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UX and Evangelism: Undoing What’s Undoing UX

by Debbie Levitt
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UX/CX aren’t what other people think them to be. Learn the truth about UX Evangelism and how the reliance on an approach to workshops, design thinking and empathy might stop you from being a true customer-centered UX/CX professional.

We need to say this out loud: CX and UX practitioners at all levels (even experts and managers) are hired into companies that don’t understand what we do. We are then put on teams and projects where they don’t understand what we do. Everybody else wants to do what we do… or what they think UX is. They think our work is easy and anybody can do it.

We wanted so badly for them to sit with us at lunch and play with us at recess that some people came out with books and models that took CX/UX in the wrong direction. We supported and tried to use those, thinking that it would get everybody to care about “design.”

We wanted to evangelize UX. We didn’t notice how weird that made us look. We didn’t notice that zero other teammates are running meetings about how great they are, how important their tasks are, how they need to be a larger part of the process, etc. We didn’t even seem to notice or care that our teammates hate being dragged into UX evangelism meetings. So much for our “empathy.”

We took off our critical thinking hats

Some of us didn’t realize how our own choices and actions might reinforce the misunderstandings around CX/UX. We didn’t imagine the outcomes of every book, model, and workshop that reinforces that “everybody can design the product.”

We didn’t notice that no other domain at our company holds workshops or exercises like we do… and how *not* workshopping is part of how they retain their power in their own domain.

Marketing doesn’t hold days of workshopping around what should our email campaigns be. We would respect Marketing less if they interrupted our work to have us join in that. We’d probably think they were somewhat incompetent and can’t seem to do their work without stopping everybody else’s work. They’d seem codependent. Incapable. And they’d send the message that anybody can do Marketing’s work if we just all got together and took a stab at it.

We thought that if we gave up our power, made everything a workshop, and “democratized,” people would care about design or respect us.

You can’t evangelize that UX is an important specialty and then get everybody in a room to guess at what’s supposed to be your work. You teach them that UX guesses at stuff, and can’t even do that themselves. You teach them that we need to stop everybody else’s work so that we can do team exercises and group tasks and guesses. You teach them that if you can fill out some frameworks and canvasses, you are really caring about customers and designing the product. You’d never hang designs at your desk and ask people to vote on their favorite, but you run workshops where customers are barely involved, the problem is barely understood, and we vote on a “winning” “solution.”

Without our critical thinking hats on, we didn’t notice that no other domain at our company is a democracy. Engineering doesn’t invite us to decide on the back-end architecture. QA doesn’t ask what we think about their automated testing. Product doesn’t want us to join a 3-day sticky note festival to come up with a prioritized product road map. They all collaborate where they want, but they mostly do their own work and make their own decisions. They keep their power and autonomy.

When crappy books came out that ran mostly or completely against customer-centricity, we stayed quiet, and I don’t know why considering that we are change agents, advocates, and mini lawyers

Awful books came out saying that you don’t really need UX and certainly not specialists; just get everybody into group exercises and team workshops so you can “democratize” UX and have everybody be a part of it. You’ll surely show people the “value of design” by having everybody do workshop exercises. Figure out what customers want by releasing iterations of guesses and then surveying how they liked that.

When non-startups wanted to design their product or “innovate” by holding design sprints, we said nothing. Teams held workshops to design the product, sometimes without CX or UX, and we said nothing. Designing the product was supposed to be our job, but when they took it away from us to do “design by committee” workshops, the people writing the books and selling the training told us it would be good for us. And with critical thinking hats off, we believed that.

When Engineering took over processes and organizations to be “Agile,” we said nothing. When they removed us from the process, we said nothing. After all, we’re following this new Agile religion, it says you don’t really need UX or just have an engineer read a UX book, and we said nothing. Just release something minimally viable, and learn after customers struggle with it if it’s good or not.

That was hard to fight since people at our companies were paying a lot to be trained and certified to put customers last while pretending to care about their satisfaction. I’ll tell you later how our best bet is to shift away from evangelism and fight a battle on this front.

