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The Most and Least Valuable Contributions of UX Designers

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A column by Janet M. Six
June 19, 2017

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our expert panel considers the contributions of UX designers that are most and least important to the product-development process. Can we generalize about the value of UX designers’ contributions to product teams? Or is the value a UX designer provides unique to that designer? How can UX designers exponentially increase the value of their skills and contributions by inculcating an experience-first culture into a multidisciplinary product team? How can product teams make meaningful work?

The panel discusses the importance of UX designers’ being involved in the product-development lifecycle from the very beginning of a project, engaging entire product teams in the UX research and design process, and applying discoveries from research throughout the design process. Our expert panel also contemplates how UX designers can take a more active role in the development process, as opposed to simply executing requirements from product management.

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In my monthly column, 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: [email protected].

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

  • Mark Baldino—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Steven Hoober—Mobile Interaction Designer and Owner at 4ourth Mobile; author of Designing Mobile Interfaces; UXmatters columnist
  • Ben Ihnchak—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Jordan Julien—Founder of Hostile Sheep Research & Design
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
  • Jo Wong—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.

Q: What are the most and least valuable contributions of UX designers to product-development projects?—from a UXmatters reader

“I don’t think it’s possible to generalize about the contributions of UX designers,” replies Pabini. “Their backgrounds tend to be so diverse, and they may possess a broad range of valuable skills, including soft skills. Even for UX designers who have prepared for their career by earning a Master’s degree in a subject relating to User Experience, as has become more and more common in recent years, once in the workforce, their careers may follow such divergent trajectories that they’ll develop different strengths.

“UX designers should never limit their potential contributions to a company’s description of their role. You should contribute any ideas you might have that would add value to a project and your company. For example, a UX designer might come up with a new product concept, help define a product’s requirements or software architecture to improve its user experience, or write some code, in addition to doing everything that is core to their role. Over the years, I’ve done all of these things and making such contributions has made my work much more interesting than it otherwise would have been.

“You should involve your teammates on multidisciplinary product teams in UX research and the UX design process as well. One of the biggest rewards of engaging your teammates in your work and contributing your efforts to your peers’ disciplines is the opportunity to work in close collaboration with one another. For example, you might do some pair programming or pair design. Of course, doing so requires mutual respect and knowledge sharing. Product teams work together much more effectively when they have a good understanding of each other’s disciplines.

“UX designers can have the greatest impact on a product-development effort by objectively analyzing the results from user research, eliciting insights that ensure the team builds the right product for the market, and devising a design strategy for a product that truly meets users’ needs. They can exponentially increase the value of their contributions by inculcating an experience-first culture into a multidisciplinary product team or even across an entire business. The best, most experienced UX designers possess the skills that are necessary for an organization to innovate, so are a natural fit for innovation teams. These are the key ways in which UX designers can create extraordinary value for their company.

“In your role as a UX designer, you can add great value to your team and your company by facilitating ideation sessions or educating your peers in design thinking and UX research and design methods. Business and technical constraints should inform your design solutions, which means you need to know about them before creating your designs. Working collaboratively with your product team from the very beginning of a project is the best way to achieve the necessary learnings. Great design ideas may come from anyone on a product team, so be sure to incorporate all of your team’s best ideas in your designs.”

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Making Meaningful Work

“This question connects nicely with our recent UXmatters article, ‘Guiding Practices for Making Meaningful Work,’ and the practices we described there will help answer this question,” respond Dan and Jo. “We focus on the valuable as a way of seeing what is not valuable.

