In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, our expert panel answers readers’ questions about a variety of user experience matters. To receive their answers to your question 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:
- Stephen Anderson—Head of Design, Innovation Garage at Capital One
- Mark Baldino—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
- Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; UXmatters Publisher, Editor in Chief, and columnist; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
- Csaba Házi—Co-Founder and UX Expert at Webabstract; Author of Seven Step UX
- Adrian Howard—Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX
- Ben Ihnchak—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
- Janet Six—Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist
Q: Some say we are shifting from engineering-driven to design-driven business models. What do you think of that?—from a UXmatters reader
“While it’s great that more companies are starting to perceive the true business value of design, I believe the desire to move to design-driven organizations is misguided,” answers Pabini. “While some UX professionals are clamoring for design-driven organizations, this is probably in response to their long experience working within companies and on product teams that are out of balance—teams on which some discipline other than design has dominated all other disciplines and staffing levels were completely out of whack. This has meant an unhappy experience for UX professionals—whether Engineering dominates and our designs don’t get built as designed or Product Management dominates and dictatorial product owners treat designers like order takers. However, there is an alternative response. Design need not dominate as Engineering and Product Management have attempted to do.
“In my very first UX design job—they called it Human Interface Engineering back then at Apple—I had a bit of a Goldilocks experience, learning what it was like to work on product teams with three different types of cultures:
- An engineering-driven team—I worked on an engineering-driven team, with an engineering lead who had some appreciation for what I could contribute as a designer—as long as I didn’t get any really big ideas. It was absolutely clear who was in charge.
- A product-driven team—My boss also assigned me to a product-driven team, but when I showed up for the first team meeting, the product manager said, “We’re not doing any work on the user interface in the next release,” and told me to leave. My boss let the product manager have his way. (Of course, the lead engineer on that project asked me for design advice on the sly.)
- A balanced team—The dynamic of the third team I worked with was just right and set my expectations for how product teams should interact forever after. We worked very collaboratively, and everyone contributed ideas. Together, we defined what the product should be and how it should behave. Working with this team was a very pleasurable experience.
“What companies really need are highly collaborative product teams on which each lead—typically, Engineering, Product, and User Experience—has a well-defined role to play, with clear authority should any unilateral decision making be necessary. Such product teams share ownership of the user experience. (I’ve described these roles in depth in my UXmatters article “Sharing Ownership of UX.”) The interesting thing is that, on such collaborative teams, there’s rarely a need for anyone to make a unilateral decision. Collaborative product teams work closely together throughout the entire development lifecycle, aligning around their shared goals and vision. They feel a sense of shared ownership for every aspect of the product experience.
“In every job I’ve had since I worked with that balanced team at Apple,” continues Pabini, “I’ve endeavored to foster balanced product teams. Working in this way enables everyone to be more effective and see beyond the boundaries of their primary discipline. Plus, everyone on a balanced product team feels valued.
“While it’s wonderful that some companies are now making the transition to valuing design as they should, many still are not. And, at some companies that were able to make this shift when they had the necessary C-level sponsorship, design has lost ground when those sympathetic leaders have left the organization.
“Of course, for companies to deliver extraordinary experience outcomes, it’s imperative that Design should play its rightful role, and investment in Design teams should absolutely be on a par with that for Engineering and Product Management teams. However, I can’t really embrace the term design driven or design led. When some people in other disciplines hear those terms, they mistakenly think Design wants to take over the ownership that has previously belonged to Engineering or Product Management, depending on the company culture. But this cannot be about ownership by Design—or any other individual discipline. Only when we work together on balanced product teams can we achieve great things. Kurt Walecki, VP of Design at Intuit, prefers the term design inspired. I rather like that. It speaks to the fact that design methods can inspire and enable everyone on a product team to work together and deliver great experience outcomes.
“Becoming a design-inspired organization requires a cultural transformation, and transforming culture is one of the most challenging goals a company can undertake. But companies that achieve this goal deliver tremendous value to their users, customers, the business itself, and its stockholders. In today’s world, if a company wants to sustain success in its marketplace, becoming a design-inspired organization is the way to go.”