Getting to UX

Tips for Moving Towards Design Infused Organizations

User experience, the practice of informing business decisions based on continuous user feedback, is not the newest kid on the block anymore. However, while some people are worrying about worlds that are post-agile, or pre-post-agile, or some other approach to the future of development, I’d like to advocate for first-things, or how to get to UX. Much of the enterprise market is still deeply lacking UX capabilities, and while some of us are to advance, a wide swath of the market is still waiting to catch up.

Design-driven thinking about product and culture is now everywhere. From startups to Fortune 500 brands, design and agile practices are making headlines. But while the buzz is in the headlines, integrating a design practice into an organization that has never had one remains a massive challenge.

Even with these wins, one of design’s biggest threats remains a lack of successful implementation for design practices. There are many possible examples of this, but a few that come to mind are: A lack of understanding for the value of design, the segmentation or siloing of design culture, an inability to communicate the value of user feedback at the decision-maker level. These are what we call risks.

How did we get here?

According to the Standish Group’s famous CHAOS Report of 2000, 25% of all projects still fail outright through eventual cancellation, with no useful software deployed.

The Standish Group has been formally researching the causes of software project success and failure since 1994. Standish’s research encompasses 22 years of data on why projects succeed or fail, representing more than 50,000 active completed IT projects and more than 60,000 inactive completed projects stored in a database.

Agile consultant Craig Larman provides this interesting quote in his book, from a 1995 study: “46% of the systems so egregiously did not meet the real needs (although they met the specifications) that they were never successfully used, and another 20% required extensive rework”.

So, this leaves us with a big messy history of failure. Failure is interesting and can be valuable insofar as you learn from it, but has all that much changed for design?

Where are we now?

Design is in the headlines, from culture, to business, everyone’s starting to catch on to the value of design. In fact, the Design Management Institute has been cited very often for this quote:

2014 results show that over the last 10 years design-led companies have maintained significant stock market advantage, outperforming the S&P by an extraordinary 219%…Design-driven companies outperform the S&P 500 by 219%. -DMI.Org

Turns out, design can drive value. But, this shouldn’t be taken for granted as easily replicated. There are big advancements happening in companies all over the world, for methods and patterns that make room for design-thinking in the Software Delivery Lifecycle. However, there is danger in not getting to first-things and explaining them.

What I mean by that is, when something becomes common language but not common knowledge, that knowledge gap creates a lot of assumptions. The word Agile has become a catch all for productivity. But Agile is not a silver bullet. Done poorly, agile means rushing toward the wrong thing quickly in little pieces that don’t fit together.

Design has come a long way. Design thinking has a Kanye West byline. Forbes has hundreds of articles on design thinking. But in the midst of all this noise, where is the signal?

Certainly, we are not to the point where design can be neatly unpackaged, dropped into any environment and make a difference. I don’t know we’ll ever get there. But, don’t be sad! There are things we can do to facilitate the ease of transformation.

Design Led?

In 2015, a report by User Testing showed that only 6% of engineering teams feel there is any value from UX research. We’re in the midst of an emerging movement to build great products and campaigns through continuous feedback from customers. But design alone is not the way. Just like engineering alone breaks the best parts of agile when it becomes dogma, so too, design leadership is an awkward stage in the evolution of design organizations.

“Good design is the byproduct of organizations that care about design.” -Jared Spool.
The Journey to Mastery is something every organization on the planet is questing for, when it comes to UX.

We have to examine the ways we work and develop what’s best. In the digital economy, we have to think in terms of Exposure, Curiosity, Literacy, Fluency, and Mastery.

Design is not about the pixels on the screen, it’s about getting everyone to take part in understanding the need for progression in the customer’s experience. Design today asks us to be aware of our context, and find meaningful areas of leverage for transformation. The chart above demonstrates the journey toward mastery.

When engineering, copy, marketing, product and others see themselves on a journey toward mastery of customer knowledge and service, beautiful things can happen. We have to work together, and not dictate to each other, but collaborate for success.

It turns out being “Design Led” is just one more step in a larger process of getting to a place where we no longer think strictly about who owns what, but about how we work together best.

Bring it Together

Fragmented functionality is a symptom of fragmented views of customers. Nobody feels the pain of a disjointed organization more than the customer. Long before internal teams realize they have a problem internally, customers are being shuffled from one department to another to solve their problems. This is so easily fixed, but it continues to persist at countless organizations.

One of the best methods to handle this challenge is to develop cross-functional or balanced teams.

Balanced Team (n.): An autonomous group of people with a variety of skills and talents supporting each other across the customer journey toward a shared goal. A balanced team has all the resources and authority needed to complete projects on its own.

In software design, these teams usually consist of a Project Manager, a Researcher/Designer and at least two Developers.

Other organizations like advertising firms might benefit from putting together copy, design, and development in a single cross-functional unit. Each team benefits from a variety of skills and talents informing decisions made by the team.

Design culture, it turns out, is the symptom of a larger cultural affordance: empathy.

Balanced teams gain insight from each other and leverage each others’ skills for quicker delivery and transformation from a risk-heavy waterfall organization into autonomous teams capable of delivering entire experiences to market faster and with less risk.

You Don’t Know my Org

But how does this work for me, you might be thinking?

If you’re a decision maker, work with your peers to build a pilot project for a cross-functional team. Pull together the experts from across your customer experience t work together as a single unit.

If you have a team larger than 7, it’s too big. Aim small, fast and doable for your first target. It’s important that this team not be a pass/fail experiment. Work with other decision makers, your bosses or peers and be open to long-term improvement and testing. Each week, the team should meet and examine strengths and weaknesses of the setup using a retrospective.

Use these as columns and attach stick notes below each column.

This feedback time is critical to developing the first things your team needs. The brilliant basics covered by this style of product/experience delivery include: Empathy, Communication, Continuous Feedback, Autonomous Decision Making and Experimentation.

If you’re not a decision maker, align yourself with someone who is. Get to understand co-worker perspectives on the big challenges your organization is facing and catalog them (without being negative or inviting trash talk).

That part about trash talk is important, your goal is not to cause a commotion, but to conduct discovery that can help the organization look in the mirror. Put together your research and present it to your boss as a story.

Don’t give them every detail, or who said what, but take the aggregate pain points and highlight the problems. Help them highlight major themes and then lead a ‘How Might We’ workshop popularized by design firm IDEO. This will help you focus on the right challenges, first by framing them as opportunities.

Here’s an example:

This is an example of a ‘How Might We’ Question

What’s Next?

It’s important to think about new methodologies and how to improve our existing ones. But there’s a deep and abiding value in focusing on Brilliant Basics, the fundamentals that get us from square zero to undertaking the journey in the first place.

The brilliant basics you should aim to enable are: Empathy, Communication, Continuous Feedback, Autonomous Decision Making and Experimentation. This is how products and experiences are getting built. This process is not just for software, it’s for experience design of any kind.

When your values are in the right place, and you know what you’re aiming for, you can gauge your success and continuously refine your processes for success.

If you would like more thoughts on how to develop a design practice at your organization, feel free to reach out to me. If you like these posts, you can check out my website at

If you’d like to read more about UX Trends from 2015, check out this report from User Testing.