Fresh: ask Doctor Usability

XIV.5 September + October 2007
Page: 9
Digital Citation

Chain of command

Dr. Usability

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Dear Dr. Usability,

I recently interviewed at a company with a small design team, and they asked me where I thought user-interface work should report in the company. I have about five years of experience, and my team has mostly reported through the engineering management chain. Whenever there was a dispute between one of us designers and an engineer, the engineer won. Every time. At one point I reported in through product marketing, but that didn't last long enough for me to tell whether it was a good idea. Is there any structure that works?

Beleaguered in Belgrade

Dear Be,

The structure that works is reporting to neither product marketing nor engineering—they are not only all the collaborateurs, but also the enemy. You must remain on equal ground. This can be done only if there is a senior designer on equal footing with the head of marketing and the head of engineering. If there is a VP of engineering and a VP of marketing, then you need a VP of user experience who sits at the same table and has the same level of accountability. If your company has a CTO and a CFO, then you need a Chief Design Officer (CDO). Otherwise the fight is not fair. In fact, you are just wasting your time, their time, and my time (and my readers' time).

Doc U

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Dear Dr. Usability,

My boss keeps stepping in and changing things. We've just about finished our product (we're fixing bugs), and now he wants design changes! I told him it's too late, and he went ballistic and said he had the right to change things (well, he does, he's at the top of the company). But how do I get him to understand that it doesn't matter what I design, there's still no time for engineering to do the job and get it right? Won't this make a mess of things?

At Their Mercy in Redwood City, CA

Dear Mercy,

Well, there are two ways to look at this:

No. 1: Assuming you are correct in your design assumptions and your boss is a very busy person with definite ideas and opinions on everything, just agree with him and prototype it. Then leave it to him to get the engineers to build it. This is a win-win situation. He gets to see the design, and he can show the prototype to a customer or analyst. Of course, he doesn't get the product the way he wants it, but hopefully you'll have a different job by then. Or you can simply claim that you misunderstood.

No. 2: Your boss may be a design moron, but he pays your salary. You can stand on ceremony and refuse to do the idiotic, but only if a) you are sure you are right (are you sure?) and you will be saving the company from an enduring embarrassment, or b) you need that extra little push to get back into the job market and start interviewing. How do you decide? Depends on whether you have a mortgage to pay.

Of course, if your boss is the engineering manager, it's his problem anyway.

Doc U

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©2007 ACM  1072-5220/07/0900  $5.00

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