How many times have you seen your hard work go down the drain because it is "out of scope" or "not in budget?" How many times have you been shot down, disappointed, or unmotivated because no matter how well designed and researched your solution is, it simply cannot be done? How can we, as UX designers, stop this cycle from happening? And more importantly, how can we bring experience design into the conversation at a higher level so experience-driven strategies and planning aren't determined solely on project budget, but instead are agreed upon before the budget has even been determined? How? Easy: we need to learn where the money comes from.

Most UX designers—whether in-house, agency, or indie—are unaware of how money and budgeting works for the projects they are on and for the organizations that they work for. Instead of learning about budgeting, we keep our focus on the user experience. We investigate the business need, user mental models, gaps, wants, etc., and create the best user experience possible for everyone. This isn't necessarily wrong; after all, it's what we've been trained to do, and it is a method that works.

The problem comes in when our solutions are out of scope, over budget, or just do not align with the sponsor's end goals. In these cases, our design solution, although well researched and informed, is not holistic. We are not fully aware of how the solution will make the sponsor money, and how that money could lead to future innovations to the solution (and thus a better user experience). Business is a cycle of earning money and spending money. Our solutions earn businesses money, shouldn't we also be aware of how that money is spent?

So how do we close this gap in our understanding so we can ensure we're designing solutions that are holistic, well researched and designed, and supported by project sponsors? First, we need to be sponges. We need to look at the project around us and be observant to how the money is moving through it. Who in the organization (in house, or client side) is funding this effort? What type of monetary measurements (10% more users, 15% higher conversion rates, etc.) will make this project successful? What other types of success measures are there? How is the project manager estimating spending of the budget (20% design, 40% development, 40% business, etc.)?

By asking these basic questions, we can begin to understand how money is being earned and spent. The next step in developing that understanding is to take these learnings out of the project realm and apply them to the business level. For example, begin finding answers to questions such as: Which group in the organization has the biggest design budget and why? How can the design budgets in other parts of the organization be increased? What are their intentions for innovation and development this year? How does design fit into the overall budget for the organization? How much revenue does any given solution bring into the company? How much revenue and profit will be put towards the design budget? And so on. These types of questions take good relationships and time to answer, but it is possible to get these answers—I've been there, trust me.

If we learn about the money, design can become part of the business as opposed to just another resource on a project. As I mentioned previously, design solutions directly affect revenue and profit, and thus also affect budgeting and future enhancements and innovations. By learning about and inserting ourselves into conversations about money we can begin to counter the "that's not in the budget" comments with conversations like these:

PM: "That's not in scope"
UXD: "How much of the budget will this solution take up?"
PM: "10% of the budget."
UXD: "This solution will bring us in 5% more revenue then the original solution. Does that change the budget?"
PM: "Good point, let's go talk to the sponsor."

That is a productive conversation. As opposed to just preaching what's best for the user (which we should always do) and relying on people's good will and conscientiousness to accept our advice, we can insert ourselves into the business side of things. And the conversation can and should be taken to an even higher level. Sponsors with money to spend on innovation look to and need UXers to spend their money wisely. They want to get the most bang for their buck, and that means getting more revenue, which is achieved with better UX design.

So, learn about the money. I know it's scary, seems like you're selling out, and seems like a job for someone else, but in order to advance the UX profession, we as a group need to start integrating experience design into the business side of things. A coach cannot be a head coach for a professional football team if he is only aware of the game logistics. He needs to understand offense, defense, recruiting, player management, funding, spending—all facets of the business and sport. That is how coaches integrate themselves into the football business. We need to learn about the money in order to become the "head coaches" of experience design for the organizations we serve. We need to be holistic and understand the root that all businesses are based off of: the cash.


A very good article!

As a UXer keep always the stakeholders and particular politically issues of product development in mind!

To argue with hard facts and defined key performance indicators is always the best way to get more budget.

Great post, Liz! I fully agree with the notion that UXers need to understand the dollars and cents that we drive. We have trouble getting buy in from the C-level suite and project sponsors because they really aren't interested in our design intuition. They need to know what return on investment will be and they need people who are accountable--and the only surefire way for UX practitioners to get the credibility and voice we so desire is through this accountability. Our counterparts in marketing are beholden to numbers and budgets and so should we be. Being able to say to a project sponsor 'Currently we are losing 35% of our potential customers because they are unable to complete this sign up form, and this is costing us $200k per month' has a lot more weight than saying 'Users are having trouble with sign up.' It's so much easier to get buy in when you can show the money: You become a voice at the table that is driving revenue, and this is always what is going to get priority.

