Sunday, October 26, 2008

UI13 and "Don't Build a Department" for Design

UIE's UI13 conference was fun, even for a volunteer up at 5am every day. A few of the talks really got the adrenaline flowing, including Peter Merholz's "16 (Mostly) Difficult Steps to Becoming a Customer-Experience-Based Organization", and Scott Berkun's talk on "Why Designers Fail".

Merholz's talk outlined a number of points describing successful user experience orgs, including some wise ones I've heard in other similar talks:

  • Execute a quick win [to show your value to the company].
  • Have an executive sponsor.
  • Move up the product planning food chain [i.e., be involved earlier, not just down stream].
  • Have an experience strategy [for the company/products/team].
  • Think systems, not artifacts [a point also made in a recent talk by Don Norman on operations and services, over here].

His final bullet was the admittedly controversial: "Do not become a department." I thought I heard similar sentiments from Jared Spool too, and I have heard this in different flavors from people who cite Amazon's success in building a business based on A/B volume testing of page designs by marketers without usability or interface designers on staff ("let the customers just tell us which one works"), ebay's early success without an empowered design org, etc. The gist of this argument seems to be: Executive mandate for good user experience trumps individuals in the trenches, and good execution requires everyone to play, not just designers. So, have a design-oriented company, not a bunch of designers trying to change a company.

While I agree we want holistic design-oriented companies for better customer experience, I think designers play an important role, if good design matters. Anything that requires skill, training, and practice to do well should be a job in itself, and therefore be a hired position, not a sideline role for someone who is paid to do something else.

Additionally, if you're talking about companies that succeeded despite not having a staff of interaction designers, you might be talking about companies that (1) might have done it faster or more cheaply WITH a staff of designers, or (2) had talented people who were doing design without that job title - have they checked into how they succeeded?, or (3) companies that won as first movers, but could lose in a crowded space with better design and real usability from their competitors. Yes, design isn't the whole story in business success, but it's often important, depending on the competition. And to me it's a moral requirement for a customer-oriented business.

Scott Berkun's pre-conference survey on reasons for designer failure found that the top 2 reasons were agreed to be "People in non-design roles [are] making design decisions," and the related and subsumed "Managers [are] making design decisions without design training." I believe that if you haven't got a strong design department with a recognized skillset and/or haven't empowered your designers in the org, you'll get a committee effect, and design outputs will be worse as a result. (See also Scott's excellent article "The List of Reasons Why Ease of Use Doesn't Happen on Engineering Projects.") Berkun's audience of designers, managers, project managers, and developers also seems to believe this, contrary to Merholz's last point. (Caveat: It's possible that Merholz's position was "hire designers but don't have them grouped in a department, have them spread throughout the company." But a department makes it possible to argue for headcount, achieve hiring and management consistency, enable organizational empowerment, and accountability; NOT having a department makes these things harder and really kind of a crapshoot long-term.)

Another broad theme of many of the UI13 talks was the importance of the strategic role of design in defining the right projects and requirements before design processes start in earnest. While it was valuable to see how many consultants and design agencies do this--often playing a "facilitation" role with their clients' ideas--the reality of most software companies is that product managers (or their equivalent) are making these decisions, and designers live further downstream. The ideal is otherwise, but that's how it often is.


Samantha LeVan said...

My feeling on the department question is that regardless of whether design is centralized, a talented designer should be devoted to each project. If that means there is a department of designers that consult their work to other teams, so be it. If that means that each designer is hired independently for different project groups -fine.

What doesn't work well is hiring no designers. Increasingly, companies have recognized the need for user experience designers - people talented in IA, usability, visual design, etc - but the focus remains on consumer-facing applications and websites.

My hope is that someday, whether as part of a user experience department, or individually, UX people are hired for internal applications (business apps for employees) as well.

Lynn said...

Hi Sam,

One company that does devote UX time to internal apps is The MathWorks. It's one of the best things they do, in that it shows how much they value their own employees. Giving people tools that are easy to use is a good sign that you respect your staff.

My concern with Merholz's "don't have a department" is that it doesn't work pragmatically. To hire designers and to hire them well (with good criteria) at any reasonably-sized company requires a department. It's a necessity for funding arguments, normally. But small companies might do okay without a department, as long as their is CEO-level support for having design on staff on projects.