Columns

XXVII.2 March - April 2020
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Blurry boundaries


Authors:
Uday Gajendar

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Author's note: With my final essay for this column we're taking an experimental approach, to underscore the original intent of staging exploratory conversations and seeing what emerges. I hope you enjoy it!

What if you had a doppelgänger at work—not one who looked like you, but one who behaved like you in terms of methods applied, tools used, and artifacts created, and for similar (or dueling) purposes. And they're coming from a wildly different point of view, one that might conflict with yours. This is not the premise of the next binge-worthy sci-fi flick on Netflix, but rather reflects something increasingly routine in the UX industry. Especially as more non-UX professionals, like those in sales, marketing, and especially product management, become knowledgeable about and even capable at (just "dangerous enough" levels) doing the work of traditionally trained HCI/UX designers and researchers via online courses or weekend bootcamps. What does this mean for the work to be done, defining and delivering satisfying human-software interaction? What does it portend for newly HCI-educated entrants into our field? Is this cause for an existential paranoia of sorts, a dread about the limitations of the value we HCI experts provide? How do we navigate and define the blurry boundaries within arenas of professional practice?

By the way, this isn't exclusive to startups, where it's expected that everyone wears multiple hats, bouncing among different roles due to resourcing constraints; it's happening in large enterprises too, where product managers have adopted various UX skills and tools in the course of their daily work, alongside the resident UX team. Stepping on toes is a big risk, as is conflict over who owns what, with implications for professional identity, in terms of both personal pride and professional quality of craft.

This came up for me in a few ways at some different companies recently:

  • Our head of product said they will create wireframes and define UX requirements, serving as the "owner" of a master UX framework. Meanwhile, my role was to give visual gloss (via the "design system") and run user studies.
  • A product director felt snubbed that I created workflow diagrams, illustrating user touchpoints and vulnerabilities that impact the quality of use. She said to me, "Oh, that's the work I should be doing!"
  • I was drafting a six- to nine-month strategy for phasing in features in an iterative MVP (minimum viable product)-based cycle, corresponding to "easing in the user" to a new UX model—but how should product and marketing leaders be involved? I don't want to presume to tell them how to do their jobs!

Admittedly, my snarky and cynical mind initially thought such product folks were just UX-wannabes who don't know how to keep their hands in their area, focusing on their expertise: the commercial viability of a product or feature. I was a hapless victim to the aura of their outsize egos and alpha-style command-and-control approach to product leadership (note: the examples cited involved a mix of genders and ages). And let's throw in a lack of wanting to grok how UX designers truly do their jobs per what guides their internal satisfaction—hmph!


How do we navigate and define the blurry boundaries within arenas of professional practice?


That's rather harsh, I know. Let's instead assume good intentions on everyone's part (albeit, perhaps, with confused aims and awkward vibes). And let's explore whether this is simply part of a trend, an emerging assumption of new normality within the work of product leaders that has caught the UX world a bit off guard.

To that end, I sought advice from a trusted colleague who himself served as a designer and transitioned into product. Maybe via our dialogue we could arrive at a refined understanding to share with others. So I reached out to Christian Crumlish in Palo Alto for an evening of dinner and drinks at a local tapas spot called Cascal. Christian is an information architect (someone who deftly geeks out on the structure and organization of information to help improve the findability and usability of websites, apps, etc.) who has led product and UX teams in enterprises and at startups. He recently wrapped up a four-year stint building and growing a behavioral health product, co-wrote Designing Social Interfaces, was the last curator of the Yahoo design pattern library, and is known for his ukuleles. A sage veteran of the industry who brings a wry, wary sense of gravitas and cross-functional understanding, Christian was certainly the go-to person in my mind to help me clarify the blurriness.

Over glasses of vino and tapas—enjoying bites of tender banana-leaf chicken and sautéed mushrooms—we had a nicely flowing, exploratory conversation, sussing out the blurry boundaries between product and design. What follows is an overview of the highlights.

We first got into the nuances between project and product managers—often confused with each other, with seemingly similar roles, but they are quite different! For a project manager, the artifact is usually a Gantt chart with a focus on chronological viability, while a product manager is guided by roadmaps and commercial viability. When you see where/how each lives within company structures, there are obvious gaps in knowing about customers and applying relevant techniques for harnessing that knowledge. Enter the UX designer!

Indeed, these expertise gaps can serve as valuable opportunities to build a catalog of questions, with those product and project managers, to ascertain where the knowns and unknowns need to be addressed through additional activities that may exist outside the realms of conference rooms and the connector lines of org charts. As Silicon Valley startup guru Steve Blank admonishes: "Get out of the room!" and talk with real, live people (preferably those representative of your intended market). Christian also mentioned learning frameworks to empower all members of a team to interpret and decipher data gathered from "out there" (even at the Starbucks around the corner), and associate its relevance to practical decisions made in the office. Fundamentally, there's a learning-oriented posture to be cultivated by those governing timelines and defining customer value; this requires curiosity and a willingness to be...gasp!... wrong.


