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UX Paradise, Part 2: Draining the UX Swamp

June 7, 2021

This story describes how Huxley, a new hire at Delta Market—a fictitious chain of more than 500 medium-to-large, high-end grocery stores—boosted the organization’s competitiveness by raising Delta’s UX maturity from low to high. Their journey, which required nine steps that any organization could easily pursue, took them from 2012 to 2019.

This is Part 2 in my four-part series that describes Delta’s long, winding road from the UX Swamp to UX Paradise. In Part 1, I presented the state of Delta Market in 2012, as well as the personas and the UX maturity model that I’ll use throughout this series. Now, in this article, I’ll use specific examples to explain what I mean by UX strategy, business strategy, UX vision, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and other terms that UX professionals should understand to communicate effectively with management and executives.

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Nine Steps for Boosting an Organization’s UX Maturity

Huxley’s starting point at Delta Market in 2011 was The UX Swamp, which I described in Part 1 of this series. Table 1 lists the nine specific steps that Huxley helped Delta Market to take toward UX maturity. John Kotter’s Model of Change inspired these steps.

Table 1—Nine steps toward UX maturity at Delta Market

1

Understand your stakeholders and business goals.

2

Create a sense of urgency and show the importance of User Experience.

3

Generate quick wins.

4

Create a vision for change.

5

Form a powerful coalition of stakeholders and UX staff.

6

Communicate the UX vision.

7

Empower action and remove obstacles.

8

Build on the change and don’t let up.

9

Anchor the changes in the organizational culture and make them stick.

Step 1: Understand Your Stakeholders and Business Goals

After going through the organization’s standard onboarding process, Huxley spent March and April getting to know his key stakeholders.

Understanding Executives

Huxley began by interviewing executives, key directors, and managers to better understand Delta’s business goals and strategies, as Figure 1 shows.

Figure 1—Interviewing an executive
Interviewing an executive

Huxley used an interview checklist during the interviews, which included the following questions:

  • What are Delta’s business goals?
  • Tell me about current and planned products and how they relate to Delta’s business goals.
  • Tell me about Delta’s business strategy and roadmap.
  • Where do you see Delta in three years? In five years?
  • What are the biggest obstacles to achieving these goals?
  • On what goals is your bonus based? How can I help you achieve them?
  • What keeps you up at night? Can I help you solve these problems?

Huxley paid attention to the language the executives used so he could learn to speak their language. For example, Huxley learned that he should never mention a problem without proposing a specific solution—or at least the next step to finding a solution. Plus, he realized the importance of always presenting facts before opinions and separating them clearly.

He also looked for allies—that is, people who have been hampered by the poor user experience, but didn’t know what to do about it. When Huxley interviewed Susan, director of support, they discovered that they had a lot of common interests and goals. For example, Susan was frustrated that her support staff was answering the same questions again and again. She said, “I have a top-twenty list of problems, of which 14 would be simple to correct. But they won’t listen! My best people become demotivated and quit because they don’t see any progress.”

Some executives were unwilling to talk to Huxley. They said they were too busy. Huxley politely insisted on having just 30 minutes of their time, at any time of day and on any day of the week. After the interviews, some executives thanked Huxley for his thought-provoking questions. They recommended that other executives talk with Huxley, enabling him to eventually talk with all but one of Delta’s 15 executives and top directors.

Understanding Users

After interviewing the executives, Huxley started learning about Delta’s users—in particular their customers. He interviewed about 25 people in various roles, including sales associates, store managers, and deputy managers; frequent customers; infrequent customers; unhappy customers; customer support representatives; and some employees of suppliers such as people who scheduled deliveries. Huxley interviewed people in the flagship stores, as well as in smaller stores far from the main office. As Figure 2 depicts, Huxley also worked for two weeks in two of Delta’s stores—filling the shelves, checking out customers’ purchases, answering customers’ questions, and talking to both customers and sales associates. He kept a diary of his findings.

Figure 2—Working at a Delta store
Working at a Delta store

Several executives had told Huxley that Alpha Market was Delta’s biggest competitor. To see what the competition was up to, Huxley visited several Alpha Market stores and used their Web site to make purchases. He also returned some products and asked questions of their customer support. Huxley used the insights from his field studies to identify users’ needs and current painpoints.

