Common Problems UX Leaders Encounter

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A column by Janet M. Six
November 21, 2016

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our expert panel discusses common problems that UX leaders face within organizations and offer some ways to overcome them. These organizational issues include the following:

  • failing to understand the unique, strategic value—the business value—of User Experience
  • not investing adequately in User Experience
  • lacking an understanding of User Experience and its vocabulary
  • failing to create a business context in which User Experience can succeed—whether because of an organization’s less than optimal structure, misunderstandings or a lack of respect between people in different functions, resistance to change, or a lack of appreciation for the unique value UX professionals provide
  • considering User Experience too late in the development process
  • placing pressure on UX professionals to skip essential steps in the design process

Every month, our Ask UXmatters experts answer our readers’ questions about user experience matters. To read their answers to your question in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, just send your question to us at: [email protected].

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

  • Mark Baldino—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Warren Croce—Principal UX Designer at Gazelle; Principal at Warren Croce Design
  • 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 Gk
  • Baruch Sachs—Senior Director, User Experience at Pegasystems; UXmatters columnist
  • Janet Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist

Q: What are some common problems UX leaders encounter within organizations, and what is the best way to overcome them?—from a UXmatters reader

“Many organizations fail to appreciate the unique, strategic value of User Experience,” replies Pabini. “These organizations do not understand the true business value of User Experience.

“Such organizations typically perceive User Experience as a tactical function, so bury UX teams deep in the organization where they’re ineffective because:

  • The UX team doesn’t have access to the C-level and other senior leaders they need to work with and don’t have their mindshare.
  • The leadership and other members of the UX team aren’t part of the conversations in which they need to participate to add strategic value.
  • User Experience is typically placed under Product or Development, so UX leaders report to higher-placed leaders who have no understanding of what they and their teams do. The leaders to whom User Experience reports may prioritize their own function’s needs to the detriment of the UX team. This problem typically leads to insufficient investment in User Experience. It’s difficult for a UX leader to thrive or advance in such a context.
  • Peers in other functions view User Experience as a weak function that doesn’t have the support of senior leaders, so may run roughshod over their UX peers or be less motivated to collaborate with them. They may think they can do research, strategy, and design themselves, so don’t really need a UX researcher, design strategist, or designer.
  • The organization may fail to make a distinction between brand design and UX design, prioritizing brand to such an extent that the quality of product user experiences suffers. This often happens in image-conscious organizations that put greater value on branding than on UX design. This also leads to insufficient investment in User Experience.

For these reasons, organizations that don’t fully appreciate the value of User Experience often underinvest in User Experience. As a consequence:

  • Resource-starved UX teams are not able to do great work because there are too few UX professionals, and they are spread too thinly across too many projects. This may necessitate UX leaders’ being too hands on to allow them sufficient time to give adequate attention to UX strategy or leadership.
  • Some key competencies may be missing from the UX team—for example, UX research, visual interface design, or front-end development. Without adequate UX research, the UX team won’t have the data it needs to create optimal experience outcomes. Without visual designers, the company’s products may be less aesthetically pleasing. Without front-end developers on the UX team, prototyping will be less nimble and flexible, and UX designers may not benefit as much from developers’ insights. The lack of these competencies can negatively impact the UX team’s effectiveness.
  • Product teams may not involve User Experience early enough in projects, leaving them out of essential information loops, causing them to work ridiculously long hours to try to catch up, reducing their effectiveness, and forcing them to shortcut their process—perhaps making it impossible to do truly user-centered design.

“All of these problems can make it very difficult for UX leaders and their teams to succeed within an organization,” concludes Pabini. “If, as a UX leader, you encounter too many of these issues in one organization, you’d do well to consider finding employment elsewhere. That organization may not deserve you.

