Photo Credit: Jannes Linders [Attribution], via Wikimedia Common

The C-Suite Embraces Design Leadership

Author’s note: This is an updated version of the article “Design thinking: User experience takes center stage” published in the HPE Business Insights, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise Blog. This article is available in: Português, Español (LAR), Español, Français, Deutsch, Italiano, РYCCKИЙ, 日本語, 한국어, Chinese

Until fairly recently, user experience (UX) practitioners faced some steep challenges to justify their existence and to secure the opportunity to contribute in product development projects. Some of these early battles were resolved with marginal participation or late inclusion in the process. You probably heard something like:

“We need the designer to make this look pretty”

UX designers needed to fight their way into the application development process. Teams were focused on creating solutions that followed the feature roadmap and that were to some extent functional and visually appealing.

“We are done with coding. Could you please perform a usability test before we release?”

However, as IT evolves in organizations, for both consumer and enterprise applications, UX leaders are breaking the barriers of project inclusion and participation and are moving from a tactical to a strategic role. Companies are now embracing user experience (UX) as a core element of their strategy, as a way to realize business value. UX puts people at the center of software development, with the primary focus being to deliver the right solution to the marketplace, addressing the needs and expectations of customers.

Today, UX is driving a business and cultural transformation at the strategic level, with much more ambitious goals centered around what’s known as “design thinking.” Putting the needs of the people we are designing products or services first is leading to a successful digital transformation.

The focus on design has moved from a product-centric philosophy to a three-step process:

  • Thinking about problems from the perspective of users’ needs.
  • Integrating iterative research and application validation to understand the needs and motivations of the people we are designing for.
  • Prototyping and iterating quickly to learn what works, and arriving at the right application sooner.

By taking this approach, organizations not only reduce the software development lifecycle and costly rework, but they also end up with applications that advance overall business goals, both tactical and strategic.

When applied to IT development, UX design is truly revolutionary. Traditionally, IT has been focused on the operational and infrastructure aspects of supporting the business. In the last five to seven years, IT has played a stronger strategic leadership role in the organization by embracing a design-thinking culture, paying closer attention to users — both internal and external — and moving more swiftly and agilely when developing applications.

Of course, IT organizations continue to play an important operational role by keeping the lights on. IT can potentially make a much greater impact, however, by actively participating in the design transformation of the organization — fostering innovation and avoiding the risk of stagnating or being overrun by out-of-control shadow IT activities.

UX design supports the consumerization of IT

People expect more today. In their personal lives, they’re used to having easy-to-learn, easy-to-use, and fun technologies at their fingertips. If they need more functionality for their tablets or smartphones, they download new apps. If they need technology support for their personal devices, they turn to self-service, software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications they can use with no upfront investment and minimal learning curves.

Design helps bring the consumer and enterprise experience closer together

Enterprise users are increasingly impatient with long wait times, clunky interfaces, and outright denials for innovative technology tools from their traditional IT organizations. And when they don’t get what they want from IT, they act like consumers: When they want a new app, they download it. When they need cloud services, they hand over a credit card. But these shadow IT activities raise security and financial risks for organizations.

A focus on a design-driven culture mitigates such risks. You dedicate your IT organization to delivering the right solutions to meet the users’ expected experiences. And “expected” means experiences that are intuitive and easy, as well as innovative, high performing, high-availability, and scalable — and capable of taking your business to the next level.

A culture of learning and collaboration

In developing these experiences, UX emphasizes early application prototyping, agility, validation, and experimentation. It creates an organizational culture of learning.

When you look at the organizations that were leading the technology marketplace 10 or 12 years ago, you’ll notice that many have faded, and some no longer exist at all. But a handful of them are thriving, thanks to their agility, continuous validation, iteration, and willingness to experiment with innovative solutions and new technologies.

Such companies encourage all areas of the organization to collaborate on new application design. Some of them dedicate as much as 20 percent of their time and budgets to experimentation and learning. Other organizations, rather than pursuing a single, big-bang solution, engage multiple teams in smaller efforts that can lead to new and innovative applications, fostering a culture of learning above that of feature delivery.

Fostering a culture of learning above delivery increases the business value of design

Although many of these experiments may not end up as part of the final application, multidisciplinary application teams are constantly learning, and therefore can quickly understand what the right solution is. So product managers, developers, and UX designers increase their mutual understanding of the problem they are attempting to solve.

As the team iterates and moves from validating prototypes to writing code, they have the information and confidence to build a solid, enterprise-class, highly scalable, and high-performing application — whether for internal business users or external customers.

Getting a seat at the table

Here are some key strategies to cultivate design-driven organizations and get design leaders a seat at the table.

  • Design leaders have to show big wins, with clear, quantifiable business metrics. [Karen Pascoe, SVP — Group Head, User Experience at MasterCard]
  • Drive the conversation by answering how design is addressing the C-Suite pain points, finding the opportunities and mapping the design impact in business and technology terms.
  • Position UX design as a critical component in your company’s overall strategy. From the CEO down, everyone in the organization understands that making user-centric applications is critical to the company’s future success.
  • Collaborate and welcome diverse perspectives in the UX design process. Multidisciplinary teams include business leaders, developers, and designers as partners in the process. Favor transparency and inclusion over isolation in your organizational culture, unite IT, business and design.
  • Incorporate UX metrics into employee incentives. Design metrics like user adoption rates and user satisfaction are part of the corporate incentive program, so individuals and teams are motivated to integrate UX design experts at the core of the development process.
  • Sense, learn and iterate directly with the people that use your products and services. Design-driven businesses have processes and people in place to enable continuous conversations with users. The UX research process is participatory and inclusive, and all team members are exposed directly to their customers. [Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden, Sense and Respond Book]
Design gets a seat at the table when leaders articulate & demonstrate the strategic value of UX to the organization.

Organizations need design leaders who are not shy about playing a critical role in driving digital innovation and cultural transformation programs. Catalysts of change need to partner with other executives to drive successful design and innovation programs with enterprise level impact. The C-Suite welcomes design to the leadership table when we clearly articulate the importance and strategic value of UX to the organization.

I invite you to join the conversation and share your perspective.


I am the founder and principal of ITX Digital a design management consulting firm. As a user experience strategist and consultant, I help companies build and increase the strategic impact of their user experience programs.

Let’s talk about a project or if you would like me to speak at your UX conference — info@itxdigital.com