Step 2: Create a Sense of Urgency and Show the Importance of User Experience

From his field studies, Huxley had learned that the ordering system on Delta’s Web site presented major efficiency problems to experienced customers, which they had complained about loudly. Susan was painfully aware of these problems and provided Huxley with metrics and additional details. She had tried to convince the Web manager, Wesley, to do something about the problems, but Wesley had been focused on adding new features to the Web site.

To demonstrate the ordering system’s problems, Huxley conducted three usability-test sessions with representative users in early May, as shown in Figure 3. He used the user needs and painpoints he had identified during his field studies to focus the usability study and ensure the findings would illustrate the problems.

Figure 3—A confused user during a usability-test session
A confused user during a usability-test session

From Susan’s feedback, Huxley knew that he might later face problems when he wanted the Web-development department to make changes to the systems. Therefore, he carefully scheduled the usability-test sessions at times and places that were convenient for that department, in particular Wesley. The usability testing took place on a Friday afternoon, in rooms that were close by the Web-development department. Susan and Huxley invited the appropriate stakeholders to attend the sessions and promoted the usability testing as a social activity. The stakeholders they invited included store managers, other managers, product owners, marketing, developers, and more. Susan, who was widely known and respected within the organization, wrote and signed the invitations. While Huxley and the stakeholders observed the test participants, Susan observed the 14 observers who had turned up and made notes.

Some of the Web designers were critical of the usability tests, saying, “I don’t think these customers are representative.” But other team members, including Wesley, said thoughtfully, “Hmm. They sure struggle—and these are the people who pay our salaries.” The usability testing clearly demonstrated specific, qualitative obstacles to realizing profits.

Huxley invited everyone who had attended at least one usability-test session to a one-hour workshop, during which they discussed their observations rather than their opinions. Based on the discussion, Huxley wrote a short report.

Huxley said, “Make it easy for stakeholders to observe usability-test sessions as a group, because seeing is believing and watching and discussing issues makes converts. Many good effects flow from observing testing as a group. Each time an observer has an Oops! moment during a usability-test session, it nudges Delta’s culture a little bit.”

Step 3: Generate Quick Wins

Huxley spent the rest of May defining a credible baseline that would be suitable for demonstrating quick wins. He defined a number of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs ) for the Web site’s ordering system and asked Mark, the Chief Marketing Officer, to review them. Mark and Huxley’s discussions improved the list considerably, which finally included the following KPIs:

  • time it takes an experienced customer to order two specific products
  • time it takes a customer who has not previously used Delta’s Web site to order two specific products
  • time it takes to set up a shopping list comprising six items
  • time it takes an experienced customer to order six specific products, using the shopping list from the previous KPI
  • user satisfaction with the ordering procedure after completing the tasks corresponding to the KPIs
  • users’ willingness to recommend Delta’s ordering system to family, friends, and neighbors

Mark said, “C-level people are interested in getting metrics for their competitors, which can help them compare their business to their competitors’ businesses.”

Focusing on the ordering system, Huxley measured the KPIs for Delta Market and Alpha Market during ten usability-test sessions. Although, with only ten test participants, the results were not statistically significant, they were unambiguous.

The usability tests Huxley had conducted during Step 2 had impressed some of the thought leaders in the Web-development department, including Wesley. With a bit of help from Susan and Mark, Huxley managed to talk Wesley into correcting some of the usability problems they had discovered during Step 2, following Huxley’s recommendations. Huxley and Susan focused on the problems that they thought would have the largest impact on the KPIs and on Susan’s top-twenty list.

Figure 4—Huxley measuring KPIs during a usability-test session
Huxley measuring KPIs during the second usability-test session

In June, once the corrections were complete, Huxley conducted another usability study with representative users to measure the KPIs, as Figure 4 shows. Huxley showed that the efficiency of the ordering system had increased by about 60% because of changes that had taken only about 50 hours to make. Huxley documented this progress, substantiating the outcome with numbers. Mark and Wesley were impressed.

