3 UX Organization Personas
Published: May 19, 2014
Welcome to Strategy Matters, my new column on UXmatters, which will focus on answering these essential questions: How should we define UX strategy today? Where is it going? As UX professionals, how can we better develop ourselves and those who have yet to find their home in this field? Building on that premise, I’d like to put out a few disclaimers as I kick off this column:
- I think I’m a UX Strategist… This is how I have chosen to define myself and what I can offer to the field of User Experience. I share this self-affixed title with many others, but there’s really no saying who is or who isn’t a UX Strategist, because there’s no accepted definition or criteria for the role. How anyone can claim to be a UX Strategist without feeling some degree of Imposter Syndrome escapes me. But if I look at my peers who I feel most closely affiliated with—and the things that interest us and the types of work that we seek and do for clients—I’m an Experience Strategist. (I’ll take the U out for now and explain that in an upcoming column.) However, like many or even most others with this title, there are deficiencies in my skillset and experience that some could argue disqualify me from making this assertion. And that’s because…
- I know I’m not a UX or business unicorn. Yes, I have a good track record of experience leading and delivering on strategic UX projects, but I don’t have deep skills in areas that some would argue are the price of entry for a UX Strategist. I possess no degree in a UX-related field—though my undergraduate degree in Political Science does seem to come in handy when navigating the politics of organizations. In recent history, the nearest I’ve come to coding was configuring UserZoom—which is easy to use!—and, before that, it was probably writing SQL queries in the late 90s. I’d like to think that I’m creative and can design elegant, simple user interfaces, but InDesign and Photoshop frighten me. I find spoken metaphor far easier than visual thinking—and though I find the latter more impactful and accessible—my handwriting and sketches are comparable to those of a kindergartener. Do I need to have these skills? Maybe, and others may consider such things core to being a UX Strategist.
- I’m hoping to have my thinking challenged here. I have opinions and consider some things to be conventional absolutes, but you’ll rarely see me write anything that claims I have the answer. (For example, I’m perfectly happy to assume there may be more than 10 Commandments.) I think UXmatters is a great place to have this conversation. I like to challenge things, and if I’m provocative, it’s with a point: I usually learn best when those who disagree or have alternative views provide positive and constructive criticism of my thinking.
We’re in an evolving field, and I’m moving my career and helping my company and clients move toward the human-centric mindset that many of us are so passionate about. With that in mind, in the remainder of this first column, I’d like to begin with some introspection on our current evolution, starting with us as UX professionals. I’ll discuss a few general personas that I’ve seen over time in our emerging industry, where I think I currently am in this mix, and where I see things moving.
UX Professionals: A Note to Selfies
It’s not provocative to suggest that our community has some issues when it comes to defining who we are, what we do, and how we identify ourselves. I need not revisit tumultuous, existential chapters in recent history or describe the various permutations of why IxDA isn’t like CHI, which isn’t like UXPA, which isn’t like IAI, which isn’t like HFES, which isn’t like the Service Design Network, which isn’t like VizThink—now VizWorld—which isn’t like CXPA, which isn’t like AIGA, which isn’t like … yeah, that. And the various UX-related conferences—breeding like rabbits—that are directly or loosely affiliated with one or more of these organizations. That, too. And the methodologies, the deliverables, the LinkedIn groups, the industry alignments—all of it.
In fact, there’s an 11% chance that, by the time you read this column, there will be an entirely new group, conference, or methodology—or on the other hand, another “dead claim.” (It seems that we have to declare something dead every few months or we get bored.) At times, keeping up with all of this seems like a full-time job. Is anyone tired of this yet? I am. It’s exhausting sometimes. But like a moth to a light bulb, I find myself irresistibly drawn to these well-trodden discussions.
UX Organizations: The Personas
Within this kinetic environment, I was thinking about our community, and I came up with three UX organization personas that I think capture the bulk of how we approach User Experience. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll focus this discussion mainly on organizational behaviors.
Broadly speaking, within each of these groups, I see three types of UX professionals. Before I define them, please know that I have very dear friends that I would personally classify as belonging to all three of these personas. I love them all. I’m sure we probably agree on as many things as we disagree on. And of course, to make my point, I’ll be playing with archetypes—which are really nothing more than the less-politically correct term stereotypes. Bottom line: please don’t get too hung up on this.
- The Purists—Every organization—UXPA, IxDA, CHI, IAI, and so on—includes a subset who feel that they are different from other groups for a variety of reasons. They aren’t wrong, because there are, indeed, differences in the slices of User Experience that they represent. The Purists like those differences. In fact, they far prefer doing their own thing to finding paths to collaborate. I’m not suggesting they feel that they are in any way superior to or better than any other group—though there most certainly is a subset of the subset who do feel that way. And some tend to view new or similar organizations with suspicion and use expressions like “land grab” or “that’s ours” when speaking about them. For example, at the first UX STRAT conference last year, within minutes of my feeling this incredible vibe about being with my tribe, there was a long discussion about the new Customer Experience (CX) crowd and how they’ve swooped in to claim ownership of things that we in the UX community have been doing and advocating for years.
