Is the working model between your company’s user experience, product management, and development teams functioning perfectly? Have you already established a user-centered design (UCD) process that flows smoothly to create excellent products with every release? If you can answer “yes” to both questions, you probably don’t need to continue reading this article. Unfortunately, most readers will not answer in the affirmative since the relationship between these departments often leaves room for improvement. A key management challenge for effective collaboration is finding alignment on a shared set of goals. Many times this alignment can be achieved as a side effect of UCD process adoption, but it requires a level of leadership beyond regular management skill on the part of the user experience organization.
Over the past decade both the nature of customer expectations and the process for the development of software has changed. Many companies have identified the need to better serve their customers, especially end users, because the decision to buy business software is often no longer made by the CIO, but by the departments that use the software themselves. These users have a keen interest in the effectiveness and productivity that the product provides. At the same time, the software development process in most companies has not changed. In many companies the engineering department continues to decide which features and functions are implemented without real end user involvement. In addition, defining the needs of users is frequently the formal responsibility of a product management or marketing organization. Yet these teams are often primarily focused on outbound communications, supporting existing customers and sales launch activities, not user research.
The user experience team in this typical situation often plays a more important role in the development process, bridging the gap between product management and development and representing the real end users’ task-specific requirements. The team becomes the user’s advocate, but at the same time may not achieve as deep an understanding of the product domain as needed to fully play this role.
In an ideal collaborative model, product managers with direct user research data and deep domain knowledge create accurate use cases that describe the user requirements. Then UX specialists transfer these requirements into superior UI designs that meet a full range of additional corporate requirements for suite behavioral consistency, corporate look and feel, and accessibility. In addition, they do the necessary validation activities with users of these designs.
This new working model requires rethinking some old practices and behaviors: The mind-set of many people within an organization must change. As the manager of a user experience team, you have the opportunity to provide the leadership for this change and be the catalyst to institutionalize a user-centered design process that creates a truly collaborative relationship across all three critical corporate functions.
What can you, as the user experience team leader, do to establish a strong relationship with product management and development, and how can you institutionalize the UCD process? Here are some ideas:
- Product managers and user interface designers and developers have to work as one team and share the same goals. User experience design is a creative task. Finding the right balance between vision and technical feasibility is always challenging. To succeed as a team, it is important to build good team spirit. This will make collaboration and communication much easier.
- Provide a clear UCD process description with defined deliverables so that everybody knows what is expected. Also, create easy-to-use templates and best practices to improve the acceptance by the people who need to follow them.
- Define clear roles and responsibilities across organizational boundaries. Without this clear division of labor, you will experience the phenomenon of product managers or developers creating competing designs without UI team involvement. Make it clear to everybody within the team what is expected from each team member and how responsibilities are defined and distributed, and also when they overlap.
- Understand the needs of product managers as well as those of developers, and help them to become successful. Let them experience the value of user-centered design by taking them out to customers and end users. People learn much better by experiencejust “preaching” UCD does not help. Often, product managers have a market research background but are not familiar with user research. User research will help product managers get accurate data and enable them to better communicate with developers.
- Involving developers early in the process will also help them to get a better understanding of the user requirements and lead them to respect real data collected in the field.
- Set up pilot projects with teams that consist of product managers, user interface designers, and developers to learn and prove the value of user-centered design. Successful projects will help convince management as well as the people participating in the project. Use these people as multipliers to convince others in the organization to follow the approach.
- Enable product managers, user interface designers, and developers to successfully execute the process by providing training and coaching (i.e., a site visit and “how to write good use cases” training). Many people in the organization are not familiar with UCD methodologies, and even if they have had previous exposure, new people join the organization over the course of the project, so the educational refresh process must be an ongoing one.
- Define use cases as mandatory deliverables for product management. You should not start designing the UI without knowing the main goals and tasks of the user. To ensure high-quality use cases, talk to customers and end users, review existing applications, understand competitive offerings, review results of prior usability tests, and interview support organization representatives maintaining existing products about problem areas in the UIs.
- Prioritize use cases, and focus on high quality for the most important and most frequent use cases. Not every use case has the same priority.
Only the user experience team can lead the process of institutionalizing a UCD process within a company. As the UX leader, you need to be visible and sell UCD within your organization. However, the context for this process needs to be set up as a win-win situation for all parties, not a competition.
Once the process is in place, it will require continued nurturing and support. You should regularly report end-user test results to all levels of the organization; executive management is very appreciative of getting early feedback. Using videos to visualize end user impressions is much more effective with an executive audience. In contrast, the detailed quantitative measurement of defined UX goals should be the basis for discussion with product management and development. Agreement in advance is also required for key performance metrics (i.e., time on task, error rates) on the most important use cases. This will facilitate the discussion and maintain common goals.
How long will it take to establish and live the UCD process by heart in a large organization? The answer is simple: It will take years to change the way a large organization works. You constantly have to learn and adapt the process to the individual needs of the organization. You always have to think about and articulate how UCD makes product managers and developers more successful. If they see a benefit, they will follow the UCD process, provided you cast the whole process as a win-win situation and not a confrontational one over who owns the user experience.
However, in the end, like all management challenges, it is not a question of having the best process in place. It is more a question of mind-set and building successful relationships between product managers, user interface designers, and developers. They have to share the same goals in a meaningful way in order to work as one team.
About the Author
Andreas Hauser is director of user experience at SAP in the area of research and breakthrough innovation. Since 2002 he has led a global user experience team, focusing on mid-market applications solutions. He studied business information technology and started working at SAP in 1991. He was responsible for integrating Computer Aided Design systems with SAP business software, as well as building enterprise portal-based business solutions.
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