The Paradox of Control Versus Collaboration

February 6, 2017

UX designers tend to be perfectionists—purpose-driven idealists, who are intent on creating experiences that users love. Many designers believe that Business and Engineering don’t care about the user experience at the same level they do. Sometimes, this is the reality. As a result, UX experts often take the full burden of creating great experiences on their own shoulders. After all, shouldn’t the user experience be left to the professionals? While a UX designer’s first instinct might be to command sole ownership over the user experience, the problem is that no isolated UX team can create a product without collaborating with other disciplines—particularly Product Management and Engineering.

The truth is that the best products result from product teams participating in integrative thinking—working together to solve problems than none could solve as well alone. As Roger Martin points out, “Integrative thinkers consider the problem as a whole rather than breaking it down and farming out the parts.” UX professionals must realize that we actually need the help of our Business and Engineering partners to create the best experiences.

In this article, I’ll consider the paradox of control. What are the implications when UX professionals seek control of the user experience? And, alternatively, what happens if User Experience relinquishes control?

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Who Owns the User Experience?

If we ask, “Who owns the user experience?” the answers we get will differ, depending on the discipline to which we direct the question.

User Experience would probably say, “Of course, we own the experience.” But Product Management would likely answer that they own it because they decide on the feature set and user stories. Direct Sales might say they own the experience because they are customers’ human touchpoint with the company. Customer Experience will also throw their hat into the ring. Engineering must ultimately build the user experience, which gives them a strong sense of ownership, too. All of them are correct—and all are wrong. Really, no one discipline can take ownership of the end-to-end experience.

The key question that emerges is whether UX teams can relinquish their sole ownership of the experience, while, at the same time, realizing that they’ll gain a stronger role in making extraordinary experiences a reality. How can we demonstrate and embody the need to focus on the total end-to-end experience and agree that none of us can do it alone? We must partially abdicate design ownership and work together with—not try to take over—other disciplines.

For a variety of reasons, UX teams often get frustrated by their teamwork with their adjacent disciplines. First, they often lack any input into the product roadmap—even though user research could help companies determine what their customers need. If you’re designing the wrong feature, it doesn’t matter how well you design it.

Second, when UX teams design experiences on their own, Product Management and Engineering often step in later, saying they’ll have to change the designs to make them more easily implementable and, thus, make it easier to launch on time.

Third, User Experience often has no role in making decisions about what technology stack to use, which can negatively impact the experience users have with a digital product.

On different product teams, these points may apply to various degrees. But, in the end, only when each discipline participates in making decisions in the others’ domain can a product team create marketable, technically sound products that customers love. We need to work together!

Who’s in Charge?

Now, we need to answer this key question: If everyone should own part of the user experience, can User Experience have sole ownership of design? The natural follow-on question is: If we share ownership and advocate that everyone take responsibility for the ultimate experience, wouldn’t there inherently be chaos in the design of the experience? Not if User Experience takes on a role similar to the conductor of an orchestra—directing the different disciplines in collaborating together.

When User Experience tries to hold onto complete control over the user experience, we actually help build the silos we need to prevent. At one extreme, in waterfall development processes, some UX teams do not want to release anything but perfectly polished designs to Engineering—designs whose usability they have proven through usability testing. This is analogous to Product Management’s not releasing a Product Requirements Document (PRD) until it is finished. The irony is that, while UX designers often complain about not having a seat at the table when business decisions are under discussion, they sometimes get frustrated when a Product Manager makes a comment or criticism about their design, even if it’s constructive.

One implication of UX designers’ holding such tight control of their designs is that Product Management and Engineering think of designers as arrogant and controlling. This, in turn, tends to make them want to control their own deliverables more closely and diminishes collaboration. Designers need to find ways to share our in-progress work and take feedback, so Product Management and Engineering feel like true partners in our work. By being open to input and willing to make changes, by working together as equals, and by offering others help with their deliverables, we build partnerships.

While agile development has broken down many silos, it hasn’t eliminated all cases of territoriality. And, even though many engineers and product managers tout the benefits of agile, many of their UX colleagues are not loving the process. Without having a Concept phase prior to the first sprint, UX designers feel like they’re building the pieces of a boat without knowing whether it’s a battleship or a dingy.

Nevertheless, in either waterfall or agile development, when User Experience tries to own the user experience, we fail to take advantage of the resources at hand to help shape the product and fulfill our vision. When you hand over your project, your baby, to Development before it is complete, you might fear that your vision may be lost or your intent be misinterpreted. In contrast, if you see others on a product team as collaborators who can help you bring the product to life, you can leverage the best efforts of all who are involved on a project.

We need the insights of other team members in our design process. We need to collaborate, both formally and informally, to make sure we are crafting experiences that differentiate, solve real user and market challenges, and can be built. Engineers and product managers think differently from UX professionals, and we need to realize that we need these different types of thinking. Often, designers seek out people who think like them, as is often true in human social interactions. As UX professionals though, we need to begin to recognize the value and internalize the perspectives that our partners bring to the design process. Integrative thinking means leveraging everybody’s insights and using those insights to improve the design solution.

Shared Responsibility

Now, let’s consider two of the closest partners of User Experience: Product Management and Customer Experience.

