“Every dollar spent on UX brings in between $2 and $100 dollars in return.”

We all know the business case for doing user experience work: investing upfront in making products easy to use really pays off. It reduces project risk, cost, and time while improving, efficiency, effectiveness, and end user satisfaction.

(Don’t know the business case? Read this or this. Or this.) But what if you’re investing in UX and not getting results?

There can be many factors behind an under-performing user experience effort. Anything from a lack of tools to the zombie apocalypse can wreak havoc on your teams. Addressing either of those factors are outside my area of expertise.

Here’s where I do know what I’m talking about. First, rule out the obvious: your UX folks are jerks, they don’t communicate well, they don’t understand business, they aren’t team players, they have such terrible body odor people stay 10 feet away …

Next, look at your organization. I’ve based the following list on observations accumulated over my years as a UX professional. These are some common organizational “behavior” patterns that can make even the best UX efforts ineffective.

1. You Hired the Wrong People.

User experience design is getting a lot of attention lately and UX is a buzzword many want to add to their resumes. But the field has been around for several years (although under different names) and is fairly mature. Until a person has done full-time UX work—not as an aspect of their job, but as their job—for at least two or three years, they are generally not at a professional level.

How to spot a UX pro:

  • He displays a high level of empathy, excellent communication skills, and lots of curiosity.
  • She doesn’t design based on personal preference or opinion, and will try to make sure you don’t either. She bases her design decisions on user research, heuristics, test data, and UI design patterns.
  • He is not attached to his designs. In fact, he starts with sketches and wireframes and happily crumples up multiple iterations before progressing to a detailed level of design.
  • She starts with concept, structure, and information design before progressing to interaction and visual design. If the first thing she shows you looks like it could be the final product, she’s probably not a UX pro.
  • He is very interested in measurable success metrics and uses them to drive design direction and test protocol. If he speaks of making something easy, but can’t say how he’ll measure how easy it is, he’s not a UX pro.

2. You’re Not Letting the Right People do Their Jobs.

Great! You’ve got a solid UX pro or team and an exciting project kicked off. I hate to say it, but sometimes the very organization that values UX and hires us to do UX work is also the biggest impediment to a UX team’s success. Here are some rules of engagement that will enable UX teams to do their best work.

  • They really do need to talk with and observe end-users before the design is finished. This is the underpinning of what UX does. Give them reasonable and timely access to end-users.
  • Don’t provide subject-matter experts in place of users. Your team will tell you they’re not appropriate substitutes, and they will be right.
  • Give designers the authority (within technical constraints) on design decisions and researchers authority on test protocol and data interpretation.
  • Never design by committee. It’s a quick way to degrade a design.
  • You’ve hired your team to make a successful product. Be ready to make design changes—sometimes big ones—following user research and usability testing. The more usability recommendations are declined, the poorer quality the product’s user experience will be.
  • Don’t nibble the design to death. Making a series of minor changes here and there, or picking and choosing which aspects of a design to keep or omit almost always creates new usability issues.
  • Clearly define roles and responsibilities for all team members at the beginning of project work.

3. UX Work is Done in a Silo.

User experience work touches almost every aspect of an application or web project. Your UX resources will need regular check-ins with a multi-disciplinary team. At the very least, a development resource must be available to vet designs for technical feasibility and a business resource needs to make sure you’re aligned with their goals.

The risk of not having a technical resource aware of the design direction from the beginning is that time gets wasted working on a design that the coders can’t build. The risk of not having a business resource communicating with the UX team is that your design will not meet business needs, making it a waste of time and effort.

Even with a UX team ultimately responsible for designing your product, many other groups contribute to the final user experience. Establishing a shared vision across all the groups involved in a project encourages effective teamwork—a coordinated effort is far more likely to lead to a great design.

For more information, see "Breaking Down Silos."

4. The UX Team is Brought in Too Late.

Tragically, many people view UX work as something that is done after coding to “make it look good.” They couldn’t be more wrong. We not-so-secretly call this “putting lipstick on a pig."

The best time to bring in your UX team is at the initiation phase of the project lifecycle. The role of UX at this stage is to help define requirements and structural design based on user needs. This is where we have the biggest impact.

Because user experience pros follow a methodology called user-centered design, they need to stay consistently ahead of the development team. For product design to be user-centered, the design should be iterated and validated before it’s coded.

Have you observed other reasons UX teams might fall short? Please share your own experiences and thoughts by commenting.


Image of frustrated exec courtesy Shutterstock.


I've observed that it is very difficult for corporations to shift focus from bottom-line and time-is-money thinking to ask-the-right-questions, explore-in-depth attitude. I would assume that when making strategic decisions during a project or a product development life cycle a lot of time is invested in doing quantitative analysis to support decisions but very little time is allocated to the (tougher?) process of analyzing qualitative research findings. This may be the biggest hurdle to overcome.

› Have you observed other reasons UX teams might fall short?
Time. One of the most critical factors.

I work only with developers and I'm the only designer. We do client projects and have our own tool. So I do everything that affects design. We did a restart for our tool and had half a year to ship it. I tried to implement some (few) things in a way a „ux pro“ should operate. And it's not that easy.

