Merging User Experience and Systems Engineering

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A column by Janet M. Six
April 25, 2016

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our expert panel discusses how to merge User Experience into a large company that usually approaches projects from a systems-engineering point of view, with the goal of ensuring that the efforts of both disciplines support one another. The panel also discuss how and when to involve team members and stakeholders.

Each month in Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers 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 questions to: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Carol Barnum—Director of User Research and Founding Partner at UX Firm; author of Usability Testing Essentials: Ready, Set … Test!
  • Bob Hotard—Lead eCommerce Web Design Architect at; Technology & Production Chair at TEDxSanAntonio
  • Cory Lebson—Principal Consultant at Lebsontech; Author of UX Careers Handbook (forthcoming); Past President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA)
  • Ritch Macefield—CEO of Ax-Stream
  • Janet Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist
  • Jeremy Wilt—Lead Experience Architect at EffectiveUI

Q: How can we merge UX principles into software-development projects at a large company that has always approached projects from a systems-engineering point of view? Our company knows we need to create a better user experience, but we’re not sure how to add User Experience to our current development framework. How can we ensure that the company does not see these two efforts as separate, but instead understands that User Experience and Engineering must be supportive of each other?—From a UXmatters reader

“I wonder whether this is about merging principles into frameworks or more about how you can understand and influence your company’s culture,” replies Jeremy. “Marc Rettig has published an incredibly eye-opening article on Medium, “Culture Work: Organizational Becoming Made Practical.” If you don’t have time to read the whole article, skim down to the part where he talks about orange and blue companies. 

“Bringing in some design thinking, a few UX people or tools, or a few process changes probably won’t scratch the surface or stick at your company. Since you’re dealing with people, you’re probably going to have to consider an intentional, difficult, long-term approach.

“You might want to consider starting with a workshop or a few events that shock your company’s system a bit. Maybe you could tell your story to your company as a team. Imagine sharing what you do well today and hearing from each other where you see opportunities to grow. Take the time to imagine together what your organization could look like if:

  • Everyone approached their work with more empathy.
  • You based your decisions on what you’ve heard from customers.
  • You viewed your work as a living product, not a series of projects.
  • Engineers and designers worked together toward the common goal of improving the experiences you create.

“Start by telling stories, listening for what matters to those around you, and figuring out how you can collectively tell new stories that would point your company and its culture in a new direction.”

Involve Your Stakeholders

“I’ve had a number of consulting gigs that involved my simply doing a lunch-and-learn or two for key stakeholders,” responds Cory. “I’ve advocated for the value of User Experience and explained that it really wouldn’t be that hard to integrate various UX methods smoothly into a team’s existing workflow. But you don’t need to hire an outside consultant to deliver a lunch-and-learn. You’ll likely find that your company’s staff already includes people with the skills to facilitate this kind of session.

“When looking for someone within your team to lead lunch-and-learn sessions, identify team members who not only demonstrate a passion for communicating the value of User Experience, but are also master storytellers who can articulate a future in which User Experience has been successfully integrated into your corporate culture and processes.”

“This is a key question that is often overlooked or underexplored—even by businesses that have an established UX team,” answers Ritch. “Over the last several years, I have been doing a lot of consulting on integrating user-centered design (UCD) with agile methods to optimize the System Development Lifecycle (SDLC) for large, enterprise projects. I’ve had some success with my approach, so have written the following UXmatters articles to pass on some of my thoughts and experiences:

“My approach is to use a Collaborative Interaction Design and Specification (CIDS) tool such as Axure to unify and enable the integration of User Experience and Development teams, as well as other key players in the SDLC, such as Product Owners and Business Analysts (BAs). For more on this, see my UXmatters article “Collaborative Interaction Design and Specification.”

“The trick is to involve all stakeholders in setting up the tools, processes, and policies at the outset rather than letting this happen in silos. It is essential to have someone who understands all aspects of the SDLC lead this change—someone who can talk everyone’s language and look at the big picture of how to run the SDLC. Moving to these new approaches involves a lot of change issues, with all of the organizational-change problems that generally arise in such situations, so you can expect a lot of resistance. Thus, having a leader with good change-management skills is also key. Finally, someone at the C-level must drive and support such a change—for example, the Chief Technology Officer (CTO).”

