XXI.1 January - February 2014
Page: 74
Digital Citation

Introducing the business of UX

Daniel Rosenberg

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Welcome to The Business of UX, a new forum launching this issue in conjunction with the design update of Interactions magazine itself. This forum will focus on UX leadership challenges in the product and service design industries. While the forum is not intended to be industry specific, it will initially highlight enterprise software, consumer apps, online education, and medical device/service design. All of these industries operate in a fast-paced world where technologies, products, and markets continue their evolution at increasing speed. In addition to technology advancements, the UX design tools and HCI research methods we use also evolve yearly.

This is a world where disruption is the norm. UX success is often glorious but also less frequent than deserved, given our professional best efforts over more than three decades of practice. It is also a world where UX matters more and more each day, for the quality of the products we create, for how they can improve people's lives, and for the viability of the companies that employ us.

I am delighted the editors-in-chief requested that I edit this forum. Over a 33-year executive career leading industry UX teams, I have contributed many articles to Interactions on business-related topics, including the infamous "Myths of Usability ROI" (September 2004), as well as guest-edited an entire issue on business leadership (June 2007). More recent articles include "UX Globalization" (December 2011) and "Bridging the CEO Credibility Gap" (March 2013), published in the Evaluation and Usability forum. My Interactions blog focuses on similar themes. This new forum will provide our community of interest with a regular presence in the magazine.

This inaugural article previews some of the complex UX leadership topics that practitioners face in the corporate world. Expect only introductory coverage here. Solutions, debate, and discussion will follow as the forum progresses, with a series of guest authors from both UX and business leadership positions around the world. As is typical of all leadership challenges, there are no "one size fits all" solutions. Everything is contextual, and my expectation is that authors will frequently disagree and, above all, respectfully debate a wide range of approaches to each issue for the benefit of the community. Our readership will be left to determine which best practices are most relevant to their own circumstances.

The initial set of topics is drawn from my recent executive and consulting experiences. It begins with one identified in my Interactions blog in June 2013.

back to top  Topic 1: The UX Ownership Battle

With the wide recognition and accompanying financial success of design-driven companies such as BMW, Disney, and Apple, the global CEO community has woken up to the potential market leverage that can be achieved through excellent user experience. At the same time, they struggle to understand how this can be achieved. In fact, in just one month of 2012, I heard the CEOs of three separate companies publicly state that "delivering excellent user experience [was their] number one priority." Only one of those CEOs funded an expansion of their UX organization in the following months.

One solution on the horizon is to fill the design leadership gap in the boardroom with recent MBAs in design strategy. Several business schools now grant degree specializations in design strategy. One example can be found at the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University.

There have been divergent points of view on how to optimize UX ownership for a long time. This discussion is further compounded by the fact that many companies have created "C-level" positions such as chief customer officer or chief design officer, sometimes with no line-management authority.

Successful UX leaders will acknowledge that they are simply part of the value-delivery chain along with the traditional disciplines of marketing, product management, and development. No UX team brings a product to market alone. In fact, many UX executives argue that the entire company has to feel deeply responsible for UX quality or results will always be suboptimal. The counter-argument is that a company with a mature build-to-spec culture needs only a small A+ quality UX team to dominate a market.

However, whichever discipline, from the design side to the business side of a company, is setting the overall corporate user experience agenda has a pronounced but not necessarily predictable influence on outcomes.

Is the emerging trend of MBAs in design strategy good or bad for the future of UX as a standalone profession? How can UX leaders place themselves and their teams in the most relevant organizational position to contribute to overall business success?

When UX practitioners rise to the level of chief product officer, is there really a need or a place for a VP of UX inside the typical corporate hierarchy?

back to top  Topic 2: Surviving Agile—Redux!

After a decade and a half of living with Agile development methods, the UX community is still struggling to find its equilibrium. An editorial I wrote for User Experience magazine (April 2010) entitled "Garbage in, Garbage out, the Agile Way" provides a clue to my inherent bias on this subject. At the same time, I have seen the shift to Agile significantly benefit both quality and speed at several companies.

One of the inherent challenges Agile places on UX is that the language of user-centered design (e.g., epics and user stories) has been co-opted independent of user research investment that would ensure actual understanding of user needs and desires before engineering begins. When this happens, the illusion of user requirements exists but not the reality. Company executives without an HCI background assume the user stories (and personas) are fact when in reality they are more like fiction. This discrepancy becomes apparent only when it is too late, as a new product fails to gain traction in the marketplace.

There is general agreement within the UX community that we have lost traction with regard to meaningful user research execution and that UX design also suffers within the typical two-week time-boxed sprints of Agile methods.

Some UX leaders continue to assert that the "sprint zero" approach to UX planning within Agile is the key to reempowerment. At some point, starting 10 sprints ahead on UX design starts to look like 1990s-style waterfall software development. Others, including Jonathan Arnowitz (see "Taking the Fast Ride: Designing While Being Agile," Interactions, July-August 2013), propose an alternative methodology with Agile-like benefits but more suited to high quality UX delivery.


Do you agree this Agile paradox still remains? What has been your experience?

back to top  Topic 3: The Design Thinking Movement

Design thinking (DT) can be simultaneously viewed as a philosophy, a methodology, and a value-creation model. It is formally taught in "dSchools," most prominently at the interdisciplinary programs at Stanford and Potsdam (near Berlin) universities and also in emerging centers in India and China. DT is not focused specifically on UX. It is a creative problem-solving approach rooted in a model of human empathy, brainstorming methods, prototyping, and iteration.

