Effective UX in a Corporate Environment: Part II

By Janet M. Six and Chris Anthony

Published: September 7, 2009

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

In this column, which is the second of two parts, we’ll continue discussing how companies can ensure the effectiveness of User Experience within their organizations and current product development processes. We surveyed our panel of Ask UXmatters experts to get answers to the following questions and asked them to share their insights with us:

To read Part I of this two-part series, see “Effective UX in a Corporate Environment: Part I.”

In Ask UXmatters, our experts answer readers’ questions about user experience matters. If you want to see their responses to your own question in an upcoming edition, please send your question to: ask.uxmatters@uxmatters.com.

The following experts have contributed answers to these questions:

  • 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)
  • Mike Hughes—User Assistance Architect at IBM Internet Security Systems; UXmatters columnist
  • 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
  • Russell Wilson—Vice President of Product Design at NetQos

Preventing Business Leaders from Cutting Integral Parts of UX

Q: How can you keep business leaders from cutting important parts of the UX design process, possibly damaging or negating the overall effectiveness of UX, because of simple factors like staffing, time, and money for projects?

“Well, you can’t keep them from doing it if they’re determined to do it, especially in the current economic climate.”—Paul Sherman

“Well, you can’t keep them from doing it if they’re determined to do it, especially in the current economic climate,” answers Paul. “I can tell you one thing that definitely doesn’t work, and that’s simply providing a cost-justification explanation. Why? Because someone—read development, product management, or sales—is always going to have a more compelling ROI (Return on Investment) argument than you do. The way to make your group or discipline indispensable is to ensure you’re providing the organization with actionable information and insights that

  1. provide the product leadership team with an understanding of customer needs
  2. lower or eliminate the risk of misfires in new releases and features

In other words, it’s all about being an integral part of the ideation / define / design / build process.”

“We need to be flexible about those parts of our process that may not be essential in a particular context.”—Pabini Gabriel-Petit

“I must admit that, when leading UX in a startup environment, I’m sometimes the leader who chooses not to create certain UX roles or, for example, take time for usability testing,” responds Pabini. “In a startup, the key thing is to execute well with as few resources as possible and launch product as quickly as possible. I trust my design intuition and, on those relatively rare occasions when I’m wrong, user feedback and Web metrics quickly tell me so in no uncertain terms. User feedback can tell you a lot of what you might have learned through usability testing. Once your product design is out there, if you find it’s flawed in some way, you need to be able to quickly iterate on your design to correct its problems. Of course, sometimes you do need to do usability testing or user research to truly understand the phenomena you’re observing. However, in such cases, I’ve often had to resort to family-and-friends usability testing or user research, because I had to get it done on a shoestring.

“Process is much more important in a large organization, where it’s all too easy for miscommunications to occur.”—Pabini Gabriel-Petit

“In a small organization, you can be effective with less formal process, because with small teams, there’s much less potential for miscommunication. I find it’s really important to be somewhat flexible about process. There’s more than one way to work effectively, so we need to be flexible about those parts of our process that may not be essential in a particular context. Then, with a track record of being flexible, our teams will listen to us when we tell them some part of our process really is essential. We need to fight to preserve and follow the parts of our UX process that ensure our work is effective.

“Process is much more important in a large organization, where it’s all too easy for miscommunications to occur. It’s also more difficult to bring a large team with many dissenting viewpoints to the right conclusions, so we need to provide useful data that validates optimal approaches. Process can help us to make sure we

  • design products customers want
  • can provide the data management needs to make the right decisions
  • communicate clearly
  • facilitate effective teamwork”
“Leaders sometimes rely on their instincts and intuition to the detriment of process. Whether that is effective really depends on the caliber and capabilities of the leader.”—Dirk Knemeyer

“A classic problem leaders have is that they rely on the strengths that made them leaders,” admits Dirk. “Speaking for myself—and from back in my management consulting days, things I’ve witnessed in other leaders—leaders sometimes rely on their instincts and intuition to the detriment of process. Whether that is effective really depends on the caliber and capabilities of the leader. For me, I think my instincts and intuition are really exceptional, so even though I’m skipping lots of process and steps, what I’m envisioning or driving through is still quite strong.

“However, I routinely have issues with the people implementing the vision, because, with our skipping some steps, they are less able to clearly see and understand the vision. As such, they are not necessarily able to execute to the correct solution, or they don’t feel appropriately bought into the solution itself. I find that, when I am really busy and overworked, this is a major problem, whereas when I am less taxed, I am able to bridge the communication divide.”

“One key is to make UX report to the general manager, as opposed to burying it inside Engineering or Marketing.”—Leo Frishberg

“One key is to make UX report to the general manager, as opposed to burying it inside Engineering or Marketing,” Leo recommends. “When UX is a cabinet-level position, it is much more difficult to remove it with a stroke of a pen. Further, it causes the trade-off conversations to occur at the level they should. For example, Do we move forward on this new initiative incrementally on all fronts, or do we sacrifice a feature? as opposed to How can we get this out the door as cheaply as possible and sacrifice quality or customer satisfaction in the process?”