“Getting everyone on a project team and in a business to understand that they can play a role in creating a well-understood narrative is important if the business is to deliver on the promise of making meaningful work for everyone. Consider these ten example practices that support meaningful work:

  1. Understand other people’s backgrounds. Demonstrate that User Experience is about discovering needs. User Experience is all about people and their contexts—whether customers, users, or stakeholders—so be respectful of that.
  2. Listen before talking.
  3. Use examples from alternative industry domains to provide different ideas. Take inspiration from what is possible in other domains. Move people outside their own domain and out of their bubble.
  4. Use sketching as a way for people to open up, have some fun, and start building their confidence in their design abilities. Design is not always about creating finished, high-fidelity designs. Explore ideas by drawing sketches.
  5. Demonstrate design artifacts that provide the structure for a project story. Show how the project story can help teammates create their own version of meaningful work.
  6. Keep your toolkit simple, and ensure that tools are grounded in their context of use for your work. It’s not about the number of tools you know. It’s more about the tools’ quality and the outcomes you can achieve with them, in improving design solutions for people.
  7. Find user groups to which people can relate. User groups reveal stories, and stories reveal observations that have implications for small and large elements of a design.
  8. Set up a space in which collaborative work can happen. Ask probing questions to encourage conversations.
  9. Listen to users’ stories and look for learnings that bridge to design opportunities. When walking through your designs, use your current learnings to support design decisions. Also, look for gaps in your learning.
  10. These integrated practices support continuous learning and help us to mature in our UX design practice:
    • understanding users through stories
    • sensemaking of users’ stories you’ve collected
    • discovering observations
    • gleaning insights that have design implications
    • working collaboratively to improve designs
    • applying these example practices in your daily work
    • opening up conversations about the barriers to making meaningful work that your team faces at work today”

Dan and Jo also recommend your reading their “Make Meaningful Work Manifesto.”

Working with a Product Team

“Members of the best product-development teams all take some responsibility for a product’s UX design,” answers Jordan. “The UX designer should not be responsible for every aspect of the user experience. Assigning responsibility for the entire user experience of a product to a single person or department lets the rest of the product team off the hook. UX designers are most effective when they use their expertise to educate and support the rest of the product team in making important design decisions. So UX designers’ most valuable contribution is educating and supporting their team. UX designers contribute the least value when they make unilateral design decisions or accept authority over all key design decisions.”

Get Involved Early to Ensure a User-Centered Product-Development Process

“This might sound simple, but providing a foundation in user-centered design is a UX designer’s most important contribution,” answers Mark. “Too many products get designed with marketing or leveraging some great, new technology in mind. But you can build the most technologically sophisticated tool that will be impossible to market and sell unless it’s useful and usable. So ensuring that the product-development process is really oriented around listening to the voice of your users is the UX designer’s most valuable contribution.”

“By far the most valuable contributions I make to projects are the earliest ones I can make,” says Steven. “Defining the product scope, helping define the audience, and understanding users’ real needs are key. You can do this through analysis or research. I think ethnography is vastly more important than doing usability testing on a prototype. Ethnography leads to pure understanding, instead of just an 80% validation of an idea.

“Sometimes, the best contribution is killing a product that wouldn’t meet a real user need. Your analysis might show that an organization would do better by improving an existing product, instead of creating yet another app that would muddle their brand. Once you’ve progressed to testing prototypes, completion bias, the sunk-cost fallacy, and escalation of commitment may make it is hard to change direction significantly or determine that a product is a bad idea. At that point, it’s slightly less important to help with the data architecture, build a good information architecture, or help write content and labels that make sense.

“Designing the user interface (UI) is nice. It’s fun to do. It’s good to add to your portfolio. But, in comparison to the many other things a UX designer can influence, UI design has the least impact on the product overall.”

“The best contribution, in my opinion, is adding design input that is informed by research throughout the design and development process,” adds Ben. “What have you heard from users? More importantly, what does it mean for the future of the product? UX designers’ contributions are limited if they fail to advocate getting designs in front of users early and often. Designing without input or validation from users is a recipe for disaster.”

What Detracts from UX Designers’ Ability to Contribute?

“UX designers’ least-valuable contributions result in what I call ‘feed-the-development-beast’ environments,” answers Mark. “In these situations, there is no user-centered foundation and, instead, the UX designer is simply responding to feature requests, bug reports, or making spot updates to existing designs. This is generally no fault of the designer, but a result of the organization’s structure or processes. When design is simply a response to a business request or a technical bug, it’s not adding enough value.” 

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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