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The Ascendance of User Experience: Are We There Yet?

Strategy Matters

Realizing the power of UX strategy

A column by Ronnie Battista
July 26, 2016

User Experience has finally arrived! You may have heard this before—okay, perhaps many times before. I’ve said this a few times myself: “This is going to be the year for UX!” But, after my more than 15 years in this field, I’m personally convinced at last because I’m no longer predicting change. I’m seeing this change all around me. I think 2016 really is the year I’ll remember for the scales tipping toward User Experience as a strategy—when the business game changed in substantive ways.

As a consultant who works with many clients on their experience strategy and design, I’m seeing strong evidence that UX skills—both strategic and technical—are no longer ancillary, nice-to-have, episodic considerations.

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Three complementary things are happening that stand out:

  1. The job market for UX and CX roles at all levels is red hot.
  2. There are ever-increasing UX education opportunities for both UX professionals and, more importantly, non-UX business leaders.
  3. Large corporations that are not known for user experience are creating a growing number of senior-executive roles for UX professionals. Roles that have teeth, given the importance of user experience to their long-term viability and differentiation.

Hiring UX Professionals: UX Whack-a-Mole

If you’re looking to hire a few UX rock stars—I like rock stars, but not so much unicorns—you’re likely experiencing the same issues many of us are experiencing in trying to find experienced, tested UX talent. In New York, hiring UX professionals is a bit like playing Whack-a-Mole. If there’s a talented UX person who’s looking for his or her next adventure, you have to have your tethered foam mallet ready to strike. If experienced people with a track record of strategic project work are good, they aren’t looking for long.

There’s always been a good-sized community of UX talent in New York City. The difference I’m seeing is that UX work is far more strategic than in days past, when the focus was more on UI (User-Interface) design than on User Experience. Of course, that work still exists, but those who have the talents to do user research, UX design, and prototyping are not simply order takers. They are actively involved in strategic conversations about the greater business strategy that underpins the specific product, service, or digital asset they are responsible for creating.

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UX Education Opportunities

Many public and private training opportunities are now available. I’ve been teaching since 2009, and since that time, I’ve seen literally dozens of great opportunities emerge—from 1–2 day UX STRAT Masterclass courses to the 10-week General Assembly course on User Experience. The list of available courses is far too vast to cover in this column—whether they focus on teaching a specific tool or skill such as journey mapping or incorporate User Experience as an important element of another executive education course such as a module on Digital Marketing and User Experience. Today, the business community recognizes the importance of and is investing in getting their executives and teams up to date and up to speed on all things User Experience.

I’m particularly excited by the growing number of requests I’m getting to teach C-level executives across organizations’ business units. Helping large corporations wend their way through the seismic, but vital cultural changes that embracing User Experience requires will be a key part of UX Strategy over the next five years.

UX Leadership

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling lucky to know many business acquaintances, friends, and ex-colleagues who have assumed executive positions in our field. Not just the sort of check-the-box-we-have-a-Director-of-User-Experience jobs that we saw a decade ago.┬áThese new jobs have teeth, real authority, a budget, and the ear of the C-suite.

For many years, we’ve pushed our companies and leaders to recognize that User Experience isn’t a nice-to-have. It’s always been about driving business goals. And industries that, until recently, have not seen a strong need for User Experience are now clamoring for it, because the advantages of their once-impenetrable business processes are being overcome, in ways small and large, by both incumbent competitors and a host of digital startups that are eating their lunch.

They are now hiring seasoned UX leaders into VP and C-level roles to drive a tangible shift toward customer centricity. In 2016, these are actually funded transformation efforts with executive sponsorship and accountability. We’re all too familiar with customer-centered empathy that sounds good on a lunch-room poster. Now, we’re seeing many UX efforts take shape that are driving real, strategic, measurable business gains in top-line growth, profitability, productivity savings, employee retention, customer acquisition and retention, and market share.

A Rising Tide: User Experience Comes Home

My final point—and I think what has cemented all of these ideas supporting the ascendance of User Experience in my mind—came from a conversation with a friend in the industry. He was in the market for another person on his team, and I offered the possibility that perhaps the consulting company I work for could augment his UX resources. His response captured the growth that is characteristic of User Experience in many organizations today and was the inspiration for this column:

“The market is hot right now—as I’m sure you know—and we’re hiring like crazy. I stood up strategic UX organizational expansion last year, moving us away from a centralized UX model, adding ten new UX leaders across our verticals and dedicated UX resources and management within each domain. We’ve added over 70 heads already and continue to grow at an amazing rate. It’s incredible really to think about how much we’ve moved the needle in such a short span of time. I’m damn proud. :) As a result of this, we’re not doing much staff augmentation anymore, but are hiring tons of full-time employees and relying on external firms less and less. That said, you never know, and I will certainly keep Slalom in mind if the need arises.”

Wow.

On the one hand, this was a bit challenging to hear, given consulting is how I make my living. On the other hand, it absolutely confirms a direction I have been seeing take place over the last decade. As a consultant who works with many clients on their experience strategy and design, I’m lucky to have the opportunity to see what’s happening across many clients—of all sizes, in many industries, and with varying degrees of UX maturity. Until recently, while the noise about User Experience / Customer Experience had been growing, I hadn’t seen that translate into significant corporate acknowledgment and attention.

Case in point: A few years back, when I was working for another consulting company and had completed my third engagement on the same product, my recommendation was that they needed to bring someone on full time to drive the project forward. Companies that use consultants tend to treat them and their recommendations quite differently from those of employees—and in this case, if your email address didn’t have their name in it, the company wasn’t as inclined to listen. As a result, they hired a Director of User Experience that led this UX effort internally. From time to time, they still obtain user-research services from a third-party UX provider. As I’ve always believed and told clients, an experience-driven culture ultimately cannot be outsourced, and that company now enjoys the benefits of having internal UX power and influence.

That said, this is also a great time to be helping businesses embrace experience design. So I’m not remotely concerned that the future of consulting on User Experience or Customer Experience is bleak. There’s inherent value in companies’ seeking different, cross-market perspectives and getting a fresh look at their business from consultants. Their advice can provide a solid foundation when establishing an internal UX capability and a roadmap for realizing their vision.

Yes, I think, as UX professionals, we’ve finally arrived. The future is bright, so put on your shades and get to work! 

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Practice Lead for Experience Strategy + Design at Slalom Consulting

New York, New York, USA

Ronnie BattistaRonnie is a senior UX executive with 20 years of experience envisioning and delivering creative, cross-channel user experiences with positive bottom-line impact. Ronnie has served in UX leadership positions at Accenture, Dun and Bradstreet, Gextech in Spain, MISI Company, and Slalom Consulting. He has provided experience design leadership to over 120 clients, ranging from C-suite-level strategic solutions to team-level tactical solutions. Ronnie co-created the Rutgers Mini-Masters in User Experience Design with Marilyn Tremaine and currently serves as both Program Director and Lead Adjunct Professor at Rutgers. Ronnie served on the Executive Committee of the Usability Professionals’ Association International (UPA-I) Board of Directors from 2010 to 2012 and was formerly President of the NJ Chapter of the UXPA. A life-long lover of the real Jersey Shore, when not on the beach, he lives in Tinton Falls with his wife Tiffany and their three children.  Read More

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