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
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. 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 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. 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
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
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.