The UX ownership war is over … and we have lost!

Authors: Daniel Rosenberg
Posted: Tue, July 16, 2013 - 10:53:45

In previous blogs and many interactions articles and columns over the years I have articulated my concerns over the UX profession’s general inability to penetrate to the core of business leadership. Richard Anderson added his own theory to this legacy in his blog “What Holds UX Back?

I had a profound experience last week, which unfortunately pushed me over to the dark side regarding my perpetually optimistic perspective on how UX design professionals will eventually take a place of equal rank in the boardroom.

Let me frame the situation…

I was on an east coast business trip last week working with one of my clients, a startup named WellDoc that has created an FDA class-4-certified mobile app for managing type 2 diabetes. Look it up. Doctors prescribe it and your insurance company reimburses the monthly subscription cost! It will save billions. Following the advice this app’s expert system provides as it tracks your lifestyle data has been proven to lower blood glucose levels more than some of the most popular diabetes medications. This is an amazing, cutting-edge business model. It to took a bunch of brilliant physicians, clinicians, and business people a decade to make this fly. The actual software engineering and UX designs were among the least complicated part of bringing this product to market. (Full disclosure: My wife and I, and some other family members, are investors in this company.)

Now to event that triggered the title of this blog…

During the course of the day a 30-something product manager that I have been working with on a different medical app for about three months casually mentioned that he is starting an MBA program in “human-centered design” at the Johns Hopkins University’s Carey School of Business. Formally this program was known as the MBA in design leadership. It is run in collaboration with the Maryland Institute College of Art. However, Johns Hopkins is the degree-granting institution. 

Nathan Shedroff at the California College of the Arts (CCA) established a similar program several years ago called the MBA in design strategy. When I first heard about this idea I did not panic because Nathan (as most readers will know) is a world-class designer and design thought leader and CCA is not a business school. 

Unfortunately, from my perspective, as big name business schools jump on board the “design leadership MBA” trend the future ownership of the UX agenda will become the provenance of people not trained as designers or HCI specialists but of people who have never actually practiced design. At least they will employ designers,

In the end you might say that this trend simply reflects the maturation of design as a core competitive business value proposition from which we will all as consumers benefit in the end. But is this the path to ubiquitously great product design?

Who do you think the typical CEO is going to listen to, the guy from Harvard with the MBA in design leadership already seated at the table or the creative genius in the hallway with purple hair and body piercings sporting an MFA from the Royal College?

Game, set, and match over!

Daniel Rosenberg is Chief Design Officer at rCDOUX LLC

Posted in: on Tue, July 16, 2013 - 10:53:45

Daniel Rosenberg

Daniel Rosenberg is Chief Design Officer at rCDOUX LLC.
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@David (2013 07 17)

I share your concerns, Daniel.

Last week I was interviewed for about interaction design. The article was fantastic actually… but the kick off question was the same as always: how can biz people ‘do’ interaction design?

The fact is that IxD is a profession like any other, was my answer. That said there’s plenty of things biz people can do to stand in for IxDs while they’re hiring one.

Despite the truth of what you say and my own experiences,  I’m not so sure the episode you recount indicates the final battle in the war. On the contrary I would say it opens another valuable front in the struggle to assert the importance, methods, and results of interaction design.

While you’re undoubtedly correct that it (a) will suck hard to sit across the table from an MBA who pretends he knows the difference between a radio button and a check box and collects a big fat check at the end of the year for his troubles… it is also true that (b) designers living near Johns Hopkins, et al, should march over to that school and get on the faculty and/or get in the program and make a difference.

This is an infinite game, not a finite game. Keep on truckin’!

~David Fore

The road is long. These are still early days.

@Ellen B (2013 07 18)

Nice article & a good topic to raise.

My take: yes but no but yes but no. 😊  IMHO the UX agenda hasn’t really been owned by trained designers in the first place. I think it’s a win and a noble experiment to try to train design-focused MBAs.

First, there aren’t enough of us in the pipelines to have reached significant across-the-board leadership positions specifically in the tech industry. Most of those programs have been around for 10 or 15 years (I’m from CMU HCI’s 2nd graduating undergrad class).

Second, companies are so starved for raw production design skills that designers are seen as desperately-needed producers of interaction and visuals, but aren’t “needed” to contribute strategic vision: there are plenty of MBAs for that. You’ve usually got so damn much work to do that sitting in the meetings and negotiating for this or that feature is not how you’re allowed to use your time.

Third, designers seem less likely to have the skillsets that most companies see as necessary for strategic product leadership: this includes marketing, market research, raw business analysis, plus the “soft skills” of political leadership, negotiation, etc. Because designers’ speciality skills are in such demand they aren’t particularly given the space to develop these other skills the way, say, an APM is required to develop them.

Great design simply doesn’t happen solely because of the design talent. It also takes leadership that prioritize design at the highest levels — the CEO on down. Leadership has to say “we’re devoting these three engineers to polishing the UI.” “We’re spending the money on usability tests / ethnography.” “We’re going to hire some fucking brilliant designers and stay the hell out of their way.” “We’re going to spend money on the nice packaging.” “We’re going to have a great customer service department.” “We’re not going to ship the product until this is AWESOME.”

Someone who is a designer isn’t necessarily the person who has to be doing this. Someone who is an MBA but values & understands design — can be.

