Don’t Just Manage, Transform! Part 2

By Baruch Sachs

Published: July 21, 2014

“All too often, organizations miss opportunities to integrate User Experience into projects effectively, preventing the success of User Experience on large, digital-transformation software projects.”

In my last column, I wrote about the challenges of undertaking a truly transformative software development project within a large enterprise and how it’s sometimes a struggle for User Experience to find the right role within an organization. All too often, organizations miss opportunities to integrate User Experience into projects effectively, preventing the success of User Experience on large, digital-transformation software projects. Thus, UX professionals are left simply managing the UX component, instead of providing the right blend of value and influence.

Now, in Part 2 of this series, I’ll offer guidance on three specific UX activities that should be part of a transformative software development project.

Integrate Your UX Strategy with the Project Strategy

“Creating a UX strategy is valuable only if you align it with the strategy for the product development project….”

Over the last few years, 99% of what I have read on the concept of UX strategy blatantly misses the point—at least to my mind and in my experience. Creating a UX strategy is valuable only if you align it with the strategy for the product development project of which you are a part.

In the attempts of UX professionals to stand up UX strategy as a standalone concept, I see misguided desperation that is similar to efforts to make usability an engineering practice. A successful UX strategy complements and pushes product strategy. We don’t need a standalone UX strategy for a product development project. We need to look at the product strategy and recognize where having a proper UX strategy would ensure that our product’s user experience will have a meaningful impact.

Everyone on a project has a role to play in UX strategy. We don’t need to leave it to a UX strategist or some other strategy group. The great thing about UX professionals is that we are usually very good at identifying patterns; looking at an information architecture or design and seeing beyond the face value of the thing. Great UX people are able to look at a design or a user interface or even a project schedule and say, “Hey, we really need to do X to make this work.”

A really good UX strategy is not just about planning UX activities. It’s about identifying what the customer needs to get out of an experience, then circling back to look at what we are doing on a project—beyond the next sprint or the next phase. For example, saying, “We need data to better understand this now, if we are to be successful at delivering this type of experience,” really ties a strategic UX activity—user research—into the success criteria for a product strategy. This leads me to my next point…

Don’t Forget User Research

“Transformative software implementation…, by nature, … moves very, very quickly. So fast that, sometimes, the traditional deliverables and activities of strategic user experience can get left by the wayside.”

One of the issues with transformative software implementation is that, by nature, it moves very, very quickly. So fast that, sometimes, the traditional deliverables and activities of strategic user experience can get left by the wayside. This is very evident on projects that an enterprise aims at an internal audience.

User research often gets short shrift on internal software development projects because of the mistaken belief that we already have enough data on our users. They are our employees after all, so we already know a ton of information about our users. Plus, we assume that these people’s managers can tell us even more about them—so why do user research?

We all know that skipping user research is a mistake. But I have found that a lot of us have trouble articulating why this is a mistake, so are unable to convince project stakeholders to spend the time on research activities. However, existing employee data usually neglects to tell us two very important things: the why and the how. Existing user data may do a very good job of telling us what someone does, but it does not tell us

  • why users do things in a certain way
  • whether there is another way that might work just as well or better, but has not been explored
  • how to design a new user experience that would better meet users’ needs

User research, when done well, tells us all of these things. It gives design insights that user data usually cannot. So plan to do user research, fight to include it on your project, and when you get the opportunity to do it, don’t mess it up.

If You Get to Talk to Users, Don’t Wing It

“All too often, we wing it when conducting research, because of either a lack of preparation time or overconfidence in our abilities.”

There are books, articles, and prescriptions aplenty on how to conduct user research properly. Looking back to when I first started in this profession, an impeccable resource was User and Task Analysis for Interface Design, in which the authors provide multiple sections on how to properly plan research activities. Since that time, I have read more about this topic than I would like to admit. Yet, when watching UX professionals conduct user research, I see a lot of good advice thrown out the window.

All too often, we wing it when conducting research, because of either a lack of preparation time or overconfidence in our abilities. I am not ashamed to admit that I have also been guilty of this infraction at one time or another. To be honest, sometimes winging it is okay. Our training and experience kick in, and we get pretty good data that is valuable to the transformative process. We get the why and the how that we are looking for.

However, we must continually caution ourselves that, just because we are seasoned professionals in our area of expertise, it does not follow that we don’t have to prepare for user research. In addition to preparing for the actual research activities, we must also choose to interact with the right users. A lot of times, when doing research within an enterprise, the internal audience to which we are given access does not comprise the right people.

Recently, I was involved in a large redesign effort for a critical internal enterprise application. I asked to have the opportunity to speak with users, and my request was granted. However, I also asked for a skills matrix for the people with whom I was going to be speaking and to be given a better understanding of the enterprise’s talent management strategy. The fulfillment of this request took some time. But what I found out, after actually speaking with someone in the talent management group, was that the redesign of this particular application was actually targeted at an audience that had not yet been hired within the enterprise. The group of users to which they gave me access was not the group to which the enterprise would be rolling out the redesign.

Gaining this insight into the enterprise’s talent-management strategy allowed me to build personas representing the right users, then find representative users outside the organization. Ultimately, this research provided the real answers to my why and how questions, while the internal group of existing users provided me the what and when. Had I just winged it and relied on doing research with the people who they gave to me, I would not have been able to demonstrate how strategic UX activities had actually benefited and added value to the product strategy.

Transformation Is Hard, but Figuring Out the Role of User Experience Is Not

“We have an incredible opportunity that we should not squander, but taking advantage of it does require a mind shift around our strategic role.”

This is a golden time to be part of the UX community. In many organizations, we not only have a seat at the C-level table, we actually get to influence outcomes through driving design and product strategy. We have an incredible opportunity that we should not squander, but taking advantage of it does require a mind shift around our strategic role. We are not there merely to manage digital transformation; we truly are there to lead the charge.

References

Hackos, JoAnn T., and Janice C. Redish. User and Task Analysis for Interface Design. New York: Wiley, 1998.

Hawley, Michael. “Preparing for User Research Interviews: Seven Things to Remember.” UXmatters, July 7, 2008. Retrieved July 16, 2014.

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