The Ebbs and Flows of UX Teams in Large Organizations

August 20, 2018

When something’s level regularly becomes higher, then lower in any particular situation, it has an ebb and flow. There are multiple examples of such ebbs and flows in life. I remember, when growing up, my sister had a poster on her wall of a kitten hanging from a tree branch with these printed words: “Hang in there, baby,” shown in Figure 1. This metaphor has appeared in the arts many times: Frank Sinatra performed a song called “Ebb Tide,” the first episode of Season 2 of The Wire was titled “Ebb Tide,” and Ken Griffen’s “Ebb Tide” provided background music for Season 5 of Mad Men. In business, a company’s stock price reflects the daily ebb and flow of the company’s business performance.

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Figure 1—“Hang in there, baby!”
Hang in there, baby!

Growth of UX Through Acquisitions

Much of business growth occurs through acquiring companies—through mergers and acquisitions (M&A). Part of M&A strategy is enhancing product offerings or gaining access to new R&D (Research and Development) and technologies. John Maeda’s 2017 Design in Tech report lists over 70 design agencies that large companies have acquired since 2004. [1] Companies such as Adobe, Google, and Accenture have been growing through their design M&A activities for years. But it wasn’t until 2014—when Capital One bought Adaptive Path—that the UX community started paying more attention to these acquisitions. When announcing the merger, Jesse James Garrett, CEO of Adaptive Path, said that Adaptive Path won’t be providing outside design consulting anymore. They’ll now focus their research and design capabilities on “solving experience design problems for Capital One.” [2]

When this acquisition took place four years ago, it felt like the end of an era for independent entities such as Adaptive Path. Since then, businesses have continued to acquire design talent through acquisitions and mergers. Two other examples are Fjord, which was acquired by Accenture; and Idean, by Capgemini.

Growth of UX Because of Increasing Demand for Design

Around the same time as the Adaptive Path merger, IBM announced that it was investing $100 million in hiring design talent and opening Interactive Experience Labs globally. John Armstrong, North American Leader of IBM Interactive Experience, told Co.Design:

“We’ve seen, in all of our research, CEOs are very focused around the customer experience. This is very much an investment on IBM’s part in terms of where we’re seeing the demand.” [3]

What does all of this mean for designers today? Interesting work, better pay, a career path? Most definitely. Designers remain in high demand, with 65% year-over-year growth in hiring. Companies such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon are continuing to grow User Experience in their organizations. Even traditional enterprise companies such as Visa, Fidelity, and Bloomberg have invested in design talent—including at the senior-leadership level.

Attracting the Best Talent

For similar reasons, I joined ADP three years ago. In 2014, ADP opened its first innovation center in Chelsea, New York City. Three years ago, the company opened a second innovation center in Los Angeles. Part of their investment in innovation was the addition of new UX talent.

I have spent most of my UX career working in large companies, managing relationships with design agencies or teams of in-house creatives. The hardest part of my job, as a UX leader, is keeping the work interesting for designers and retaining the talent. The average in-house designer stays with a company for only 2.4 years, so you need to get your team up and running quickly—producing work that you can mine and reuse after they’ve gone. When I was designing and creating the UX team at ADP Pasadena, I was concerned about being able to attract the right talent that ADP needed to help uplevel their enterprise products. What I discovered was that enterprise design provides a lot of interesting challenges and opportunities for designers. Most UX professionals want to solve complex problems through design, and enterprise software comes with its own challenges, including legacy technology, company politics, and a lack of UX maturity.

ROI of UX: Cost Versus Value

In-house design teams—as with any other employees of a company—contribute to the direct labor cost of doing business. Companies are always looking for ways to be more efficient, and part of that exercise involves looking at productivity metrics. In software development, you can measure output through function points, lines of code, and/or velocity. However, measuring the productivity of product designers is a much subtler problem. Defining output as the number of prototypes completed does not begin to capture the true productivity of User Experience. The UX industry has been trying to crack the code of the return on investment (ROI) for User Experience for some time now.

