In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss the following topics:
the purpose and benefits of a UX vision
cultures that foster great design
Every month, Ask UXmatters gives our panel of UX experts an opportunity to answer our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your question to us at: ask.uxmat[email protected].
The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:
Steve Baty—Principal of Meld Studios; Vice President of IxDA; UXmatters columnist
Leo Frishberg—Principal Architect, User Experience at Tektronix Inc.
Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Publisher and Editor in Chief of UXmatters; Principal User Experience Architect at BMC Software; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
Mike Hughes—User Assistance Architect at IBM Internet Security Systems; UXmatters columnist
Tobias Komischke—Director of User Experience at Infragistics
Jim Nieters—Senior Director of User Experience for Travel Products at HP; UXmatters columnist
Robert Reimann—Lead Interaction Designer at Sonos, Inc.; Past-President of Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
Janet Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist
Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
The Purpose of a UX Vision
Q: What are the purpose and benefits of having a UX vision?—from a UXmatters reader
A UX vision should be part of the overall roadmap your company follows. What type of user experience do you want your customers or users to have? How will it support them in achieving their goals? How will it help your company to achieve its goals and build your brand? You should have clear answers to all of these questions that are well known to your entire team. Instead of a product team’s just making UX design decisions on the fly, you should first deliberately lay the groundwork for all design decisions by defining your UX vision. Be proactive, not reactive.
“The purpose of a UX vision, or strategy,” answers Robert, “is also its primary benefit: a human-centered approach, or roadmap, to a product or service that an entire enterprise—including marketing, development, sales, and executives—can rally around and work to achieve. Thus, in theory, having a UX vision ensures that all customer or user touchpoints positively reinforce the brand and the customer or user experience, resulting in a more cohesive and coherent product and customer relationship.”
“In brief,” responds Leo, “a UX vision is the articulation of what a company expects to do to make money, from the perspective of the people they expect to use, experience, or purchase it.”
“A UX vision is a short statement or visualization that communicates the essence of the experience you are attempting to enable for users, customers, or guests,” replies Steve. “Your UX vision provides a way of gaining collective agreement about strategic direction, so all of the members of a product team—collectively or independently—can make decisions that are consistent with that overall direction. The UX vision can also serve as an elevator pitch and acts as a beacon, providing guidance to other people about where you and your team are headed.”
“Achieving anything meaningful requires that you have clearly articulated goals,” advises Pabini. “Defining your UX vision articulates your goals for a business unit or a project, enabling a common understanding of those goals and unifying your team in striving to achieve them. By defining your UX vision, you set a standard by which you can evaluate every decision you make along the way and judge whether it supports, enhances, or detracts from that vision. As a project progresses, it is essential to maintain the coherence of your UX vision.”
UX Vision from Two Perspectives
“I see at least two different kinds of UX visions,” answers Tobias. “You may want to create a vision for implementing User Experience within a company. Or you may want to come up with a UX vision for a product. The way you address each of these visions is different, but the overall goal is the same: you want to make sure that, ultimately, users of an interactive system have the best experience possible.
Typically, a UX vision anticipates a future outcome, and that is the reason a vision can be so powerful. Science-fiction literature and movies are visionary in that they describe what could be in the future, in a way that is compelling to us. A vision is possible and achievable—but without doing something to get there, you will not get there.
“If your goal is to integrate User Experience into a company, such a vision would describe what the company would be like after you’ve achieved that integration—or perhaps after the first phase. What would customers and users think about it? What would its product lifecycle management process look like? What would its products be like?
“If your goal is to develop a cutting-edge product, the vision would describe its characteristics once it’s built: What would it look and feel like? How is it different and better from today’s product?
“For both types of UX visions—for a company or a product—the more concrete, vivid, and detailed your UX vision is, the better. It’s sometimes hard to tell how creative you should be and to what extent you should consider constraints. Yet, when President John F. Kennedy announced the plan to send humans on the moon within a decade, he knew it was possible and didn’t want obstacles to define the vision. A vision’s purpose is to inspire people and show them new ideas that may be beyond their current frame of reference.”