Whitney asks, “What are they asking you to cut? Can you keep the same process, but do it more efficiently? To use usability testing as an example, do you need 24 participants in 3 locations around the country, or could you find out what you need to know with a simpler approach?

“Can you keep the same process, but do it more efficiently?”—Whitney Quesenbery

“Here’s a story from theater,” Whitney continues, providing an analogy. “I was touring small theaters with a repertory ballet company. At one booking, we had just enough equipment to illuminate the stage. What to do about a piece with dozens of subtle lighting cues? Our decision was that every cue needed to be represented by a shift in the lighting, because each one represented a shift in the emotion and shape of the dance. It was the change that was important, even if we couldn’t make the visual effect as dramatic as we wanted.”

“The more we follow good design process—so we define the problem well and prototype and validate our designs early on—the more time and money we ultimately save and the better products we deliver.”—Russ Wilson

Finally, Russell describes his approach: “I have shown, objectively, the value of a lightweight, but complete UX design process. We have completed several large projects over the years. Without a doubt, the more we follow good design process—so we define the problem well and prototype and validate our designs early on—the more time and money we ultimately save and the better products we deliver.

“You need to show the savings and incremental improvements as you add to your design process and resources over time, and use each incremental step to build a larger UX foundation at your company. Trust me, if you do it right, they will see the light. If you have limited resources, focus them on one key part of the process, then headline the results.”

Consistency Versus Innovation

Q: How important is consistency versus innovation? Can you realistically achieve both qualities? Can you provide examples of a successful project or product that has achieved both qualities?

“What sort of consistency? Within the design? Of course, it’s important.”—Whitney Quesenbery

Whitney replies by asking several questions: “What sort of consistency? Within the design? Of course, it’s important. With other products? That depends on the product and how it is used. Innovation? Is this useful innovation that serves a real purpose or change for the sake of change?

“Here’s an example of an innovation success,” Whitney continues. “At the Open University, the Web services team launched a new version of the student home page, a central part of the user experience for distance learning students. It was a complete break with the past—not just a new visual design and overall navigation scheme, but a complete reconceptualizing of the site and its features. The design was based on strong user research and a good process, but such a large change is always nerve wracking. It launched to virtual silence. No complaints. No cries of Where did you put the…? Just happy users.”

“Consistency is important, but maybe not quite as important as many believe. If I had to choose between consistency and innovation, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose innovation.”—Russ Wilson

“Whatever you do, don’t make things consistently wrong!” exclaims Russell. “You can quote me on that. It’s one of my mantras. Consistency is important, but maybe not quite as important as many believe. If I had to choose between consistency and innovation, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose innovation. But then I would immediately look for ways to integrate the innovation into our design vocabulary without compromising it!

“I think you can achieve both qualities over time. Maybe you don’t come out of the gate with complete consistency, but gradually you pull the rest of the product up to the level of the innovation or find ways to integrate the innovation into the rest of the product line—or both. I personally think Wordpress is a fantastic example of consistency and innovation. The product fits together very cleanly and innovates in ease of use, flexibility, and power.”

“Creating a design that meets users’ goals—which, of course, implies knowing who your target users are and what their goals are—is paramount.”—Paul Sherman

“I’ll take an extreme stance here: consistency is mostly unimportant,” opines Paul. “Creating a design that meets users’ goals—which, of course, implies knowing who your target users are and what their goals are—is paramount. Consistency is important for mundane, platformy things like operating systems, certain commoditized hardware systems, and certain commodity applications. In all other cases, innovation—defined as an invention that succeeds in the market by delivering customer value—is the important factor.”

“There’s no need to choose between consistency and innovation—at least, not in the long term,” advises Pabini. “They’re both important for different reasons. First make sure what you’re striving to be consistent with is well designed. If it’s not, change it! Innovate! Innovation can provide compelling differentiation that enables your products win in the marketplace, so is key. Sometimes innovations or changes temporarily introduce inconsistencies, but over time, consistency is something you should always strive for.

“Innovation can provide compelling differentiation that enables your products win in the marketplace, so is key. Sometimes innovations or changes temporarily introduce inconsistencies, but over time, consistency is something you should always strive for.”—Pabini Gabriel-Petit

“Inconsistency in interaction design confuses users, as can inconsistency in terminology. Consistency in visual design is a big factor is creating an aesthetically pleasing product. Inconsistency—even small inconsistencies in visual design—can subliminally suggest a site is not professionally done and, therefore, not quite trustworthy. Consistency lends credibility to your products.

“When you can truly innovate, go for it! But don’t make changes to a product merely for the sake of change—and especially not to put your own stamp on a product. When it comes to interaction design, only a big improvement warrants making users change the way they do things. If an innovation would clearly benefit users, it’s worthwhile change, but a very minor improvement that disrupts users’ work habits probably isn’t.”

