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What Is Holding User Experience Back Where You Work?

by Richard Anderson
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Richard Anderson looks at what propels the user experience “boat” forward?

A couple of months ago, I referenced variations of a boat metaphor (see Changing the course or pace of a large ship) that I have found is often used by User Experience management personnel to describe what it feels or felt like to build and establish a corporate User Experience function, get it understood and valued, enable it to contribute to a business to the extent that it can, etc. As I stated in that blog entry, one director described the pace of change he has been able to achieve as akin to the pace of an oil tanker rather than a speed boat.

During our recently completed Managing User Experience Groups course, I used a part of that variation of the metaphor to learn about some of what is holding User Experience back or propelling User Experience forward in the rather wide range of companies represented by the students. More specifically, I used two forms of the Speed Boat exercise described in the recently published “Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products Through Collaborative Play” (see The way we work has enormous power).

For one exercise, I drew a speed boat and several anchors hanging from it on the whiteboard, and asked everyone to write onto post-its whatever has been holding User Experience back where they work and then place those post-its on the several anchors.

Some of the “anchors” holding their User Experience “boats” back:

  • lack of an executive user experience role
  • lack of leadership
  • an unclear business direction
  • inconsistent impact of User Experience on the business
  • lack of senior management and other key stakeholder understanding of the importance of user experience to success
  • lack of understanding of user experience roles
  • lack of understanding of user experience process
  • user experience process is considered to be overhead
  • different processes for different projects
  • last-minute changes made by executives to user experience strategies
  • an inability to develop innovative ideas
  • too many people need to be OK with an idea or a solution
  • a splintered user experience group
  • excessive workloads
  • shortage of user experience personnel/resources
  • inadequate support
  • resources applied to addressing features rather than wholistic design
  • no continued evaluation of products (i.e., there is never a phase 2)
  • fear of change; fear of users (who don’t like change)
  • no explicit budget for user experience activities
  • inappropriate balance between strategic work and implementation work
  • nature of the physical work environment
  • inadequate measurement or sharing of user experience success

Are any of those akin to “anchors” holding User Experience back where you work?

To learn what the students believe has been key to propelling User Experience forward where they work (to the extent that it has been propelled or is being propelled forward), I shifted the focus of the Speed Boat exercise from the anchors to — you guessed it — the engine propellers (see nearby photo). Interestingly, in several cases, “propelling forward” encompassed “moving upstream,” to use yet another metaphor which, at least on the surface, is moving in the opposite direction! 😉

Some of what has been key to propelling their User Experience “boats” forward:

  • adding team members & expertise
  • an executive champion
  • situations in which user experience team input saved the company money
  • executive support (which has enabled bypassing bureaucracy)
  • exaggerations of the successes of the user experience organization
  • hard work
  • a dedicated prototype team that helps “show” what user experience personnel mean
  • active participation by user experience personnel in meetings (e.g., product reviews)
  • building relationships
  • a better understanding & evangelizing of the design process
  • client satisfaction; repeat business
  • collaboration with developers
  • success at customer demos of new concepts
  • asking questions in meetings where you’re not expected to
  • good customer feedback from UI reskinning
  • outside validation of the user experience process
  • talking about use cases and users to folks who typically only think about features
  • the overall positioning of the company (which now focuses on user experience)
  • PM & developer champions, who tell others to “go ask (the User Experience Lead)”
  • early prototypes
  • familiarity with the benefits of user experience process
  • evangelizing bottom-up
  • increased sales (because of user experience work)
  • improved metrics for flows after redesigns
  • combining UI, user research, visual design, & content/copy into a single department
  • socializing personas to the rest of the company via large posters and information booklets
  • good client feedback to design
  • flexibility: a willingness to do “a little” (rather than a full-blown research-design process) so to prove value

What a diverse collection of “propellers”!

In the course, we examine all sorts of “anchors” and “propellers” — including many not appearing in the above lists — to help students figure out how to move user experience further forward where they work.

What is holding User Experience back where you work? Why is that the case? What is needed to disengage those anchors and to propel User Experience further forward?

Why bother with the speed boats and the anchors and the propellers? There are several reasons, but one of the most interesting, in my view, is how they appear to help tap what participants actually “experience” in their workplace.

Note that at least one student plans to use a speed boat game akin to that described above to help in his process of working with others in his workplace to figure out how to move User Experience further forward. Perhaps you would find it of value to facilitate such a collaborative effort where you work.

post authorRichard Anderson

Richard Anderson,

Richard Anderson is a 'user experience' practice, management, and organizational strategy consultant with international management, cross-organizational development, and more than 20 years of experience. He started and directed the Experience Center at Viant, as well as the User Research & Experience Strategy discipline at Studio Archetype and Sapient, and has held and supported other management roles in an assortment of companies. Via various consulting, advisory, and employment roles, and his workshops, courses, conference programs, and more, he has helped move 'user/customer experience' into a position of greater influence in numerous companies. At CHI 2007, Richard received SIGCHI's Lifetime Service Award for extensively facilitating and spreading the development of the field via his leadership contributions to BayCHI and to other chapters of SIGCHI around the world. He was Co-Editor-in-Chief of interactions magazine from 2008 through 2010.

Richard can be followed via Twitter @riander and Riander Blog.


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