Whose profession is it anyway?

XII.3 May + June 2005
Page: 18
Digital Citation

Who owns UX?

Dirk Knemeyer

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As interesting and inspiring as our dialogue about user experience (UX) is, we are still not asking the right questions. Ownership of UX has nothing to do with project teams or professional disciplines or job titles. Most—if not all—of the people reading this publication and discussing the issue are not yet in a position to own UX.

So, who does own UX? The business decision makers. The CEOs who set the vision and direction for their organizations. The VPs who approve budgets. The directors and managers who spend those budgets. Even the HR people who screen potential hires.

The path to better UX runs through those decision makers. The essential question facing us should be: How can we influence those people, or how we can become those people? That is where the ability to change things truly lies. That is where the role and importance of UX will ultimately play out.

Of course, there is value to UX practitioners and stakeholders developing process, principles, and best practices. Even in organizations that value and invest in UX, the quality of the user experience for digital products is often not what it could be. But by indulging in the perpetual naval-gazing of defining what we do, rather than setting our sights on changing the thinking of decision makers or becoming decision makers, we limit ourselves to making incremental changes in UX while time continues to pass.

So let's change the dialogue and focus on accomplishing the two most important things: shaping minds and perceptions, and moving upstream in the decision-making process.

Ways to Shape Minds and Perceptions. No matter how well we structure our project teams and regardless of the quality or potential effectiveness of the work that we do, it is ostensibly another—often disengaged—person in the process who ultimately approves or rejects our work. How can we shape his or her thinking?

Return on investment — Show a direct, causal relationship between the quality of user experience and the financial investment being made in it.

Comparative selling — Companies are accustomed to dumping large sums of money into other things, ranging from advertising to IT, without necessarily seeing a real return on their investment. If we can show a return from user experience, we can successfully sell UX against other expenditures.

The right relationships — Politics are a big part of the workplace. Our friends (and enemies), how we are perceived, and whose ear we have will often have a bigger impact than our knowledge and ability. Take how you are positioned seriously.

Show internal value — User experience matters. Internal stakeholders appreciate a good user experience. Do good work, and let people know that it is user experience. The more they enjoy and recognize it, the more apt they are to value it.

Show external value — Research is a big part of UX. Our external audiences appreciate strong user experiences, and we are usually in a position to capture and communicate their feedback. We need to do so—then share users' feedback in a convincing way with key internal stakeholders.

Moving Upstream in the Decision-Making Process. This can be more difficult to achieve if only because of our personal preferences and comfort levels. In my experience, UX professionals are typically less concerned with positions of power and responsibility and general business success, and more concerned with perfecting their craft, working on successful projects, and being engaged by interesting work. These motivations are often anathema to traditional business success. But we do have some options:

Change our thinking — At some point, the level of frustration over not controlling our own destinies inevitably eclipses our natural preferences. At that point—if not earlier—we should begin to focus on moving up the corporate ladder.

Go back to school — Bentley College in Boston has a program that offers joint MBA/MS degrees in Human Factors and Information Design. This is only one example of higher education synthesizing business and user experience design. Think about getting another degree, perhaps even an MBA.

Start your own business — The nature of business is changing, with more work being contracted out as opposed to staying in-house. Consider leaving the traditional corporate structure and starting your own business. By virtue of owning your own company, you gain credibility with the very people you want to influence. Executives and managers seek you out as the trusted expert who can solve their user experience strategy and design challenges.

These approaches frame the task that lies before us, and show how we can individually participate in changing the role and impact of UX. The current conversation about 'who owns UX' is interesting and a definite sign of progress, but we cannot lose sight of where the real brass ring lies: with decision makers.

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Dirk Knemeyer
Involution Studios LLC

About the Author:

Dirk is a founding principal of Involution Studios LLC, a digital product design firm located in Silicon Valley and Boston. He is responsible for running the company and providing consulting, design, and training services for clients around the world. Prior to starting Involution Studios, Dirk was the chief design officer at Thread Inc., an information design firm that built enterprise applications for major corporations, including General Motors. Dirk is on the executive committee for the User Experience Network (UXnet) and on the board of directors for both the International Institute for Information Design and the AIGA Center for Brand Experience.

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