UX Vision for Products
“A UX vision accomplishes several goals for a company—both upward and downward,” says Leo. “Upward goals identify strategic opportunities for marketing and business leaders, who may face potentially disruptive markets or technologies and the like. In this context, the UX vision provides concrete examples of how a potential solution fits into a user ecosystem that may be just emerging. Further, the UX vision provides leaders with an artifact that facilitates discussion within the context of business models—not only defining what we should be building, but who we should be approaching and how we can segment the market or product space to best achieve our future goals. For more about this, see my article on the upward benefits of a UX vision, ‘Architecture and User Experience (Part 6: An Ecology of Use).’
“Downward goals provide benefits that are equally important. For the marketing or product manager, engineering teams, the salesforce, support teams, documentation teams, and so forth, the UX vision provides the target in the landscape that everyone can focus on. Keeping all of the individuals on a team focused on a desired outcome before a product actually gets built is a huge accelerator. Team members can find better ways of getting to the vision, they can reflect on and critique the vision—hopefully improving it as well—but most important, they become socialized to the strategic direction the company has decided to take.”
UX Vision: An Example
“We just finished a project for which we created a UX vision for a future product in the energy sector,” relates Tobias. “We spent 4 months defining the user interface for a single workflow. The output was not the product. It wasn’t even an interactive prototype on the target development platform. What we delivered was a narrated video presenting how our key personas would interact with each other and the system to execute the workflow.
Did we consider each and every technical constraint of the different development platforms? No. Although we did have solution architects on the team who contributed insights into feasibility issues. With our video, we didn’t want to convey how to build the next-generation system, we wanted to inspire our client to envision what the future could look like. Once we delivered the final artifacts for the project, the client was very happy with the result. They told us the time and money was well spent and gave them novel ideas that helped them secure more funding for additional steps that would advance them toward realizing the vision.”
Cultures That Foster Great Design
Q: What cultures encourage great design?—from a UXmatters reader
“Cultures that foster great design are collaborative cultures in which user experience is considered a strategic differentiator, the User Experience group receives executive support, User Experience owns UX design decisions, the organization invests adequate time and money in both great UX design and superb user-interface implementation, and what a UX designer specifies gets built,” answers Pabini. “Great design doesn’t matter unless it actually gets built and can benefit users. My UXmatters article ‘Sharing Ownership of UX’ describes how, through collaboration, all of a multidisciplinary product team’s best ideas can become part of a great product design. But if team members disagree about what design direction to follow, the UX Architect on a project should be the final arbiter of what ideas should be part of a design solution.” In that article, I wrote:
“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.”—Pabini Gabriel-Petit
“Executives must communicate that great design is essential,” advises Jim. “Having an executive both speak about and take action to promote the value of design as a differentiator is essential to others’ accepting new ideas. See my recent UXmatters column, ‘Power or Collaboration—What’s Most Valuable to a UX Leader?’ which talks about the importance of having executive support.
“It is important to have a culture in which UX leaders can facilitate the conversation about innovation and design as a differentiator. I like doing this by leading design labs, or workshops. By facilitating this dialogue rather than dictating a design direction, UX leverages integrative thinking, in which all disciplines contribute their ideas and constraints, and the team comes up with the best solution, given all the constraints. This does not mean accepting a mediocre solution that everyone can agree to, but finding what is truly the best solution out of all possible solutions. This process requires designers to become experts at facilitating the dialogue.
“The culture within a UX organization should ensure UX leaders both have a strong vision for great design and possess leadership skills. Too often, we promote great designers into leadership roles when they do not possess leadership skills—and frankly, don’t really want to manage people. In doing so, we lose multipliers and instead put them in the position of being diminishers. The best leaders understand how to inspire and motivate a team to do the best work of their lives—plain and simple.”
“It is important to have UX leaders who can facilitate design discussions that result in better design,” recommends Daniel.
“Great designs seldom come from inspired genius; they typically result from collaboration and iteration,” responds Mike. “It is okay—expected even—that UX designers expose their half-baked ideas to public scrutiny by both their peers in UX Design and stakeholders, whose role is to critique the designs dispassionately. Everyone fully understands and accepts that the design would have been more polished had the designer kept it under wraps for another week or so. Everyone also understands that would have delayed getting input from collaborators by a week or so, and the team would have lost perhaps three design iterations.
