As user experience professionals in management roles, we inevitably need to work with the top executives within our companies. User experience professionals have the skills and tools to contribute a unique and valuable perspective about a company's customers and users, as well as the ability to translate this into meaningful products. This is of high strategic value to a company, and it is essential that all UX professionals know how to effectively communicate with top-level executive management. This is essential for the designated UX leader in a management role.
There is no standard way that user experience teams are positioned across the software industry. Some companies have a user experience executive (VP level) who reports directly to the CEO or another senior executive, and user experience is an established part of the corporate process and culture. Others may have a team that is embedded within another function such as development or product management and therefore has its efforts combined with the general delivery of that organization. In the case of a startup or small company, the CEO could be in the next cube, popping his head over the wall every hour to check on progress and directly comment on screen design. In spite of these differences, some general principles apply.
A continuing challenge for those of us in the software industry is that design (and its associated activities) is just now fully coming of age. Design, usability testing, and wants and needs analysis have been an accepted and central part of the corporate culture in many traditional and mature product industries, such as BMW, Philips, and Sony, for a long time. Over the past five years, more software companies have increased their investment in their user experience organizations. As software is increasingly commoditized, the days when technology and features were sufficient to sell a product are gone. How a user interface adds to a user's total experience with a product, both in terms of productivity and emotional delight, has become a key differentiator.
The first principle in working with executives is to understand what is truly important to them. Consider first that every executive is held accountable by their own management chain or by a board of directors to make a profitable product on time and within budget. If they fail to do so not only will an executive's career suffer, the company may not succeed either.
At a senior level, these are the people who define the corporate strategy, what products to sell, what markets to compete in, and which companies to buy when necessary to fulfill a product portfolio. To them, the user experience is just one factor, albeit an important one, in this strategy. It may be that they want something really cool, or something that kills the competition, or improves the process, or educates the organization. In many cases design may not be the problem; product positioning or pricing may come first.
The second principle is to ensure that executives' expectations are realistic. In an increasing number of cases, the executives understand the importance of user experience and are willing to set and fund a strategy of excellence in this area. However, even if they are willing to make user experience a primary goal, they must be willing to incorporate the user-centered design process into the overall development process, as this will result in a higher probability that a product meets the customer's needs and expectations. Organizations that are just maturing frequently do not understand what is truly required to deliver the kind of user interface they want and the trade-offs they must make. User experience leaders must understand technology, timescales, and the ability of their organization to make the required changes, and then communicate clearly and repeatedly at the executive level regarding all of these dimensions.
The third principle is to make sure that the designs you present are based on real organizational, user, and customer research. These recommendations should clearly demonstrate the balance between expectations and the resources (people, time, and scope) that are needed to create a successful product. A key component here is to demonstrate that you have taken the time to understand what is important, that you understand their processes, that your solutions leverage as much of the current infrastructure as possible, and that the solutions add both benefit and savings. Keep the discussions away from opinion and "anecdotal evidence" and focused on the user and the documented customer needs. Going to an executive with a prototype of what you think the company should build is not as powerful as presenting customer interviews and wants and needs data gathered from site visits to the company's biggest or most important customers, complete with a UI design prototype that embodies this research.
The fourth principle is to approach your executive colleagues as partners in their success. In the past, user experience teams have often done themselves a disservice by coming into established organizations and criticizing existing processes and products. Although many of the criticisms are valid, UX managers often do not set these observations in a context from which the existing organization can easily grow. You must be seen as invested in the success of the team, in order to be an asset rather than a liability.
The fifth principle is to persist until you get the outcome that the company needs to be competitive and successful. It is possible (although unlikely!) that you can get full immediate executive support to reorganize the whole engineering process, and for the company to take a gamble on this, but typically even the most abrupt revolution will require a certain amount of planning, either before or, most certainly, after. Working with C-level executives is not about glory and personal visibility; it's about getting the job done repeatedly over an intense product development cycle.
In the end, your success as a leader and manager in the user experience discipline is deeply intertwined with the success of your C-level corporate executives. Understanding what skills you have to offer the company and how best to exercise them within the company's existing culture is the key to mutual success.
About the Author
Jeremy Ashley is vice president of applications user experience at Oracle, USA. He is a member of the CHI Design Management committee and the Design Managers Institute. Formally trained as an industrial designer, Jeremy has advanced degrees from the Glasgow School of Art and the Royal College of Art in London.
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