Another of the key points you make here is about relationships: "These types of questions take good relationships and time to answer, but it is possible to get these answers". Building allies and working across teams and departments is so important. Most people are happy to share the load and problem solve together--get out of your silo and talk to your business counterparts and you may be amazed at the insight you gain.

To boil that down: selling innovation is also selling investment. Short term investments and returns are not the only kind, not for an employer and neither for it's customer, especially in the field of B2B. Companies are used to long term investments. Don't forget that too!

To boil it down, if the there is no human measure in scale of an employer then the same reflects in its products, relations to customers, employees and partners.

When companies tend to lack the innovation and thus becoming less profitable they tend to buy other companies to keep their profits higher.

I think the software industry has matured in level of automation and availability of software to the masses to the point that it becomes less effective to focus on those in order to deliver more worth: productivity. Companies who have become big in these fields and lack innovation. Most profitable is now focusing the human measure in the design of software. This requires being lean and mean as an organization. It's true companies are about profit (cash), but they only have a future if they can deliver highest quality for lowest prices. A company just focusing on cash, forgets that the marketable definition of quality changes. To continuously monetize your own innovations is about vision and money. It's mostly starts with vision and then when executed and marketed smartly the money comes in. One might say Apple is buying up other companies and is large and extremely focused on making money. This is only because they have a vision and know how to market innovations. But maybe also they stick out so much because others perform so bad. It's not that Apple always has been good in marketing innovation. When that started they were very innovative and visionary, maybe even ahead of their time. They have learned from those mistakes and that same old vision is marketable now. But if Apple gets to far ahead of itself it might go into the same direction as most other once innovative companies eventually: big bloated not innovative money makers which have a lot of fat on their bones but slowly sink into a dangerous diet.

I like to add that this is also why I am a bit skeptic with people who have a job title: UX evangelist. I know Microsoft has. In some way it sounds wrong that it should be a job title. The UX has to be very underrated or the competition between other evangelists (like a kind of lobby) is idiotic, both situations doesn't sound like a good place to be in either way. But then again, UX evangelist might be a very challenging and rewarding job. I personally prefer a less sluggishness, just the average bread and butter job title "UX designer" is good enough ;)

I like to add that this is also why I am a bit scpetic with people who have a job title: UX evangelist. I know Microsoft has. In some way it sounds wrong that it should be a job title. The UX has to be very underrated or the competition between other evangelists (like a kind of lobby) is idotic, both situations doesn't sound like a good place to be in either way. But then again, UX evangelist might be a very challenging and rewarding job. I personally prefer a less sluggishness, just the average bread and butter job title "UX designer" is good enough ;)

The best case to add value in both currency and quality of work is starting your own business. I did. Then you need to understand how much level of UX is actually needed and the price tags that comes with delivering that efficiently. All the low cost methods by designing before any computer or code is touched or any discussion done with programmers make the process more efficient.

Making high quality goods very much means that the designers and developers see it as a challenge and where they can develop and have harmonious working relations.

In tradtional software houses the culture is very much build around development and thus less fitting to designers. To do both is hard. It means that the developers stick to the design as delivered by US guys while finding the challenge in the technology, not the amount of control on the software as a whole. Companies know that a single good developer can do the work of many. But I think the same goes for the UX designer. Significant high efficiency going hand in hand with high quality happens when the productiveness is not dependant of one star employee, but by the intelligent efficient harmonious communication of the whole. This is why companies are organisations. Because they should be. Some people don't have talent for entrepreneurship, because it's way much more that just doing your UX thing. But no matter how you look at it, just doing your UX thing doesn't make a company an organisation. This sounds obvious, but I think in many companies a lot of time goes into evangelisation of all kinds of disciplines they have. My personal experience is that the intensity of evangelisation depends on the level of harmony. This and politics also make me think that the advantage of scale is a myth. It maybe a money maker, but it doesn't deliver quality efficiently.

The distance from UXD to sponsor is a long one. It certainly helps if UXD can present UX improvements in terms of % higher conversions, % more subscribers etc. Accurate data are needed but quite often not easy to get. You need help from web analytics team. Project manager might help as well. That´s the way to get awareness about UX around a company step by step and finally try to reach UX heaven - be part of every budget from start to deployment.

PS. Building library of own UX case studies with monetized results helps a lot.