Traditional User Experience Is at a Crossroads, Part 1

Leadership Matters

Leading UX transformation

A column by Jim Nieters
May 31, 2016

We know that experience-led companies outperform their competitors financially by over 200%. Great design, which results in experiences users love, increases profit margins and a company’s competitive advantage. At the same time, people’s mass exposure to elegant mobile apps has produced an expectation for simplicity and elegance in design across all products, whether for consumers or the enterprise. Users in every demographic want simple, elegant, even edgy apps.

The challenge is that many UX teams still deliver dreary, overly complex user experiences—even those that have budgets in the tens of millions of dollars. Put yourself in an executive’s position: Why would you pay a premium for commoditized designs?

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The job of a User Experience leader is to build a UX practice that consistently produces differentiated experiences—truly inspiring designs that monetize at a much higher rate than those of competitors. If a company’s UX capability is not winning in the competitive marketplace, perhaps its CEO should eliminate the UX team and either replace it with a less-skilled, less-expensive team or use design agencies to design their products on an ad-hoc basis. Whenever the UX teams I’ve led have delivered marginal value, I’ve either turned them around or eliminated them altogether.

The crux of this problem, though, does not typically lie in the skills of the UX researchers and designers on staff. Most UX teams are pretty good and—given the right circumstances—could be very good or even great. The fault generally lies in other areas, including challenges with empowerment, business models that may or may incorporate design thinking, corporate culture, processes, and a company’s organizational structure.

I think a lot of UX professionals just give up on making a true difference for their company because they know they won’t be able to do this. Instead, they just do their best under the circumstances. But I challenge all UX leaders and UX professionals to try to do your best to help your company differentiate on the experience. If a company is not willing to do what it takes, it is our right—nay, our responsibility—to throw off such despotism! Errr… No, wait. Maybe it’s not such big a deal as our national freedom, even though it certainly feels that way at times. Anyway, I challenge you to take a stand and walk away from positions where you know you cannot influence things for the better. If you don’t, you’ll send the wrong message—that UX simply cannot deliver value—or worse, that you’re okay with creating average experiences.

Thus, traditional User Experience is at a crossroads. On one hand, we have design agencies and creative studios producing applications, games, and entertainment that users and audiences love and that monetize at a high level. There are even quite a few non-UX experts who, at times, design engaging consumer experiences. If we fail to consistently stand up for the need for great design, we risk marginalization.

I, for one, am no longer willing to work for a company whose leadership does not understand the value of the user experience—or even the total customer experience. Having to provide an ROI (Return-on-Investment) argument to justify the value of User Experience just isn’t worth my time.

Of course, any organization requires some business justification. The issue is whether executives will stand up for and defend User Experience as a critical function. If a company gets User Experience and wants their product user experiences to be at the top of their industry, I’ll work passionately and tirelessly to make them #1. As long as they’re committed to giving User Experience the support and empowerment it deserves and to transforming their organization to get there, I’m in.

So, first, I’m recommending that you walk away from situations where your skills aren’t valued. Second, I recommend that you internalize the lessons in this two-part article, so you can explain to C-level executives in your company exactly what they must do to deliver excellence. That’s what the rest of this article is about.

Becoming Experience Led: The Secret Ingredients

In a previous Leadership Matters column that I wrote with Pabini Gabriel-Petit, “The Future of UX Leadership: Radical Transformation,” we pointed out that one of the secrets to success is that UX leaders must have a partnership with the CEO or other head of the organization. This is absolutely true, but I won’t cover this here again. Instead, I’ll describe several other factors that are so important, without them, a company will fail in its attempts to transform into an experience-led company.

Great Research and Design? Of Course!

When we, as UX professionals, talk about producing great experiences, we’re talking mostly about design or research itself. In reality, there are more foundational factors that few UX professionals discuss, which determine whether a company can differentiate on the experience.

Many companies proclaim that they are going to turn themselves around so they can differentiate on the experience. We can all think of examples of such companies where leaders have made this promise, but have come up short. Transforming an entire company is hard. That said, in this two-part series, I want to share five lessons about transforming companies. In Part 1, I’ll cover:

  1. Getting buy-in for the transformation
  2. Evolving the company culture

1. Getting Buy-In for the Transformation

Getting buy-in to transform your company to become experience led requires getting the emotional support of executives, including the CEO. Of course, it also requires having a great team.