We press like and share on total bullshit that would be obvious if we kept critical thinking hats on and considered the possible outcomes

I have watched a pseudo-guru out there push “everybody’s a designer” for years. He wants to come and train your company to reach his model’s highest level of UX maturity, which is when everybody is “fluent” in UX design. We applauded him at events. We invited him back.

We didn’t consider the possible outcomes if everybody at our company “is a designer” or believes they are “fluent” in UX design. We didn’t consider the outcomes of “let’s teach our teammates to be better at our jobs.” We didn’t notice that none of our teammates are training us to be better at their jobs.

Critical thinking hats on:

  • That’s not the highest level of UX maturity by anybody’s model except his.
  • Are we sure we want everybody at our jobs to imagine they are “fluent” in UX? What does UX “fluency” look like? Will they still need to hire us, or can product managers “fluent” in UX design the product?
  • And if his training and speaking are so fantastic, why do we still have to prove the value of UX? Where is all of that amazing maturity leading to true customer-centricity?

Then he sends out an email to his mailing list that incredulously asked why do we still have to prove the value of design? Sir, you are directly responsible for some of the reasons why we still have to prove the value of design. You have toured conferences telling them everybody’s a designer and the highest level of maturity is when everybody is trained *by you* to be “fluent” in UX.

Put your critical thinking hats on. Listen to what this guy and crappy books and models are saying. Stop inviting them to speak at your company, train your teams, or present at your event. Stop pressing like, commenting, and sharing. Let this crap sink to the bottom of the algorithm ocean.

Then we told each other we need to evangelize UX

Thing 1, too late. You should have spoken up when your company made moves that undid User-Centered Design. You should have spoken up when you were put on a team that didn’t know what you did and tried to do your work. You should have said something when your company wanted to design the product through design sprints and other methods originally crafted for startups with nobody working in UX or Product.

OK, maybe some or all of this happened before you got to that company. I understand. You weren’t there to speak out.

UX and Evangelism: Undoing What’s Undoing UX. What UX evangelism looks like to our co-workers. Photo licensed from DepositPhotos.com.
What UX evangelism looks like to our co-workers. Photo licensed from DepositPhotos.com.

Thing 2, if you were around when the crappy books, models, and training came out, you should have spoken out against them. People have said to me, “Oh yeah, Lean UX is a terrible book and their model is completely not viable. I filled the margins with angry notes.” But they said nothing when the book came out. They didn’t leave a bad Amazon review. That book got adopted by SAFe Agile and Scrum.org as how UX is done. Congrats, you’re stuck “doing” the non-viable model as your daily job because Engineering is pushing it on us. You’d hope that if SAFE and Scrum.org had seen hundreds of angry reviews on Amazon, they’d be like, “Whoa, this is NOT the model to use.” But the reviews are nearly 100% great, mostly left by non-UX roles.

Thing 3, if you jumped on the design sprints/design thinking/workshop bandwagon, you definitely can’t hold workshops where anybody can do UX aaaaaand preach that UX is special, important, and done by specialists. These two are opposites.

Then how do we raise CX and UX maturity?

In my April 2021 article, “2-Year Prediction for CX/UX Professions,” I explain that “UX maturity” is customer-centricity. If your team doesn’t care about customers or likes to guess about them, your org is typically low maturity. When your company truly cares about customers and believes in taking time for good qualitative research… and feeding those isights into strategies, initiatives, products, projects, etc…. then it’s high maturity. 

Maturity is really customer-centricity. Either we are researching, architecting, designing, testing, building, etc. completely around and for customers… or we’re doing something fast, cool, startup-y, guess-based, workshop’ed, fix it later, etc.

You can’t make someone grow up faster

Part of the problem is that we can’t make anything mature faster than it’s on track to mature. People. Fruit.

But we can try to make a company that relies on paying customers care more about having more and happier paying customers. We have a true shot at that, and we can show that the road to customer-centricity is paved with CX and UX, not with guesses and workshops.

You have to shift away from everything that accidentally or on purpose makes it look like UX is easy and can be done by anybody

I call design thinking, design sprints, Lean UX (which is neither Lean nor UX), workshops, design by committee, democratization, and the like “Aspirologies.” They aspire to be methodologies and approaches, but are more bad than good, and don’t deserve to be called methodologies.

