UX design isn’t just for designers

The whole development team is involved in making design decisions.


This has been running around in my head for a couple of years now. During that time I’ve been working for companies at different stages of understanding and implementing both Agile and Lean and of user centred design maturity. I’ve spoken on the subject around ten times now across three countries, the largest was DIBI Edinburgh in front of 500 attendants.

Designers don’t have a place in the Agile development squad, for various reasons as I explain below — we just don’t fit. This concerned me for sometime, until recently I realised the power a designer can bring to a company is greater than the tasks they need to complete within a team.

In this article when I refer to ‘UX Design’ I specifically mean those tasks undertaken by a designer that would include; basic user research, small scale analytics, competitor analysis, process flows and journey mapping, persona creation, empathy mapping, facilitating ideation workshops, usability design and problem solving, wireframing and prototyping.


Corporate UX Maturity

This all started when I read an article written in 2006 by the Nielsen Norman Group; ‘Corporate UX Maturity’. In this two part article they outlined the various stages a company must go through to understand the value and accept the importance of building software products that have been designed with the user’s experience as the main driving force.

This scale has eight stages ranging from general hostility towards usability through to what they call a ‘User-Driven Corporation’, i.e. a company that builds products centred around the users, a company that has User Centred Design (I will use ‘UCD’ from now on) from top to bottom with business processes and services that align to that same thinking.

What the Nielsen Norman Group are describing, as they put it, can take an established company decades to move from immature to mature. Possibly even doubling that time to progress to, what I’ll call the ‘nirvana state’, stage eight.

That was true eleven years ago and for many established companies is still very true today. However, what we see now are thousands of small to medium sized companies who understand the value of UCD right from the beginning of their existence.

These companies have founders with a wealth of experience at companies who have been at various stages of the maturity scale, they’ve been through the struggle and seen plenty of failure along the way. Even if they’re not from a specific design background they still understand the importance of having someone on board to drive a UCD process forward. Furthermore, as these companies grow they are hiring influential Directors of UX or Design who have a presence at board meetings with investors or shareholders.

This essentially means that many companies are starting off, at the very least stage five and in some cases stage seven or even eight.

So this is a great thing right? With an increasing number of UCD mature companies it’s not only great for customers and the businesses serving them, but for designers too. If more companies have an understanding of the value UCD can bring that surely means there’s more demand for designers in the industry.

Well, maybe that’s not necessarily true…


Where does design fit?

As companies move up the maturity scale no doubt they’ll adopt Agile development in some form. With the ‘Build, Measure, Learn’ philosophy in place it allows smaller incremental changes to a product and should also allow the autonomy to optimise products based on fast customer feedback. The squad decides what should be built and how to build it.

On the face of it the UX designer’s position in an Agile development squad could be seen as an influential one. Yet at the early middle stages of the scale they will often be excluded or be working in a separate team, room, floor, building, site, country, or even at a third party agency. If UX Design is so important then why are designers often seen as a separate function?

Many of these external design teams will try and adopt development driven Agile methods as a design process. This often fails because they adopt it too literally. Whether that’s having two weekly scrumesque sprints or the more relaxed Kanban approach, Agile was created by software engineers for software engineers.

Neither of these methodologies are geared towards design and very early on design will be seen as a development blocker or designers will be working so far ahead of development that the whole process becomes waterfall in short iterations. For these reasons many companies that adopt Agile will quickly revert to waterfall, feeling that Agile doesn’t work for them.

A more effective way to integrate a design process into the Agile development squad is to have an ever present UX designer embedded in the squad. Attending standups, planning, retros and all other Agile ceremonies just like the engineers in the squad.

By doing this the squad has a designer on hand to make product decisions and to design elements the engineers will be working on in the next sprint. It also allows the rest of the squad to be engaged and help make more valuable product design decisions together.

This will improve products, people and also move the company up the maturity scale — but it shouldn’t stop there.


Taking design further

Everyone in an Agile development squad should be getting involved in the evolvement of the product and Lean UX gives them that opportunity, it totally opens up the design process to allow everyone to make product decisions together.

To continue moving up the scale the squad really have to embrace user experience design as a squad activity. Every member of the squad has a role to play here, every specific discipline understands something different about the way the product works, what the business and users need, how it’s built and how the users are engaging with it.

It shouldn’t be down to one person to understand all of that because they’d need to gain everyone’s full understanding and insight intimately — as if they were doing the job themselves. It should be down to the whole squad to understand the user experience of the product, because everyone is trying to achieve something great; bringing value to the customer.

