Traditional User Experience Is at a Crossroads, Part 2

Leadership Matters

Leading UX transformation

A column by Jim Nieters
June 27, 2016

In the first part of this two-part series, I discussed the reality that User Experience, as a profession, is facing a turning point: we either need to commit to creating high-quality user experiences within our current companies or leave them for other organizations in which we can actually make a difference. In Part 1, I covered the first two of several ingredients that are foundational to differentiating on the experience:

  • Executive support—This includes executives’ being emotionally committed to transformation and hiring an amazing UX leader, at the VP level or higher, to help drive that transformation.
  • Culture change—This includes creating an environment of radical collaboration, instilling a culture of integrative thinking; establishing rewards for teamwork, collaboration, and joint decision making; embracing candor, learning from failure, and more.

Now, in Part 2, I’ll highlights the next three factors that are necessary to transforming a company so it can be experience led.

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3. Implement a Process That Facilitates Becoming Experience Led

For any company to transform itself at all—especially to become experience led—it must align its practice to its culture and values, so teams can embody them in their day-to-day approach to product or service development and evolution. If an organization has the necessary support and is working to implement the right culture, the following industry-leading practices can help companies differentiate on the experience:

  • Start by defining experience outcomes up front, then features and technologies.
  • Fail fast, going rapidly from concept to code.
  • Implement a two-step process: planning, then executing.
  • Implement a multidisciplinary decision-making framework.
  • Focus on the total customer journey, not just a single application.
  • Discover users’ emotional drivers through Lean ethnography.

Defining Experience Outcomes First, Then Features and Technologies

Being experience led literally means starting with the experience. Companies that differentiate on the experience today do not start by defining feature sets. They first envision the experience outcome they intend for their users and customers. Only then do they define the features and technologies that support their vision. Pabini Gabriel-Petit and I described this process in our Leadership Matters column “Envisioning Experience Outcomes.”

It is important to understand the following about this process: Crafting an experience outcome at the beginning of a project does not mean teams cannot improve on their original concept. Rather, the intent is to understand the ultimate experience you want to create. During iterations, or agile sprints, the team can improve on the original experience outcome. But they should never dumb it down.

Go Rapidly from Concept to Code

Teams must learn to fail fast. This practice must become an accepted cultural norm. In the design field, this means going from concept to code rapidly and iterating on the early concept. In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries suggests that companies succeeding in the Internet age are those that pivot the fastest to meet changing market demands. UX teams are no different. We must research and build concepts fast, solicit feedback, and iterate our designs, all within the Product Planning Phase. The real objective is to fail as fast as we can, then learn from our failures. Remember, failure is not bad. It’s good to stretch ourselves, fail, and learn.

Follow a Process That Facilitates Great Design—Plan, Then Execute

In moving rapidly from concept to code, companies can know they are building the right solution because they’ve verified it in their marketplace. As teams evolve even further, they may move to a deeply practical model, the Double-Diamond Framework.

In experience-led companies, designers help teams visualize an experience outcome through prototypes, with which both the product team and users can interact. They then gather market feedback and user feedback, using both performance-based and preference-based measures. Visionary companies and design leaders today do just that: They engage in a more detailed planning cycle before entering project execution—before the build cycle.

While many companies have implemented planning before execution, the UK Design Council first codified this process as the Double-Diamond approach, which supports transformative experiences. The first diamond represents the Planning and Definition Phase, during which teams define and verify the right thing to build. The second diamond is the Execution Phase, when teams build the right thing. During the Planning and Definition Phase, teams define strategy—including an experience outcome—engage in early design, craft prototypes, and evaluate their concepts in the market. Only after they have validated their concepts, do they move into the Execution Phase.

In his book Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love, Marty Cagan points out that, before you decide to build a product, you need to create a prototype. Then, get it in front of customers and see if it’s what they need and will buy. Based on customer feedback, the product team then iterates the solution and incorporates it into the final plan of what will get built. The Double Diamond approach ensures teams create inspiring products that customers love!

Institute a Multidisciplinary Decision-Making Framework—The Triad

Experience-led companies that exceed the financial performance of their competition leverage User Experience at a strategic level. Engineering, Product Management, and User Experience need to engage in a joint decision-making framework. Other teams may contribute at different points, but differentiating on the experience requires including only these three groups in decision making about product direction. The intended experience outcome defines the standard that Product Managers must uphold. This decision must be made at the outset of a product’s development.

On the other hand, executives often say they want one person accountable for the product. This is fine. However, being experience led means, once teams have defined an experience outcome, they stick with it. From a Product Management standpoint, they agree to release only those capabilities that meet the intended experience and push others out. This requires the UX team to participate in envisioning the experience outcome, advocating for the experience, and aligning the team around that vision. If the vision does not differentiate on the experience, the UX team should have veto power over launching the ultimate solution.

