Sharing Ownership of UX

May 28, 2007

A UX architect, or lead UX designer, is the member of a product team who is primarily responsible for ensuring all aspects of a digital product that users experience directly—including its form, behavior, and content—are learnable, usable, useful, and aesthetically pleasing. Thus, a UX architect has an important role to play from a product’s conception to its launch. But creating truly great products requires an entire product team to place the needs of users foremost when making product decisions—or even better, a user-centered corporate culture. If you find yourself in a less enlightened company or on a product team that just does’t get how creating great user experiences contributes to a company’s success, you should take every opportunity to evangelize the value of UX to people in your company—from the executive management team to your peers in other disciplines on product teams. If you need help making the case for UX, have a look at my article on UXmatters, “Why UX Should Matter to Software Companies.”

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The Multidisciplinary Nature of Product Teams

So, who owns UX? An entire product team must consciously share responsibility for UX—or ownership of UX—because the members of a multidisciplinary product team impact the success of a product’s user experience in different ways. Three different disciplines that play key roles are

  • product management—It’s the role of the product manager to ensure that the product team develops a viable product—the right product for the right market—with a business model that can lead to success in the marketplace. The product manager prioritizes marketing requirements and features, according to business goals and user needs. Today, user research, Web or other usage statistics, and usability testing ideally play a major part in defining digital products. User research helps us understand who our users are and how they work, as well as their wants and needs. Recording and analyzing usage statistics lets us better understand what users are doing with our products. Usability testing identifies problems users are encountering with our existing products. The product manager must also take into account technical considerations that impact either the cost of development or the likelihood of the product’s adoption by users. So the product manager’s success in defining the product customers or users need depends to a great extent on leveraging the knowledge of and working collaboratively with other members of the product team—particularly, the UX architect and system architect. Even so, the product manager is responsible for the product vision.
  • user experience—UX is itself multidisciplinary. UX designers, interaction designers, industrial designers, information architects, information designers, visual designers, user researchers, usability specialists, accessibility specialists, technical communicators, and in some cases, packaging designers all play roles in creating successful user experiences for digital products. Once the product manager has defined the marketing requirements for the product, the UX professionals on the product team work collaboratively to conceptualize, design, specify, and prototype a digital product. Ideally, the UX architect involves all members of the product team in the process of conceiving a UX design solution—particularly the product manager, system architect, and user interface developers. Doing so ensures the UX team designs the right product for the market, engineering can build the product as designed and specified, the engineering team buys into the UX design solution, and the design gets built. However, the UX architect is responsible for all design decisions and the UX vision.
  • engineering—The system architect and engineers keep the other members of the product team aware of technical factors that constrain the definition and design of the digital product. Software engineering also implements and tests features that facilitate the gathering of usage statistics, which will inform the definition and design of future versions of the product. The system architect develops a software design that optimally satisfies the marketing requirements. The engineering team develops a feature or product, according to the marketing requirements and UX specifications for that feature or product. Quality assurance plays an important role in ensuring defects that would mar the user experience are discovered and fixed before a product launches. If a product is not robust or its performance is poor, everything the product team has done to provide a good user experience will be for naught. It doesn’t matter that a product has the right features and is well designed if it just doesn’t work. Thus, it’s the responsibility of engineering to develop a sound system architecture and high-quality code for the product.

Figure 1 summarizes how successful multidisciplinary product teams share the ownership of UX. Product management defines products that customers need and, therefore, have value to both customers and the product development company. By defining product requirements, product management provides the input the UX team needs to design products that are usable, useful, and desirable. UX design specifications provide the input engineering needs to create real products. Engineering both constrains and realizes product requirements and UX design—what is possible and what’s not.

Figure 1—Sharing ownership of UX
Sharing ownership of UX

Two UX gurus have written about what a multidisciplinary product team must accomplish to provide the best possible user experience to customers:

“Too many companies believe that all they must do is provide a ‘neat’ technology or some ‘cool’ product or, sometimes, just good, solid engineering. Nope. All of those are desirable (and solid engineering is a must), but there is much more to a successful product than that: understanding how the product is to be used, design, engineering, positioning, marketing, branding—all matter. It requires designing the Total User Experience.”—Don Norman

“Key objectives always seem to focus on the big three: usability, usefulness, and appeal (or desire, delight, or other approved words of emotional rapport). Key concerns revolve around including all possible stakeholders; merging design with business and marketing, not just engineering; showing return-on-investment (ROI) value; valuing storytelling and story ‘selling’; and looking for very innovative or radically creative or disruptive (in a good sense) solutions.”—Aaron Marcus

Achieving all of this requires a team effort!