UX is indeed extremely centrist oriented, arbitrating the diversity of worldviews.


When it comes to doing the work of discovery and definition of the product itself, per market fit, Christian emphasized that a variety of worldviews are being contested, and that it's a never-ending debate as to which one is at the origin point—quite literally, who's at the (0,0) center, like on a canvas grid. The thing about UX is that it's "always inherently interstitial," by which Christian meant that it's at the center of all the issues. I commented that this reminded me of Jon Stewart's emphatic outburst on The Daily Show way back in early 2000s that he considered himself paradoxically as an extreme centrist—to which we both laughed appreciably about the role of UX. It is indeed obsessively, extremely centrist oriented, arbitrating the diversity of worldviews. But that's simply the heart of our work. As UX designers, those trained in HCI, interaction, usability, ethnographic methods, and such have a powerful toolkit of knowledge to leverage toward improving product quality—and toward teaching others how to sense and respond, how to perceive and judge, and how to develop those capabilities over time.

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So, it's not about ownership per se but rather a co-creative, co-participatory, maybe co-owning kind of relationship, as the work is all tied to a journey of defining-building-shipping a response to an unmet need—a product that ostensibly offers a solution to a commercially viable problem worthy of solving for this business or market. And that journey takes a serious ounce of deliberation and interpretation of ambiguity, which isn't always easy or comfortable for those keen on "knowing the right answer" or "controlling the situation"—as often prescribed by MBA programs that churn out business leaders.

One ominous point arose as we considered dessert: If product managers are doing the work of UX designers in varying degrees, does that mean that "everyone is a designer"? Christian opined that framing design this way (as a job everyone does) is a "rhetorical gambit" with a somewhat nihilistic impact, negating the value of one's profession, rejecting its need to have its own weight justified and valued for its own sake. UX designers and researchers still need to be hired and involved in discovery-oriented discussions to enable a successful long-term product and UX commitment that would truly see the light of day for regular usage. They also bring justifiable value in terms of expertise, creativity, and altogether humanistic sense that's inherent to the practice—and that's worth fighting for!

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Afterward, our discussion made me realize how the blurriness of roles is both inevitable and valuable—if we consider the range of models of engagement between UX and product. While both are ostensibly guided by a desire to improve the customer's life or job, there's a different set of lenses and attitudes applied along the way: One is distinctly (by virtue of organizational accountability) about business revenue and market viability targets, with expert training in areas per a typical MBA-based education. While the other is guided by strands of purity in the pursuit of understanding human behavior and cognitive models, cultural and social appropriateness, and aspirations of aesthetic vitality. And yet, here we are—caught in a fraught balance, joined by common aims. So how do we interact for the better, and keep our sanity too?

If we work separately but in parallel, this might yield minimal daily awkward friction but will likely lead to collisions of decisions and ill-informed choices downstream, a "hairball of confusions" and conflicts when it comes time to finalize and ship, and of course, validate with those customers: Did we build the right thing?!

If we work in an overlapping manner, there's the matter of delicately, carefully dancing, whereby give and take is needed to ensure minimal stepping on toes. That means learning how to take turns leading when it comes to matters of the product direction and how that is informed by user empathy and HCI principles. And vice versa with regard to a UX vision, framework, or system that scales to future features, per commercial roadmaps. This requires trust and candor in the relationship to enable productive dancing, as it were.

If we work in a more directly collaborative, or really, triangulatory manner (riffing on the "three-legged stool" model of having engineering in the mix), then we heighten the probability of having increasingly informed decisions made with a better sense for downstream consequences (intended or not). The back and forth should energize spirited debates that lead to stronger rationales and convictions for choices.

What's apparent regardless of approach is one essential ingredient: dialogue! Constant, open, trusting, respectful communication ensures a stronger, healthier, effective relationship that goes a long way toward getting the right thing built, for the right reasons, in the right way, and that still satisfies the common aim we're all striving for: successful, satisfied customers who use the product to improve their work or life in some measurable way. So, yes, while the boundaries are increasingly blurry, candor, trust, and respect—with a healthy dose of mutual empathy—can help suss out areas of impact along that fuzzy boundary. What that looks like will vary, of course, per context and individual, and likely changes in the course of the lifecycle of a product/design journey as well, both organizationally and functionally. But that's fine. This blurriness is not a threat or risk—it's an opportunity to shape a relationship toward what matters most: how we best work together and become a force multiplier together. A hint of humility and willingness to let things go a bit can help too! And this is where we can model that positive behavior, and be valued for that.

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Uday Gajendar (ghostinthepixel.com) has been a prolific UX designer and leader for more than 15 years, shipping designs for PayPal, Facebook, Citrix, Adobe, and others. He also enjoys coaching startups on UX fundamentals. udanium@gmail.com

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