You can’t evangelize UX while saying, doing, or supporting anything that makes people less likely to understand what we truly do. You can’t facilitate, support, plan, or run Aspirology workshops or exercises and then try to evangelize the specialty, importance, and depth of CX or UX. Aspirologies evangelize themselves, normally as the way to do UX faster and cheaper. If you are facilitating that, you are training everybody that these short exercises and workshops are the best way to “do UX.”

User-Centered Design (UCD) isn’t design thinking, design sprints, or Lean UX. UCD and HCD require that specialists and/or experts use a multi-phase process with varying tasks and methodologies. We strategically choose the right tasks and approaches for out project. We undertake these with science, technique, and specialized skill.

Design thinking, design sprints, Lean UX, and other Aspirologies and workshops are full of tasks that “anybody can do.” You’re not judged on how well you defined the problem. Nobody judges if your “ideation” were viable ideas, accessible, or used best practices. Nobody checked your prototyping method. Testing was probably not done with rigorous recruiting or research study design. So Aspirologies are usually theater and guessing, but they are risky and often wasteful for our company.

You have to talk about money and time

The waste from guessing. The waste from building guesses. Releasing guesses. Supporting guesses. The costs to train people on crappy product. Fixing it later. Etc. I have hundreds of slides on this; this is the short version.

You can’t talk about “don’t you care about customers.” They might not care. They might not have pity, sympathy, empathy, or compassion, and we shouldn’t spend our time trying to change co-workers to feeeeeeel any of these more or at all. I will happily accept time and budget from someone who is unable to feel for or with the customer.

Accept that they might have no sympathy or care, and are driven by money and other KPIs. When you evangelize or push against that, this is when you hear that “UX isn’t speaking the business’ language.”

My 2021 conference presentation and keynote for non-CX/UX teammates is called, “Improving Agility By Using Customers’ Definitions of ‘Quality’ and ‘Done’.” I did this live on my ad-free YouTube channel. Please check it out, and definitely share it around your company. It’s also aimed at non-CX/UX teammates, managers, and leaders.

This article presents two key pieces of advice on how to undo what’s undoing us

One is shifting our reliance on an approach to workshops, more on that later. And the other is: when working with Product, Engineering, Marketing, and others, look at old and current projects. Realize how not Agile and not Lean we are, and how much time, money, and resources we are wasting on guesses sometimes called Minimum Viable Products.

If we can start to show people the wasted time, budget, training, customer support, customer trust, online ratings, stock prices, and more, then we have a shot to explain that delivering a better product the first time would be the right path to take. Then we start to explain how CX and UX are your partners in planning and delivering a better product the first time.

People think the secret to saving CX/UX is “metrics” and “proving ROI.” That’s good, but it has to be part of a larger plan. You also have to shown what’s going wrong when the customer experience is poor, not right, or needs to be fixed. Before you can show our ROI, you will probably have to show the negative return on investment from projects that experienced some failure. What did we burn on those? Was anybody held accountable? Did we learn from that lesson, or did we do it all again in the next release?

We also have to remember to not be gaslit by anybody saying that if CX/UX who wants to do User-Centered Design, and this project is going to need R before D (research before design/dev), then that’s waterfall. We have to not be sucked in by people who negatively frame our work as Big Design Up Front. Magically, other teams that need planning, research, modeling, estimating, etc. up front aren’t treated this way. They mostly do that outside of sprints, everybody just understands it’s part of the process, and nobody gives it a name designed to sound like something awful we must avoid.

Without our critical thinking hats on, we agreed that CX/UX Up Front was bad… and it’s not. Doing our work ahead of time is not some sort of process killer. It’s the way successful companies have worked for years, and many still work. You probably admire Apple. Your company probably admires Apple. Apple spends squillions of dollars every year on Research and Development and R before D. Your company read “The Lean Startup,” and decided that it would be really cool to rush out some guesses, and find out weeks or months later if people like it or not.