During subsequent visits to Delta Markets in late June, Huxley found that customers spontaneously expressed their gratitude that these problems had been corrected. Huxley took this opportunity to ask for further feedback. Huxley shared the customers’ gratitude, as well as new feedback he’d gathered with the Web-development department and other stakeholders.

Huxley informed Cecilia about this successful outcome. Cecilia encouraged Huxley to write about their success in Delta’s internal newsletter, which he did. Huxley started receiving unsolicited suggestions for improvements from store managers and sales associates who had read his articles. Huxley took great care to respond to each suggestion, even when he thought a suggestion was bad.

Step 4: Create a Vision for Change

Huxley spent July, August, and September on aligning UX goals and strategies with the business goals from Step 1. For each relevant business goal, he described the specific user problems it addressed.

He created a series of storyboards, prototypes, and to-be user-journey maps that illustrated what Delta’s user experience could be in three years. He asked friends and UX colleagues to comment on his ideas, as well as the presentation of the ideas. He promoted the project widely and invited all stakeholders to contribute to it. Based on the feedback, Huxley continually improved both the vision and his presentation. After several iterations, he advertised widely that the vision was now based mainly on input from stakeholders.

Huxley suggested to Cecilia that top management or the Board should discuss and provide input to the UX vision during a one-day workshop. Huxley’s results had impressed Cecilia so she asked the executive team and the Board to comment on the UX vision, which most of them did. The executive team approved the UX vision in late October.

Table 2 provides an example of a business goal for Delta Market and its corresponding UX goal, vision, strategy, and tactics.

Table 2—A business goal and the related UX goal, vision, strategy, and tactics
Term Example

Business goal

Increase revenue.

UX goal

Double the efficiency of the online-ordering system on Delta’s Web site.

UX vision

Customers rave about the highly efficient online-ordering system.

UX strategy

Apply user centered–design methods to improve the online-ordering system.

UX tactics

Interview customers to identify painpoints. Correct the most obvious painpoints. Test the usability of the revised system, then correct the usability problems you’ve identified. Iterate design and testing until you’ve doubled the system’s efficiency.

Step 5: Form a Powerful Coalition of Stakeholders and UX Staff

Huxley used the short-term wins and the business goals on which the UX team had aligned to argue for more resources. He asked Cecilia to nominate a small, powerful UX Committee of stakeholders and UX staff that would oversee all UX activities. He also asked for $500,000 for appropriate UX training and pilot activities over a three-year period. These activities included conducting contextual interviews and running usability tests. In December 2012, Cecilia appointed the UX Committee and appointed Mark as her proxy on the Committee.

Huxley realized that, while he had handled Steps 1–4 on his own within ten months, he would not be able to handle the subsequent steps without help. Cecilia authorized the UX Committee to hire additional UX professionals. Plus, Emma, a communications specialist who was interested in User Experience, transferred to Huxley’s team.

The UX Committee instructed Huxley to report the Return on Investment (ROI) of the projects and track their KPIs so they could verify that they were spending the money wisely. Steps 6–9 occurred in 2013–2019. Step 9, in particular, took quite some time.

Step 6: Communicate the UX Vision

Huxley ensured that the entire organization repeatedly and consistently heard about the three-year UX vision and communicated it in plain language. For example, as Figure 5 shows, he presented a user-journey map that illustrated an idea for the future online-shopping and delivery experience, which was part of Delta Market’s three-year UX vision. He regularly brought up the UX vision when talking about new projects, features, and requirements. He communicated and documented UX successes and failures to management, developers, and staff.

Figure 5—Huxley presenting the UX vision
Huxley presenting the UX vision

At every all-hands meeting, executives gave an update on Delta’s UX delivery and vision. Huxley kept a watchful eye on how executives communicated about the user experience. He discretely followed up on any apparent deviation from their agreed on UX vision, especially miscommunications by new executives. Huxley supported executives in driving the UX vision forward by providing compelling stories, prototypes, data, and PowerPoint slides.

Huxley told his UX team, “Walk the talk. What you do is far more important and believable than what you say. Produce usable deliverables—for example, articles, usability-test reports, tools, and presentations.”