There are multiple articles providing statistics that explain why companies should invest in User Experience and that every dollar a company invests in User Experience brings $100 in return. [4] More recently, Alan Cooper stated that the ROI of User Experience was the most idiotic question ever asked, saying:

Return on investment is a manager’s term. Understanding it, tracking it, and increasing it are a manager’s job, not a practitioner’s. The designer’s job is to design, to make the product effective and desirable. It’s the manager’s job to make sure money is made from its being desired. And yet, managers continue to ask design practitioners about ROI.” [5]

Executives at ADP asked my team this same question about a year into their investment in our in-house UX team: “What value is this UX team bringing to the business.” We viewed this question as a design challenge. How could our UX team address our discipline’s problem and figure out a way to baseline KPIs, measure them over time, and calculate an actual UX ROI. Challenge accepted, Mr. Cooper. This is indeed a challenge, but we are working away at it and, just as with any design project, we’re learning and pivoting and adjusting as we go. [6]

In a response to Alan Cooper’s article, Jared Spool wrote an article for UIE. Instead of running from the problem, Jared believes that the responsibility of a design leader is to demonstrate the value of design to the organization and said:

“Good ROI happens when the cost of fixing a problem is less than the ongoing costs of letting the problem continue. By having a ready plan, they’ll have the perfect starting point to discuss the ROI of design.” [7]

Our UX team at ADP is now able to take some data points from our UX research and have a meaningful discussion regarding how product design work is improving the customer experience for our client—a discussion that is grounded in facts, not feelings or opinions.

Ebbs and Flows in UX Investment

Most UX teams face an uphill battle every day—depending on their organization’s design maturity. But companies will always have to deal with ebbs and flows in their value, competing products and technologies, and shareholder pressures.

Like IBM and ADP, GE made a big bet on software and technology five years ago. They adopted best practices from Eric Ries’s book The Lean Startup, and they showcased the ways in which their company used these techniques to transform its culture and drive long-term growth. Then, in 2017, GE cut $2 billion in expenses and dismantled their R&D and design teams. [8] So what happened to GE? Was it a consequence of lean innovation and their investment in design and technology? What happened is that activist investors bought 1.5% of GE stock and forced the cutting of expenses across the company. Unfortunately, a large part of the cuts came out of their investment in design and lean innovation.

As Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises: “How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” GE and many other large companies are going through something similar. They grow, then shrink. Sadly, what happens in the wake of such changes is that employees—who are part of the direct cost of doing business—leave. In many cases, some of these employees are designers.


We can all tell stories about how these ebbs and flows have affected our peers or ourselves. Personally, I have dodged a bullet a few times in my career—at Misys, The British Post Office, LexisNexis, and Citrix. But, because I work in the field of User Experience, I have managed to ride the wave by joining companies who are expanding their UX teams, just as others are reducing theirs.

By nature, UX professionals are logical thinkers, hard-working problem solvers, and astute observers. We are curious and we move around in our careers to keep current. To quote another artist, Daryl Hall once said:

“I’m in the trenches; I do the best work I can always do. Having said that, the way that what I do converges with the outside world is fascinating to me. Because it ebbs and flows. People's interest and understanding, it changes all the time.” I wouldn’t change what I do for a living or where I have worked. The advice I give to the people I work with is: have fun, learn as much as you can on the job, stay true to your craft, and don’t forget to hang in there, baby! ”


[1] Maeda, John. Design in Tech Report 2017, March 11, 2017. Retrieved August 3, 2018.

[2] Ha, Anthony. “Design Firm Adaptive Path Acquired by Capital One.” TechCrunch, October 2, 2014. Retrieved August 3, 2018.

[3] Wilson, Mark. “IBM Invests $100 Million to Expand Design Business.” Fast Company, March 27, 2014. Retrieved August 3, 2018.

[4] Spillers, Frank. “Making a Strong Business Case for the ROI of UX.” Experience Dynamics, July 24, 2014. Retrieved August 3, 2018.

[5] Cooper, Alan. “When Companies Question the Value of Design.” Medium, July 2, 2018. Retrieved August 3, 2018.

[6] Bakioglu, Burcu, Ben Basilan, and JonDelina Buckley. “Measuring the ROI for UX in an Enterprise Organization, Part 1.” UXmatters, February 6, 2018. Retrieved August 3, 2018.

[7] Spool, Jared. “Yes, Alan, There Is an ROI for UX Design.” UIE, July 17, 2018. Retrieved August 3, 2018.

[8] O’Keefe, Brian. “How IBM Is Training Its Workforce to Think Like Designers.” Fortune, December 22, 2017. Retrieved August 3, 2018.

Senior Director of User Experience at ADP

Pasadena, California, USA

Margot DearSince 2015, Margot has led User Experience at ADP’s Innovation Center in Pasadena. She has lived and worked in Canada, the UK, and most recently, California. She enterprises for which has worked as a UX professional include The British Post Office, LexisNexis, Citrix, and ADP. Margot is active in the UX community—supporting Women in Tech, mentoring students in both design and STEM, and recently, joining UXPA Los Angeles as their Director of Professional Development.  Read More

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