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Making the World a Better Place Through User Experience

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A column by Janet M. Six
October 24, 2016

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our expert panel discusses the desire that many UX professionals have to make the world a better place and how that altruistic impulse can align with the profit motive of the businesses that employ them.

To prevent our work colleagues from trivializing UX design, UX professionals must play an integral role in defining product strategy. That is where we can add the most value—to the business and users alike. In describing how User Experience can contribute to product strategy and business success, we’ll debunk some common misconceptions that many product companies have about User Experience and its place in a product-centric company.

In the course of this conversation, we’ll talk about how important it is for UX professionals to work for companies that value User Experience, the impacts corporate culture has on the ability of UX professionals to successfully engage with teams around product strategy, the alignment of User Experience with business goals, the value that UX design can contribute to the bottom line, and what you should do if your organization doesn’t appreciate the value of User Experience.

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In my monthly column 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, or research or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

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

  • Mark Baldino—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Ronnie Battista—UX Practice Lead at Slalom Consulting
  • Leo Frishberg—Principal, Phase II
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Ben Ihnchak—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Gavin Lew—Executive Vice President of User Experience at GfK
  • Baruch Sachs—Senior Director, User Experience at Pegasystems; UXmatters columnist
  • Janet Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Co-Founder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
  • Jo Wong—Principal and Co-Founder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.

Q: Many of us have entered the UX arena because we want to help people and make the world a better place. How can we prevent—or overcome—the misconception that UX design is just bells and whistles, as opposed its to being an integral part of product strategy?—from a UXmatters reader

“Great question! Indeed, many UX professionals see User Experience as a vocation that enables us to make the world a better place,” replies Ronnie. “It’s easy to see how that aspiration translates when you’re designing products and services that improve the lives of disadvantaged people. (One example of this is UX for Change.) But it’s a bit harder when you’re designing the Benefits section of an employee intranet. Nevertheless, I suggest that this is just a matter of perspective. For example, when using that intranet, a new mother who has had a difficult pregnancy might need to figure out how to get her tests covered by her medical insurance. She has enough going on in her life without needing the additional burden of having to decipher a hot mess of a Web site.

“Changing the world isn’t just about the big things that have direct impact on many people’s lives. When we help people save time in completing their tasks, we contribute to the additional time they have for doing the things they want and need to do. If we reduce users’ stress level or give them a momentary feeling of accomplishment, we’re helping to change the world.

“So be mindful of the changes you make in everything you do. Recognize them, evangelize them, and make sure your product teams and executives realize their benefits. ‘Thou shalt practice UX with human-centric integrity’ is the last and most important of the UX Strategy Commandments I wrote about in a previous Strategy Matters column, ‘10 Commandments of UX Strategy.’ In that column, I wrote:

‘As a UX Strategist, I believe that we have a moral and ethical imperative to ensure that what we create, both within and outside our profession, should ideally improve the lives of others—and at the very least, do no harm.’”

“I’ve often said that I got into User Experience because I want to make the world a better place,” answers Pabini. “In fact, the very first edition of my column On Good Behavior was titled “First Do No Harm.” In that column, I outlined some important design principles ‘whose violation either interferes with users’ work, resulting in frustration for users, or actually harms their work.’

“The best UX professionals care deeply about people. For them, making the decision to pursue a profession in User Experience is an altruistic impulse. Through empathy, we can understand the people for whom we create design solutions. As a consequence, our solutions will truly meet their needs and make their lives better in ways large and small.”

Working with Companies That Value User Experience

“What is spectacular about being a great UX designer is the truly sincere desire to improve the world,” responds Leo. “Many of us want to help change the world for the better.

“The question the reader has posed implies that businesses share that mission, but that is not typically the case. The purpose of a business is to create customers—so said Peter Drucker back in 1954, and it’s still true today. If improving the world supports a company’s mission, UX design will have a place in the company’s strategy. However, because many of today’s business leaders have not yet learned the value of design as a business strategy, they aren’t aware of how design can improve their processes, adoption rates, and top- and bottom-line growth. Nevertheless, in most businesses, the goal of User Experience is to improve business outcomes. But they relegate improving experience outcomes for users to the status of a positive side effect.

“Now, I don’t want to leave you with a completely negative point of view. Of course, there are companies for which user experience is a primary driver in creating value for customers—and, thus, business value. Seek those companies out and engage with them. But, if you find yourself working in a company that hasn’t adopted this point of view, you’ll have some effort in front of you.