“Stakeholders view design as a process and deem that people are good designers if they run a good design process. That often means the final design has little resemblance to the initial wireframes—or whatever—the designer produced. Stakeholders admire the designer for starting a good conversation that results in a good design.”
Building a Great Design Team
“When you build a design team, everything hinges on the caliber of the people you hire, and to some extent, who you’re able to hire depends on the nature of your corporate culture,” advises Pabini. “The best designers are 10X better and more productive than the average designer with the same amount of experience—or as developers commonly say, ‘an order of magnitude better.’ As I wrote in my UXmatters article, ‘Specialists Versus Generalists: A False Dichotomy?’:
“The more 10X people you hire, the greater the likelihood that you’ll have a 10X UX team. Though a smoothly functioning team with great synergy can be greater than the sum of its parts.”—Pabini Gabriel-Petit
Jim concurs: “Hiring the best designers. You cannot do great design without the best designers. Jim Collins states in Good to Great that the first goal of a leader is to get the best people on the bus. Jack Welch says in Winning that you need to get the best minds in the game.
“I’ve experienced both sides of this issue several times: When you have low performers, you spend your time as a leader trying to make those low performers work at an acceptable level. When you have top performers, they function as multipliers, who make everyone around them better. I realize this position may be unpopular, and I’ve also noticed that it often scares people. My advice: Don’t worry about it. As a contributor, ask your boss what you can do to improve, then face the brutal facts, learn what you need to learn, and work on making those improvements. Constantly deliver superior designs that others cannot ignore.”
“Keep teams small and ensure there is the right mix and balance of skills in the room during ideation,” suggests Daniel.
Failure Is Part of the Process
“Teams need space for exploration and failure!” exclaims Jim. “Experimentation can lead to failure, which then becomes the foundation for future success. Take Buckminster Fuller, who invented a modular home that a manufacturer could mass produce and airlift anywhere. The home failed, but became the basis of the geodesic-dome design we see in many museums, performing arts centers, stadiums, and homes throughout the world.
“In too many work environments, both designers and the leaders of design organizations either jump too quickly to critique or can’t accept risks and initial failures. Every leader I know says he or she is willing to accept risk-taking, but it seems that very few really do encourage this by rewarding innovative thinking, regardless of the outcome.”
“One tenet of innovation is to fail quickly, then try again,” responds Pabini. “People need to feel confident in expressing half-baked or even seemingly crazy ideas, which they and others can then either develop further, turning them into viable solutions, or reject.
“For a constructive team of strong, experienced individuals, the iterative feedback loop for ideas that arise during ideation can have very short cycles: Someone offers an idea. The team tries to poke holes in it to see if it holds up, then if it proves to have merit, evolves the idea in a way that builds on its strengths and eliminates its deficiencies. While taking this approach enables the rapid evolution of ideas, it requires a very healthy, positive team dynamic and isn’t for the faint of heart. Inexperienced designers often lack either the confidence to hold up to such critiques or the judgment to know whether they should continue fighting for their ideas or let them go. On a team fraught with politics or dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics or where team members’ levels of power or experience are grossly unequal, it’s necessary to take a more restrained approach. In any of those situations, follow Jim’s advice.”
“It is important to encourage product team members—and give them the time—to come up with lots of ideas and make sure they know it’s okay to fail, with the goal of creating something better together,” says Daniel. “And, of course, know when to say ‘No!’ and when to say ‘Yes!’ regarding the scope of a project.”
To get the best designs possible, you need to allow your team members to fail. Let them brainstorm and consider a wide range of ideas. Remember that some of the most successful designs are those that are creative and unusual.
“Dead ends and failures are useful data—no more than that,” states Mike. “Discovering what doesn’t work is valuable design work.”
Creating a Conducive Work Environment
“Create a physical space that supports interaction, play, and collaboration,” recommends Jim. Daniel suggests, “Your work environment should have the following characteristics:
Make sure people feel heard and are part of creating the UX vision.
Provide physical workspaces that allow people to sketch, tell stories, and use Post-its to map out their thinking.
Incorporate objects that encourage fun and free thinking.
Keep good materials on hand like paper, Sharpies, and colored markers.
Help people avoid interruptions by providing spaces where people can turn off the phones and get away from their email.
Provide alternatives to meeting while sitting around a table.”
Dr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters. Read More