Directive Versus Collaborative UX Consulting

By Baruch Sachs

Published: September 9, 2013

Our engagements to consistently require thought leadership around best practices for using our products. This is sometimes a new experience for our clients, who just expect us to enable them to do what they want to do rather than learning how they can do something better.

My UX team consists of highly skilled, outgoing UX professionals who live and work all over the world and engage with a diverse set of customers—both rewarding and challenging. Generally, our consulting style is a blend of directive and collaborative consulting. By this, I mean that we provide thought leadership on how to create successful user experiences for our software products, but we do this with a customer rather than to a customer. This is a common and effective approach, blending leadership with a desire to be inclusive and get everyone on board with our ideas and see them come to fruition.

Recently, after an engagement of several months, one customer told me that one of my consultants was almost too adaptable to their needs. This struck me as a bit odd because adaptability is what we are all about in the consulting world. We lead people without commanding them. We adapt to and work within a customer’s culture, while still exposing them to new ideas and methods that will make their project a success. Since my team and I work for a software vendor and are the subject-matter experts for all things relating to the user experience of our products, I expect our engagements to consistently require thought leadership around best practices for using our products. This is sometimes a new experience for our clients, who just expect us to enable them to do what they want to do rather than learning how they can do something better.

Hearing that we need to be more forceful in applying our methodology, UX best practices, and UI design approach is not something that I’ve become accustomed to over the past few years. However, I do see a slight shift that has led me to think more deeply about directive versus collaborative consulting styles and how they relate to user experience.

Most UX engagements—and indeed, most general consulting engagements—employ a mix of both directive and collaborative styles. Very rarely, in my experience in user experience, is an engagement entirely one or the other. Given the fact that UX consulting is as much about leadership as it is about design, it is becoming more and more critical that we understand how our leadership style affects our consulting abilities.

Leadership Styles

“As UX professionals increasingly take more of a leadership role with their clients and customers, it is becoming critical that we better understand the concept of leadership.”

As UX professionals increasingly take more of a leadership role with their clients and customers, it is becoming critical that we better understand the concept of leadership. There are four main leadership styles:

  1. Focusing on tasks and concrete objectives
  2. Focusing on people and their needs and developing followers
  3. Taking a directive approach, in which the leader sets an organization’s direction and makes all decisions
  4. Taking a participatory approach, in which the leader shares decision making with others
  5. Taking an adaptive approach to leadership

This fifth, adaptive leadership style speaks strongly to me, because the quality of being adaptive is critical to being a consultant. Adaptive leadership uses context to determine which of the previously mentioned leadership styles is appropriate in a given situation.

Consulting Styles

“In directive consulting, we take the leadership role. We initiate all activities and tell the customer exactly what to do to be successful.”

Consulting style follows leadership style. So, in directive consulting, we take the leadership role. We initiate all activities and tell the customer exactly what to do to be successful. This style of consulting can be very effective, but it is important to truly lead a customer that needs this style rather than making them feel as though you are pulling them in whatever direction you want them to take.

In a collaborative consulting environment, we provide information, best practices, and suggestions to a client, but it is up to them to decide how best to use the information we’ve provided—with our expert guidance, of course.

The most basic form of research, doing a Google search, quickly shows which style of consulting is more popular. Search for collaborative consulting, and you’ll get a great many hits. There are consulting companies with collaborative in their name and lots of articles on how to be more collaborative in your consulting approach.

Searching for directive consulting yields far fewer and less substantial results. In fact, you’d have to dig to find anything on the topic. When your leadership style and approach to consulting are directive, rather than your customers perceiving you as being supportive, they may perceive you as being someone who just tells other people or groups what to do, without explaining yourself or fostering consensus.

How the Maturity of User Experience Affects Your Leadership Style

“User experience, as a practice, is at a critical juncture: an ever-widening audience is aware of its value—even if they don’t understand its value in depth.”

There is now less and less need for the profession of user experience to prove its importance. User experience, as a practice, is at a critical juncture: an ever-widening audience is aware of its value—even if they don’t understand its value in depth. Thus, the thirst for UX leadership is growing. In the past, it was enough just to be collaborative in our consulting approach. We worked side by side with our customers and sometimes provided leadership to help them craft a successful user experience.

Now, as our customers increasingly are looking to us to lead, our leadership and consulting styles need to be more adaptive. Sometimes we need to be the leader. Sometimes we need to be the collaborator. At still other times, we need to be the participant. It all depends on the context—the situation that we find ourselves in.

Adapting our consulting style requires us to tap into the psychological side of user experience, which enables us to perceive which style of consulting a client really needs—even if the client is unable to ask for it specifically. The ability to be adaptive in our consulting style and use context as our guide has become critical to our overall success as consultants.

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