“Consider doing the following to help change your company’s approach to User Experience:

  • Identify individuals who have greater influence than you do—such as program managers, product managers, or lead technologists—and who agree that improving the user experience will bring more customers.
  • Help team members in other disciplines to understand the breadth and depth of User Experience, so they can be your advocates among their peers and with business leaders. Offer tech talks and brown-bag lunch discussions. Send people short articles. Engage others in hallway conversations about recent successes at other companies, and show them how the competition is doing things.
  • When small opportunities deepen a UX engagement, jump on them—even if something isn’t one of your usual responsibilities. For example, showing how a small user-research effort can pay dividends down the line—without incurring exorbitant costs—may help you to overcome misunderstandings about the value of research.
  • If your company is engineering driven, partner with respected tech leads and help them to improve their desired outcomes—going well beyond the pixels. Engage them in short discussions about eliminating certain user-interface elements altogether to simplify and improve the user experience. They will appreciate being able to prune maintenance and support costs by eliminating code.

“Naturally, achieving all of this will take some time, but by engaging in such discussions, you can begin revealing the true impact of User Experience on a product’s value, as well as on business costs.”

“The reality is that great UX design can differentiate products, attract customers, and drive superior business results, so there is no inherent contradiction between investing in User Experience and a business focus on creating customers and profits,” states Pabini. “As Jim Nieters and I wrote in our Leadership Matters column, ‘The Future of UX Leadership: Radical Transformation’:

‘Building a UX practice that can truly transform an organization and differentiate its products from those of its competitors requires having a number of elements in place—elements that are necessary to ensure our success. … If your organization doesn’t provide those elements—and if, after attempting to foster the necessary organizational changes, it seems unlikely that you can achieve them—you should leave and find work in an organization that affords many of those elements. … If you’re a UX leader who cannot be successful in a particular situation, bail. If you don’t, you’ll be judged for the quality of the team’s work and its lack of impact—regardless of the organizational reasons behind it.’

Plus, as research has shown:

Design-led companies outperform their competitors financially by 228%. Great design increases profit margins.’”

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Overcoming Misconceptions About the Role of User Experience in a Product-Centric Organization

“This question touches on two issues,” replies Jordan. “Businesses’

  • general misconceptions about user experience
  • misconceptions about the role of User Experience within a product-centric organization

“For most businesses, user experience is a vague industry term like the term creative. It means vastly different things to different people. The only way we’ll change the general perception of User Experience is to continue our efforts to make our industry more accessible. We need to share our ideas and spread the word about what UX professionals really do.

“Similarly, when an organization isn’t utilizing its UX team in the right way, education is the only way to initiate organizational change. That said, if a company has a product-strategy process that doesn’t involve User Experience, there’s something fundamentally wrong with that company. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not worth trying to change organizations that aren’t ready to change. There are many organizations that do place a high value on User Experience. So my advice is to find the organizations that really value what you have to contribute and avoid the ones that don’t.

“However, if you’re not in a position to leave a company that doesn’t value your role, you can try driving some organizational change by taking two relatively simple steps:

  1. Communicate value.
  2. Measure results.

“It’s not enough just to ask to be part of product strategy. First, you have to help your product team understand what you bring to the table. Then, once you’re part of product strategy, you must demonstrate your value. To do this effectively, you must measure the results. Compare your results with those of product releases that didn’t include the UX team as an integral part of product strategy. Ultimately, you need to make a business case that shows how much value User Experience adds. Recommend optimizations to the business process that leverage the UX team to its full potential.”

“Demonstrating meaningful change may sound easy, but it can be hard work,” remarks Ben. “Track key metrics before and after your projects so you can show that your work has made a real, positive impact. Set a baseline before you begin, using key performance indicators (KPIs) that matter to your organization. Then, continue to track those metrics regularly to ensure you’re moving forward. Demonstrating real change through metrics is a great way to prove the worth of your work and the value of User Experience.”

Focusing on Business Goals

“This may sound negative, but we need to eschew the reasons we came into the field of User Experience and instead focus on what we want to achieve within our organizations,” responds Baruch. “Helping people and making the world a better place are noble aspirations. However, most companies have a more immediate goal: to become profitable or maintain profitability.

“But good user experience is good business. Better designed products make more money or save money. To create a better-designed product, you’re going to need more than pretty. You’re going to need more than a design system. You’re going to need more than pixel-perfect wireframes that conform to the latest cool designs that are out there. What you need is a deep understanding and appreciation of the business goals your organization has, as well as its strategic initiatives. This business focus is what most UX folks have historically lacked. But this is changing and must continue to change rapidly for User Experience to be part of product strategy. In short, make sure all design decisions map to business goals, not only to design goals.”

