Those with enough experience as designers often come to realize, as I have, that “Designer”, as a title, is a little bit of a conceit. Sure, it comes with years of training, apprenticeship, and “real world” experience, yet in traditionally structured organizations, we are often co-designers, at best.
Though a designer or design team may hold greater sway over the visual design, interface design, information architecture, interaction design, usability, and other aspects of an interactive system, the Designer’s role is typically a minority one, often of one only, and a subordinate one at that. In such circumstances we are more a Design Influencer. This is why we must not only strive to improve design skills, but also to increase our ability to influence organizational colleagues and superiors.
Here’s the thing; whenever others define project objectives and approve our deliverables, or not, and can significantly modify them, we are co-designers with them, at best, no matter their position, role, or title. We may not like it, but we must, and usually do, find ways to cope. Because to be a good designer is to produce good design from the user’s point of view, first and foremost.
Paradoxically, when we design primarily for organizational praise or merit, we sell the organization short, not to mention ourselves and users.
When those who can modify UX design work do so without the benefit of human-computer interaction (HCI) design training, apprenticeship, or direct experience, our work can be significantly compromised. Which is not to say it can’t be improved in terms of the approver’s or modifier’s expertise when they are business or technology experts providing input to those areas. We need input as much as influence, absolutely. Yet to uphold principals of useful and usable user experience design, we need organizational and “communicational” supports. Also absolutely. So let’s look at a few UX design support factors, as well as impediments.
Powerful Design Equals Loyal Customers
Traditionally, books on design, business, and the business of design, have told us to seek out and appeal to a design champion; an executive who understands the value and benefits to brands and bottom lines of a positive customer experience, and garner their support. Even Don Norman says so. Good idea. It does seem more likely than winning the lottery, but I don’t want to bet my career on it. What we need is something less individualized, heroic, or ad hoc. Something we can all talk about, and repeat. We need capability. Not just individual, but organizational capability.
Interactive systems become powerful in the hands of customers when organizational powers support proven user experience design methods. Provided the roles have been well recruited for, the more empowered the UX design and usability testing roles, the more empowered the user. Copyright and piracy issues excepted, no credible software business person bothers to make a case against empowered users. Empowered users become loyal customers. It should be said, though, that some very credible software business people do compromise user empowerment, and sometimes even with good reason.
If you can deliver customer delight, you can dispense with the high cost and relationship-straining effects of loyalty programs. Organic loyalty beats artificial loyalty every time.”
—Marty Neumeier, The Designful Company: How to build a culture of nonstop innovation
The Capability Maturity Model (CMM), from the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute (Thank you my dear Mr. Humphrey!) is a process framework for verifying software development capability by making processes repeatable. Which sounds great, and no doubt can “deliver the capability of each methodology to achieve business objectives“, for “Identifying and communicating the return on investment through process improvement.” But this too requires serious executive support, and major funding. Yet, even if we don’t fully adopt it, it provides us a model for any software project, as it articulates levels of process maturity that all of us can share and understand:
- Initial (Chaotic)
This provides a chaotic or unstable environment for the processes. [Thus results… probably we’ve all experienced this first level first hand, sometime or another, or do so daily?]
Process discipline is unlikely to be rigorous, but where it exists it may help to ensure that existing processes are maintained during times of stress.
The standard processes are in place and used to establish consistency of process performance across the organization.
Management can identify ways to adjust and adapt the process to particular projects without measurable losses of quality or deviations from specifications. Process Capability is established from this level.
It is a characteristic of processes at this level that the focus is on continually improving process performance through both incremental and innovative technological changes/improvements.
Notably, the Carnegie Mellon CMM doesn’t consider anything less than level 4 characteristic of a “mature” process.
“You Can’t Manage What You Don’t Measure”
Ultimately, good UX design is not a matter of theory or opinion. Unlike experience itself, user experience design is not subjective.
Achievement of business objectives is always measurable. So achieving it by applying user experience design principals, practices, and methods, must also be.
Enter UX metrics. Many are now wading in to the seemingly murky waters of UX metrics, and there is emerging UX measurement training such as in MX 2011, as well.
Phil Goddard, formerly of Human Factors International, has done great work in this area by developing a UX score card system. Ref. The Business of UX Metrics PDF doc. The HFI system assigns numerical values, as “grades”, to what are usually considered qualitative metrics. This may seem controversial, but it does what is necessary: resonate with business people and quantify experiences of usability.
For managers that have not done it before, UX measurement will probably look scary. This is may be from fear of change, or failure, or both. Or even fear of exposure to outside authority (i.e. customers). Though it seems safe to say that these fears will quickly fade once UX measurement practices are institutionalized and the initial fears are offset by measurable, therefore proven, service improvements.
Understanding the relationship between user experience design and how, what, where, when, and why it fits in to the overall software publication process, at all levels of an organization, is necessary for achievement of both a project’s business strategy and user’s goals.
Beyond lack of capability, loose process management, and little or no UX measurement, there are a number of factors that resist good user experience design in many organizations. Here are just a few:
- Poor communication
- Unclear “product” or service strategy, goals, and/or business objectives
- Lack of collaborative culture
- Role/team fragmentation, i.e. geographical, departmental, political
- Poor documentation
- Impatience, i.e. deadline death march mentality
As you look at these you may see what I do; all roll up to the first one. So in the next installment of Design Means Business I’ll take on that old foe of good experiences: communication problems.
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