XIV.4 July + August 2007
Page: 56
Digital Citation

Enter the chief design officer!

Jonathan Arnowitz, Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson

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CHI2007 was one of the best CHI conferences ever, particularly for design researchers and practitioners. Kudos are due to the conference chairs, Mary Beth Rosson and David Gilmore, for promoting the design community, and to the design community chairs, Jon Kolko (Savannah College of Art and Design) and Bill Lucas (MAYA design), for pulling together a great number of sessions and activities for practitioners. Sixty-one of 144 "Contemporary Trend" submissions were tagged in the submission system as "Design," which is double the number submitted as design for CHI2006. Of those, acceptances included 18 experience reports, eight interactivity (demos), and three interactive sessions (panels). If you came to CHI looking for design material this year, we hope you were not disappointed.

Tuesday's offerings included a panel organized by Richard Anderson titled, "Moving UX into a Position of Corporate Influence: Whose Advice Really Works?" Much to our surprise, the panelists all seemed to scoff at the idea Richard posed: the need for a chief design officer or chief user experience officer or an alternate C-level design presence. One commentator said, "The last thing you want is the board dictating the colors or fonts or other designs."

The panelists here were completely off base. The chief design officer (CDO) concept is meant to avoid this very thing. A CDO should set the design strategy for the company and make sure it stays on course. Being a C-level officer, the CDO has enough clout to keep boardroom design from taking place. Having worked for many large companies, we have never seen an example of boardroom design that hasn't resulted in poor usability, or worse¬óspending millions of dollars in implementing and then de-implementing unprofessional designs. All of us, at one time or another, have resisted (or will resist) design-on-the-spot, especially where both the product and your career may be negatively affected!

A CDO can successfully advocate for design when design is ignored, diminished, or defeated by competing engineering, marketing, and other legitimate software-development issues. Looking at the schematic justification of the C-level design officer, Bill Buxton makes the following analogies [1]: (We added "chief design officer," Bill had a question mark.)

Leadership = Chief Executive Officer

Stewardship = Chief Operating Officer

Resource Management = Chief Financial Officer

Technology = Chief Technical Officer

Design = Chief Design Officer

To paraphrase Bill Buxton, if your company does not have a CDO, then it is not taking design seriously. It's not the title; it's the role. Is there someone in your company who makes the final call on design philosophy and resourcing?

If you work at a corporation or a company large enough to have a design team, they need executive-level support. Quality, on all fronts, costs money. Quality engineering is expensive when it is high caliber. Quality design, also, takes time, money, and resources to fit with a company's image, style, and expectations. Design quality should be a company objective, and a factor considered when deadlines and shortfalls call for reduced effort and timelines. We maintain that good design is natural and intuitive for top-notch designers; everyone else has to work pretty hard at it. In the balance of effort between design and engineering, it is always easier to lower design expectations than to lower engineering expectations; the product, after all, has to operate. With a CDO, the value of that balance becomes more evident.

Of course, this could be a double-edged sword. Since Steve Jobs set the bar extremely high for executive involvement in design, there have been many imitators at the executive level who rarely approach his brilliance, memory for design detail, and grasp of power through design. This is because Steve Jobs is the archetype CDO, who happens to also be the CEO. Without a qualified designer as a CDO, you could end up with a schmo focused on micromanagement. We agree with the CHI2007 panelist's observation, "The last thing we want is the board of directors dictating the design." The CDO, however, is exactly the way to avoid it. And besides, it's about time we had a legitimate C-level career track!

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1. Buxton, Bill. Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann, 2007.

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