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Moving to a UX-Critical Culture

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
April 11, 2016

With all the amazing changes that have been happening in the business world over the past few years, thrusting User Experience into the limelight, one would think that UX professionals have arrived. That we’d be able to devote enough time, money, and resources to ensuring the user experience is just right—because, you know, it’s important. For decades, we’ve been fighting to ensure that User Experience gets considered during product development. Now, more than ever before, I find myself fighting a different kind of fight, to ensure that teams allocate the proper time to User Experience for us to be effective.

When stakeholders say they want something to pop, wow, or sizzle—or use some other silly word to describe User Experience—they’re actually trivializing the work that is necessary to make User Experience happen in a meaningful way. When people refer to UX professionals as magicians, those who are not part of the design or User Experience world begin to think that what we do is easy. But creating an amazing User Experience is really hard work, so we need to start reminding folks—gently, of course; don’t be a blow-hard about it—that what we do is not magic. It requires time and—God, forbid—actual planning to do the job properly.

Let me give you an example: When a project goes live, an email message typically gets sent out, discussing the project and its benefits and thanking contributors. This is a great, quick, easy way, not only to share information with the larger company, but also to acknowledge the efforts of teammates. Most such announcements include a shout out to a UX colleague. Inevitably, they talk about the magic they’ve created. For the most part, this is a great thing for the visibility of UX folks within the company. These email messages show that User Experience is part of the team, effecting real, positive change both within the company and for clients.

But they don’t ever refer to anyone else on the team as a magician—only the UX folks. So what happens? The next project includes UX time, but because of competing issues, it’s almost never enough time. When time estimates get called into question, the good, well-intentioned, smart folks doing the project sizing almost always point to our magical qualities as reasons for cutting the time for User Experience short. A typical conversation might go like this:

Me: “Hey, I noticed that you cut the UX time by about 20%. Given the requirements and the client’s very real focus on delivering a best-in-class user experience and a very cutting-edge user interface, we really need that additional time to be able to deliver.”

Project Sizer: “Yeah, I know, but the timeline is short, and the budget is coming under attack. I saw that work you guys did for that other client, and people described it as magical. So I know you can work that magic here, too.”

Me: “Yes, we are really talented, but we still need the right amount of time to do that work. Have the technical folks or business analysts been cut as well?”

Project Sizer: “Well, no…”

This story highlights the detrimental effect superlatives can have on the perception, not of the value User Experience provides, but the process that is necessary for User Experience to provide that value. So, while it may feel great to have someone refer to you in mythic terms, in actuality, it just makes it harder for us to justify what we do, when, and how we do our jobs.

This type of interaction frequently occurs in a project-implementation culture, in which people do not deem User Experience to be critical.

UX Critical as Part of the Culture

The concept of mobile first is part of all modern Web-development projects—or at least it should be. Everything we design—from navigation, to interaction, to content—should be able to scale gracefully and selectively adapt to every device, from the smallest phone to the largest desktop monitor. This is a concept we can all get behind. Development teams see accommodating all types of users as good business and spend a lot of time employing techniques that ensure Development embraces this philosophy and does Responsive Web Design (RWD) correctly.

Mobile first is an idea that has become ingrained in our development culture, but, in many ways, User Experience just isn’t quite there yet. There are still many organizations that merely pay lip service to the concept of UX critical, as becomes obvious when they say User Experience is important, but involve us too late or don’t give us enough time to do the work. When people think UX professionals and strategists are doing something magical or just making a user interface look good, they relegate us to a non-critical path within the development cycle.

So how can we change this misperception of our being magical beings and make UX critical part of our development culture? To be honest, the change starts with us.

Don’t accept the magical moniker.

Yes, the accolades feel good. Of course, it’s nice to receive recognition and be acknowledged for the work we do; to be held in high esteem by our peers who see us as doing something they cannot do. However, this perception can also falsely build up people’s expectations of what we can do. So don’t accept the image of a hero swooping in to save a project. I know this feels good, but strategically, it’s just not the right way to go. Remember to continually thank those who have helped make your work a success—and do it publicly. Thank the team, the customers, the users, and most importantly, thank whoever is in charge of sizing a project for giving you enough time to do all that tough work.

Be 100% transparent.

Document what you do. Contribute to the project plan. Publish your process and give updates along the way. Be crystal clear about deliverables and timing. Deliver on your commitments impeccably. While all this may seem obvious, a lot of times we tend go into a corner and emerge with the problem solved. This lack of visibility of the process we follow contributes to the notion that, whenever there is a problem, we go away for a bit and emerge with a solution. It does not make people aware of the process, the time it takes to do it right, or the sweat equity you’ve poured into your work. It’s okay to show folks how tough our work is, as long as we do it without whining. Everyone’s job is tough, and it’s okay for other people on the team to know ours is, too.

Align the UX process to the project plan.

So many project plans—whether agile or waterfall—don’t really get to the right level of detail or show the appropriate timing when it comes to UX activities and deliverables. This can contribute to the notion that there is plenty of time for User Experience because people don't really understand what it takes. When stakeholders don’t understand something, it’s far easier for them to chip away at the budget for it. So make sure to expose your UX process properly in any project plan. Question things; speak up.

Conclusion

These are several things that we, as UX professionals, can start to do to ensure that people do not see us as magicians, but rather as critical, contributing project-team members. Driving a UX-critical mentality into a culture is hard work and goes beyond the activities I’ve just described.

Building a design-thinking organization means taking the more strategic route. Again, though, it start with us. Magicians do not build sophisticated, UX-critical organizations. Magicians entertain and delight, and always make us walk away wondering how they do it—before we quickly move on to other things. To stop this from happening to User Experience, we need to ensure that we are part of the organizational ecosystem, not simply the entertainment. 

Senior Director, Technical Solutions and Global Design, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsWith over 12 years of experience leading and participating in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries, Baruch has a developed a wide range of skills in the areas of interaction design, user interface development, and product management. For the past 5 years, he has developed and led the global user experience team at Pegasystems and serves as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in the delivery of user interface design and user experience to customers and partners.  Read More

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