DT's diversity of participants and its non-role-specific approach to team problem solving places all participants, regardless of professional background, into a research, prototype, design, and validation iteration loop. One common side effect is a loss of identity (and perhaps perceived) influence for UX professionals within the corporate ecosystem when everyone becomes "a designer."

In addition, the generalist nature of the DT movement contradicts to some degree the premise of MBA in design strategy programs mentioned earlier. These MBA programs epitomize a model of specialization by formally separating "design doing" execution from the corporate design strategy function.

Is DT a failed experiment, as claimed by Bruce Nussbaum, one of its founders? What can UX practitioners learn from it? What are the side effects? The August 2013 issue of the Design Management Institute's quarterly journal was entirely dedicated to debating this question.

Should there be a UX-specific point of view design thinking?

back to top  Topic 4: Federated UX or "Centralized" UX?

The birth of HCI as a professionally employed practice can loosely be traced to coincide with the first CHI and Interact conferences held approximately 35 years ago. Much has changed since those early days in our scientific understanding of user experience. Even more has changed with regard to technology. We have collectively ridden the curve of Moore's Law many times. In addition, we have adapted to various management trends during this period, such as the matrix-management wave and the trendy two-in-a-box co-leadership model.

The UX profession has always been fond of self-reflection through the creation of maturity models. There are dozens of well-established UX degree-granting programs worldwide with a fundamentally common curriculum. We also now have practitioners with decades of management experience. Is it time for a new maturity model, brought up to date with current corporate realities such as globalization?

One trend I both witnessed and participated in over the past decade is the deconstruction of large, centralized UX teams. This occurred at Microsoft, Oracle, Google, Yahoo, and SAP, to name just a few. UX organizational management discussions at conferences such as CHI often describe this trend as decentralization, but for the most part that is not what has actually happened. The most typical results are bifurcation into smaller line of business (LOB)-focused UX teams more tightly coupled to development. This is a configuration better described as federated UX. Often a smaller "central" team remains for corporate coordination purposes such a brand visual design and standards. However, just as often the corporate-level UX issues are handled through a peer-to-peer network of LOB UX leaders.

The federated UX team approach has some clear political and speed advantages. At the same time, it also can disempower the UX leadership community unless these same UX leaders frequently rise to broader business roles such as CPO or engineering VP positions. But general UX corporate empowerment predicated on any single individual's trajectory up the corporate ladder should not be confused with institutionally structured empowerment of UX as a peer function to marketing, for example, with a designated UX leadership position at the table.

Is federated the mature condition for UX or just the current phase? Could UX skills eventually become so ubiquitous that true decentralization down to the solo embedded individual contributor within each Agile team will become the norm in the next decade?

back to top  Topic 5: Certification and Licensing

Architects, civil and mechanical engineers, not to mention doctors and lawyers, practice under state or federal licensing. Industrial designers do not. At the same time, almost all products and services that could be life threatening involve some aspect of interaction design and usability.

The mere mention of UX professional certification draws extreme points of views, both pro and con. There are also competing organizations vying for ownership of a UX certification process. The most prominent and established of these is the Ergonomics and Human Factors Society's BCPE program. It is over a decade old. The Usability Professionals Association has debated at times whether to establish its own program, as has the ACM SIGCHI special interest group.

There are also private organizations, such as Human Factors International (a consulting firm), that grant their own Certified Usability Analyst or Certified Experience Analyst credential based on an intensive two-week course.

Is certification a valid approach to improving UX practitioner quality given the diversity of sub-specialties in play within the broader definition of the field? Would it be better to have one general certification or many separate UX specialty versions? If so, would this certification best come from professional organizations or private companies?

back to top  Topics 6-100: Insert Your Ideas Here

The list of potential Business of UX forum topics is inexhaustible.

In the coming decade, UX practitioners will face challenges of greater complexity and importance (e.g., global sustainability) than those of the previous three decades. And we will be called upon to solve them in the high-velocity environment of technological change compounded by continued corporate merger and acquisition turbulence. In fact, surviving M&A for UX leaders is an obvious sixth topic for a forum contribution. M&A's effect on UX teams has been the subject of several CHI conference panels in recent years. There is a body of best practice on this topic to be shared.

The last goal of this inaugural article is to request your direct participation both online and through guest authorship in the print edition. When there is an appropriate topic that you feel passionate about based on your own personal leadership experience, reach out and pitch the article for inclusion in the forum series. The opportunity to share our experiences and solutions is the best way forward to raise the overall standing and success of UX practitioners worldwide.

My hope is that The Business of UX forum will become an exciting and reliable place to exchange ideas on how to create and nurture our UX leadership community so it continues to grow, prosper, and successfully carry the UX torch forward in the world of commerce—for decades to come. Please join me on this journey.

back to top  Author

Daniel Rosenberg recently founded rCDO UX LLC (], a UX strategy firm serving C-level executives and industry UX leaders in defining competitive design strategies and executing them. He led global UX design at SAP, Oracle, Borland, and Ashton-Tate over the previous decades and has authored many well-known publications in the HCI field.

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Post Comment

@Monica Granfield (2014 01 13)

I am very excited to have this topic out in the community and to follow the great conversations that I am hoping are a result of this column!