“Organizations—especially large organizations—are often highly resistant to change. If User Experience is new in an organization or a UX team has previously been unsuccessful within an organization, inculcating User Experience methods into that organization will require huge changes. To successfully make the changes necessary to integrate User Experience into an organization, the entire organization—and especially key stakeholders—must really value User Experience, truly want to embrace change, and understand what it will take to succeed and cannot be threatened by those changes. UX leaders need C-level support in removing the obstacles to change.”

For more of my thoughts relating to this topic, I suggest you read these articles:

A Lack of Understanding of User Experience and Design

“In my personal experience, the single biggest hurdle I’ve encountered throughout my career is a lack of understanding of design and its vocabulary,” answers Leo. “More often than not, I’ve found myself working in deep engineering firms, focusing on industrial tools and B2B engagements. Such organizations barely discuss design, in the broadest sense of the term. Most individuals in these organizations have never had a design class of any type—particularly those working for large companies that were established 15 years or more ago. Lack of a proper design vocabulary leads to superficial design discussions and an impoverished culture of design. Instead of having meaningful discussions, teams often engage in parallel monologues, by which I mean, as a designer, I’m having a completely different conversation from the person with whom I’m speaking.

“An organization’s lack of a design vocabulary means it is up to me to shift the conversation into areas my audience both understands and is motivated about—such as improving profits, increasing user adoption, or disrupting markets. While many of us in the UX domain recognize how our skills contribute to such strategic efforts, my peers who are unfamiliar with User Experience need help bridging that gap.

“The bottom line: In larger, more established firms, things progress a lot more slowly than any of us would expect or could imagine as we attempt to bring an organization up to speed on the value of User Experience. A lack of velocity for User Experience is a key outcome of the underlying problem of not having any vocabulary around design and User Experience.

In smaller firms, a slightly different problem occurs because of the lack of a design vocabulary: There is a lack of focus and confusion about outcomes. For example, many firms I’ve worked with lump UX design under the umbrella of Visual Design—which is confusing to UX professionals because we know the difference between the two disciplines. When we hear visual, we might begin to think the problem under discussion is about the surface-layer treatment of a user interface when a stakeholder actually meant UX design. So, again, it is incumbent on us to overcome that misunderstanding. However, the result is essentially the same: a reduction in velocity as we work through the basics.”

A Failure to See User Experience as an Essential, Strategic Function

“The most common problem I’ve seen is User Experience not being situated at the right level of the organization,” replies Warren. “Why is this a problem? Because the further down the food chain you are, the greater the chances are that the organization will view you as an execution function rather than a driving, or strategic, function. User Experience is commonly part of either Product Management or Engineering. While I’ve seen User Experience operate successfully in both, the best situation is for User Experience to be a peer of these groups—allowing us to have a say in strategy and project prioritization; to be closer to the business and exert more influence.”

“Some organizations have identified User Experience as a critical role, but not one that requires a large department,” responds Jordan. “In some cases, this results in User Experience being a one- or two-person show. When a UX leader is the only UX professional in an organization, he or she is essential to every project and probably too busy to focus on any leadership work. Establishing a UX department is tough enough when the whole organization wants this and understands its value. But it’s next to impossible if an organization isn’t ready for it.”

A Disconnect with the Mindsets of Other Roles on Product Teams

“Often the objectives of IT (Information Technology) or development organizations are to keep projects on time, on spec, and on budget,” answers Gavin. “In contrast, product management worries about sales, churn, returns, calls to the contact center, customer loyalty, and repeat purchases. User Experience focuses primarily on understanding and meeting the needs of users. People in these different roles must align their goals so they map to business needs—not work in silos that drive their own goals.

“But, at forward-thinking companies, User Experience exists in a new world, in which user friendly and usability are words that receive more than lip service. Such companies understand that User Experience can drive user satisfaction and loyalty and a better brand experience. We need to measure user-experience impact and use these metrics to drive design.”

