I once worked with a startup that was very concerned about having Great Design. Because I was excited by the prospect of the CEO being a user experience (UX) advocate, I asked few questions, took the job, and got to work. Over time, my frustration grew as I slowly accepted that Great Design actually meant “making it look pretty so people will use it.”
The unspoken assumptions were users were clamoring for this product (they weren’t), it was innovative and brilliant (aka, CEO’s idea) and Great Design was simply a matter of a nice color scheme, some cool icons and we’d all be gazillionaires.
After a (relatively short) while, the harsh reality settled in. Our fledgling UX team didn’t have the resources or support to do the necessary work, dooming our product to the graveyard that Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School says holds 95% of new products.
A cavalier vision, combined with inadequate support, is a common challenge to Great Design. I was recently coaching a product designer at a small startup, who asked how to get leaders to listen.
“What do they need to listen to?” I asked.
“Well, the testing showed that users don’t want our product, at least, not the way we’re building it.”
“And how did your leaders respond to that?” I asked. He smiled, then shrugged, deflating.
“Well, I mean, we’re still making it.”
UX pros understand Great Design depends on context. That context includes a detailed understanding of the user’s perspective and their environment of use.
For organizations at every level of UX maturity, Great Design requires resources, support, and a robust process that allows for regular, systematic, honest, and actionable user feedback into product development.
Here are four questions leaders can ask themselves and their team to investigate their own likelihood of Great Design:
Question 1: Who in our organization is committed and who is involved?
There’s a somewhat gruesome, but relevant, business fable about a chicken being involved and a pig being committed in an egg-and-bacon breakfast. If Great Design is breakfast, who are the pigs and chickens in your organization?
The answer you want is that a multi-disciplinary team of designers and researchers is committed, while every other employee is involved. Great Design is both a team sport and a commitment to continuous user feedback as a required part of the product life cycle. Your core UX team must include skilled designers, user researchers, management at the level of strategy, and, ideally, project managers. Everyone else needs to be involved, because this team needs accountability and support to hold the needs of customers above other easier-to-action organizational concerns.
I recently spoke to an early startup founder who wanted to create a great product for his customers. One of the first questions I asked was about his team, which turned out to include a part-time, pre-college developer and another student contractor with poor design skills. None committed and two individuals barely involved. The product’s design wasn’t close to meeting the needs of their highly specialized user group.
Without pigs and chickens, there can be no Great Design.
Question 2: How much has direct feedback from users cost in the past year?
If you’re not doing user research, you’re not doing UX. It’s as simple as that. You can recruit a highly skilled group of amazing designers and even create a beautiful product; they’re necessary, but not sufficient, for Great Design.
This question is a bottom-liner about resource allocation. To understand the context of the product you’re building, you need to go directly to users for feedback. This effort costs money.
It’s easy to talk about doing user research, even easier to talk about Great Design, and much more telling to put money into it. This question is my favorite to ask leaders because the response speaks volumes.
The answer you’re looking for should include a breakdown of how many researchers you have on staff (or contract), time for research execution, and additional fees for participant incentives and recruiting. You’ll also need to know the number of research studies completed in the year, ideally, a half dozen or more.
If an organization has no budget for UX research, it’s a sure sign it doesn’t have the input required for Great Design.
Question 3: What have we learned from users that surprised us (or wasn’t anticipated correctly)?
This question uncovers how your organization uses the feedback, as well as how willing you are to accept hard truths.
I’ve been in organizations where the UX team is afraid to provide challenging or contradictory feedback. I’ve also been in teams where the C-suite and technical teams’ opinions always won over user findings. I once had a CEO tell me he didn’t care what the research showed, he was doing something different.
Ok, great, his choice, but that “something different” predictably tanked the product. The UX team told him it would.
The challenge of leader opinion is affectionately known as the executive 'swoop and poop' and it’s both common and uniquely destructive to UX teams’ morale.
If you’ve been surprised by “nothing,” your team might not be asking the hard questions in user research due to fear.
I’ve been surprised by something in every, single user research study I’ve done in 20+ years, even with an advanced degree in human behavior. In fact, surprise reassures me I haven’t become too biased to be effective as a researcher.
If you and your team aren’t surprised by your users at least some of the time, you also can’t be surprised if your product is something quite less than Great Design.
Question 4: When user, business, and technical goals conflict, what percent of the time are our decisions made solely because they benefit users?
This is another bottom-line question. One of the most significant challenges of “doing UX” is that user requirements directly conflict with technical or business requirements.
How does your organization manage this conflict?
I’ve had an ongoing conversation with a manager of a large UX team for a decade. We often chat when one or the other of us is frustrated about not being heard.
“I swear, our presence just creates more conflict than if we weren’t there at all,” she sighed one time.
There were a few beats of silence as we inhaled the full implications of saying the quiet part out loud.
“Yes, I know. But if we weren’t actively working to make things better for users, then who would?”
It’s critical that conflict between UX, business and technical teams be normalized and proactive if your organization is to have a healthy culture. It’s also critical that leadership provides transparency on how different perspectives influence final decision-making.
If Great Design is a priority, the entire organization should see implementation of what’s best for the user at least a third of the time.
If not, the priority of your company is ease of development, saving face or maintenance of internal processes, but not Great Design.
As a leader, UX provides a critical source of input that allows you to make better decisions, with a full understanding of how to balance user needs against other concerns. If Great Design is your goal, make sure you have the wherewithal to make it happen.