Ensuring Executives Are Emotionally Committed to the Transformation

All companies that have successfully transformed to become experience led have a CEO who is emotionally invested in the transformation. Apple is everyone’s favorite example of a design-led organization, and we’ve all heard much about the relationship between Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive. However, even though Jonathan Ive is a world-class designer and design leader, before Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, design didn’t matter much at Apple. As a result, the design team’s work was much less impressive then. It wasn’t that Ive and his team weren’t already among the top 1% of designers. They were. But the design team didn’t have the executive support they needed, and the company did not prioritize design. Companies need the support of at least one senior executive—preferably the CEO—to become experience led.

Hiring the Right Team

There are two steps to getting the right team on board: The first is hiring a UX leader who understands how to hire the best. The second is actually hiring the most talented team of people you can. People who are driven to produce great design. Pabini and I also covered this topic in greater depth in our UXmatters article “UX Leadership, Part 1: The Nature of Great Leaders,” but I’ll touch on just a couple of key elements here.

Step 1: Ensuring UX Leaders Are Great Leaders in Their Own Right

Purpose motivates UX professionals—in particular, the knowledge that they are creating something that makes a difference to people. On the other hand, profit drives corporations. Great UX leaders tie their purpose to profits through an inspiring vision. Such a vision captures the heads and hearts of both employees and senior leadership. It helps to attract and retain the most talented researchers and designers in the industry.

Such great UX leaders also know how to inspire and engage their employees in producing truly stellar designs that impress the company’s leadership and fulfill a deeper purpose for the designers themselves. They build trust and help their employees do the best work of their careers.

Great UX leaders understand what it takes to transform a company into a design-led organization. They know how to set up an organizational structure and inspire a culture that can attract the best talent—a culture that lets designers do what they do best and incorporates strategic design thinking into the organization. Such leaders also understand the language of business and can communicate within a business framework.

These leaders also communicate a vision that instills a deeper sense of purpose that designers can connect to the values they hold. Designers want to make the world a better place and improve the human experience. Great UX leaders know how to connect a purpose that makes the best designers want to participate in the work to a company’s business purpose.

The best UX leaders know that success is a function of creating transformative experiences that differentiate the company. It is not about their headcount or their title. They focus on building the right culture, evolving processes, and driving strategic design thinking. They enable a whole organization to contribute to producing inspiring results, not just the UX team.

Step 2: Hiring Only the Most Skilled Research and Design Resources

Every UX leader—indeed, leaders in all disciplines—would agree that they need to hire only top talent. The challenge is that most corporate UX leaders end up compromising on that objective. Sure, they may hire talented individuals. But they probably won’t be able to hire the best.

Part of the issue is that the most talented UX professionals seek not only great UX leaders, but also a company culture and processes that would enable them to produce user experiences that inspire pride. Unfortunately, most organizational structures and company cultures do not facilitate the creation of inspiring designs. As a result, the most talented designers leave. Where do they go? They leave for a design agency or an in-house UX team that can produce high-quality user experiences.

How, then, do corporations attract the best talent? It starts with having support from senior leadership, then hiring a UX leader who can take advantage of this support to attract the best creative directors, form the right organizational structure, and establish effective processes. Together, these leaders must set forth a vision that inspires UX teams to be part of something great and gives them the autonomy they need to achieve great results.

The environment and support that enables UX leaders to acquire top talent, then to produce world-class designs creates a virtuous cycle that excites executives, design teams, and people in adjacent disciplines. The result is a truly differentiated experience.

2. Evolving the Company Culture

The fact is that changing an organization’s culture is at the heart of any change. Of the companies that have become experience led, all have evolved their culture to support radical collaboration. Because internal goals and motivations drive people’s and organizations’ behaviors, change must start from the inside. If you want others to change, you must motivate them to change by giving them a reason for change that resonates with their values. Becoming experience led is about creating and sustaining value.

Everybody competes. The question is whether people compete with colleagues in their own group, colleagues in other disciplines, people in other parts of their company, or with other companies. As a UX leader, you want your multidisciplinary teams to experience the healthy tension of engaging in dialogues with one another at work. But, rather than optimizing competitive situations for themselves, they should feel driven to optimize for the group’s success. They should feel passionate about the value of the outcomes the UX team can create. Of course, you want your people to compete, but not internally. They should focus on competing externally, outside the organization.

It’s challenging to establish an organization in which teams value the opinions and perspectives of other groups and incorporate those views in creating better experience outcomes. It is also extremely rare. But this is absolutely necessary if you are to create great experiences together. (I recommend two books that describe how to build and maintain a great organizational culture, though in very different ways: Great Boss, Dead Boss, by Ray Imelman, and Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace.

Our personal and organizational values drive our passion, and a leader’s or a company’s objectives must express that passion. More than this, these must be values the rest of the organization can get behind. If you want people to take action on a transformation, leadership must authentically communicate its values and how they will reinforce those values through the organization’s culture.

