Effective UX in a Corporate Environment: Part I

By Janet M. Six and Chris Anthony

Published: August 17, 2009

Send your questions to Ask UXmatters and get answers from some of the top professionals in UX.

Today’s consumers have growing expectations for higher quality and ease of use in new products. They typically evaluate brand values and product specs before paying top dollar for products. Companies are scrambling to align their brand touchpoints and gain loyal customers for their current and future product lines. Without strong brands, consumers buy with their wallets, not their hearts. They may miss product innovations companies have designed to fill major gaps in their markets and increase their market shares—even products they’ve painstakingly tested with users.

In today’s market, user experience is a key differentiator for products. Companies are innovating more creative approaches to product definition and design and rushing to add talent to their existing product design organizations. Many business leaders are struggling with the issue of where to place new UX processes and professionals within their organizations.

“Many business leaders are struggling with the issue of where to place new UX processes and professionals within their organizations.”

To foster discussion about the issues companies face in trying to effectively integrate user experience into their current organizations and processes, we surveyed our panel of Ask UXmatters experts, asking them to give us their thoughts on these important issues.

In this column, which is the first of two parts, we’ll discuss the following:

We’ll also provide references to some other articles on related topics that you might find helpful.

Ask UXmatters answers our readers’ questions about user experience matters. If you want to read our experts’ responses to your question in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your question to: ask.uxmatters@uxmatters.com.

The following experts have contributed to this survey:

  • Steve Baty—Principal Consultant at Meld Consulting; UXmatters columnist
  • Leo Frishberg—Principal Architect, User Experience at Tektronix Inc.
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Principal User Experience Architect at Spirit Softworks; Co-founder and Emeritus Member of Board of Directors, Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Dirk Knemeyer—CEO of Involution Studios; UXmatters columnist
  • Whitney Quesenbery—Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Past-President, Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA); Fellow, Society for Technical Communications (STC); and UXmatters columnist
  • Paul Sherman—Principal at Sherman Group User Experience; Vice President of Usability Professionals’ Association; UXmatters columnist
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal Usability Consultant at Apogee Usability Asia; Founding Member and President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch
  • Russell Wilson—Vice President of Product Design at NetQoS

Business Requirements and UX

Q: Who drives business requirements, and what is their understanding of user experience?

Several of our experts answer this question by describing how requirements definition has worked within their own organizations.

“Usability requirements were one aspect of requirements definition for which I was responsible. They were a factor in determining what changes would be part of each release.”—Pabini Gabriel-Petit

“When I was VP of User Experience at scanR, a startup, requirements were the province of the VP of Product—as is common,” replied Pabini. “Though I didn’t own business or product requirements, I was integrally involved in defining them. My working in close collaboration with the VP of Product ensured customers’ needs and user experience were always a key factor in his decisions. He was quite knowledgeable about user experience when we started working together, but I’m sure he learned a lot about user experience through our almost daily collaborations.

“Before joining scanR, I’d worked as a consultant for many years. Depending on the project, sometimes I was involved at the requirements stage, other times not. When I was involved in projects early, often I was involved in requirements definition, but not always. Sometimes, Product people have given me comprehensive, detailed, well-documented requirements. Other times, requirements have been tersely documented and vague. Sometimes, the only way to get firm requirements for a project has been to elicit them from Product people and document them myself. To work effectively, it’s really important to have well thought out, clearly stated goals and requirements. So, I'll do whatever I have to do to get them.

“Taking responsibility for requirements definition requires a fairly high degree of professional maturity. One must be a strategic thinker, understand business and customer needs, and have significant experience in or knowledge of a product domain.”—Pabini Gabriel-Petit

“Earlier in my career, when I was Manager of User Experience at WebEx, I worked closely with the VP of Product Marketing, various Directors of Business Development, Directors of Product Management, and Product Managers, who were primarily responsible for requirements definition. However, I had a strong voice in product strategy and requirements definition. In fact, usability requirements were one aspect of requirements definition for which I was responsible. They were a factor in determining what changes would be part of each release. And on one version 1.0 project, I was solely responsible for requirements definition. The level of understanding of user experience varied among these Product people. In some cases, I had a lot of educating to do, but some of the Product people were quite sensitive to user experience issues.

“In summary,” says Pabini “while Product people are usually responsible for requirements, sometimes UX professionals are. When you are on staff, especially in a management role, you’re more likely to be involved in requirements definition. Taking responsibility for requirements definition requires a fairly high degree of professional maturity. One must be a strategic thinker, understand business and customer needs, and have significant experience in or knowledge of a product domain.

