint.” In discussing long-term strategic planning, they spoke about how organizations must adapt to endure and suggested that UX groups consider the following questions from Peter Drucker in relation to both UX strategy and corporate strategy:

  • “What will our business be?”
  • “What should our business be?”
  • “What new things should we go into?”
  • “What existing product lines and businesses should we abandon?”

Their presentation included analyses of a number of strategic inflection points and their impacts on UX groups—that is, points at which companies must go through fundamental transformations to survive and thrive—including offshore development, the shift from HTML pages to Ajax, as shown in Figure 7, moving from EAI (Enterprise Application Integration) tools to applications, vision projects, the change in focus of product development at Apple from the iMac to the iPod. Friedland said, “UX is itself a disruptive process.”

Figure 7—Ajax as a case study
Ajax as a case study

Friedland and Innes encouraged UX professionals to think strategically and, thereby, extend the charter of UX, as shown in Figure 8. Driving strategy within a UX group requires strategic planning, aligning UX and business strategies, and finally, executing strategic plans. When doing doing strategic planning for a UX group, it’s essential to first “understand the corporate strategy, … identify the thought leaders, … and study what they are saying.” A UX group should perform a SWOT analysis on itself and evaluate its “assets and core competencies to assess where they lie relative to the new strategic initiatives.” Then, the group should “assess potential organizational alliances and blockages” and analyze the business value the group can provide to the company.

Figure 8—Extending the charter of user experience
Extending the charter of user experience

Once a UX group has a strategic plan in place, the group should present the plan to thought leaders within the company—explaining the group’s position, alignments, and their value proposition for the business—request their feedback on the plan, and discuss opportunities for collaboration and synergy with them. Innes said, “Communicate the benefits and contributions your group makes to the company.”

As Friedland and Innes told us, executing a strategic plan requires adjusting a UX “group’s priorities to align with the new initiatives,” then analyzing the realigned group’s business value to the company, and working “with your new partners to ensure successful execution.” A UX group should “always be on the lookout for new ways that UX can contribute” to a company.

For the final group exercise of the day, Friedland and Innes asked participants to develop a “strategic positioning plan for UX at your company,” aligning their goals with their companies’ strategic objectives, then prepare a presentation to pitch their plan.

In Summary

This course provided an excellent introduction to its topic, and I’m sure it encouraged some participants to think more strategically about the role of user experience within a company. It also offered analyses of UX activities in various contexts that managers of UX groups probably found both very interesting and useful. However, the intended audience encompassed “intermediate to advanced practitioners … or managers,” and it’s difficult to provide content that could wholly satisfy such a broadly defined audience. For UX practitioners and managers who have been immersed in strategic thinking about user experience matters for years, this course’s content might have lacked sufficient depth.

The course included three group exercises in which participants

  • analyzed the operational outputs of their UX groups and their benefit to their companies
  • performed organizational audits and developed collaboration plans
  • created comprehensive action plans for aligning their UX groups with their companies’ strategic objectives

The group exercises were well conceived and executed. The presenters provided clear instructions for the tasks, good examples of the work products participants were to create, well-designed worksheets, and guidance on how much time participants should spend on each aspect of the tasks.

Liam Friedland and Jon Innes prepared an aesthetically pleasing, richly illustrated presentation for their course—the best designed presentation of those for the courses I attended. For those who wanted to delve deeper into UX strategy, the course materials provided an excellent bibliography.

Tuesday Night: IxDA / UXnet Dinner

In the evening, colleagues from IxDA and UXnet gathered together at a dinner Lada Gorlenko and I organized, shown in Figures 9–13. We enjoyed a delicious meal at Buonanotte, an excellent Italian restaurant with lots of atmosphere and a great DJ. Such opportunities to meet face to face with colleagues who live in far-flung parts of the world are one of the best things about attending conferences.

Figure 9—Gathering at the IxDA / UXnet dinner
Gathering at the IxDA / UXnet dinner
Figure 10—Me taking a picture of Aaron Marcus photographing diners
Me taking a picture of Aaron Marcus photographing diners
Figure 11—Aaron Marcus, UXnet Advisory Board Member, snapping a picture, as Pabini takes a picture of him
Aaron Marcus snapping a picture
Figure 12—Members of IxDA at dinner
Members of IxDA at dinner
Figure 13—UXnet Local Ambassadors and IxDA members at dinner
UXnet Local Ambassadors and IxDA members at dinner

Photos by Pabini Gabriel-Petit and Aaron Marcus 

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Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel, Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

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