“When inconsistency can lead to user error, then consistency is very important,” responds Mike. “For example, on my mobile phone, for most of my picture options, 3 is Save, but on one menu, they change the order and 3 is Delete. In that case, consistency would have been good.

“But when consistency perpetuates a known bad design feature, throw it overboard. For example, I hear versions of this a lot: We named the delete button Scratch in the other two modules we already released. We can’t be inconsistent now and call it Delete. Sure you can! Just because you made a bad design decision elsewhere doesn’t mean it has to carry through for the rest of all your products’ lifecycles.

“When inconsistency can lead to user error, then consistency is very important.”—Mike Hughes

“At one company I worked for, we would do small releases we called customer delighters, because they were intended to introduce features we had heard our users wanted. If we could improve any aspect of the user interface we were touching, we would—even if it made that user interface a bit inconsistent with other modules we weren’t touching in that release. As long as a single task experience is consistent, users are not disrupted if its user interface is different from that for other tasks. Chances are that users won’t even notice the difference, but they will be bothered by a bad user experience.

“So, in essence, plan your improvements in chunks, and be consistent within the chunk du jour—the one you’re updating. But don’t be afraid to innovate and improve the design of the chunk you’re currently working on, even if that makes it inconsistent with design flaws in other chunks you aren’t redesigning.”

“Innovation is typically important first—get attention—then consistency becomes more important once a product is established and seen as valuable—make it better, more usable.”—Dirk Knemeyer

“This is largely a question of stage and maturity,” explains Dirk. “Innovation is typically important first—get attention—then consistency becomes more important once a product is established and seen as valuable—make it better, more usable. This pendulum effect of the importance of innovation versus consistency changing over time is typical in the lifecycle of any product. We should always strive for both, but we can expect business requirements and drivers to jump from one to the next, depending on the phase.”

Are Legacy UX Techniques Still Relevant?

Q: Can companies still be effective using the human factors practices they developed ten or more years ago? If not, what are some examples of adaptations?

“The current environment really demands more agile processes with iterative design and development, involving participatory or collaborative design teams.”—Russ Wilson

Russ asserts, “I doubt it. The current environment really demands more agile processes with iterative design and development, involving participatory or collaborative design teams. These needs weren’t as important before as they are now.”

“That seems like a loaded question,” replies Whitney. “No and yes. I can’t imagine anything that stays absolutely the same forever. Even road signs evolve.” As usual, Whitney poses some cogent questions: “What’s the back story here? Are we seeing a process that has been locked down and simply repeated over and over with no reflection on its effectiveness. Then, of course, it needs to be rethought. Or is this a case of a new idea being rejected? Was it a good idea, or just the newest thing?

“The basics of user research and usability really haven’t changed that much. Most people now see that we have a larger set of choices. How can we be most effective? The critical part of any research is your initial questions: What are you trying to learn, and how can you do it most effectively? That means considering the question, the context, the resources—time, people, access to users, and budget—you have available.

“The critical part of any research is your initial questions: What are you trying to learn, and how can you do it most effectively? That means considering the question, the context, the resources—time, people, access to users, and budget—you have available.”—Whitney Quesenbery

Whitney concludes, “I see a lot of articles that set up a straw man of traditional usability, so they can knock it down with their new method. But I rarely recognize the methods they are discarding from my professional practice or those of the people I know. And the so-called new method is often a variation on an older method—often a good one its innovator has devised to elicit better information from the work—but not a radical break.

“Are there dinosaurs out there, clinging to their own—old?—ways of working? Of course, there are. Does that mean we have to reinvent an entire field? Hmm… Not sure about that.”

Some Related Articles

Baty, Steve. “Execution Is Everything.” UXmatters, August 18, 2008. Retrieved August 19, 2009.

Gabriel-Petit, Pabini. “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.

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

Nieters, Jim. “Innovation Workshops: Facilitating Product Innovation.” UXmatters, June 22, 2009. Retrieved August 19, 2009.

Nieters, Jim, and Laurie Pattison. “In Search of Strategic Relevance for UX Teams.” UXmatters, October 6, 2008. Retrieved August 19, 2009.

Schreier-Fleming, Maura, and Janet M. Six. “Open Sesame! Selling UX Services.” UXmatters, March 20, 2006. Retrieved August 19, 2009.

Six, Janet M. “Using Verbs As Nouns in User Interfaces | UX Roles in Organizations.” UXmatters, May 11, 2009. Retrieved August 19, 2009.

Szuc, Daniel. “Selling What We Do.” Johnny Holland Magazine, June 30, 2009. Retrieved August 19, 2009.

Szuc, Daniel, Paul J. Sherman, and John S. Rhodes. “Selling UX.” UXmatters, October 20, 2008. Retrieved August 19, 2009.

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