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Transactional vs Transformational UX

Is it just me, or is the role of the UX designer something of a Jekyll and Hyde affair?

Jekyll and Hyde illustration

One very important hat that we have to wear is to understand our users and create interfaces that solve real problems for them. The other hat, that I find myself wearing more often, is to convince business leaders, development teams and nay-sayers of the importance of UX. As a result, my work days are a schizophrenic multi-tasking blur where one moment I have to empathise with the user and the next I have to defend my work and thinking, trying my best to spark a transformation in the company’s thinking.

I can’t help but ask the question, each and every time I encounter a moment like this, why did the business hire a UX designer to begin with. Our industry changes as quickly as the technology that surrounds us, and for many UX designers, it would seem that the battle has been won, companies buy in and user centricity is infused in every process and decision that results in a user-facing product. But I’m willing to bet, that for many of us, our schizophrenic work lives are far from being behind us. There has been many writing about the maturity of an organisation, which argues that at lower levels of maturity all stakeholders just have not been convinced of the value of UX. But in my experience some of these organisations seem very convinced, they just don’t seem to think that it should take too long before they see the results.

I recently found a comment by Mr. Alan Cooper that, at that very moment, seemed to shed some light on why, even though a company has taken the step to hire a highly skilled and much sought after resource, but fails to truly utilise the power of user centred design. In his comment, Mr Cooper, so elequantly ranted: “…excessive money in the tech world has compelled people to abandon their youthful, altruistic notions of helping the world with better software design. Now they just want to create products that make the most money in the short term… “.

Now given that Mr. Cooper is concerned with the long term effect we are having on the world, I’m sure his comment was focused much wider than just the short-sightednes of some business people who don’t seem to value a mature UX process. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on the comment hinting at the latter. Business leaders have been lead to believe that introducing “some UX design”, is a good way to make money. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see that by preaching the ROI of UX business leaders may have gotten the message all wrong. And perhaps by promising a 10x return for every buck spent on UX, a.k.a. getting the goose and employing the likes of me or my fellow UXers, business leaders then start counting the time til the golden eggs start rolling straight into their bank accounts. Mr. Jared Spool has been known to exclaim the importance of the UX community being able to “talk business”. And he suggests that we do this so that we can get better at informing business about, not only the ROI, but the upfront investment require to reap the rewards of a mature UX practice.

Design is, after all, about finding a balance between business goals, technology and a human need. In an ideal world, a product team should collaborate in finding this balance and as a UX designer, our task should primarily be to uncover and understand our users. But business goals seem to often be focused on immediate financial returns, and this is proving to force a UX resource into a split personality. I was once told by a very disillusioned colleague that we should make no mistake, nobody was there to achieve any altruistic goals, we were there to deliver value for our stakeholders and nothing else. So forgive me, Mr Alan Cooper, if to me, it seems that you have come to exactly this conclusion.

But what does it mean if the only thing tech businesses are focused on is to make the most money in the short term, by whatever means necessary?

Now don’t get me wrong, this is not a rant, well maybe not all of it. The reality is though, that when the business is completely focused on designing a product that maximises profit, and not to serve the users first and make a profit second, the work of a UX designer will be challenging. There won’t be budget for research, UX resources will be spread extremely thin across development teams, and the project timelines will barely allow for carefully considered design time. And this is exactly the type of environment where Jekyll and Hyde will alternate in making their appearances.

With this being said, there are also many project teams and business people who get it. Products are being designed where the user need informs the product from inception through every iteration and beyond. It would therefore seem that the UX discipline can be divided into two distinct categories: Transactional and Transformational UX. What do I mean by this?

Transactional UX

This is the part of the discipline that is concerned with the daily tasks of interface design and user centric problem solving. This is where UX designers get their hands dirty with user research, wireframes, interaction design and many other tasks that deliver tangible product components that stakeholders can see and interact with and see the progress being ticked off, one box after the other, until the efforts of the product team lay the golden eggs. This means that every UX task is a transaction between you and the business team. And if the business team isn’t interested in “buying” certain items from your UX catalog of capabilities, it will be a tough sale to get them to trade project moola (time mostly) in exchange for a thoroughly considered, researched and designed UX output.

Transformational UX

To put it concisely, this is the sales part of the job. The part where you have to win the favour of the money counters and time keepers to get sign off on spending that extra two weeks really understanding the user and deliberately designing a solution that solves a problem that is well understood and supported by real data. These efforts are aimed at transforming the organisation’s thinking. Transformational UX delivers long term returns, where the upfront investment results in dividends for years to come and can transform an organisation into an innovation machine.

I believe that at the very least, companies get these two high level categories confused when they decide on building UX capabilities. Many companies don’t articulate their transactional need upfront when recruiting UX designers and a lot of the time, this makes a UX designers job very difficult, if not downright frustrating. When an organisation isn’t ready for transformation when they enlist the services of a UX designer, the result is frustration for both the UX designer and the stakeholders, who are no doubt holding their breath until the first golden egg is delivered.

However, you cannot help but ask if a design, with minimal UX effort, will result in a satisfying experience? Can a strictly transactional UX design practice result in good user experiences? Mr. Jacob Nielsen argues that it can result in overall better experiences. After all, each buck spent on UX does result in a 10x return. I must add though, that if the organisation was lucky enough to have stumbled upon a truly underserved need by chance, the product will most likely be a success.

What does it mean for us as practitioners? For starters, we need to be more selective about the type of organisations we work for. We need to do our research and understand the level of effort required to execute our transactional value on a day to day basis, and what the organisation is willing to invest in UX upfront. We need to use our research skills to get the most out of job interviews and we should be willing to accept it if our research points to a low UX maturity and a reluctance to transform.

If we are already in the midst of the Jekyll and Hyde situation, the best we can do is to focus on transforming the organisation at the micro level, until such time as the macro level transformation triggers a change in the UX maturity. And the only way to do this is to focus our transactional efforts on work that will generate a positive feedback loop. It is tedious and will require a lot of patience. And, if you need to, let Mr. Hyde come out from time to time, even if only for the sake of your sanity. Sometimes business leaders need to hear some hard truths.

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Learnings and thoughts on teams and practices for digital product design. I’ve worked for start ups and large corporates. I’ve worked with amazing collaborators and for amazing managers. I’ve also seen the dark side of business expectations and cultures when it comes to tech

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Jani Rostoll

Jani Rostoll

UX Designer, Scrum Product Owner and believer in the happiness we can share with the world.

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