“In my company, business requirements are driven primarily by three organizations: business development, product management, and sales. However, they do not make decisions in isolation.”—Russ Wilson

“The best software products result from a close and balanced collaboration between Product, UX, and Development, in which the person responsible for each area of expertise makes the final decisions within his or her own purview, but all three have a strong influence on one another’s decisions. Such working relationships bring out a lot of great ideas that actually get built into products.”

“In my company, business requirements are driven primarily by three organizations: business development, product management, and sales,” answers Russ. “However, they do not make decisions in isolation. In fact, it’s a very open, visible, and democratic process, with input from all organizations—especially R&D and Product Design.”

“In my business unit, there was a cross-functional strategy team with representation from all disciplines: hardware engineering, software engineering, marketing, general manager, and UX,” says Leo. “By giving UX a seat at the table, the business signaled it embraced UX at a strategic level. None of the others in the room had an inkling of what UX was or how it would specifically impact the business strategy. They just had tried every other structure imaginable and were trying something different.”

“In my business unit, there was a cross-functional strategy team with representation from all disciplines…. By giving UX a seat at the table, the business signaled it embraced UX at a strategic level.”—Leo Frishberg

“A short answer is the business drives business requirements,” offers Daniel. “But do they always know what they are driving? What do they base it on? Sometimes answering these questions can reveal some scary stuff. We have all worked on a project, at one time or another, where we have been asked to provide design or usability help, but we have not understood the value of the product we were working on. No amount of design, simplification, or usability work will help such a product in the time you have been given.

“It is important, before you start anything, that the product team are all on the same page regarding the UX you want to deliver. Part of this involves asking the right questions up front to help understand what you will be building and who it will help. It’s time we all stopped, took a deep breath, and invested in the up-front piece before we jump.

“It is important, before you start anything, that the product team are all on the same page regarding the UX you want to deliver.”—Daniel Szuc

“So, who drives business requirements? We all do! To get on the same page and start investing in the up-front piece, getting answers to some of the following questions may help:

  1. What is the product core? What will make people use or buy the product? We have to get this right.
  2. What are the key journeys or tasks we have to get absolutely right for this product to shine? How can it be equal to or better than the competition? Are there opportunities for improvement?
  3. What are the design goals or design tenets we should all agree to before we design anything or write a line of code?
  4. Who are our key users, and what do we know about them?
  5. What do we know about the market and users—from current or past research—to help inform our designs?
  6. What gaps, if any, do we need to address as we design forward?
  7. How will we know when we are successful?
  8. How can we continue to drive value from one release to the next? How should we communicate the core design tenets to the whole team, including Marketing, Sales, Design, User Research, and Development?
  9. What scope are we driving toward? Do we have our focus right?
“The questions we ask should move away from an inward-looking view of the world to getting agreement on what will drive product success.”—Daniel Szuc

“The questions we ask should move away from an inward-looking view of the world to getting agreement on what will drive product success,” continues Daniel. “We should base our determination of what questions to ask on our insights about what can help us make smarter decisions—and should revisit these insights regularly. Unfortunately, we often do not have the insights we need, and companies don’t always invest in what is required to get those insights.” For more information about this topic, Daniel recommends reading Peter Merholz’s blog Experience Matters.

Dirk, who runs Involution Studios, says, “I run a small company, so I myself drive business requirements. My title is CEO, but I have an extensive design background and industry leadership experience.”

Avoiding UX Becoming a Political Pawn

“It really requires a seat at the decision-making table. … Otherwise, UX is one of the easiest things to marginalize or underfund.”—Dirk Knemeyer

Q: How can UX groups avoid becoming political pawns in a system that sometimes prioritizes power, pride, and bonuses over the good of the company as a whole?

“It really requires a seat at the decision-making table,” answers Dirk. “Since UX is natively seen as a service to business, as opposed to a core competency that is equivalent to, say, financial planning, it typically requires one very strong stakeholder who understands both the value and deep tactical guts of UX. Otherwise, UX is one of the easiest things to marginalize or underfund.”

“It is imperative that UX have an equal role in decision-making with Product and Development. Achieving that usually requires that there be C-level or, at least, VP-level UX leadership within a company.”—Pabini Gabriel-Petit

“It is imperative that UX have an equal role in decision-making with Product and Development,” declares Pabini. “Achieving that usually requires that there be C-level or, at least, VP-level UX leadership within a company. While what Dirk says about companies not perceiving UX as a core competency is all too often true, it’s not always so. More and more companies are recognizing the strategic value of UX. In this age of design thinking and striving for innovation, UX is indeed a core competency for those companies that have the vision to see its business value.