Barriers to Shared Ownership of UX

I’ve described a well-balanced, smoothly functioning product team in a healthy corporate culture. But what happens when the dynamics on a product team or between functional groups within a company are less than ideal or even dysfunctional? In those cases, teamwork and collaboration among disciplines suffers—sometimes to the point where using the term product team seems oxymoronic—creating barriers to the shared ownership of UX.

According to Don Norman, “Thinking that one’s own discipline is the most important of all gets in the way of teamwork.” And if a particular discipline such as marketing or engineering dominates a product development corporation, the other disciplines often suffer. I’ve never encountered a company where UX dominated the culture to the detriment of other disciplines, but marketing-driven and engineering-driven cultures are common. In such cultures, a problem of balance that a company should solve organization wide affects every product team, and UX professionals must wage the same battles over and over again.

The Dominance of Marketing

In marketing-driven cultures where marketing, product management, and sales concerns dominate, there is often a desire to satisfy the wants and needs of customers. In a company that does the user research and analysis that is necessary to truly understand users’ needs, this can create a culture that is sympathetic to and supportive of UX.

Unfortunately, marketing-driven cultures often engage in feature wars with competitors. Sales demands the addition of features that will help them to close specific sales deals—perhaps to satisfy the demands of just one customer. Some product managers prioritize adding new features above all else, and the user experiences of their products fall prey to featuritis. Such forces are hard to resist, but it is incumbent on UX teams to do everything they can to dissuade product teams from creating products that are bloated with features most users won’t find useful.

Kim Goodwin of Cooper once said, “Features are meaningless. They mean nothing to users. A coherent product user interface is the product to users.” She compared the results of developing products to satisfy lists of required features to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, which grew by accretion and has stairways that go nowhere and unexpected precipices.

A dictatorial product manager can destroy all sense of the teamwork that would result in shared ownership of UX. On one occasion, I saw an all-powerful product manager refuse to have UX involved in a project at all, because his only concern was adding new features. His product was one of the most poorly designed products the company ever produced.

The Dominance of Engineering

In engineering-driven cultures, engineers have the ultimate power as the final arbiters of what goes into a digital product. After all, they’re the ones who actually build software products. In such cultures, products are commonly not implemented to spec. Engineers often feel free to “cherry pick a spec”—as Kim Goodwin has described this phenomenon—and implement only the parts of a specification they choose to follow.

Or perhaps, as Luke Wroblewski described in his column on UXmatters, “Developing the Invisible,” what you “get back is half of the design. By half of the design I mean that all of the features, content, and functions are there, and they are working as designed. … What’s missing is what’s invisible: alignment and whitespace.” These are subtleties that some engineers do not appreciate or care to bother about.

In such cases, UX designers are often forced to persuade individual engineering teams or even individual engineers to implement their user interface designs as specified. This can be a time-consuming process, so things may fall by the wayside when deadlines are tight. When designers do not succeed in getting their designs implemented to spec, the product user experience usually suffers, because, generally, engineers who think they know better what a user interface should be actually do not.

The best one can hope for in an engineering-driven culture is that engineers are savvy about user experience, care about usability, and believe in user-centered design (UCD). If this isn’t the case, the UX team will have a lot of evangelizing to do.

No C-Level UX Management

When UX has no representation on an executive management team, the unavoidable consequence is that UX will be subordinate to product management, engineering, or some other functional group within a company. In such a case, the very existence of the UX organization within the company is dependent on the goodwill and sponsorship of another functional group. For any of a number of reasons—financial, political, or just a change in management—such a UX organization can lose its sponsorship and perhaps even cease to exist.

Even if such dire consequences don’t ensue, UX is subordinate to a function with which it should be equal. This can make it more difficult for UX professionals to represent the best interests of users when conflicts arise on a product team between UX and the function to which it is subordinate—whether product management, marketing, or engineering. It might be difficult to get budget for staff or user research or usability testing. The concerns of both product management and engineering might overshadow those of user experience—simply because UX is the only functional group that plays a key role in product development, but has no representation on the executive management team. Perhaps no one at the table can effectively make the case for UX.

When the management of a sponsoring group highly values UX, usability, and UCD and understands the need for the UX teams’ autonomy, UX architects usually have parity with product managers and system architects on product teams. The UX team might get all the staff it needs and budget for usability labs and UCD activities. Even so, a situation in which UX is subordinate to another group is less than ideal, because over time, things might change for the worse.