Product managers, who now often call themselves Product Owners, may think that, to be recognized as a leader, they need to define product roadmaps independently. Unfortunately, those roadmaps often comprise features rather than intended experience outcomes. To get the best results, we need to show them that, through collaboration, we can help them to define the right experience outcomes and user stories. Product managers will probably still want to own the roadmap, but if we’re able to help them be more successful, they’ll want us to be part of the team defining roadmaps. We must demonstrate that we can help them to visualize stories and scenarios and create prototypes that reveal the dimensions of interaction and movement.

Customer Experience often reveals facts about the degree to which products are usable—as well as levels of customer adoption—through numerical evidence and metrics. They define improvement programs based on those numbers. The challenge is that Customer Experience programs are often data rich, but information poor. User Experience can help Customer Experience interpret that data and design an experience that ultimately solves the problems their data identified.

A user’s journey starts with learning about a product, continues with the purchase and use of the product, then through getting support for the product. However, the user’s conceptual model does not include who is responsible for different aspects of their experience—what goes on behind the scenes. If any part of the end-to-end experience lacks harmony, the overall experience suffers—even if the product is usable, useful, and creates an emotional connection. User Experience has a unique focus on the total user journey. Thus, we can help bridge the gaps that exist between the efforts of the different disciplines on a product team, including Marketing, Sales, Product Management, Engineering, and Support. By envisioning the total journey, representing the concerns of the user throughout the product-design process, and orchestrating the way multidisciplinary teams work together in crafting a seamless end-to-end experience, User Experience takes responsibility for creating great experience outcomes.

Fluency and Influence

To participate successfully in collaborations with product teams, UX designers must be able to advocate their designs as readily as they can create them. Individual UX researchers and designers need to take the time to understand the business for which they’re designing a solution—including its corporate strategy and priorities, revenue and profit targets, the cost of goods, profit-and-loss statements, market expectations of the company, and much more. Great designers can translate their intent and articulate why the user experience they’ve designed is good for business. They must do this in language that others would not perceive as UX jargon. Instead, they must learn to use the terms their Business and Engineering counterparts would use. They must demonstrate the value they contribute to a business by envisioning and visualizing product opportunities, by creating prototypes, and by highlighting the value of their designs in the context of corporate priorities.

When User Experience gives Product Management and Engineering greater ownership over the experience, UX designers must also become more influential in defining and communicating the intended experience outcomes that drive the product roadmap. This requires facilitating discussions or working sessions that help multidisciplinary product teams come to a common conclusion. For example, UX designers can make their influence felt by

  • creating experience maps that document the end-to-end experience, including bottlenecks to user success or delight—depending on product priorities
  • facilitating multidisciplinary workshops early in the product-definition cycle, during which the team aligns, defines requirements around user needs, and designs user flows
  • influencing the product-development cycle to ensure there is a Sprint 0, during which the team can craft an experience and validate the concept with customers in the marketplace—before committing to build the solution

These soft skills ultimately lead to our getting respect and being able to influence others.

Scenarios and Approaches

If your company is not already working toward product teams having joint responsibility for the user experience, it’s important to assess what kind of situation you’re in. There are three basic scenarios:

  • Your company simply doesn’t understand or value User Experience and doesn’t see the potential of user experiences to differentiate products.
  • Your company appreciates User Experience and wants good user experiences, but has no system set up to ensure successful differentiation.
  • Your company understands that user experience is a strategic differentiator and even wants to include User Experience at a strategic level.

In the first scenario—that is, if your company doesn’t understand or value User Experience—there may not be much a single UX designer can do. Changing this situation would require a major cultural transformation—and that is more than I can cover in this article.

In the second scenario—that is, if your company already values User Experience—the ground is fertile. So, it is the responsibility of User Experience to build collaboration on product teams, as I've described in this article. User Experience needs to involve people in other disciplines in the design process. UX designers must clearly articulate their design ideas and influence those in other disciplines.

If you are fortunate to work for a company in which the third scenario prevails, you can start to transform multidisciplinary product teams to think about intended experience outcomes rather than features and define the software architecture only once you’ve defined the experience.

A Joint Adventure

In the end, don’t all of us need to relinquish control to the customer anyway? So, make it the responsibility of everyone on a product team to craft a great experience. Of course, doing this means UX designers must relinquish their sole ownership of design. Instead, they must help entire multidisciplinary teams to align around a unified experience-first vision. By working collaboratively toward an aligned vision, product teams can together craft extraordinary experiences that transform markets. 

Chief Experience Officer at Experience Outcomes

Los Altos, California, USA

Corinne WayshakCorinne has led the design of experience-first, cutting-edge products and services for twenty-five years, most recently at Apple. Currently at Experience Outcomes, Corinne defines and designs experiences that customers love—experiences that make companies #1 in their industry. She had previously built a successful design consultancy that startups and Fortune-100 companies engaged to lead UX strategy and design for market-disrupting products. These market disruptors included HP’s first Internet Café device, Schwab’s first mobile-trading application, and Citibank’s first color ATM display. She is a co-author of several design patents. Corinne holds two degrees from MIT—one in engineering, the other in film.  Read More

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