Building a User-Centric Organization by Taking Initiative

At our last Intent Meetup we held a panel discussion focused on what it takes to build user-centric organizations. The event took place at Full Frame theatre in Durham and was co-hosted with Ladies That UX Durham. I got the chance to participate in my first panel discussion alongside Julia Swenson of Willow Tree, Julie Grundy of Bronto, and Mark Ferencik of McKesson.

For those of you who couldn’t make it I wanted to share my thoughts on the discussion points. Spoiler alert, building a user-centric organization is a tough task and I’m still trying to figure out how to do it. I hope you can take some of what I’ve learned and apply it to your initiatives.


1. Tell us about your company, title, role and responsibilities in your job.

My name is Brandon Houlihan. I manage the design team at Ticketmaster Mobile Studio in Durham, NC. We are a small group of designers, engineers, and product managers who utilize new and emerging technologies to create digital products for Ticketmaster.

Some our products take the form of mobile applications. We are also building new products on Google Assistant , Amazon Alexa and Facebook Messenger. Most of our work is exploratory by nature. We try things Ticketmaster doesn’t have the time or resources to test in the mobile space or with new technology.

My main responsibility is to ensure the health and well being of the design team. I work with each designer on their operational and personal goals and make sure they are doing the type or work they want to be doing. Another part of my job is to make sure the design team is properly positioned within our organization and on each product team.

2. Share an example of how you have advocated for UX within your organization, your approach, and how something changed due to your efforts.

The thing I’m most proud of when it comes to advocating for UX is not any specific method I‘ve implement or work I did on a project. It’s more about how myself and the design team have intentionally changed the way we talk about user experience and the impact that’s having on our organization.

I’ve been a part of several teams who put a lot of the focus of “designing” the user experience…so much so that we often, unintentionally, omitted the people we were designing for from the design process. I’ve found it hard for teams to include users in the product development process if we speak about user experience as something we can “design” and predict the outcome of.

Simply acknowledging that users might not understand, or use a product the way you intended opens the door to include those users in the design process, through methods like interviews and usability testing.

Now I’m seeing more people on our product talking about what steps we can take to validate our assumptions about the products we are making. This is a subtle change in the way we talk about design, but it takes a real conscious effort to speak like this on a daily basis.

3. Tell us about a time you advocated for UX and failed. What happened? What would you have done differently if you had a do-over?

For a long time when I tried to introduce UX methods to the teams I was working on I only talked about how the end user would benefit from those methods. My efforts were often met with fierce objection, especially from product managers.

I would often get asked “what is your motivation for wanting to do this”. I would typically give a response like “I want the product to be as usable as possible”. I so badly wanted to advocate for the user that I never considered what benefits my initiatives would bring to the product team.

After several failed attempts, I realized that I needed to tie in business and operational benefits if I wanted to get everyone on board. I also realized that I needed to visualize what I was proposing. It really helps when people, especially product managers, can visualize where UX fits into the product development process and what benefits it provides to that process.

At the start of your next project try to convey early on that UX research methods will help the team understand whether or not the product they have set out to build is going to meet the needs of the intended audience. Talking to the user early on will save time on planning and development cycles.

Once you get that started you can follow up research efforts with usability testing to try and validate the team’s assumptions about the product they are building.

4. What do newer UX practitioners tend to misunderstand about taking UX initiative?

Taking UX initiative is not just about you, the designer, implementing user experience methods into your product development process. In order for those methods to catch on and stick, you need to get your co-workers involved in the process. You need developers and product managers to not only have interest in user experience, but also feel responsibility for it.

Building a user-centric organization is as much about culture as anything else and culture ins’t created in isolation. Take steps to include everyone on your product team in your efforts. Take developers with you when conducting interviews and performing tests. They will quickly see the impact their work has on the user’s experience and UX will start to become less of a thing the Designers do and more of a thing the organization embodies.

The other thing I’d like to mention is that almost everyone I know in tech is constantly trying to make their organization more user-centric. By reading articles online it’s easy to think that everyone else has user-centric design figured out and their organizations always do what’s best for the user. It’s simply not the case. If you are doing your best to make your organization more user-centric you should feel content with your efforts.

5. How do you know when to keep pushing an organization to be user-centric or when it’s hopeless and you should get out?

With any job you need to create opportunities for the things you want to do. While doing that you also need to obtain a balance between your efforts and life outside of work. It’s extremely important that you don’t internalizing every single struggle your organization has.

If your goal is to work as part of a user-centric organization and your efforts aren’t moving the company in that direction, take a step back to try and evaluate how much stress your efforts are bringing to your personal life.

If you go home after work and can’t hold a conversation with your friends or family without being stressed about your job it’s probably time to move on. Even if your efforts eventually make your organization more user-centric it’s not worth it at the cost of your personal relationships, nothing is.

You should also reach out to someone who works at an organization you consider to be user-centric and ask them questions about their experience there and how the organization operates. This will help you gain perspective on just how user-centric your organize is, or isn’t. It’s hard to tell just how bad things are, or how good they are at your job without perspective.

6. What UX initiatives are you working on right now at your current job?

I’m trying to research and establish new ways to do usability testing. One of our biggest blockers is trying to recruit testing participants. It takes time and is shockingly hard to get people to come into your office to test a product, even when you offer proper compensation.

We’ve been working on ways to do remote testing and somewhat less formal testing out in public spaces. Testing in public spaces is a bit limiting because you can’t perform certain methods of testing, but it’s a fantastic way to get your product in the hands of people outside of your office and observe how they use it.

Closing Thoughts

Building a user-centric organization is hard work and it’s going to take time. Human Centric Design is not just about the way you conduct work, it’s about the culture of the people behind the work. Get other’s involved with your initiatives and over time you’ll start to see change. Just make sure you keep a healthy work/life balance while doing so. If you want to talk about this more drop a comment. Thanks for reading 👍