As this happens with user experience design, user research follows. Research is an integral part to understanding what should be designed and built and seeing as the whole squad is now involved in that, they should also be heavily involved in both customer research and usability testing.

The squad members should be present at testing sessions to fully understand user issues with any of the product decisions they’ve made, building and testing product prototypes, watching their users engaging and making amends on the fly if possible.


The road to Nirvana

If Agile development squads are to become a democratic product decision making group then the specific role of a UX designer is no longer an essential specific function. I was going to state that this may be an extreme view, but I actually don’t think it is. When fully matured user experience design becomes product design and development.

Interpreting customer problems and ideating solutions to solve those problems is now a group activity that may be facilitated by a designer. With a shared knowledge any member of the squad can grab a white board and marker and draw their conceptual design, allowing the group to discuss, iterate, prototype and test.

This is, simply, great product design and development.

Many of the lower level design tasks are now swallowed up by the normal product development process. At stage eight a company probably has a comprehensive living style guide and only those UX designers with creative visual or coding skill will help maintain and update that. Tone of voice guidelines, data analysis, product vision and strategy are all tasks a UX designer can get involved with but they’re neither a full time job nor the sole responsibility of an embedded designer.

For these companies, at stage seven or eight, designers are now less valuable and become simply design facilitators.


What’s next for designers

If a company is on the way, slowly but surely, up the scale then the requirement to have a UX designer in every Agile development squad will slowly diminish.

Where a company may have had ten development squads with ten UX designers it might now only need five to cover those squads. The more UCD mature the company becomes the less requirement there will be and eventually they may only need one designer to cover those squads.

Designers could become consultants within their own companies — enabling squads in a similar way to that of an Agile Coach. A UX designer could be employed to work with squads and train them in all aspects of UCD and when they’re confident and self organising the designer can move onto another squad, tribe or company.

There’s probably still going to be some requirement to have a designer around for particularly complex functionality and this is where Design Spikes could be utilised effectively. Although, even then, the designer should maybe only be used on a consultant basis to guide the squad to potential solutions they can then test.

UX designers should be prepared as the industry is heading in this direction. Not only larger corporations but also creative digital agencies as their clients learn more about the benefits of Agile and start asking for this service. Part of that could mean adopting Lean UX as a process and employing a UX consultant across multiple client portfolios.

Designers of all levels need to consider their career progression and some may consider going into more focused areas like user research, whereas senior designers may move into consultancy and enablement. Designers with stakeholder management or strategy skills may move to Product Owner or Management roles and those more technically minded could move into front-end or UI development roles.


A new question arises…

… does any of this even matter?

A company’s progression through the maturity scale is undoubtedly a good thing for customers and equally their business. Does it matter than UX designers will no longer have such a specific and tangible part to play?

As user experience design transforms from a single function to a holistic practice the role of the designer will undoubtedly change and it’s how we handle it that matters. There’s a great opportunity to gain more influence at those companies that want to progress, it’s about realising those opportunities and acting on them to bring value and have an impact for both the customers and the business.

This change also has an additional benefit of allowing designers to work more freely. Shaking off the shackles of misunderstanding and helping our colleagues to realise that design is more than art, more than creative subjectivity, more than understanding how to use design tools, and even more than identifying customer problems and creating solutions.

We can leave these design tasks to the self organising and UCD mature teams which will give us the freedom to explore, to consider product vision, develop strategies to achieve it and understand how business services can be optimised to bring value across products and frontline services.

As companies progress up the maturity scale so do the designers within them, whether that’s internal experience being gained or new people joining. When this happens designers will start to let go of the smaller functional tasks and start thinking about the bigger picture.


So is UX Design dead?

No… but it is evolving for those companies and designers that are willing to accept change. UX Design still needs to be done, just not by a UX designer.

The evolvement of UX Design from a task to be completed to a holistic product development approach is exciting. As is the evolvement of UX designers from a functional usability specific role to a wider ranging and more influential strategy based role.

We need to embrace that and it’s clear to me now that great people will do great things; regardless of their position, experience or skill.

We don’t need an industry term to define what or how we design. Nor do we need jargon fuelled processes, restrictive job titles or concrete areas of responsibility to confirm we are doing it right.

We just need great people.


This article is coming, albeit belatedly, after numerous talks on the subject and my view has changed significantly. As I’ve grown as a designer I’ve gained invaluable experience working with the very talented people at both Sky and ThoughtWorks.

If you’re looking for more about Agile, Lean, design and culture you can follow me on Twitter @ndxcc or read more on Northern Dynamics