The World of Services User Experience

By Baruch Sachs

Published: February 20, 2012

“As a UX professional working in a services organization, you face unique challenges for which a formal education in user experience does not really prepare you.”

Since this is my introductory column for my new column Selling UX: A unique perspective on service UX, I’d first like to explain a little about my background and the world of services user experience that I’ll be writing about.

After graduating with a degree in technical writing, I started off my career as a technical writer and, on the advice of my advisor, went straight into a Human Factors graduate program. Back then, I never thought I would be in a services role. Indeed, I did not even really know what it meant to be a UX consultant working for a software firm. I have since realized that, as a UX professional working in a services organization, you face unique challenges for which a formal education in user experience does not really prepare you.

From Technical Writing to Services

As a newly minted technical writer, I found myself redesigning the software I was supposed to be writing about a lot—all in an effort to reduce how much writing I had to do. To accomplish that reduction of effort, I often met with software developers to try to figure out how the software really worked. I quickly realized that the developers did not care what a lowly technical writer had to say, even if I was right about how a simple change could fix the UX design and make it more usable. It was at this point that I came to my first professional crossroads: I could choose Option A and continue fighting the developers over user interface design or choose Option B and just write manuals that I knew in my heart nobody would ever read.

“Working in the world of services user experience goes beyond focusing solely on domain expertise to an emphasis on the mastery of human-to-human interaction….”

Instead, I chose Option C and started talking with business stakeholders and users directly. For my manager, I framed my effort as a research project to enable me to understand what language I needed to use, so I could be sure our target audience would understand the manuals. However, my true goal was to develop allies for my way of thinking.

Though I did not understand this at the time, the business was funding the software projects I was writing about. Therefore, it was the business that held the power over the design. Once I was able to create relationships and propose my ideas to the stakeholders, the business took it from there. I not only got my wish for changes to the user interface, but also got my first taste of what it meant to be in a services role. Working in the world of services user experience goes beyond focusing solely on domain expertise to an emphasis on the mastery of human-to-human interaction that differentiates a good consultant from a great consultant.

After that experience, my technical writing days were over. I moved on in my career, taking more UX-focused roles. Then, about 5 years ago, I got a great opportunity to build a UX team from scratch within a larger services organization. Through almost every interaction I’ve had with customers, technical teams, users, business owners, and executives since then, it has become evident to me that anyone in user experience needs to consider every possible impact of their work. In short, you need to make a user experience relevant not only to the people who will use what you design, but also to anyone who has a stake in seeing your project be successful.

Making User Experience Relevant

“When someone brings you on board to help guide their UX decisions, … you need to show that you understand the whole impact a particular project will have on their organization, the career paths of the project’s sponsors, the working lives of the users, and the customers the organization serves.”

When someone brings you on board to help guide their UX decisions, how can you get them to really listen to what you have to say and act upon it? Should you show them research and articles and wireframes? Yes, indeed, when the situation warrants it. But you need to show them something else, in addition to all of that. You need to show that you understand the whole impact a particular project will have on their organization, the career paths of the project’s sponsors, the working lives of the users, and the customers the organization serves

In a services organization, you are not only the UX expert, you are also expected to be a thought leader in areas that go far beyond UX. How will your user experience interact with other initiatives within an enterprise? Will the success of your project give you the ability to shine and offer you greater opportunity with your client? Is the organization for which you’re working mature enough to handle a robust UX program? All of these are questions that all UX consultants must ask themselves on a daily basis.

User experience is the great leveler. Everyone has an opinion on how to design a user interface and craft a user experience. People who would remain completely silent during a meeting on database design cannot wait to tell you about an article they read that led them to believe that you should always put radio buttons 17 pixels from their labels. As a services UX person, you need to know not only how to get your message across, but who in a client’s organization you can recruit to help you to spread your message.

When I arrive at a client’s site to do a design session or a user interface review, they often semi-jokingly ask, “So, are you the guy that is going to help us make this UI look pretty?” I usually smile and make some comment that gets everyone laughing, but I have found that one of the main purposes of being there is to give everyone a reason to sit down together and finally flesh out what a user interface is going to be. People who may skip other meetings almost always show up for a UI design session, and what starts out as a UI design session almost always ends up with everyone’s having a deeper functional understanding of what a product needs to be. As a services UX person, you should never squander any opportunity to achieve this level of understanding.

So What Is Services User Experience Really About?

“Your work is as much about people skills, relationship building, and salesmanship as it is about user experience. That is what makes working in services a different flavor of user experience.”

When I started out as a technical writer, I had to identify my audience and hunt them down. As a services UX professional, my audience comes to me. But they are mine to keep or lose. When you get to the point where everyone in the room is looking to you for direction, your work is as much about people skills, relationship building, and salesmanship as it is about user experience. That is what makes working in services a different flavor of user experience.

I have spent time as a UX designer/usability person on the inside of an organization and know that anyone toiling in the field of user experience needs strong relationship and sales skills. The difference in services is the sheer number of different types of audiences for your work. When you work in house, you have to sell the value of your work to just your coworkers and company management, who you see every day. However, as a services UX professional, you must sell not only to those people, but also to a wide variety of people in your ever-changing client base. To further complicate matters, these clients might already have their own internal user experience team that handles projects on an enterprise level, so you have to ensure that what you are selling to them is relevant enough to their project to induce them to shoulder the extra cost of bringing you in.

In a general services organization, you are hardly ever selling user experience alone. Instead, your UX services are almost always bundled with other services such as project management, product strategy, technical oversight, or performance tuning. If you are not careful, this can make user experience seem as though it might be expendable. If a client says they want to buy a services package, but handle user experience on their own, you would be hard pressed to find an organization that would not accept those terms. However, once you have built the right relationships and shown your relevance in project successes, you’ll have the weight of that services organization behind you. They can sell your value for you, stressing the importance of user experience in ensuring that project goals are met.

Practicing user experience as part of a larger services organization is hardly ever just about designing the user experience of a particular product. Any UX professional in a services role taps deeply into the human-relationship side of the discipline of user experience. The world of services user experience is challenging, fast paced, and, in some ways, different from a lot of other UX roles. I will be sharing this world with you in future columns.

1 Comment

Thanks, Baruch. The path you have taken sounds interesting. It’s an inspiring one that opens up possibilities for UX practitioners to use their skills and methods in new contexts. Although I am not one to silo creative disciplines, it does sound a lot like what is being referred to as service design. Naming is important, however, so I would like to know what your impressions of service design are. In your work as a consultant, have you encountered talk about or understanding of what service design is? Do people ask for it by name yet? And, if these are indeed the same thing, does Service UX perhaps sell better because UX is better known to technologists and marketers?

Also, in your experience, how does your domain knowledge in service industries contribute to your value to clients? Would you say that Web UX designers are well accustomed to the nature of services, or is there a fundamental difference in how we should approach service-based instances?

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