Communication Breakdowns

In corporate cultures that are antithetical to the shared ownership of UX, some of the most egregious communication problems are so common that well-known metaphors exist for them:

  • “throwing documents over walls”—Rather than working collaboratively and iteratively on true product teams, product management throws a Marketing Requirements Document over the wall to UX, then UX throws a UX Specification over the wall to engineering. This is waterfall development at its worst.
  • “information silos”—Rather than sharing information across all members of product teams with the goal of creating the best possible products, a competitive or even adversarial relationship exists between different functional groups, which silo information in a misguided attempt to create political advantage for their own groups.

All of the problems I’ve described are likely to result in user experiences that are less usable, useful, and desirable. While product teams can overcome the cultural barriers that impede their ability to share responsibility for UX, product teams within a corporate culture that fosters shared ownership of UX are much more likely to achieve this ideal and create great user experiences.

Working With Multidisciplinary Product Teams

Creating great product user experiences takes a village—a smoothly functioning multidisciplinary product team that shares ownership of UX. This is the ideal.

“Our goal is to work in multidisciplinary teams to produce effective, pleasurable designs rapidly and efficiently. … Let the programming and marketing teams know how the product will look and behave at the very start of the project. … Become an essential part of the team, so our input is provided simultaneously with everyone else’s.”—Don Norman

Characteristics of a Multidisciplinary Product Team

Ideally, a multidisciplinary product team has the following characteristics:

  • It is a team of equals, on which the product manager, UX architect, and system architect—who represent the three key disciplines on a product team—have equal voices.
  • Balance exists between these three key roles, which together—like the three legs of the three-legged stool shown in Figure 2—provide the greatest stability and balance.
Figure 2—Balance
  • The product manager, UX architect, and system architect make decisions pertaining to their own roles, but receive input from one another and from other team members in their disciplines, enabling them to make the best decisions possible.
  • The members of the product team
    • communicate effectively with one another
    • work closely, collaboratively, and cooperatively with one another to achieve their common goals
    • trust and share information with one another
    • develop effective processes that help ensure their success
  • Product management, UX, and engineering share responsibility for UX—or ownership of UX.

Collaboration on Multidisciplinary Product Teams

The three key members of a multidisciplinary product team—the product manager, UX architect, and system architect—work together collaboratively to define a product’s vision, functionality, and form. Each key member of the product team has primary responsibility and decision-making authority for a specific aspect of the product vision, as shown in Figure 3:

  • The product manager is primarily responsible for establishing the business goals for the product and envisioning a value proposition that satisfies those goals—defining the product and features that a specific market segment needs, differentiating the product from those of competitors, and devising a viable business model that can lead to success in the marketplace.
  • The UX architect is primarily responsible for analyzing the needs of the target users and how they perform tasks that relate to the product domain; envisioning a holistic product user experience that supports users in performing those tasks, while satisfying marketing requirements and observing technical constraints; and conceptualizing an optimal UX design solution.
  • The system architect is responsible for devising a system architecture that optimally supports all of the product goals the product manager and UX architect establish and enables engineering to efficiently develop a robust, high-performance product.
Figure 3—Product vision
Product vision

Each of the key disciplines on the product team plays an important role in defining the product’s functionality, as shown in Figure 4:

  • The product manager has primary responsibility for defining what the product can do and the scope of the product’s feature set, which to some extent determines what users can do with the product.
  • UX is primarily responsible for the product’s interaction design, which determines the workflows for specific tasks, how users can perform specific tasks using the product, the product’s behaviors in response to user interactions, and at a more fine-grained level, what users can do with the product.
  • Engineering is responsible for informing designers of technical constraints, implementing the product’s functionality as specified by UX, and ensuring that the product’s implementation has few defects.
Figure 4—Functionality

Each of the key disciplines on the product team also plays an important role in defining the product’s form, as shown in Figure 5:

  • The product manager is primarily responsible for defining the product’s marketing requirements and features, which determines the product’s platform and overall form.
  • UX has primary responsibility for designing the product’s visual user interface, which determines the presentation of the product’s functionality, expresses its task flows, and in some cases, the affordances that let users perform specific tasks.
  • Engineering is responsible for implementing the product’s user interface as designed by UX and ensuring that the user interface has few defects.
Figure 5—Form

By working closely together in harmony, product management, UX, and engineering can achieve synergy, making the product user experience greater than the sum of their individual efforts, as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6—Achieving synergy to create great user experiences
Achieving synergy to create great user experiences

While each discipline on the product team has its role to play, it is the true teamwork and collaboration of a cohesive product team that makes great user experiences possible. 

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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