Step 7: Empower Action by Removing Obstacles

Delta began recognizing and rewarding customers and internal users for making change happen—that is, for improving the user experience. For example, a sales associate reported to Huxley that some customers could not figure out how to access the shopping list in Delta’s app. These customers would never think of contacting support. Once, they had corrected the usability problems, the sales associate was handsomely rewarded for reporting the problem, and they disseminated the story widely within Delta.

The UX team made tools available that helped improve the user experience—for example, a user interface–coding toolkit; a library of UX patterns; and a quality system for the UX team, which consisted of a style guide, procedural standards for UX activities such as usability testing and interviews, and rules for implementing the quality system. The UX team also provided easy access to real users and discouraged the use of substitutes.

In accordance with their goal of walking the talk, the UX team spent resources on ensuring that their tools were usable and that they communicated information about the tools in a usable way.

The UX team followed up on the use of their tools and adapted them to meet user needs, as necessary. For example, it took Emma two months to write Delta’s 50-page style guide. Then, after receiving some tough, but fair feedback during the pilot training for the Web-development department, Emma spent another three weeks revising the style guide. Emma advertised the failure and her learning process widely.

Emma also applied some of the nine steps in the change model to sell the style guide to the designers and developers. The frequency of deviations from Delta’s style guide in its user interfaces—the KPI for consistency—improved considerably. Customers started saying approvingly that Delta’s user interfaces were consistent.

The UX team communicated repeatedly in Delta’s internal newsletter, in plain language, that it was okay for people outside the IT-department to report UX problems and suggest improvements.

Executives identified people who were resisting change and helped them to see what was necessary. They took action to remove barriers—human or otherwise.

Step 8: Build on the Change and Don’t Let Up

Huxley and Mark knew that many change projects fail because teams declare victory too early. Real change runs deep. Quick wins are only the beginning of what you need to do to achieve long-term change. Increasing credibility can improve UX structures and policies.

Mark decided that they should celebrate wins all the way to the top of the organization. By giving success a stage, UX awareness scaled organically from product team to product team. After every win, Huxley analyzed what had gone right and what needed improving.

The UX team reached their goal for the online-ordering system. They also improved the internal inventory and ordering system. Plus, they helped make the new home-delivery system a success. They persistently pointed out how their UX-centered approach helped them understand users’ real painpoints and showed how user feedback had significantly improved Delta’s competitiveness. Huxley updated the UX strategy every three–six months.

Step 9: Anchor the Changes in the Organizational Culture and Make Them Stick

Huxley articulated the connections between a great user experience and organizational success.

The UX team made a continuous effort to ensure that User Experience played a role in every aspect of Delta Market’s business success. The team presented examples of great user experiences and not-so-great user experiences every chance they got and pointed out how they affected competitiveness and profits. They listened carefully to feedback. Plus, they told their own UX success stories, documented them with metrics, and repeated UX stories they heard within the organization.

When training new staff, Huxley often showed up in person to ensure that Delta’s UX culture got communicated properly.

Cecilia, Mark, and Huxley knew that it would take years of hard work before Delta’s culture was fully oriented toward creating a great user experience. Table 3 shows some signs of the changes they experienced.

Table 3—Elements of organizational culture at Delta Market
Delta’s Old Culture Delta’s New UX-Oriented Culture

“Customers are irrelevant. They’ll visit our stores and Web sites regardless of whether doing so is easy or pleasant.”

Making work easier for customers is more important than making work easier for us.

Teammates dismissed or ignored critical questions. “We don’t make mistakes.”

Teammates welcome critical questions and expect mistakes. “If you make no mistakes, you’re not doing your work properly.”

Design created specifications that were incomprehensible to users.

Always include effective visualizations in design specifications to ensure that users can understand them.

The Highest Paid Person’s Opinions (HiPPOs) ruled.

Competencies are more important than roles.

“User Experience is just common sense; anyone can do it.”

“A good user experience requires careful work by specialists.”

“I have worked for Delta for 34 years. I know what our customers want.”

“Let’s do usability testing with customers.”

“Crap happens!”

