The Wicked Craft of Enterprise UX

Is there a place for craft while designing for the inherent wickedness of Enterprise UX?

The following is based upon prepared text for my talk on “Wicked Craft”, at the Enterprise UX 2015 conference held in San Antonio May 13–15, 2015.

What is craft in the digital medium, when it comes to designing apps, services, and products?

While everyone seems to have different definitions of craft, there are some common threads that suggest a special quality of diligence, pride, and beauty, borne out of shaping some raw material with the utmost personal care — whether it’s your hands covered with flour & sugar while making a pie, or some industrial-machined aluminum grafted with a high-resolution pixel display powered by smart algorithms…to keep your family comfortable while enjoying that delicious pie.

Indeed, we see plentiful examples of so-called “digital craft” all around us nowadays. From elegant wearables hanging off our wrists, quantifying our daily movements…to electric sedans flying down the highway, keeping us ecologically conscious…to a comprehensive visual design system that ties disparate screens and displays into a unified whole. There is this exquisite purity of the form, as a complete & final object. Craft here is a visceral expression of pride of making & materiality. It is a benchmark in its own right — to say something is “well-crafted”…or embodies a sense of “craftsmanship” worthy of our praise.

However, the context we’re discussing today is Enterprise UX —a far cry from the crisp clarity of craft. By no means is it precise or well-defined. There is an “intertwingled” — to borrow Peter Morville’s term — mess of issues that often frustrate and confuse. Ugh! From security controls to rigid frameworks to workflows…It’s a fuzzy melange fraught with ambiguity, complexity and anxiety, with no easy, straightforward or “right” solutions. Indeed, we’re trying to suss out the actual problems here, aren’t we? That’s why we’re here at this conference. It is, in a word…Wicked.

So, how do we reconcile these seemingly opposing concepts of Craft & Enterprise UX?

More directly — Is there a place for craft in Enterprise UX?

That is the question before us, so let me try to answer…

I suggest we shift our thinking about craft towards something I call a facilitative anchor — a paradoxical phrase, I realize — that grounds you in the fuzzy chaos of Enterprise UX. We need to evolve our notion of craft from the beautiful finalized object, to a powerful anchor for guiding crucial conversations with wily or wary Enterprise stakeholders, thus setting up a culture of making, in effect a participatory approach to wrestling with wickedness, where Sales, Marketing, Engineering, Business Development are all “making their way” (literally) towards understanding & resolving the complexity of Enterprise apps & services.

To demonstrate, I’ll share three stories of how I have used craft in this way. I shall identify some common qualities, and ultimately arrive at how “wicked craft” in effect becomes a participatory process for teams.

Now, before I continue with my stories, let me first be very clear:

Craft as an aspirational value of making high quality objects still matters.

Absolutely! As a mentor once told me, if you’re gonna sell a product for a million bucks — and let’s face it, many Enterprise app installations cost quite a bit — well, it better look like a million bucks. Precise care must be applied to every font, button, color, icon, interaction state or transition. And it’s not for some poetic sense of beauty — I mean, that’s important, too! This instills confidence in the buyer, the CIO or whoever, that they are getting a good product for their money. After all, nobody wants to buy — or use, if it’s the knowledge worker depending on this app for 8–10 hours a day, 5 days a week to get their work done— a sloppy product. Done right, a well-crafted product conveys trust, integrity, and quality that you can literally bank on.

This approach has guided leading enterprise firms like IBM, Citrix, Salesforce, and others in this field. And this has led to winning hearts & minds, cultivating “good will” (or tolerance) from users that translates to customer loyalty reflected in social media (tweets and likes, so forth)…as well as, of course, bottom line financial returns in terms of revenues and profits. This has been cited many times, as we know.

OK. So, creating a beautiful, high quality product still matters in Enterprise UX. Now what?

Well, the path to getting to that high quality object is a rather circuitous and meandering journey, often difficult and frustrating, as we deal with a variety of opinionated, even cynical, stakeholders with issues that constitute the “wickedness” of Enterprise UX. There’s a swirling mess of constraints, contingencies, compromises, channels, and so forth. Let’s break it down a bit — what are some core elements that define the challenges of an Enterprise UX situation? Maybe this will give us a clue to how to use craft effectively…

  • Grokking the relationships among thousands of objects & actions defined within an often fragile, convoluted database.
  • Clarifying the goals and intents between the CIO (buyer) and IT admin (user) in a contentious Sales process of mixed channels.
  • Assessing the political currents pressuring the GM to “fix the damn app” but where do you begin, while burdened by a legacy technical base or some newly signed-on vendor.

Whew! This can all make your head spin, losing your sense of focus and priority. How does craft figure into all this, again?

No designer can resolve these challenges on their own, of course! This requires conversation and engagement with difficult, even apathetic skeptics. But how? Well, this is where the power of craft as a facilitative anchor comes into play…

Creating those artifacts — diagrams, maps, wireframes, prototypes — provides that center of gravity to draw competing perspectives & stakeholders together.

