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Creating a UX Team within a Large Enterprise

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A column by Janet M. Six
May 28, 2018

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our expert panel discusses the challenges of creating a UX team within a large, established company and how to overcome them. These challenges differ somewhat depending on whether you’re creating a new UX team within an organization that has already adopted User Experience or you’re creating the first UX team within an organization that has been slow to adopt User Experience. Because the latter is more challenging, many of our experts have focused their advice on the overcoming the challenges of establishing User Experience within a large enterprise.

Our experts also consider some of the organizational challenges that confront UX teams within large enterprises that lack adequate UX resources. Addressing these challenges is largely a matter of adequate hiring and optimal organization.

Each month in Ask UXmatters, our expert panel answers a reader’s question about any of a variety of user experience matters. To receive 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:

  • 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
  • Jordan Julien—Founder of Hostile Sheep Research & Design
  • Gavin Lew—Managing Director at Bold Insight

Q: What are some of the challenges one faces when creating a UX department within a large, established company, and what are the best ways to overcome them?—from a UXmatters reader

“Are you creating a UX department or the UX department within your organization?” asks Steven. “This is a critical distinction. You cannot create a UX team and expect it to magically improve everything. Are you providing UX support to an individual product team or business unit, or are you trying to create a culture in which User Experience informs the way your entire company looks at your customers and pursues product development?

“The main difference is the level of buy-in you need to create each type of UX team. To support a product team or business unit, you must have the support of that team—or at least the team leadership of all constituencies. If Development or Product Management or Marketing doesn’t want you there, you’ll have little impact.

“But if it’s a small group, all you have to do is get in front of them and explain what you do,” suggests Steven. “I like holding workshops to help product teams understand the UX design process. If you can get a few hours with everyone, invite them over, deliver your pitch, and do some hands-on, collaborative work with them so they can see what it is that User Experience does to improve products.

“To create a UX team that works across an organization, you need the highest-level buy-in you can get—preferably from a chief officer, who will publicly acknowledge and back up the team whenever there’s a problem. Ideally, the UX team needs actual power that derives from a department head of suitable stature. A lowly Manager of User Experience cannot generally get a lot done because, when push comes to shove, a VP or a C-level leader will all too often opt for cheap, fast, technical solutions. If, as a UX leader, your stature within a corporation is too low, people won’t even read your emails or come to your meetings.

“In either case, in addition to a mandate from your company’s leadership, you also need a UX design process. User Experience needs to be involved early on in the product-development process, be part of every decision; and establish that its role is not about creating pretty, pixel-perfect designs, but about user advocacy. You need to document what you do for everyone. Think about setting corporate-level standards and guidelines for design, for architecture, and even ethical design.”

Establishing User Experience Within Your Organization

“Successfully establishing User Experience within your organization requires more than simply hiring a UX team,” answers Pabini. “Your corporate executives must be committed to delivering great experience outcomes. This means investing adequately in User Experience, hiring UX leaders and team leads who are peers with the leaders of the other disciplines in product development, and hiring sufficient user researchers and designers. Jim Nieters and I discussed many of the issues relating to leading successful UX teams in our Leadership Matters column, ‘UX Leadership, Part 2: What Great Leaders Must Do.’

“It is important for User Experience to establish a design process that both integrates well with an organization’s overall product-development process and enables UX professionals to contribute maximal value to the organization. Often, enterprises with long-established development processes that have never taken User Experience into account, resist making the changes that are necessary to integrate User Experience successfully. I have explored the design process in depth in my UXmatters article ‘Design Is a Process, Not a Methodology.’” Ensuring that User Experience delivers maximal value means doing user research up front, taking a strategic approach to UX design, and ensuring that multidisciplinary product teams make decisions collaboratively.”

Sharing Ownership of User Experience

“For people in different disciplines to collaborate well together on a product team, it is imperative that they understand the goals, work practices, and value of their peers in other disciplines,” advises Pabini. “They must learn to speak one another’s language. Each of the core disciplines on a product team—Product Management, User Experience, and Engineering—contributes to the user experience. I’ve explained what it means to share ownership of user experience and the role each of these disciplines plays in defining a product’s vision, functionality, and form, in my article ‘Sharing Ownership of UX.’ My article also explores barriers to collaboration—the barriers that typically exist in a large enterprise that has been slow to adopt User Experience—and how to overcome them.”

“The biggest challenge is establishing the right perception of User Experience,” replies Jordan. “I wouldn’t call it a department or make it feel separate from the rest of the product-development organization in any way. Your key goal should be achieving seamless integration of experience design throughout the organization, regardless of departmental constraints or restrictions. User Experience should not be just a department. It’s a mentality, a thought process, and an ideology that an organization needs to adopt. A User Experience department should not try to own the experience. They should instead equip entire product-development organizations with the knowledge and tools the various disciplines must master to be able to accept responsibility for their portion of the experience.”

Avoiding Isolation

“A huge challenge for the members of a UX team within a large corporation can be isolation,” responds Gavin. “If a company wants to spread the value of User Experience across the entire organization, they’ll likely matrix manage the team, adding User Experience across teams. This is often the case whether User Experience sits under Product Development, IT (Information Technology), Product Management, or Marketing. In such a case, a UX professional might touch several different projects, but there probably won’t be four UX professionals on the same project. This can create a feeling of isolation for people on the UX team, so it’s important to support them as they deal with variables that are not just technical. They often have to deal with political and interpersonal challenges. The organization must recognize that UX professionals need to feel that they are part of a collective team. While UX teammates might not work on the same projects, they can still offer their support, giving one another the feeling that they are part of a group. UX professionals need to bounce ideas around and feel that they are not the lone expert who must make all decisions.

“When I first started my career in User Experience, I was part of a UX team, but matrix managed. I was assigned to a productivity team that was creating an assessment to measure efficiency. Essentially, I had to measure user experiences. So I came up with an assessment, then presented it to the UX team. An imposing figure in the meeting rose up, leaned across the table, and said, ‘Son, we have been there and done that. You have to give us more.’ This is what happens when you’re left alone on an island. The UX team collectively helped me to reposition the work I had done and sell the naysayers, as well as those who thought they inherently knew right from wrong. This was a challenge that could be overcome only through persistence and collective support.

“As a result of such experiences, I adhere to a philosophy that started at User Centric and is now established at Bold Insight,” continues Gavin. “You want to work in a place where you can walk down the hall and ask someone a question. Once you ask a question, what should happen next is that the person you ask stops what he or she is doing, looks up, and says, ‘I have done that before, but if I had a second chance to do it, here’s what I would do based on what I learned.’ They would share their wisdom and sketch a solution on a piece of paper or a whiteboard. That’s what UX professionals need. They shouldn’t feel like they are a singular expert. Creating collective knowledge for use by all is key to building a UX practice. This is the solution to the challenge of isolation.”

Organizing for Success

“Organizing UX teams for maximal success at different stages in a company’s UX maturity is the subject of an excellent book by Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner, Org Design for Design Orgs: Building and Managing In-House Design Teams,” recommends Pabini. “The authors have been presenting workshops and making frequent appearances at conferences since the book’s publication. I suggest you read my review of their workshop, which I attended at O’Reilly Design Conference 2017—or my review of Peter’s talk on this topic at Enterprise UX 2017.” 

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. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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