“If you are not fortunate enough to belong to such an enlightened organization, it’s up to you to demand an equal voice for UX on every project in which you participate. Actually, if you just start with the assumption that you do have an equal voice, you may be surprised by how often your peers in other disciplines will just go with the flow. The UX lead on every project should own UX decisions and influence Product decisions. He or she should have the power to ensure the UX team’s designs get built as designed—at least for the requirements that get implemented. The power to persuade others of the wisdom of giving UX its due is the greatest strength you can bring to your organization.”

“All human organizations operate in the political realm, and UX groups aren’t immune to the nature of organized human groups,” says Leo. “UX needs to step up and embrace the political nature of the job.”

“All human organizations operate in the political realm, and UX groups aren’t immune to the nature of organized human groups. UX needs to step up and embrace the political nature of the job.”—Leo Frishberg

Russell agrees, “Someone once told me, ‘The higher you rise in the ranks, the more you have to engage in politics.’ The key is to establish the right metrics. If we are measured by how many widgets we sell, we are going to try to sell a lot of widgets. If we are measured by customer satisfaction, we are going to try to have satisfied customers. We have worked hard to establish internal metrics that balance the needs of the company with the needs of our users. If you do this successfully, you will be moving in the right direction.”

“You sometimes can’t avoid having your data or insights used in ways you didn’t intend or anticipate. Maybe the answer lies in always striving to be the one who’s telling the story of the data.”—Paul Sherman

“As Dylan said, Everyone’s gotta serve somebody,” adds Paul. “I honestly think you sometimes can’t avoid having your data or insights used in ways you didn’t intend or anticipate. Maybe the answer lies in always striving to be the one who’s telling the story of the data. In other words, find many opportunities to tell the story. If you don’t, one of two things will happen:

  1. Your insights will be ignored. OR
  2. Your insights will be appropriated by others for their own ends.”

“In my view,” says Pabini, “a highly politicized organization, in which a UX group could be perceived as a pawn, is a dysfunctional organization. It’s hard to do good work in a dog-eat-dog environment, in which people are constantly making power plays against one another. While large organizations tend to become more political, that’s one of the reasons they usually move more slowly and are less innovative than smaller organizations. In creative, productive organizations of any size, most of the time, people cooperate with one another to make the business successful—not to mention so they can enjoy their daily lives at work. Destructive politics add unnecessary stress to the workplace. If you’re unfortunate enough to work in such an environment, find another job. Most companies and product teams aren’t like that.”

Brand Vision and UX

“In many respects, user experience and brand experience are two sides of the same coin. A brand experience reflects the goals of experience design from the perspective of the company; a user experience reflects the same goals from the perspective of users.”—Steve Baty

Q: How do your brand vision and identity support your efforts in designing user experiences for customer-focused products and services?

“In many respects, user experience and brand experience are two sides of the same coin,” reflects Steve. “A brand experience reflects the goals of experience design from the perspective of the company; a user experience reflects the same goals from the perspective of users.

“If we look at our brand values—the desired set of experiences or associations an organization wants customers to make with its products, services, or identity—we can see a rich set of design characteristics that we can bring to bear in our work and highlight the intersection of these two perspectives. Let’s imagine that we’re designing a customer service function. Our research with customers indicates problems generally require fast resolution in a suddenly chaotic environment. Customers need answers quickly and aren’t in the frame of mind to wait on pleasantries. On the other hand, our brand values include phrases like warm and friendly—and these are characteristics all of our front-line pre-sales and sales staff demonstrate. On the surface of it, there’s a conflict here between the design goals.”

“There is a very strong risk, in user-centered design, of focusing so much on the experience of users that we ignore the character and flavor of the business. Brand values help us to retain that character in our design.”—Steve Baty

Steve continues, “Our task is to find a way to design the overall experience so it meets these two seemingly competing sets of characteristics. In this instance, we can achieve that balance by recognizing that the customer’s experience is built up over time, through many such interactions. So, it’s okay for us to be fast and efficient during the customer service call, because we can follow up with a second interaction during which we demonstrate the warm-and-friendly side of our brand. That is, we can break the overall experience up into two separate interactions and connect them in a meaningful way in the minds of customers—for example, something as simple as a follow-up phone call a day or two later to make sure a customer’s situation has been resolved satisfactorily. Inquire whether there’s anything further that we can do—perhaps sending a small, token gift to help during the recovery process.

“There is a very strong risk, in user-centered design, of focusing so much on the experience of users that we ignore the character and flavor of the business. Brand values help us to retain that character in our design.”

