Posted on: 17 April 2015
Tedde van Gelderen
Founder & President
UX Design as a Silver Bullet
At some point, in your early career as a UX designer, it happens: you are working on a project with multiple, even many stakeholders that each put in their “2 cents”, their point of view on button labels, screen flows, screen element placement and color choices. Their seemingly ‘small’ suggestions turn out to be much more than that: they should be taken as directives. So the next time the design is reviewed, there will be a conversation about the stakeholders’ design inputs and why their suggestions are not there. And then a third round of changes commences that can go well into the double digits.
So, what happens here? What makes this ‘design approach’ so prevalent in organizations? I often wonder about that.
I think this is the main reason and all other reasons fall from this one: adhering to a design process that can be found in many other areas of business; capture some requirements, create something, an internal review follows to poke holes in it, try to create a better/newer version again and again until the most important stakeholders say this is good enough and/or a deadline is reached that forces the conclusion.
The above approach happens in finance (next year’s budget report, grant application), HR (new job definition and hiring for the role), project management (schedules and plans), and marketing (campaigns and events). I am sure you can come up with more examples.
Product Creation Process is No Different
So it really shouldn’t come as a big surprise, at least initially, that product creation is approached in a similar manner. We have a kick-off about the new product or service. We write down or just talk about what we want this thing to be. Then the engineers and designers go away and put something together that the key stakeholders can then poke holes in, change what we have (hopefully for the better), build some more, and more, and more until the stakeholder says it’s good enough or it needs to be launched in the market place. Business as usual, right?
And really, why approach this particular product design thing any different than the other dozen projects on the go? Or so goes the often implicit reasoning.
So whenever the UX person starts to advocate for ‘user research’, ‘usability testing’, ‘wireframe prototypes’ or ‘information architecture’, in addition to the visual design that is often equated to UX design, it should not come as a big shock that the key stakeholders show initial bewilderment. I often see an adverse reaction to these proposed UX activities that seem to come from really deep within. It feels like, in suggesting these UX activities, we are advocating a change of the world order, a movement of the building boulders of ‘how we work’. The response that follows is therefore often swift and resolute: ‘We have no time for all this.’, ‘We have smart engineers who can figure this out.’, ‘The market is not ready for this kind of design.’, ‘I know my users won’t accept this.’, ‘We have been successful without these things.’, ‘Aren’t you good at your job?’, ‘I assumed you would give me top drawer designs without this stuff?, ‘Your fees certainly imply that!’, ‘Let’s try without first and when we get into a bind we will consider this Cadillac of UX design.’, ‘I have developed software products for 30 years and in all of those years, I have never heard of this stuff. Are you sure you know what you are doing?’.
The UX Minds
To a degree I can see their point. If it was me, and someone tried to inject all these, new to me, activities into something I don’t have a lot of experience with, I would be skeptical too. It does take a particular type of mind to become open to the possibility of success with these ‘added’ activities.
Usually these minds become much more receptive in the face of failure, as in risking the launch of a failing product and ultimately the potential of a failing business. This is the time where businesses start to explore other avenues to maintain and achieve success (again) and sometimes see UX activities as a promising approach. Now you would think that this is a good thing, at least the key stakeholder wants to include some testing, some design iteration and perhaps even some user research. And yes, in and of itself, this looks like a good situation. However, it also comes with higher pressure for the stakeholders and their organization. A typical side effect of this increased pressure is an increased desire on the part of the stakeholders to be involved and to control the proceedings: they want to be in on every decision and they want to make sure they understand what is happening and surprisingly enough become opinionated about how you do the UX work, even though it is new to them and you are the specialist. They become the latest expert in the UX field over the course of a couple of weeks!
Back to Square One
All this leads then to a re-application of the tried and true approach to UX research projects: capture some product research requirements, do the research plan, stakeholders review it, you change/’improve’, until the time runs out and you do the research. Regularly the stakeholder will push for so many adjustments in the plan that the most appropriate approach is morphed into a version that is half as good, at best. This increases the risk of a mediocre result, which in turn will make the stakeholders even more nervous, resulting in increased need for control, etc,
I am seeing the above phenomenon happen more often over the last couple of years. UX work is, more than before, regarded as a shiny new fix, an approach that needs to deliver excellent results fast and preferably the first time around. It competes in depth and completeness, within the first project we do, with decades of market research, software development practices, core business practices and project management practices. It faces a challenge of proving itself in this atmosphere of, ‘With your first shot, please can you guarantee you’ll hit the bulls-eye?’ environment where overall expectations are high, looking over the shoulder is intense and blunt stakeholder interference can be a detractor to meeting these expectations. This is not an excuse, but a genuine challenge for a slowly maturing UX field that is dependent on a constant flow of big successes to create a shift in traditional project approach thinking.
Sustained UX Success
Because one thing is clear, in order to have sustained UX success and show the value, we simply have to inject these research, design and test activities as a foundational element of each product creation project. The old approach just doesn’t cut it anymore. Ask anyone responsible for a failed product.
Tedde van Gelderen
Founder & President
Continually looking for ways to improve the experiences of others, Tedde has dedicated his professional life to experience design, research and strategy. He derives energy, motivation, and purpose from improving the experiences of others and believes that every organization — and every industry — can benefit from Experience Thinking.