The fact is that changing culture is difficult, and most companies fail when they try to achieve this. When leadership tries to change culture from the outside, it feels inauthentic. It does not resonate, and employees ignore any of their leaders’ requests to change their behavior that do not resonate with their unexpressed inner purpose. Extrinsic motivation cannot override a person’s self-motivation.

In contrast, when a leader holds a set of values that make sense, communicates those values as immutable, and the values resonate with people’s deeply held beliefs, employees will begin behaving differently. Simply put, people take care of that which they hold dear. When your inner values and your true purpose resonate with your objectives, you’ll do what it takes to make everyone around you successful.

What we don’t need is leaders who clearly care more about themselves than the success of their team and the business. We need leaders whose authenticity inspires us to action.

What kind of culture is necessary if you want to transform your company to become experience led? One that leverages multidisciplinary collaboration and integrative thinking at the deepest level. One that embraces and requires candor, vulnerability, and deep trust. Only companies that get the best minds and hearts in the game create products that transform their markets. They transform markets by creating sustainable long-term value that nobody previously imagined. But, to achieve this, employees must begin optimizing for the organization’s success, not their own. The only way to foster that is to connect with an employee’s own sense of purpose. Culture change starts with practicing our values.

As Roger Martin suggests in The Opposable Mind, integrative thinking recognizes that each discipline perceives different constraints and opportunities, and we need to leverage each of these perspectives to succeed. So we need our counterparts in Product Management, Engineering, Business Development, and Marketing—and they need us. As UX leaders, we need to create a culture in which teams leverage the best insights from all disciplines. Of course, in experience-led companies, other disciplines recognize the strategic value of User Experience teams and choose to leverage their input.

The right culture is one of radical collaboration, in which teams work hard to define creative outcomes that inspire both them and their customers. But reinforcing a culture also requires that executives and employees at all levels within a company do the following:

  • Treat becoming experience led as they would any transformation, recognizing that it will take intensive effort every day.
  • Communicate the urgency of embracing new practices.
  • Establish and adhere to a compelling vision.
  • Instill integrative thinking throughout the organization.
  • Establish rewards for teamwork, collaboration, and joint decision making.
  • Embrace candor and create an environment in which employees can learn from their failures.
  • Implement a transformation communication cycle.
  • Show wins through an Experience Matters program.
  • Establish education in design thinking, but not a codified process.

Many executives and companies want to differentiate on the experience, so look for a magic, UX-diet pill that they can consume. They think acquiring a design firm or even just hiring great designers will somehow ensure great design. But just acquiring a design firm or even hiring great designers does not convert companies into experience-led enterprises.

If a company’s culture does not change in a way that supports an optimal user and customer experience, any chance of becoming experience led becomes elusive. Of course, organizational structures and processes must also change. However, before people become willing follow a new process, they must recognize the value of the change, feel that they must be part of it, and recognize the different practices and behaviors that they must live. Just as losing weight requires setting goals, exercising, and being smart about what we eat, so becoming an experience-led company requires planning, setting goals, taking the right actions, and sticking with the program over time. It starts from the inside.


In all the time I’ve been around in the UX profession, I’ve seen a just few companies succeed in their goal of becoming experience led, while I’ve seen an order of magnitude fail. As UX professionals, we must recognize that, if we do not stand up for what matters to us, our profession will become a commodity that nobody really needs. We have to find a way to impact business—and that requires our finding environments in which the leadership is willing to make the necessary changes to become experience led.

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I’ve articulated two of the factors that contribute to success. In the next installment, I’ll highlight three additional factors that are foundational in transforming companies into experience led organizations:

  1. Implementing a process that supports becoming experience led
  2. Instituting the right organizational and engagement models
  3. Taking some lessons from creative studios 

Chief User Experience Strategist at Experience Outcomes

Los Altos, California, USA

Jim NietersA design leader for 17 years, Jim loves every minute of helping companies create competitive advantage by designing experiences that differentiate. He has worked with a range of companies—from startups to Fortune-500 companies—most recently as Senior VP of Customer Engagement at Monaker Group. He previously led User Experience at HP, Yahoo, and Cisco and has advised numerous startups. Jim chooses to work with brilliant clients, helping them unlock their unbounded potential by envisioning and designing end-to-end experiences that disrupt markets and engaging users emotionally. He often works with UX leaders to help them work through organizational challenges and ensure User Experience has the visibility it deserves and can design experiences that make the team proud. Jim also conducts design-value assessments for his clients, identifying gaps in their ability to differentiate on the experience, then helping them close those gaps and become extraordinary.  Read More

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