Lessons On Design From A Once And Future Analyst

Two years ago I found myself on the phone, talking with a recruiter about a potential UX design leadership role for an online retailer. It was an interesting opportunity, worth considering, but my heart wasn’t in it. Some part of me knew that I wanted something different than a straightforward ascent up the experience design career ladder.

Here’s where my head was at the time: I felt that I had seen how organizational dynamics affect design work both on the agency side and in-house. But I also sensed that my experiences were shaped by questions about the role of design that I not only could not answer, I could not even see.

I was simply too embedded within the system. Doing the daily work of experience design was an absorbing puzzle that sucked me in and consumed all my attention and made me forget to stop and step back and ask whether the puzzle was even worth solving. My vantage point was all projects and politics and the dulling comfort of daily routines, and that made it hard to fully see a movement in which I was a very active participant. Fish. Water. That old problem.

I found myself questioning whether the importance of UX, which I took for granted, had simply become a matter of faith in my professional echo chamber, or if people who really run the world (of business, at least) believed it, too. I wanted to challenge my own hyperbole. Test my own faith. I wanted to see what really mattered when it comes to experience design, what kind of results it produces, who really does it right.

So I went to Forrester to work as an analyst.

And Forrester did not disappoint.

There, I fielded research with hundreds of practitioners and service providers. I mined their data for industry-wide themes. I interviewed scores of user experience and customer experience professionals about their work. I mucked around in academic research. And best of all, I took questions from lots of companies. Lots. And lots. Of companies. I took hundreds of inquires from different organizations asking questions as basic “what is design thinking?” to those as complex as “what’s the future of mobile experience design for the hospitality industry?”

It was fascinating and educational and humbling. I learned so much.

Fast forward 18 months. I have decided to leave Forrester. Why? Partly for some personal reasons — too much travel, etc. But also, in a way, because of what I’ve learned. May I share?

Lesson 1—Companies Are Desperate For The Kind of Help That Designers Can Provide (But Many Don’t Know It)

What I learned at Forrester is that companies are deeply concerned that they need to improve their customer experience. (They do.) That they need to ready themselves for digital. (They do.) That they need to create a more customer-centric culture. (They do.) And there now streams forth a rush of potential advisors to help with this challenge. UX comes into this conversation sometimes — usually when organizations are trying to improve their digital customer experience — but in many cases, the management consultancies and advertising agencies and branding agencies and IT outsourcers and business systems integrators who are leading the conversation frame the challenge as something much, much bigger.

With so many people in the conversation—and some of them, frankly, much better at speaking in compelling business terms—the in-house UX teams and the specialized UX service providers are, too often, marginalized as mere UI design while the big work goes to the big kids.

Lesson 2—Design Drives Change and Value (No Duh, Right? But What A Relief To Confirm It)

I learned that the companies that have the kind of customer experience practices and digital readiness and customer-centric cultures that others envy take user experience seriously. They have high expectations for it and they dedicate resources that reflect that.

Indeed, what remains so interesting about the practice of UX is that, when done right, it is a locus of the kind of culture change, the kind of pro-customer operations, the kind of integrated digital thinking, that companies are trying to develop. It turns out that how a company approaches UX can have a pretty significant impact on how it readies itself for a host of other big challenges.

I also learned (re-learned? confirmed?) that experience design is absolutely an economic lever. At its most modest, it reduces engineering and maintenance costs by identifying requirements more accurately early on. It lowers support costs, because it makes it easier for people to self serve in digital channels. It drives desirable user behaviors that have direct financial impact and engender loyalty. And for companies with disruptive ambitions, it can help stake out new market opportunities in the experience gaps neglected by old-model industries.

Lesson 3—Still, Too Many Designers Suffer From Poor PR Of Their Own Making

But I also realized why I had needed to explore these questions more deeply in the first place — because designers, it turns out, are not so good at talking about the benefits of design. I am sorry to say it, but I found that UX people were often the least precise in explaining and conveying their own value. (Sorry boo, you know I love you.) Too many UX professionals still don’t have a clear and quantifiable explanation of the benefit of UX, still haven’t rationalized how their source of customer insights squares with the other kinds of customer-focused work that organizations do, and still approach UX in entirely too territorial a fashion. The people who told the story of design best? Often, it was marketers, channel managers, product managers, even operations folks.

UX practitioners desperately need to start absorbing, and then skillfully retelling, the kind of thinking that we’ve been seeing in John Maeda’s annual design in tech report, in the kind of writing coming from McKinsey Digital Labs—and hopefully in the kind of research that I did at Forrester.

Lesson 4—You Don’t Have To Be At An Analyst Firm To Take An Analytical View On Design

Above all, what I learned at Forrester is that insight about where an industry is headed isn’t locked up inside analyst firms. It’s distributed in the heads and experiences of all of you. The challenge is just how to gather and organize it. And wouldn’t it be progressive and communal if that kind of analysis could be shared as freely as we share insight about methods and techniques? No paywalls, no citations. Just our own information reflected back at us, a little more orderly. I think it’s possible.

So, I’m excited to share that I am officially hanging out my shingle. Open for business. Taking the leap.

My plan is to offer design consulting services to help organizations examine how effective their current experience design practices are, and work with them to make them stronger. But with a cherry on top. Because I really don’t want to stop doing analysis. I actually don’t think the UX field can afford to stop doing analysis. So, I’m not stopping. While I’ve decided to leave Forrester, I’m not leaving the pursuit of research and analysis on experience design.

But to do that, I need your help.

So — you saw this coming, right? — I am asking for your help in my first official post-Forrester research effort: a survey on the state of user experience in 2016.

(It asks questions about UX in your organization, and takes about 10 minutes to complete.)

My goal with this survey is to address several questions that we talk about a lot as a community but for which we lack good data. Questions like, where does (and should) UX it sit? What does (and should) it entail? What do we spend on it (and what should we)? And most important, what kind of benefits does great UX make possible?

I’ll be sharing the analysis openly; ETA is sometime this summer. And if you complete the survey, I’ll send you a copy of the raw data.