I’m not saying Apple is perfect. But companies that deeply research, customers, the market, technology, and human behaviors, tasks, and needs before deciding what the features will be tend to have very different products and services than those rushing guesses out. We don’t even emulate the companies we admire. We emulate startups, which fail at least 90% of the time. 

This means the next step for anybody who cares about the future of CX and UX would be to start undoing what’s undoing us

Stop doing Aspirology workshops. No more design thinking exercises, design sprints, or team guessing adventures. If once in a while you want to brainstorm with others and collect ideas, great. But stop having them guess at screens and calling that “designing the product.” I like to collect ideas in the form of user stories, and I don’t let anybody sketch screens or interfaces in my (rarely run) workshops.

People have asked me how they can get away from Aspirologies when their teammates find them fun, and now expect that UX work will be done by everybody in a room with sticky notes and sketched screens. It’s going to be too much of a shock to tell people those are fake UX, or we’re not doing them anymore. You will have to phase them out.

I would phase in my Delta CX Ideation Workshop. Short version: You spend hours showing the qualitative research you have: quotes, video clips, personas, task analysis, optimized task flows, etc. You don’t stab at those as a group craft exercise. Qualified experts create those ahead of time after having done one or more proper observational and/or interview studies. During this block of time, you’re also introducing whatever problem or challenge around which we will ideate.

Everybody then gets different amounts of time in different rounds to come up with high level concepts and ideas that address the problem. Nobody sketches screens or anything in these workshops. Ever. Not even you. Ideas are described and stay high-level. I like to ask for them in the form of user stories so that people stay customer-focused, but any non-drawn ideas would be great. “Our store could notify customers that there will be deliveries in their area tomorrow, and give them the chance to place an order.” Well now that’s a neat idea to help a store get more home delivery orders while they are in the neighborhood!

We didn’t have to draw that. There are a zillion ways that can end up looking and working. The important thing is to get the idea generated, documented, and to give that co-worker credit for it. We can work on its exact execution later, outside of the workshop.

Where you are still/stuck doing design sprints, tell them you are trying different versions of design sprints (which really do exist, I’m not making this up)

You might be doing design sprints version 1 right now. 5 days. Empathize, define the problem, ideate, prototype, test.

Design sprints version 2 ends (for the full list of attendees) after ideation. Experts prototype and test. Great way to start teaching people that experts prototype and test. It’s not a fun craft project for everybody to try out. It’s not something anybody can do, at least not well.

Design sprints version 3 requires that qualitative research be done ahead of time so that people aren’t guessing at customer journey maps, personas, etc. Observational research and contextual inquiry are done by experts beforehand. Documents, artifacts, etc. are made by experts beforehand.

You now have two real variations that teach people that some of this stuff really should be done by CX/UX experts and specialists. This can start bringing back some of the understanding and respect you’re hoping to get. This starts to create the boundaries you wish you had.

  • Show in a meeting the difference between the prototype and testing the design sprint team did (maybe in a previous design sprint) versus the prototyping and testing CX/UX pros did (in a v2 design sprint). They’re not going to look the same!
  • Show in a meeting the difference between the CJMs and personas that the design sprint team guessed at (in a previous design sprint) versus the task analysis and optimized task flow qualified CX/UX researchers did (in a v3 design sprint). They’re not going to look the same!
  • Show in a meeting how your information architecture and interaction design utilize principles of cognitive psychology and human behavior. Your wireframes are not going to look like what comes out of design sprints. Tell that story! Show how yours are accessible, truly take customer knowledge and understanding into account, and would do well in a heuristic evaluation. Show how you are keeping the customer from making mistakes and running into my Four Horsemen of Bad UX: frustration, confusion, disappointment, and distraction. 
  • Don’t hold meetings just for this. That will look like evangelism. Work it into “design sprint outcomes” or the like so that nobody sees it coming. 🙂

Now you’re telling a story.