“To prevent or overcome the misconception that UX design is just bells and whistles, it is essential that you apply the craft of User Experience in alignment with the overall product strategy,” replies Mark. “If you focus only on the user interface or aesthetics, you aren’t doing UX design properly. Instead, ensure your work has a robust, user-centered design foundation that is based on the evaluation and synthesis of user-research findings. This will enable you to impact a product or service in ways that truly benefit users.”

User-Centered Product Strategy

“For User Experience to be integral to product strategy, the practices and skills UX professionals provide and the role we play on a project must be seen as important—by both ourselves and others,” answer Dan and Jo. “Devising a product strategy as part of a business strategy implies a team’s having an understanding of who the business is serving or selling to; having a definition of who the customer is. We often see teams who want to forge ahead and create solutions, who get carried away with technology, without any real understanding of the people for whom they are designing a product, their underlying needs and motivations, and the problems they may face. For us, understanding people is a critical component of business strategy—part of the design and product-development process. User research supports continuous learning to help us see how people use a product, the frustrations they face, and improvements that we can consider making over time.

“User Experience, as a practice, can play an important facilitation role on product teams. In our facilitation role, we can invite other team members to observe user research and ensure they can make sense of their observations. We leverage our understanding of customers’ and prospective customers’ needs in determining the right design direction and to understand what design changes we must make.

“If we can agree, in principle, that it’s the role of User Experience to ensure product teams’ understand the impacts that current and future business directions will have on customers, it becomes clear that User Experience and its various practice disciplines play an integral role in product strategy.

“Who else plays an integral role in product strategy and why? What could we learn from people in those other roles?”

Delivering Practical Results

“When people ask me why I came into the field of User Experience, I think back to the time when I was a lab tech at UCSF, doing brainwave research on alcoholics and AIDS and Alzheimer’s patients,” said Gavin. “After a session with a 21-year-old AIDS patient, he shook my hand so enthusiastically that it gave me pause. He said, ‘I really hope this goes toward finding a cure!’ I smiled back in agreement. But, after he left, I felt depressed. Whether his brainwave activity differed from that of an alcoholic patient when he heard a boop or a beep might not result in a cure for him. This was in the early 1990s, so he might not live past 30 with AIDS.

“Fast forward to a time when, as a UX professional, I was testing a new device for administering drugs. A woman gives me a hug after our session. (This was the first time anyone had given me a hug after a usability-test session.) Seeing my puzzled expression, she said, ‘You don’t get it? You are trying to make this product easy to use for people like me. Between measuring and syringing, it used to take 30 minutes. It was so complicated that I used to have to do it at the kitchen table. Well, with this device, I can walk into the bathroom to take my miracle drug and be back in a few minutes! You are trying to design a device that I can use correctly the first time! Even more than that, you’re changing the way my 5-year-old daughter looks at her mother! She doesn’t have to watch her mom struggle to take the medicine that will keep me alive. This is why I thank you.’”

I came to User Experience from the world of academic computer science—where I was surrounded by cutting-edge research and saw exciting results every day. Nevertheless, I felt frustrated that these academic achievements had no impact on the lives of people they could potentially help. There was such a gulf between these amazing technological achievements and their application to the technology that most people use every day. So I felt driven to build a bridge between the two. How? By learning to speak in the language of business.

The first time I heard the statement “a business exists to make a profit,” I felt heartbroken. In my mind, I questioned whether businesses want to make the world a better place, too. In reality, the answer is: some do and some don’t. All companies—no matter how noble their mission statement—must be profitable to survive. If a UX design solution does not drive profitability, it is not relevant to the business.

Is this a sad truth? It might be if you maintain the perspective of a frustrated UX designer for whom an ideal design solution is all that matters. But, if you pivot and realize that you can help many people in their daily lives by creating an easier to use and more effective product and, at the same time, increase your company’s profitability, this can become a win-win situation. Your willingness to focus on business success means you can help more people.

UX designers who have the rigid mindset that this design must be the best possible design ever must realize that they are part of a larger organization that is bringing a product to market. They must adopt the strategic goals of that organization. All of the roles that make up a product team must work together to achieve the organization’s goals and meet the needs of the user. Only if UX designs achieve results that are important to the business and add value to the business can the business survive to provide value to customers. 

Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixAs Principal of Lone Star Interaction Design in Dallas, Texas, Dr. 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. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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