The complexities of implementing UX Culture as a low-level UX Designer

If you’re the new UX Designer at a large enterprise level company that’s very much marketing and sales driven, how do you start shifting the conversation of the entire company to focus around product? It’s cultural, isn’t it? And then, is it possible to change something as big as culture at a low-level non-managerial position?

Don’t be frustrated. Be logical.

If something like this has ever ran through your conscience laced with frustration, I have it under good authority that you are not alone. UX/Product Design/HCD is such a new field it doesn’t even have a solidified name yet. Yet we ask companies to trust it’s practices and methodologies we’ve really only read about and hope they trust us enough to pass the ball. Sadly, I’ve never been passed the metaphoric product ball and my frustration has since turned to questioning. Having had so many features and projects foiled against a broken system, processes and bureaucracies I’ve since become curious. Is it me? Or are the political oceans and the regions in which I’ve been assigned to swim in making it unreasonable for me to change the greater current?

Let’s explore. Since empathy is such an important factor for UX/Product Design/HCD, let’s show some now to see the problem through the company’s perspective. Companies striving to keep up with the ever-changing technology markets can at the very least agree with the theories of UX/Product Design/HCD. After all, it’s tough to argue with philosophies like testing your product with your users before they are deployed. So when budget and time allow they simply add a UX designer to their employee roster and wait for magic to start happening. I mean, without a deep knowledge of how proper UX/Product Design/HCD works, it’s actually pretty expected companies would stop the effort here. After all, no one had to change processes and culture when Margaret in accounting was hired and she’s been doing great work!

Margaret in accounting doing great work

But UX/Product Design/HCD is different isn’t it? Imagine with your current skill set, you are dropped into a company solo without any resources. You are presented to everyone as a “UX Designer” without much explanation and sit laterally with the UI Designer and Software Developers on the Org Chart. Recently I asked Bobby Meeks of AutoZone about this. In this clip he explains why you need a sponsor at an executive level to support the efforts of the lower-level endeavors. (I’ve obviously been doing a lot of soul searching here.) But even then, can we do our jobs effectively without the structure of a good product process supporting us? What is our job in this situation? If no one is sure what UX is, what kind of expectations are on us? Can we bring useful insights without the time or resources to collect them? If we do find useful insights without the autonomy to do anything with them, aren’t we left with the same results we would’ve had without research? What are some goals you could realistically accomplish from this vantage point?

Sorry for all the questions (welcome to my brain). Yet, there’s more we haven’t touched on. Things like personalities and team structures. Development cycles or board members having more sway than customers. A manager you report to that doesn’t value UX. A company’s political discourse, a CEO stuck in his own reality or maybe even a co-worker with an intense yet unexplained personal resentment toward you. We’ve all been there and you’ll need to contend with these amidst the other challenges. But when I’m overwhelmed, it helps to break things down. Let’s go through these one-by-one.

What is our job in this situation?

When you were hired, what was the company’s expectation? Are you there to challenge the norm, or just simply produce good product? Can you have one without the other at a company steered by sales?

Currently, I’m working on a quantitative first approach. I promise the first time you run a sprint at any company, something will go wrong and with those hairy eyebrows already raised, the last thing you want is to fuel their skepticism. Instead, lay some ground work down. Build your future processes in a foundation of truths. Build from surveys, prior trusted reports and roadmaps with thought through strategies and real data-backed personas. Sit with customer services to be as close to the customer as possible.

Your job is to represent the user. Figure out how your skills can work to have the user’s voice heard loudest and share that with people. Specifically, find the people that are part of the bigger conversations you’re not currently a blip on the radar in and bug them incessantly with your findings. Learn to speak the companies language in order to be heard. IE: If you’re seeing a lot of power points going around, it’s time to build one yourself.

Can we do our jobs effectively without the structure of a good product process supporting us?

Of course not. That would be like trying to roller-skate in sand. The vehicle (UX) does not fit the road (company processes). The best bet is to slowly introduce a data-driven approach as steadily as possible. You will need people so used to the idea that by the time you run your first real sprint, they should think it’s their idea and that any failure is team owned. It just takes awhile. Patience, grasshopper.

You being a patient young grasshopper or whatever

If no one is sure what UX is, what kind of expectations are on us?

To ship a good product. How “good” is defined depends on the company and how they do things. If this hasn’t been already made clear, CLEAR THIS UP! Find out what core KPI’s your company’s ears perk up at and involve that KPI in every effort you do. Establish how it’s tracked and keep your finger on it’s pulse at all times. If they aren’t sure what to expect, define it yourself and report it weekly by the metric they never knew they already had.

Can we bring useful insights without the time or resources to collect them?

You need resources but you can do a lot with very little. At bare minimum, get a cheap survey tool and a way to record user tests. If you’re taking the quantitative first approach, the quantitative data you’re collecting should be as close to perfect as you can get. But it takes time to collect that (a few months) and you can and should make some small qualitative strides and do user testing along the way.

This is less about process at this point and more about messaging. Let’s say, for example, there is a new feature being built. Hop on a call with a user and talk them through what the company is thinking (also known as a VoC), record and share with stakeholders. If it’s interesting, remind them it’s only one person and you need to do further testing. Just shed some light to some assumptions they didn’t know they could verify.

If we do find useful insights without the autonomy to do anything with them, aren’t we left with the same results we’d have had without research?

Sadly, yes. And it’s this point that could very well leave all prior discussions here moot. Regardless whether they adjusted the product to your findings or not, if products are built knowing any “UX” was done, the company will assume they will see a difference. So if you know Jimbobb’s persona didn’t like the new feature but they shipped it anyway, you’re metrics won’t reflect much and you’ll look pretty useless.

Joebobb Persona loving the new feature

Similarly, if your feature has hit a chord with users but doesn’t adjust the market share, budge the gross profit margin or coincide to the CEO’s dream he had on Tuesday night, you still might be sneered at. The only way to fight back here is to have someone in upper-management that does understand UX and make sure your efforts are aligning on an upper management’s expectations. You need something concrete they already agreed to so you can point at that and only that as indication of success or fail.

What are some goals you could realistically accomplish from this vantage point?

You can shift things to the degree they allow it. That’s pretty much all you’re guaranteed. It’s certainly going to be incredibly thankless and hugely exhausting. But becoming indifferent is also harmful. Early in this quest it’s important to use your empathetic super-powers toward your co-workers. Build understanding and friendships. Playing politics may be required to understand the how and why things work at your company. Approach the challenge with curiosity and never stop asking “why” about everything. You do this then in a few months it should be obvious whether it’s possible to implement UX or not.

If you’ve tried all these approaches and nothing has budged, I salute you as you leave well enough alone and seek more productive endeavors. Treat your past company like a failed usertest of your own services and move forward with new insights and strategies.

You at your a new company