UX, Meet Other Disciplines

A longer, more detailed version of this article was published in UXPA magazine.

I did some light complaining on Twitter a few days ago. (Apologies for the format, please read from the bottom up.)

Via my locked Twitter account. I do entertain add requests.

Twitter is optimized for grousing, and it’s always easier (and more fun!) to complain about a thing than it is to share useful information. So I’ll do my best to amplify a few points.

Making UX Happen

UX practitioners are sometimes tasked with making a product usable and beautiful, while being actively blocked from doing so.

This can happen because the organization they’re working with doesn’t realize that getting to a great user experience requires cross-organizational change, beyond just inviting UX practitioners to join the org.

What do I mean by “cross-organizational change?”

I mean changes that lead to outcomes like:

  • People listen to the UX team. (This is usually the biggest challenge that UX faces, even in companies that claim to value design input.)
  • The product roadmap incorporates UX thinking and research in its content and in the way that items are prioritized.
  • Engineering develops things in a way that enables iteration based on discoveries from usability testing and contextual inquiry.
  • The organization builds a great product that answers real user pain points, that isn’t a collection of disjointed features.

I hear a lot of frustration from UX practitioners about not getting to this state of equilibrium, and I’ve read a lot of blog posts and twitter rants about ways to combat these issues, which are generally confined to “UX people need to do X, as a UX process, and get [companies] to embrace it!”

(I’m setting up a straw man here, I realize, but it’s not that much of a straw man, and I don’t want to link to anyone’s blog post, because I don’t like picking fights on the internet.)

I rarely read anything by a UX practitioner that says “hey, what about using existing engineering and product management methodologies to make great user experience happen?” And it’s frustrating, because this is a thing that can and should be happening. These processes are already there, are embraced by the teams in question, and are a giant lever begging to be used to help the cause of great user experience.

In other words, if you learn the language of the group that frustrates you, you’ll have a much easier route to getting what you need.

Another way to put this is, as a UX practitioner, you can’t just UX harder to get the rest of the organization to listen to you.

Common Processes: Agile/Lean/Design Thinking

Have you ever noticed that Agile and Lean (specifically, “Lean Startup”) aren’t very far apart? Agile is an engineering philosophy (Scrum is the process), and Lean is a product management philosophy geared to startups (but it also applies to companies that aren’t startups, go read about it).

Agile/Scrum is about per-sprint prioritization of work, by the team doing the work, in a way where each unit of work must add value to a product area, and only the most valuable stuff is worked on right away. Lean is about figuring out what’s valuable to a market, and iterating on that in quick cycles.

Lean and Scrum do almost exactly the same thing with a different point of view; one is geared to engineers, the other is geared to product managers and startup founders.

There’s a UX version of this, too: Design Thinking, which is iterative, like Scrum, and geared to finding the right MVP, just like Lean.

If you’re trying to sell Design Thinking to your execs/your engineers/the product managers, try relating it to Lean or Scrum. They’ll start to get it. And they might also start to understand that UX can be central in the process of prioritizing problems to solve, and iterating on solutions.

Common Components: Injecting UX

You could also pick apart the UX process, and inject various bits into the product management or engineering processes.

Specifically, foundational user research conducted by UX can be fed to product managers as part of their process of putting together a roadmap. UX-led research derives different data than PM-led research does, and it’s important for product managers to have the opportunity to meld these two data streams when considering the roadmap.

What exactly is “different data?”

Generally speaking, UX-led research is all about detecting user pain and figuring out opportunities from workflow that exists outside the application in question, while product managers (some, not all) are traditionally more focused on market opportunities and trends. So the data uncovered by the two roles will often be categorically different.

It’s interesting to note that product managers and UX practitioners care about many of the same things; the only thing that differs, 90% of the time, is perspective and focus. (If you happen to be an ambitious person working in UX, it pays to make product managers your friends! You’ll learn a lot.)

Intersect with Engineering

Try working out how to iterate with engineers in the product. Do they/you need a special server to support user testing of in-process work? Agitate for one. Figure out how you’re allied, figure out what they need to help you. Understand Agile Scrum, and — while not being constrained by it — work out how to make the design process intersect with it.

Don’t forget to invite engineers into the design and research process; they are often isolated from the “why” of the work, and will appreciate the perspective, as long as it’s delivered in a way that doesn’t take away significant coding time.

To Fix UX, Step Outside UX

This might sound embarrassingly Zen koan-ish, but the best way to improve the chances of great UX happening in an organization is to solve organizational issues, and the best way to solve organizational issues is to step outside of UX.

This isn’t a statement that designers should learn to code (only do that if you want to), or that designers have to learn every last thing about product management. But if you’re going to have influence in a foreign country, the first step is to learn the language. It can only help.

This is what good senior managers do, by the way: explore how to make an organization better by understanding each group’s way of thinking, and by helping people work together. If you want to be a UX leader in your organization, working this way is a step in the right direction.