People frequently ask how Apple releases such great products. Let’s look at an example: When Apple first released the iPhone, texting, or SMS (Short Message Service), was not yet the great experience they’d initially defined. So they shipped the first iPhone without SMS, then added it later, once the capability met standard of the experience outcome. Internally, some product managers said the iPhone would fail without SMS. They were wrong. Getting SMS right was critical. Customers loved the original iPhone and loved it more when Apple added SMS in a way that delighted them.

In experience-led companies, UX has a strategic voice as part of the triad, just as Engineering and Product Management do.

Focus on the Total Customer Journey, Not Just a Single User Interface

Focusing on the total customer journey and designing the user experience across that customer journey is crucial to driving significant financial return. Typically, though, in-house, corporate UX teams are asked to design just a single application. An application’s user interface is just one touchpoint in the total experience a user or customer has with your company. The total user experience includes every touchpoint. It includes a user’s first introduction to the company through marketing materials or a friend, their first and subsequent visits to the corporate Web site, evaluating or trying out the product or service, the purchase process, first-time use, ongoing use, service and support, the upgrade process, and so on. When a UX team focuses on just one aspect of an application and other UX teams focus on other parts of the application, and yet another team focuses on marketing, it usually creates a confusing and inconsistent experience. Why would you want the marketing message to differ from the actual product? Why would you want to make it easy to use a product, but make it difficult to decide which product to purchase? If a customer solution comprises several components, why would you make some components easy, but not others?

Forrester conducted research in mid-2014 that identified customer-journey maps as one of the hottest new design artifacts and found that a majority of CEOs find them extremely useful. Their main value comes from the fact that they help knock down silos across companies. A customer-journey map highlights all the different touchpoints a user has with a brand, from acquisition through purchase, usage, and support. They enable executives to bring teams together who would typically never work together with the goal of jointly solving problems for the customer.

Discover Emotional Drivers through Lean Ethnography

Great design leaders recognize that they need user researchers who can work within the framework of Lean processes, doing rapid contextual user research and engaging in Lean ethnography. During the Planning Phase, such researchers rapidly identify unmet user needs and users’ key emotional connectors to a product or service. They ensure the product is intuitive, satisfying, and delightful, just as Uber and Lyft did.

4. Institute the Right Organizational and Engagement Model

A successful, emerging organizational structure is the Centralized-Studio / Business-Unit Partnership model. Numerous companies, including IBM, GE, Honeywell, Visa, and Airbnb, are leveraging versions of this model. Groupon has implemented a similar model. These companies recognize the need for a central UX team, residing in a UX Studio, but understand that they must also have a responsible UX presence in each business unit. The UX Studio creates a space for the creativity and collaboration that drives differentiated experiences. At the same time, the members of a UX team in a business unit are able to understand and align with business objectives and challenges, advocate for the needs of the business, and identify the funding the business unit requires. Members of the UX team within the business unit are accountable for the success of its UX initiatives and are measured against their success or failure.

Include Front-End Development in the UX Studio

In practice, if a front-end development team sits with the design team and works collaboratively on the presentation-layer code, it can save up to 50% of the total time it takes to build the presentation layer. Here’s how this works: The UX Design team produces a set of screens and user-interface (UI) specifications to help the front-end development team understand the exact colors, fonts, colors, shading, padding, types of controls, and gestures and ensure the elements fit on the page in a pixel-perfect representation of the design. Once they’ve produced a limited subset of UI specs, designers can then produce and hand over just sketches.

If UX designers work directly with front-end developers who are highly skilled in translating designs into reality, the developers can take sketches and produce pixel-perfect, front-end code. This approach helps significantly in compressing schedules. UX designers and front-end developers must work together, in person, to create high-quality visualizations fast, then iterate them fast. The UX team cannot throw designs over the wall to another group and hope to have them build it with pixel perfection and smooth gestures. Achieving both speed and quality requires that they be collocated, at least during the Design Phase of a project, so they can function as a single unit.

Front-end developers in companies that currently differentiate on the experience feel a deep need to constantly optimize the experience using the latest technologies. They fall more into the design camp than the development camp. Of course, the task of connecting the presentation layer to the business logic and services, then to the backend belongs to developers who sit in the Engineering organization.

UX teams need the technical skills of a Front-End Development team, working closely with designers and providing insights on both what is currently possible and what could be possible if the team pushed the technological boundaries. This helps improve individual designs and makes them more likely to succeed at a technical level. It also helps the designers become better at predicting what the Development team can build and what ideas they should abandon in favor of alternate approaches.