• I agree with you a hundred percent. We need to work interdisciplinary. But it's more important for you if have some people of your own guild with you: other designers. conceptional Sparring partners. Working on Information Architectures, design layouts, user flows or personas alone is so demotivating.

• Design takes a lot of time. Not just to produce and design the necessary artefacts, but also to implement all your conceptional wishes. That brings me to the next point.

• To speed up the development process we took an existing framework. Technically it's good, but it is by far not the best to design interfaces the way you could and should. You even have to make structural concessions in order to ship on time. As you can see technical restrictions can cut good user experiences.

It really hurts me to say, but agile or not, sometimes there simply isn't the time for good conceptional, structural or visual design.

@ Jonas Persson. I disagree with your statement that it is a myth that that a true UX professional "doesn't design based on personal preference or opinion". Personal preference and opinion are not going to be consistently based on best practice; real physical and cognitive constraints of vision, touch, and hearing; and user mental model. It is true that Apple has produced great products that people love; only Apple insiders know how much of their successful designs were driven by knowledge of human factors and UX vs. "genius design". If a designer is driving the design with his/her ego and preference they are not doing UX or user-centered design.

Danny, I strongly agree with your point of "UX producer should be involved in all stages of the project and not move on to the next project when he/she finishes the UX strategy and wireframes" It can help to assist and discuss with other departments to run the project or product in a right track of UX.

We have incorporated user centred design (UCD) framework at our agency for over 8 years and have been refining it to work with agile, lean and recently with ISO9001 which is a quality management system. I still believe that if UCD is strategised and executed by competent professionals, it yields amazing results. The caveat is that the UX producer should be involved in all stages of the project and not move on to the next project when he/she finishes the UX strategy and wireframes. The UX producer should help to manage, steer and take accountability for the project even post launch (ideally with a technical lead, QA professional and product or account director/owner) and continue to be involved in A/B testing, ongoing optimisation and even marketing. I strongly agree about removing the ego from the design. This is especially true when clients introduce in-house or other creatives who might have a different working model which is always welcome but can sometimes 'disrupt' the process. This is where empathy comes in. It is probably the most powerful tool in the UX's professional arsenal as it allows them to achieve what is best for the product/project. Hilary, this is a strong article and a credit to our profession. If you do have any thoughts about ISO9001 and how this affects the UX process I would welcome your feedback.

You're absolutely right, Hilary. Fantastic article. This is a great read especially for UX professionals who are involved in in-house corporate design. So many of the principles that companies work off of stem from focusing on development rather than experience. As much as I enjoy working on Agile efforts, that entire methodology was built around a working pattern for developers without any consideration to design.

Right on sista!
You tell it like it is.

Nathaniel, you hit the nail right on the head.

Thomas, I agree that junior UX people can be hugely valuable to an organization, but their efficacy is generally limited if they are not being mentored by a senior UX resource or pro. It's putting in the hours and gaining that valuable experience that transforms an advocate to a pro.

And there is no doubt that an enthusiastic team of advocates with no pro in sight is way better than having no explicit thought put into the user experience. There's a huge need for more UX people in the world, and I expect there's a lot of mentoring going on that will produce some awesome talent.

Nathaniel. Thanks for the clarity. The article as a whole was enlightening. I only thought this quote might not be entirely true: "Until a person has done full-time UX work—not as an aspect of their job, but as their job—for at least two or three years, they are generally not at a professional level." There are many places where the organization's capability maturity in UX is low and do not have UX deeply engrained. This is where people who do not have UX in their title are forced to ply their trade as UX advocates instead. This can happen for many years until the organization steps up their UX maturity level. During that time, that UX advocate can build up their experience to a professional level. It is true that if your title doesn't include "UX" in it, it will take more time to build up those skills. I also think that a true measure of a UX professional is not in what you know, but rather in how you share what you know with others. Finally, organizations shouldn't be scared off by inexperience, because those that are inexperienced are the most eager and motivated to get that experience and share it with others.

Thomas - There a different types of companies where UX consultants work in, but typically can be split into client side and agency side, this article looks like it's centered around client side scenarios where the UX consultant is expected to come in and hit the ground running, therefore needs to be experienced in all aspects of the discipline.

If you're looking to land a job in UX without fulltime experience in it, I'd suggest looking at an entry level position within a good agency, where you are able to learn the process while being guided by more experienced and senior consultants.

You may also do this within a client side company if it has a large enough UX department with senior consultants to learn from.

I would call the notion that good ux people "doesn’t design based on personal preference or opinion" a myth. Apple is a great example of a company that is (or at least was) ran by people with strong opinions about how things should look and feel. Personal preferences, experiences and gut feeling is what separate good from great.

"Until a person has done full-time UX work—not as an aspect of their job, but as their job—for at least two or three years, they are generally not at a professional level."

How does one land a job in UX where it is their job, and not just an aspect? If all companies only hired experienced UX professionals, then how do people starting out get a chance to ply their trade? Those experienced professionals had to have companies willing to take a chance on their inexperience.

Great article