“I need to report this problem to the UX team.”

Huxley says, “Creating culture is not a decision. Culture changes slowly and almost unnoticeably. I am delighted when I hear a designer say, ‘Maybe we should test this new feature of our app with users.’ Or when I hear a sales associate enthusiastically recommend our new, efficient online-ordering system to customers who are waiting in a long checkout queue. Or when designers cry out ‘HiPPO’ when a manager voices an unsubstantiated personal opinion.”

Obstacles

Of course, Huxley and his UX team faced many obstacles during the long journey to UX Paradise—both external and internal. Culture change took a long time. Here are some examples of the obstacles they encountered:

  • Stakeholders made arguments such as, “I have worked for Delta for 34 years. I know what our customers want.” This behavior persisted for years.
  • For a long while, HiPPOs, vociferous enthusiasts, and omniscient experts reduced the efficiency of workshops with users. Meek users had difficulty getting heard.
  • Some development teams implemented designs that differed substantially from the prototypes UX professionals had provided to them. Designers and programmers said their experience told them their design was better or the code didn’t support some designs.
  • Some UX professionals cherry-picked user feedback—that is, they listened mainly to users who supported their own viewpoints.
  • Some UX professionals did sloppy UX work such as reporting minor usability problems and overlooking serious or even critical problems.
  • The UX team wasted time running mandatory UX training for both managers and coworkers. They learned that it is better to educate through examples—such as in the internal newsletter.
  • Some product teams brought Huxley’s team in too late and dictated exactly what the design should be. They got upset when field studies showed their designs wouldn’t solve the real user problems. Huxley asked these product teams to bring his folks in earlier, but they kept waiting until they had locked down the design. With Mark’s backing, the UX team said No to requests from these teams until their attitudes improved.

By 2020, Huxley was pleased with Delta’s UX maturity. However, he also knew that there was risk that Delta could backslide in their UX maturity because of

  • changes in senior management
  • financial recessions that could result in layoffs of UX staff
  • ROI calculations that did not justify investing in achieving a high maturity level

Huxley worked hard to minimize these risks by continuing to orient Delta’s culture fully toward creating a great user experience.

Conclusion

The nine steps that I’ve presented in this article moved Delta from the UX maturity level of Incomplete to Established and beyond. In January 2020, Delta Market reached the highest UX maturity level Innovating, as I’ll describe in Part 3 of this series.

Having no UX activities at all characterizes the UX maturity level of Incomplete. Most employees don’t know what UX means, and design is based solely on people’s opinions and complaints. At the Established level, all projects comply with the UX quality system, which consists of procedural standards, style guides, and rules for adhering to the quality system.

You can adapt the nine steps that I’ve outlined to your organization. Key UX elements of the nine steps include the following:

  • Understand your stakeholders and business goals by doing field studies.
  • Create a climate for change by asking stakeholders to observe usability tests and watch the people who pay their salaries struggle.
  • Show how you can measurably improve the user experience by making changes on the basis of your findings from usability testing.
  • Implement and sustain change by applying these results.
  • Change the organization’s culture by advertising and celebrating UX victories.

In Parts 3 and 4 of this series, I’ll describe Delta Market in 2020, after the organization had reached UX Paradise—that is, the highest level of UX maturity. 

Acknowledgments

I am greatly indebted to Peter Carstensen, Jan Clausen, Anker Helms Jørgensen, Søren Lauesen, and Chauncey Wilson, who have provided helpful feedback on drafts of this article.

Owner at DialogDesign

Stenlose, Denmark

Rolf MolichRolf owns and manages DialogDesign, a small Danish UX consultancy. He is also the Vice President of UXQB, which provides UX-certifications. In 1990, Rolf and Jakob Nielsen coinvented the heuristic-evaluation method. Rolf is also known for his Comparative Usability Evaluation studies (CUE). In 2014, the User Experience Professionals’ Association awarded Rolf the UXPA Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his work on both Comparative Usability Evaluation studies (CUE) and heuristic evaluations. Recently, Rolf has applied his 37 years of experience in UX management in telling stories about UX life in organizations at low and high maturity levels.  Read More

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