I think if you want to *strategically* impact user experience you shouldn’t be a designer in today’s tech climate & I don’t think there are enough of us to change things yet. You should be a product manager who has a strong background in user-centered design and UX. There’s a glass ceiling for designers; if you want to really be senior in the software industry you need to be a PM, not a designer.

(BTW this is my entire career trajectory / issue of profound meditation — starting as a UX designer, how do I have the strategic impact I want? Across various design leadership positions I’m now cofounder at a startup; head of Product & UX with CEO & CTO who value good user experience.)

@Dave Malouf (2013 07 19)

My experience is in total opposition to yours. I just interviewed for an executive director position at Honeywell’s Chemical’s group. And they have hired UX VPs at a few of their other divisions. This is the trend. GE is doing this as well. These are roles with direct contact to the CEO and can clearly compete for senior leadership roles guiding the strategy of the organizations. Couple this w/ the trend among tech startups to include a design co-founder I think your anecdote is just that, a single data-point.

But the other premise in your piece is weird to me. Of course, the MBAs own strategy. They have and will always own strategy. it is only recently that UX has even been considered a strategic initiative and in most organizations it hasn’t even risen to that level.

But further, I’m very confused with the presumption here.
a) Why can’t designers get this or any other MBA or similar Design Management degree (Pratt, IIT/ID, SCAD to name a few)?
b) That the program is devoid of design teaching? And further that business people can’t learn design? It is a normal path for Technology folks to get an MBA (not a design MBA, or a technology MBA, just an MBA) as part of their career path if they want to go into product management and rise through the business/strategy ranks. Why not do this through design?

Having taught along side the design management program at SCAD I have seen great business and engineering folks become more than competent designers. They aren’t the best designers, but given the positions they are going into to @Dave’s point they don’t have to be the best designers, they have to be the best strategists, analysts, managers and leaders. But through real studio work, info vis skills, and yes, HCI and Human Factors classes they become competent well rounded designers. Given that the JH program is tied to a design school I could only assume the same basic curricula is in there.

What is funny is that Robert Fabricant (given you just mentioned Harvard) just published in HBR this piece this same week ( which is in total opposition to your perspective.


@Vladymir Rogov (2013 07 22)

What if the new CEO is the guy with the purple hair and body piercings? If you think that all CEO’s a suited manikins, then you are not getting around much.

@Dan Rosenberg (2013 07 24)

Thanks for all the good discussion and comments.  I will respond shortly in my next blog.  I have gotten significant feedback from other channels as well that I would like to include. 

I am motivated however to respond to the last comment which I assume was offered in jest.  I know a few CEO’s here in Silicon Valley with purple (or orange) hair and many more with body piercings.  Some of them have MBA’s, some don’t.  The point is they are the CEO. They have the ultimate skin in the game.  My favorite is Quixey where the CEO is a chlidhood friend of my son (and this is his second company).  It is a well funded start with some big name investors like Peter Teal.  The important point is that while running very lean he prioritized not only having UX designers but also having a user research function in house over many other things.  These are the next gen leaders and while not designers they have strong opinions on design.  As the CEO they also hold the gold and are companies UX leader through both words, actions and investment choices.

@Ashley Karr (2013 08 15)

If the CEO is worth anything, he’ll go with the designer w/ purple hair.

Ever here of the story, “The Little Red Hen”? If you haven’t or have forgotten it, read it! Talkers are a dime a dozen. Have faith, Daniel!!!

One great exercise to turn the tables and put the engineers and designers at the helm:

During design reviews / pitches, don’t let the TALKERS TALK! If they have suggestions, give them a piece of paper and pen and tell them to DRAW WHAT THEY THINK THE DESIGN SHOULD LOOK LIKE! Better yet, make them come up to the front of the room and draw it on the board.

I have lots of sneaky suggestions like this. Email me, and I will give you more!!!



@ 5267471 (2013 09 03)

Interesting perspective but I think you are missing something here - the sacred design you reference is done in service to the business, not for purely artistic reasons. Those who can figure out how to monetize it will surely win the long-haul. Therefore someone who takes stock in being a designer first and business person (the MBA you detest) will need to take comfort in having the design components lauded but perhaps actual implementation aborted. A good CEO will spot the application to the business, to the strategy, to the brand, etc. but that doesn’t mean the pure UX Designer is absolved of making those connections apparent.

@liam (2013 09 22)

Two words Dan:  Jony Ive.

@Prod Mgr (2014 03 19)

I am actually the product manager that Dan is referring to in the article (one of my classmates just pointed out the article to me—damn RS feeds (-:). 
Dan has been a great sounding board for a number of projects we have collaborated on.

I’d just like to clarify that the dual degree program is about using design thinking in different situations to help us solve problems in divergent ways.  All of our “design” classes are taught at Maryland Institute College of Arts (MICA), an amazing art school here in Maryland. 

To give you an example of a few of the projects we have worked on (1) revitalize the library and post office system by providing enhanced user experience (2) recreate a kitchen item in a completely different way, while experimenting with 3D printing, laser-cutting, electronics, smart fabrics, etc.

Our professors (and mentors) have been Creative Directors, UX leaders, DJs, Innovation Officers @ Fortune 1000 cos., and NPR producers.

I, personally, have been incredibly happy with the program and hope to bring empathy and a little bit more openness and creativity to the business world.

@Greg Walsh (2015 03 18)

Hopkins isn’t an accredited MBA program.