“We embody our corporate vision and principles in everything we do, so hopefully it shows through. It may not be explicit, but our corporate vision is an important part of the company, and we do consider our guiding principles in our day-to-day activities.”—Russ Wilson

“We don’t attempt to visually match our Web site with our products,” answers Russell, “but we embody our corporate vision and principles in everything we do, so hopefully it shows through. It may not be explicit, but our corporate vision is an important part of the company, and we do consider our guiding principles in our day-to-day activities. I think this is important for the success and culture of all companies.”

“For us, it is at the level of brand promise,” says Dirk. “As an organization, we are committed to designing and developing the best software products in the world. That is an explicit part of our raison d’etre, and it filters down into everything we do around our brand. We clearly communicate our brand promise to everyone in our organization, and it is one of the dimensions from which we judge whether our work is successful. Our customers benefit from this commitment, because we demand that level of quality, not just for their benefit, which they are paying for, but for ours as well. That all starts at the vision and brand level.”

“We clearly communicate our brand promise to everyone in our organization, and it is one of the dimensions from which we judge whether our work is successful.”—Dirk Knemeyer

Leo adds, “I would like to refer readers to a series of articles I’ve written on ‘Architecture and User Experience to help answer this one,” says Leo. “Both ‘Part 10: Pieces of the Puzzle’ and the article forthcoming in September 2009 discuss the relationship between branding and product vision in the context of UX. The articles describe the need for a coherent UX architecture for any company to really create a well-designed experience.”

Final Thoughts

“It’s not just UX that wishes for more time, more resources, and a better implementation of a good process. … You have to decide what to fight for and what to let go. And how to approach the battle.”—Whitney Quesenbery

“All these questions have the ring of a recent, painful experience about them,” Whitney says. “Almost everyone I know has experienced some of the issues hinted at—a seemingly secure UX group suddenly threatened, a design overturned for no good reason, a simple feature turned into a political power play. And there are always people who do not pick their battles wisely. Or who treat everyone else in the company as though they know nothing at all. Or are arrogant about their work.

“It’s easy for consultants to say, we don’t have to live in that kind of environment, with that situation on the ground, day in and day out. Sometimes, there are forces out of your control. A political battle you can’t win. It’s not just UX this sort of thing happens to. Just as it’s not just UX that wishes for more time, more resources, and a better implementation of a good process. I don’t have any good answer for this. You have to decide what to fight for and what to let go. And how to approach the battle.”

Some Relevant Articles

Baty, Steve. “Being an Experience-Led Organization.” Johnny Holland Magazine, June 30, 2009. Retrieved August 4, 2009.

Frishberg, Leo. “Series on Architecture and User Experience.” CHIFOO: Computer-Human Interaction Forum of Oregon. October 2008–August 2009. Retrieved August 4, 2009.

Gabriel-Petit, Pabini. “Sharing Ownership of UX.” UXmatters, May 28, 2007. Retrieved August 4, 2009.

—— “Specialists Versus Generalists: A False Dichotomy?UXmatters, February 9, 2009. Retrieved August 4, 2009.

—— “Why UX Should Matter to Software Companies.” UXmatters, March 6, 2006. Retrieved August 4, 2009.

Hess, Whitney. “10 Most Common Misconceptions About User Experience Design.” Mashable, January 9, 2009. Retrieved August 4, 2009.

Jones, Colleen. “When ROI Isn’t Enough: Making Persuasive Cases for User-Centered Design.” UXmatters, May 7, 2007. Retrieved August 4, 2009.

Knemeyer, Dirk. “The Role and Evolution of Design in Software Products.” UXmatters, February 6, 2006. Retrieved August 4, 2009.

Nieters, Jim, and Garett Dworman. “Comparing UXD Business Models.” UXmatters, July 10, 2007. Retrieved August 4, 2009.

Sherman, Paul J. “Connecting Cultures, Changing Organizations: The User Experience Practitioner As Change Agent.” UXmatters, January 20, 2007. Retrieved August 4, 2009.

Six, Janet M. “Evangelizing UX Across an Entire Organization.” UXmatters, May 9, 2009. Retrieved August 4, 2009.

1 Comment

My experience as a UX manager and as a practitioner for years before that has taught me that we talk entirely too much about UX and not enough about how we help support the business goals and brand value. I agree that UX managers in particular must embrace the politicized nature of their jobs. They must be able to speak in business terms, succinctly articulate the UX value proposition, and value the viewpoints of other experts in a cross-functional environment.

Once practitioners become preachy and focused on what they do, not how it will help, partnerships can be damaged. To get my team to see this, I have coached them as individuals to see both the end-user and the project team as our customers. It is unacceptable to contribute to an uncollaborative team environment even if the product design is better. If UX practices are stuck in this mode, it’s extremely difficult to get a seat at the table at higher levels of an organization. Leo Frishberg’s and Steve Baty’s comments very much resonate with my experience.

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