After running design sprints versions 2 and/or 3, you have the gateway drug to my Ideation Workshop. Design sprints version 1 minus what experts do in version 2 minus what experts do in version 3 literally only leaves “get everybody together to try to understand the problem, and then have them sketch screens.” Instead of sketching, you’ll come up with ideas. People love things with names. You can tell them it’s a Delta CX Ideation Workshop. 🙂

Boom, unqualified teammates are no longer playing Junior Interaction Design Patrol. Nobody’s voting on concepts to push our favorite one to customers. We will test and choose design concepts as we have (successfully) for decades.

And please get rid of design thinking, whatever it means this week

I’m not even going to go into how design thinking has become a religion, something with so many gods and interpretations. Everybody is right or wrong at the same time.

We had fun with this one in my video podcast episode 108, “What ISN’T Design Thinking?” I also have more details in episode 50 (from mid-2020), “Design Thinking Has Jumped The Shark.”

Short version: if you are evangelizing, sharing, training, etc. design thinking, you are not promoting CX or UX. You are not helping people understand CX or UX.

But Deb, without these workshops, we’re siloed and nobody will have empathy!

That’s the short version of the negative comments I’m seeing about this article on LinkedIn. So let’s address those.

If we shift away from facilitating or being part of workshops, won’t this put us into silos?

This tells me that all of the propaganda coming from Aspirologies is working. Design thinking, design sprints, and Lean UX hinted or told you bluntly that they were the best ways to collaborate; without them you were not really collaborating, you’re not going to get alignment, or you were in silos. It sounds like many people just believed that without critical thinking.

With critical thinking we would understand that collaboration is a spectrum. On one left end of the spectrum, we have zero collaboration, and everybody in silos. People who are working on the same product but are in different domains within our company never talk and never meet. The work is never discussed, the research is never shared (assuming it was even done), and Engineering never sees finalize architecture or designs before CX or UX is handing them off.

On the right end of the spectrum, we can’t do anything ourselves. Everything is a team effort, a group exercise, or a workshop. That appears to be one of the messages of the Lean UX book: in order to not be siloed and to really be “collaborators,” we must do everything as a team. I can quote you chapter and verse from that book that literally says that UX specialists should not be given any work, and every time you want to do something, get a product manager, an engineer, or more people to do it with them.

On the right end of the spectrum, we can’t make a decision without asking everybody else on our team what they think or what they prefer, or what we should deliver to customers. We have no autonomy and power, and we don’t seem to want any.

If you believe that this article’s suggestions that we do zero or much fewer workshops will cause us to be siloed, then I would say please put on your critical thinking hat. It sounds like you bought what the Aspirologies are selling. There are so many ways to work with others without design by committee or being the only domain at our company that is “democratized.”

If we shift away from all of these workshops, how will we create empathy?

Who said you needed empathy? Here’s an article by Don Norman, who said he doesn’t believe in empathic design. Somebody with something to sell you convinced you that everything revolves around empathy. They sold the books, training, design thinking, and design sprints. They told you just have empathyand just create empathy.

What about people who don’t have empathy? You’ve probably noticed that at your workplace you’re surrounded by people who barely care about customers. If anybody in our company had empathy or even sympathy, they wouldn’t release crappy products and services to trial and paying customers. They wouldn’t release the least viable thing they could possibly come up with and expect that to serve customers needs and tasks. They wouldn’t release guesses and then survey people months later to see what the think of that.

Let’s start with the idea that few people at your company have empathy or sympathy for customers. Then with our critical thinking hats on and our egotistical hats off, let’s realize that we can’t make people feel more empathy. We can hope that they will understand customers better when we show them great qualitative research. We can hope that they are interested in improving the experience for these customers, but they’re unlikely to do that without financial motivation, which is why we have to stop tying things to empathy. In a world of ROI and measuring customer behaviors and satisfaction, it makes us look touchy feely woo woo.

Most “empathy” at our companies is a lie. Where people think they have empathy for customers, very often but not always it’s based on things they made up or assumed about customers, or it’s based on a stereotype they have around certain customer types or groups.

I also believe that this heavy reliance on “everything must resolve around empathy” whispers at discrimination against the neurodiverse. Certainly not all but some autistic people have low empathy or no empathy. Are we saying that people who do not truly exhibit empathy and feel with customers should not work on our products or in our companies? Are you sure you want to make everything rely on empathy?