Be a Stealth UX Champion

“First, you need to become a stealth UX champion,” advises Carol. “Find a way to get yourself onto a product team, so you can contribute to the conversation about users and product goals. Find an opportunity to suggest a small usability study early in the product-development lifecycle. Sell the need to understand your users, within the context of their working with your product. Sell the timing of research, so you can get user insights early and apply that knowledge about the user experience during product design and development. Present the data about the value of small studies from the work of Jakob Nielsen, Robert Virzi, and James Lewis, who published research findings in the early 1990s that demonstrated the effectiveness of small studies under certain conditions. 

“If you cannot get assigned to a product-development team, use your role in the organization to get support for your own small usability study—whether for a product that is in development or that has been released. Even better, test a product that is about to get updated. You can present the results of your small study at a lunch-and-learn or in another forum where people can see what you’ve done and discuss what you’ve learned.

“If a face-to-face meeting isn’t feasible, you can put together some video highlights from your small usability study and share these widely in your company. Keep in mind that your primary goal is to demonstrate how UX activities can support collaboration by providing development teams with vital information about users and their wants, needs, and desires in relation to your product.

“Once you have made the case that involving User Experience is vital to building good products and that UX work can be done effectively, efficiently, and collaboratively, you have taken a giant step toward getting the support you need to contribute to your organization’s product-development process.”

Seize the Opportunity for User Experience to Grow Your Business

“Your enterprise has been missing out on the opportunity to grow the practice of User Experience within the business. In evangelizing the value of User Experience, I would approach your company’s stakeholders from two perspectives," replies Bob:

  1. Even if you design an application from the most efficient, systems-engineering point of view—saving money at every step along the way—your application can still fail in the hands of users. Even if your application basically does what it’s supposed to do, but sucks and users hate using it, you’ve still failed. People talk about and share good tools. Bad design impairs software adoption. Software that works effortlessly becomes a natural part of your marketing and sales efforts because customers love the products they’re using and tell others about them.
  2. Once you’ve convinced stakeholders, adding User Experience to your current product-development framework is relatively easy. Doing user research, usability testing, information architecture, interaction design, and content-development tasks early in the development process can save your corporation millions in a short period of time. Sure, you need to spend money to add those UX activities to the process, but their impact on concept validation alone saves huge amounts of money. By integrating UX activities early in your organization’s current SDLC, you can prevent your team’s wasting time on what’s not going to work, modify what needs to be tweaked, and continue confidently with user-validated designs—all at a fraction of the cost of testing fully developed models or software.

“Finally, I strongly recommend your following an integrated process. UX design doesn’t happen in a vacuum or in parallel to software development. Agile methods have helped bring this home to teams. Teammates have to be partners in the process, so you should involve business, development, and quality-assurance testing stakeholders in the UX design process. Eventually, all of the major players on a software team will begin to work with the user in mind.”

First Crawl, Then Walk, Then Run

Take baby steps to get started. It is really great that the leadership of your company knows you need to improve the user experience for your products. I agree with our expert panel that as many team members and stakeholders as possible need to be involved in the adoption of UX activities—at as early a stage in the product-development lifecycle as possible. Let everyone know that you respect them and their roles on the team and that your work will not undo theirs. Listen to their ideas and concerns, then work together to design and build an even better product.

Be realistic. Don’t expect that your company will suddenly be designing products with the prowess of Apple. Start small, addressing low-hanging fruit first. In other words, address any obvious design issues in your product first. How can you determine what they are? Do an expert review or some usability testing, as Steve Krug describes in Rocket Surgery Made Easy. Steve does a great job of explaining how engineers could design better products and perform their own usability tests in an easy and inexpensive manner.

As a classically trained computer scientist, I am a huge fan of Ben Shneiderman’s Designing the User Interface: Techniques for Effective Human-Computer Interaction. Yes, this is a college text book—and it’s a good one! The book makes it very easy to understand these techniques from an engineering point of view and immediately apply them. If your company applies his “10 Golden Rules of Interface Design” to your product, you’ll be way ahead of many products on the market today.

In summary, respect the Systems Engineers and the practices of systems engineering that your large company has been using with success over the years. There is much good there that has enabled your company to grow and sustain itself. Take the time to listen to the people on your team—even when they are only griping. Quickly design a prototype and conduct usability testing as a team—even if your organization is not an agile shop. If you’re not sure which design option is better, do a quick A/B or multivariate test on the designs to find out. Don’t make this complicated. Just be sure you test with people who did not write the code and don’t know too much about the inner workings of the product. Let the resulting data lead the way ahead. 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. 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.  Read More

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