5. Take Lessons from Creative Studios

Companies reinventing themselves around the experience—typically, through digital UX design and industrial design—are today taking core lessons from design firms and creative agencies. Recently, dozens of large companies—from Facebook and Google to Accenture, Capitol One and PwC—have spent billions of dollars acquiring design agencies, in the hope of reinventing themselves as experience-led organizations. But, because they are not changing from the inside out, most of these companies will not successfully reinvent themselves to be experience led. Other companies that are reorienting themselves to become experience led—including IBM, Honeywell, and Visa—are implementing the most valuable practices from design studios within their companies.

UX leaders have the opportunity to understand what best practices from creative studios are helpful and leave limiting practices from poor agencies behind. Creative studios do a few things very well, including

  • leveraging a complete design team
  • hiring brilliant Creative Directors
  • building physical Design Studios
  • consistently producing inspiring designs
  • conducting collaboration workshops
  • creating a strategic ecosystem of industry partnerships

Leverage a Complete Design Team

A creative studio would never consider assigning a single designer to a project. In contrast, most corporations expect individual designers to own the user experience for entire business units, with multiple products—all of which they’re responsible for designing. Unfortunately, a single designer’s voice gets lost in a project team of dozens and maybe hundreds of cross-functional team members. By assembling a complete team of user researchers, interaction designers, visual designers, prototypers, and creative directors, teams can rapidly produce highly creative and deeply engaging experiences.

Hire Brilliant Creative Directors

The best creative directors are not just great designers in their own right. Great creative directors excel in the art of facilitation and constructive criticism. They stimulate creative dialogue, so everybody contributes, and they articulate the underlying problem they are trying to solve through their ideas. They never shut down dialogue or bring the attitude that they must protect the group from bad ideas. Such creative directors simply have a wealth of creative successes that enable them to inspire and lead design efforts in which the best ideas can be born and thrive. They make sure designs are inspiring and engaging for everybody.

Build Physical Design Studios

All companies undergoing a transformation to become experience led should build physical design studios. These studios facilitate concentrated creativity and enable teams to focus on core design objectives, which raises the resulting products’ level of usability and delightfulness. This is common practice these days for companies differentiating on the experience. We all know of companies with such studios.

Consistently Produce Inspiring Designs

Creative studios know they must never compromise on the quality of their design output. If a product team wants something to get done too quickly, the creative studio will help them find someone else who can help them rather than compromise the quality of their work. They know that their brand depends on their producing great experiences. Likewise, the brand of any internal UX team depends on their always producing exceptional results. If a product team insists on your producing less than stellar results, let the team do the design themselves. Otherwise, you’ll get blamed for the poor quality of the design solution, and they’ll expect you to compromise on quality in the future. You can create a sustainable engagement model only by following this practice.

Conduct Collaboration Workshops

All creative design studios conduct collaboration workshops or design labs. I facilitate what I call Rapid Design Labs, which bring a collaborative, cross-functional approach to design and innovation that rapidly aligns organizations around a powerful vision. They foster ideation, collaboration, trust, and free expression. In these labs, cross-functional teams of designers, researchers, product managers, engineers, marketing, sales, and other key organizations work together to solve major business challenges. They engage in intensive brainstorming, purposeful play, design, usability testing, and rapid prototyping, which foster trust and teamwork better than any team-building offsite can.

Create a Strategic Ecosystem of Industry Partnerships

All design teams eventually have problems scaling as companies grow. Internal teams should not try to do all of the work. Rather, they should partner with high-quality design firms. Such design firms not only augment a team’s resources, they infuse creativity, challenge the internal team to attain greater heights, and make the team aware of the most modern design trends. Of course, at times, you’ll need to produce something of high quality very fast. So don’t start the process of finding a partner when you’re under the gun to deliver rapidly. You should already have one or more partners in your pocket.

If you are the leader of a UX team, don’t push away design firms. Embrace them and work with them strategically to increase your effectiveness and your ability to deliver experiences that delight users and differentiate your company.

What other benefits do creative agencies bring to the table? I’m sure I’m missing some things here, but these are the benefits I’ve realized by working with creative studios. Too many UX leaders criticize creative agencies. While the motivations of creative agencies can sometimes be self-serving, I find that, at the right time, I need to leverage their skills and their energy to help my team produce high-quality output rapidly when my team members are already fully engaged in other projects.


Most executives would say they want to differentiate their products, yet when it comes to differentiating on the experience, few understand what it takes. Many executives think they can acquire a design firm, and they’ll get great design throughout the company. Unfortunately, that is like wanting to lose weight, but not being willing to change one’s diet or exercise. Transforming a company to become experience led takes dedication, focus, and investment, just as it does to differentiate on technology or any other area of business. Once the CEO and executive staff provide the necessary support, they need a UX leader who knows how to inspire executives, their team, and customers. A UX leader who can engage them both emotionally and logically can facilitate a transformation that gives their company a competitive advantage and deliver products that delight their customers. 

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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