Tangible forms naturally force everyone to react, thus become facilitative anchors to guide crucial conversations about what matters most: purpose, values, criteria, targets, etc. This moves us from hand-waving to hand-making. In effect, craft becomes a tool for the designer to achieve alignment, provoke innovative discourse, and get everyone out of energy sapping “paralysis analysis” modes, often found in Enterprise bureaucracy. Whoa…

What do I mean by facilitative anchor? Well, let’s get real with a few brief examples. I’ll share three simple stories. Each one is just a little bit different, providing variations on this theme of “facilitative anchor”. The first story is about a reactive model of craft. The second is what I call interpretive. And the final story is strongly collaborative. Let’s dive in!

Reactive Craft: Architecture Diagrams at Oracle

Long ago, as a junior designer at Oracle in their UI standards group, I was firmly challenged by a business group GM to “fix up” a messy e-business web-based application UI. But it was more than fixing the interface, of course. As the earnest, dutiful young designer wanting to make a big first impression, I reacted by mapping out the entire application UI architecture, as a massive — yet nicely annotated with polite questions — 7 foot long diagram! I printed it all out, rolled it up and took it up to the GM’s office. At that review, faced with this monstrosity of an artifact, the surprised (okay, slightly annoyed too!) GM then took a broader strategic view of the problem, re-evaluating the situation, thus improving the resource allocation and timeframe overall. This illustrates using a crafted artifact to force clarity of the intricacies in a large, complex problem space.

Interpretive Craft: Sketches & iterations at Citrix

More recently at Citrix, I had the good fortune to work directly with the CEO and his top execs on a new product. Brimming with ideas and enthusiasm, Mark Templeton would always like to sketch out his thoughts on paper or whiteboard. He has a rare natural affinity for sketching, putting his abstract thoughts down for others to play with. So, in this case for me it was less about reacting but more about interpreting and translating these 100,000 foot level insights into something tangible, expressed as an interface or product solution. You’ve heard of “Dancing with the Stars”? Well, this was “Dancing with the CEO” (and execs), taking turns leading and following, in an interpretive fashion. We went back and forth from sketch to mockups to storyboards to a cardboard prototype…all in an interpretive dance, a dialogue of understanding intents and goals, creating experiments that led to a final design direction. This shows how crafting artifacts achieves a mutually beneficial understanding.

Collaborative Craft: Stickies & whiteboarding at CloudPhysics

Finally, last year I was “head of UX” at an Enterprise Big Data startup — which is a fancy way to say, I was really a team of one, designing everything! Working with a team of brilliant, eager data scientists and highly motivated founders, I knew I couldn’t just do my own designs in isolation. I needed to tap into everyone’s collective wisdom of the market, features, and so forth. But we had too many opinions and cooks in the kitchen! So we held team design sessions, first with sticky notes in a coordinated manner defining the qualities of the targeted users, as personas. This forced everyone to put their ideas on paper and defend them. Second, we mapped out on a large whiteboard the objects, actions, and relationships of key elements of the app, to tease out conflicts and overlaps — yes, many of them! This included defining the business model and value prop, too. Ultimately, these activities and resulting artifacts helped get alignment of diverse opinions and goals.

So, those are three stories of how I successfully used craft as a facilitative anchor in a variety of ways to resolve some sticky Enterprise UX issues — Reactive, interpretive, and collaborative.

If you were paying close attention, you might notice some common threads — three in particular…

First, all these artifacts are totally temporary, transient, and throwaway! That’s the funny irony of this kind of notion around craft. None of them are precious at all. Instead, they are intended to live as long as they are useful for the dialogue, that crucial conversation to resolve constraints and conflicts…that’s it. No longer than that! Indeed, you must walk the path through the un-precious, to get to the precious.

Second, these artifacts are intended to drive debates & decisions… and keep that momentum going forward, to help break the “analysis paralysis” often inherent to Enterprise politics or bureaucracy. People love to react to some tangible form, being the critics that we are. And something temporary, tangible, and visual helps clarify or provoke in a distinctive way, requiring decisions to be made, and thus progress.

Finally, craft as a facilitative anchor forces people to see problems in a novel, different way. That’s simply a natural reaction. There is something kinesthetic — that hand/mind/body connection of playing & making — and wonderfully optimistic about encouraging someone to have that epiphany, that realization there is some deeper problem or opportunity to be tapped into, which comes about only from creating and reacting, getting folks out of spreadsheets and slides, or 100 page documents. So take advantage of it!

Yet there is one more thing…Ultimately the value of craft in this way is to empower a maker culture, to encourage everyone in the non-UX fields, the allies and peers we coordinate with regularly, to want to be part of this activity and approach.

Craft becomes a path to teamwork, collaboration, and
a model of design leadership through making.

In effect, you are role modeling good behavior for our non-UX colleagues to emulate, and embody into their own work, which affects our work too — it’s a virtuous cycle! The facilitative power of craft is what makes craft have a place & role in Enterprise, tapping into something primal or human about all this — we love to make things, and show them off. And in this case go that extra step — to dig into what’s meaningful about the wicked problem to solve. This is how craft works in the enterprise, helping to create something beyond what anyone had originally imagined, together. Thank you.