The most important decision that design managers make is how to structure their organization. Designs often reflect the structure of the organizations that create them. Unlike “art” or “pure research,” when designing a product or service in a business context, the user experience (UX) designer must consider divergent factors and try to solve them in an optimal fashion. The same holds true when defining the appropriate organizational model for a UX team.
As any experienced designer knows, before attempting to solve a problem, it is important to examine your underlying assumptions. What is it that UX designers do? What does it mean to design an experience? We must answer these questions before we can define the boundaries and relationships between our work and that of other functions typically found in technology companies.
What does it mean to design the user experience? There is a surprising lack of consensus on what design means in high-technology companies and within the UX community itself. In my view, designing is the creation of prototypes and specifications that describe the user’s experience when interacting with a product or service. It is important to note that this includes both form (physical shape and/or appearance) and function (how a product or service interacts with the user) since many outside our field believe that design is limited to aesthetics alone.
Is user research part of UX design? Yes. In accordance with the accepted best practices known commonly as “user-centered design,” a UX team includes a user research function. Any research conducted to support the definition and refinement of design prototypes and specifications should be considered part of the design process. In my experience, the more removed the user research function is from the day-to-day design team, the less effective the team becomes. Objective research serves to focus design efforts and prevents delusions of success rooted in ego and false confidence.
Separating requirements analysis from user-centered design is another challenge in many organizational contexts [9, 12]. This is because user-centered design emphasizes the definition of requirements, or utility, from the user’s perspective. This implies the need for user research, and more often than not, a designed prototype to be evaluated. High-level requirements (e.g., create a portable music player suitable for playing digital media files) generally related to business objectives (increase revenues by expanding into consumer electronics) may be informed by a user-centered design process (would users use such a thing?), but they are not the primary output of the UX function. Derived “usability requirements,” on the other hand (e.g., task completion rates) certainly fall within the scope of the UX role.
What skills? While every business is unique, patterns exist that correspond to the types of products or services produced. If you produce hardware (cell phones, gaming consoles, etc.), you need industrial designers. If you produce websites, you need skilled visual/interaction designers who understand the Web as a medium, how it differs from print, and how people tend to behave when interacting with it. However, hiring individuals with these skills alone will not enable you to create great experiences. For that you need a team. Let us examine why this is true.
Innovation comes from diversity. Most experts in the field of design and innovation agree that creating highly collaborative multidisciplinary teams is critical when trying to create breakthrough products and user experiences [2, 3, 5, 10]. As Norman points out, “At least six skills are needed, and they are almost never found in the same person” . Tom Kelly of IDEO uses the analogy of a carpenter’s toolbox: “...you don’t need every person on every project, and certainly not at every moment…you seldom need all the tools at once, but the perfect kit of tools is a set where you use all of them pretty frequently” . Chapanis, an early pioneer in human factors, also emphasized the importance of having diversity in teams, arguing that having specialists with divergent perspectives improves decision making when considering trade-offs during complex systems design .
Understanding what is behind the success of interdisciplinary teams is important. When Benet developed the first IQ test almost 100 years ago, psychologists thought of intelligence as one-dimensional. Many managers today still naively consider one-dimensional intelligence a valid notion despite the fact that psychology has since advanced its understanding of intellectual capacity. Howard Gardner claims there are at least eight differing types of intelligence  as represented in Figure 1.
Gardner and other proponents of multiple intelligence theory [1, 13] suggest it is extremely rare for an individual to be gifted in more than one of these dimensions. He suggests pairing individuals with others who have complementary strengths to create great teams. The interdisciplinary team is a strong pattern among those organizations with a history of repeated innovation, such as Xerox PARC, SRI, MIT’s Media Lab, and the labs of Thomas Edison [4, 5, 8]. Such environments facilitate the synthesis of different perspectives on the same problem, creating a team more intelligent than any single individual could ever hope to be.
What skills are needed to support the design of software applications? I would propose thinking about the problem along the following six dimensions, varying investment in each depending on the organizational circumstances shown in Figure 2.
This type of visualization can be very effective when analyzing the needs of your company, explaining UX functions, and asking for additional resources. A well-designed UX team acts like a neuron. Members with specialized expertise should be collaborating with related functional areas across the organization, like dendrites tapping into the corporate nervous system, feeding information into the design process. Like a neuron, such an organization will grow more efficient and effective as it adapts to operational needs over time. Acting like a business and adapting to meet the needs of your circumstances is the key to success. Hire staff with the skills for what you need to produce, and optimize based on the demands of the organization and to meet your long-term strategic UX goals.
Your job as leader of a UX team is much like that of a movie director [5, 11]: Your most important task is casting the right actors and getting them to work together as a team to meet the needs of both the business and the users. Cross training staff by exposing them to other UX disciplines (and adjacent organizational functions) makes teams stronger. Our most important task as UX managers is to design the organizations that will shape the future.
About the Author
Jon Innes is director of user experience at Intuit, the company responsible for Quicken, TurboTax, and QuickBooks, where he leads teams working on new product designs for health care and online banking. Prior to Intuit, he managed teams at SAP, Vitria and Siebel. He has designed and evaluated user interfaces for Cisco, Oracle, Symantec and IBM. Jon holds a master’s degree in engineering psychology and is a member of UPA, HFES, and ACM CHI/BayCHI.
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