- The Big Tenters—These are folks who may have a primary connection with one or maybe two UX organizations and are looking for ways to collaborate and build bridges between organizations. The thing is, they don’t just think that it’s okay for this to happen; they think it’s important that this should happen. UX professionals unite! I mean, why all the fuss? Can’t we all just get together in the desert and light the night sky with a big, 40-foot statue of Burning UX Persona Man? But, given the challenges of a global UX community and various locations’ relative levels of UX-market maturity, differing generational perspectives, core-competency strengths, strong personalities, and a host of other differences, the aims of the Big Tenters, while noble, are a bit Pollyanna-like. These people can also be a bit flat-footed in their efforts to unite groups, putting others off with what seems to be a holier-than-thou approach or having others perceive them as interlopers or a threat to their core beliefs.
- The Selfies—These people aren’t big on any of this organizational navel-gazing. They really don’t care—and are put off by the drama that debates of Purists and Big Tenters generate. They may once have been involved in all of this, but have punched out because they were exhausted, frustrated, or just uninterested in the whole mess. Or, as I think I’ve seen happening more and more, they’ve entered the field and haven’t found any strong need to affiliate beyond participating in broader social media channels and local, collegial meetups. They just want to do great work and find ways to get better at what they do. If they do attend a conference, it’s because the conference has specific content they want to partake of. They don’t care who is hosting it.
These personas aren’t absolutes, and there are certainly shared feelings between them:
- Purists and Big Tenters might say: “Sure, we may not agree, but at least we’re trying to advance the common good and not just focused on ourselves and advancing our personal business interests.”
- Purists and Selfies might say: “For crying out loud, can you just leave us alone and let us do our thing the way we want to? Go Kumbaya someplace else. We’re busy.”
- Big Tenters and Selfies might say: “Wouldn’t it make sense to have cross-organization content leaders in X and Y at the same local conference, so I don’t have to fly out of town to get what I need?”
So, which persona are you? Are you a blend? Are there other personas that I’ve missed?
Some questions that you may now be wondering about: What does this have to do with UX Strategy? And, why did you pick this as the first topic in your Strategy Matters column? Here’s why: I’m learning and I’m changing. For many years, I’ve fancied myself a Big Tenter, so it stands to reason that I’d try to rationalize these connections. If you’re unconvinced, I get it. But over the past few years, my persona affiliation has evolved somewhat.
In the not-too-distant past, I introduced a strategy for UX certification at the UPA Munich Conference as a full-throated Big Tenter. I even showed a slide with a Big Tent—and an arrow pointing to me standing in it. Having been warned about the follies of ever trying to unite the greater UX community, I was hoping to convince folks that the only dog I have in this fight is one that has us all bringing home a bone. Suffice it to say that I’ve had that Big Tent pole kicked out from under me a few times—and more often than not, it was a well-intentioned, well-timed kick. Many of my heroes in this field have told me flat out that I haven’t convinced them or—even if they agreed with me to some extent—that they know I’m fighting a losing battle that isn’t worth it.
Which is why I’ve begun to exhibit behaviors that are more indicative of a Selfie. I think I’ve gotten a bit more realistic—and sadly, but admittedly, too cynical to expect unity will ever exist to a degree that could ever satisfy the Big Tenter in me. And, in my own contemplation of where UX Strategy fits in the UX organizational diaspora, I now sound more like a Selfie than a Big Tenter.
I don’t need a SIG, a new group, or a splinter of an existing one. Nor do I need to align with a specific conference, author, or company. There’s too much good information out there to imagine that it could ever be harnessed in one place. I think that’s especially true—and should be—for UX strategy. Every UX, CX, IX, X-cetera organization has strategists in it—as they should.
As I look at the impulses of Generation C and the greater impacts of technology and organizational dynamics—both enterprise and self-selected—I see more and more Selfies. The idea of curation—less as a spectator sport and more as a modus operandi—seems unnecessary when virtually unfettered access to any and all things user experience is table stakes. Add to this the speed at which business is evolving, and I think the lesson for me has been that learning and growing in UX strategy requires us to focus more on our own personal growth, and—for those who are so inclined—sharing what we’ve learned with others. Consider this column a small step in that direction.
So, to conclude, as I think about UX Strategy as a discipline, I don’t think any existing or yet-to-emerge organization should seek to own UX strategy. People working within the field of User Experience—and those belonging elsewhere—just want to get the capabilities that they need to do their job better through various sources. So until I get a globally accepted handbook that provides the quintessential definition of and career path for UX strategy, I’ll do my best to temper the Big Tenter in me. And I’ll be taking a lot of Selfies.
Thanks for Listening
I’m honored and delighted to have this column be part of UXmatters. I have been writing and speaking about User Experience for some time—notably about a focus on the bigger picture—but this column for UXmatters is my first attempt at being a bit more regular in my contributions to the UX dialogue. I’m pleased that UXmatters has given me a home where I can share my thoughts on UX strategy. Looking forward to the conversations…