“A common problem I face within some organizations is their questioning the need for certain processes and the costs that are associated with them—in resources, time, and dollars,” replies Mark. “Thus, the challenge is to clarify the return on investment (ROI) for UX design. While there isn’t a single, simple answer for how to do this, a first step could be to identify key performance metrics (KPIs) within an organization or to create a user-satisfaction metric. Track that metric before, during, and after a project so you can align user-experience impacts to business drivers.”

Resistance to Change

“We often hear organizations say, ‘But this is how we’ve always done it. Why should we have to change?’” replies Ben. “Change, in general, is hard. Changing the way an organization—especially a large one—has always done things is incredibly hard. A great way of creating an environment that is open to change is to get everyone pulling in the same direction. Creating goals-oriented personas and realistic supporting scenarios is a great way to do that. By including many different people or even groups in the process of creating and vetting personas and scenarios, you can ensure that you hear many voices, which helps you get buy-in. Once a team agrees on who the people are on the other side of the screen—along with some of their goals and painpoints—it becomes a bit easier to take steps in the direction of change.”

“Assuming an organization is structured in such a way that UX leadership has the time and mandate to lead the organization’s UX practice, the biggest problem UX leaders face is a lack of original thinking,” adds Jordan. “The onus is on UX leaders to inspire original thinking on product teams. It’s all too easy to get into the habit of approaching the same problems in the same way once you’ve thought through a solution that works. In my experience, it’s valuable to think through similar problems within their unique contexts—regardless of whether you may already have a solution that works.”

The Belief That Everyone Can Be a Designer

“There is a pervasive belief that everyone can be a designer,” responds Baruch. “I’ve often noted that, if an enterprise or cloud architect speaks, very few people who are not well versed in such matters would question what they say. However, many do not afford a UX architect the same respect. The fact that what we do seems so accessible to everyone means they all have opinions—and perhaps even feel they can do it better. This is frustrating for designers and translates to real leadership challenges within an organization. To overcome this problem, we need to show, not that our way is better, but that we have a unique ability to look at a business problem holistically and either solve it or contribute to the solution with a solid design. The goal for User Experience within an organization is to be so ingrained in the organization’s culture that we can continually shape and expand that culture—not to have our peers look upon us as design gurus. Setting ourselves apart as design gurus ensures that we’ll always be on the outside looking in.”

Organizational Pressure to Skip Essential Steps of Our Process

While I am very encouraged that more and more organizations recognize that User Experience is important, I still see organizations skipping steps that are essential to the process of developing good UX designs for their products. Too many companies still think UX design is something that can be done late in the development process. That UX design is not much more than adding a cool-looking user interface, then claiming that their product has a strong user experience in both their marketing and recruiting materials.

The reality is that organizations need to consider User Experience very early in the product development cycle, and a product’s user experience must provide a strong foundation for that product. How many companies say, “Our products need to look like Apple’s,” without ensuring their products work as well as Apple’s—not even close. Even in this day and age, when User Experience is at the forefront, many companies still fail to achieve the basics. Looking good is not enough. Products must also work well. People really do expect that now!

As a consequence of organizations’ trivializing the effort it takes to create a great user experience, many products still fall short of Shneiderman’s “Eight Golden Rules of Interface Design.”

Even though many UX leaders do not receive adequate support from their organization’s leadership, they still have to deal with their idealistic team members who expect better.

Nevertheless, it is such an exciting time to be a UX professional! Many finally acknowledge that our work really is important. We now have so much more opportunity to get our great ideas implemented and make the world a better place. For more about this, see my recent Ask UXmatters column “Making the World a Better Place Through User Experience.”

On the other hand, UX professionals sometimes contemplate pie-in-the-sky ideas without paying enough attention to business considerations. In the excitement of creating the world’s greatest experience design, UX designers may forget the reality that, if an idea won’t be profitable, it’s not practical. It is essential that UX designers verify that their design is practical and feasible from a business perspective. So, while UX leaders must encourage innovation and creativity, they must at the same time ensure that the resulting design solutions can succeed within the constraints of the business. 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. 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.  Read More

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