And if so, what is your definition of empathy? “I cared about customers” isn’t empathy. It’s sympathy. You know this because it sounds like the sympathy card we give when someone’s cat dies. “I’m so sorry your cat died” is a pretty close cousin of “I’m sorry to hear that our customers are having trouble paying their bill online.”

But having empathy or sympathy doesn’t automatically mean that we care to investigate the problem correctly, or that we’re solving it with the right execution of the right idea. Someone feeling empathy or sympathy isn’t guaranteed to have correct user knowledge thanks to deep and correctly-executed qualitative research. They’re not guaranteed to take any action or the right actions that will drive customer satisfaction.

This is another reason why we have to shift away from using these words. They have become meaningless. I think empathy is nice to have. In the book I wrote in 2019, I said it was important. But since then, I’ve realized it’s not as important as I thought. I will remove that from the future second edition of the book. Great UCD work can be done by people without empathy. Great products can be built at companies who don’t feel for their customers.

It’s all about the knowledge we can generate through proper research and the actions that we choose to take based on that research.

Or we can keep doing little to nothing about any of this

We can dismiss my ideas as “petty” and “vitriol” and “a polemic.” We can pretend that fixing UX is an emotional issue for me, assign this article emotions it doesn’t have, and tone police the heck out of me. I grew up in a family of lawyers and learned quickly that if you wanted to present information, it had to be factual and unemotional… yet people read what I write and imagine all kinds of emotions. It’s easy to target the tone and say little about the content. And it’s amazing how male authors known for their strong perspectives (some perspectives even stronger than mine) rarely get the tone policing or emotions assigned to their writing. But that’s another article. 🙂

If we are supposed to be change agents, then do something. If you’re unhappy with the low maturity aka lack of customer-centricity at your company, if you’re unhappy with your job, if you’re unhappy with crappy customer outcomes… but you want to blast my article for a vibe you didn’t like, then please write your own article on how we solve this.

I would like everybody who sees the problems in our industry but didn’t like my article to please write their own. Do something. Speak up. Stand up. Stop going along with the BS at our companies and jobs. You don’t have to agree with me, but you have to do something. What are you doing other than posting to LinkedIn that Debbie is petty or putting words in my mouth to help you crap on this article?

More design thinking doesn’t solve this. You’ve been trying that for years now, and it didn’t work. More Agile didn’t solve that. We’ve been trying that for years now, and it’s not working. More evangelism won’t solve this. We’ve been trying that for decades and it’s not working and possible backfiring.

We have to undo what’s undoing UX or it will undo us further. I know zero people who believe that the UX industry is in a good space. I know zero people who are happy with having to fight our companies to be understood or utilized. You don’t have to love my article, but you have to do something.

Speak up and do something.

post authorDebbie Levitt

Debbie Levitt, Debbie Levitt, MBA is the CXO of Delta CX, has been a CX and UX strategist, designer, and trainer since the 1990s. She’s a change agent focused on helping companies of all sizes transform towards customer-centricity while using principles of Agile and Lean. Clients have given her the nickname, “Mary Poppins,” because she flies in, improves everything she can, sings a few songs, and flies away to her next adventure. Her “Delta CX” book and “Transforming Toward Customer-Centricity” training teach companies how to improve customer satisfaction, predict and mitigate business risk, and increase ROI by investing in great customer experiences. She has other training programs that teach non-CX roles about CX, why it’s done by specialists, and how to integrate it into teams and processes.

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Ideas In Brief
  • This article presents two key pieces of advice on how to undo what’s undoing us:
    • Stop relying on an approach to workshops.
    • Look at old and current projects.
  • How do we raise CX and UX maturity?
    • Shift away from making UX look easy.
    • Talk about money and time.
  • How to start undoing what’s undoing us:
    • Stop doing Aspirology workshops
    • Promote different versions of design sprints
    • Get rid of design thinking
  • Great design decisions are all about the knowledge designers can generate through proper research and the actions that we choose to take based on that research.

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