The State of Enterprise UX

I was fortunate to attend Enterprise UX 2017, the San Francisco edition of the Rosenfeld Media conference, at the Innovation Hangar over June 8 and 9. This brief (non-comprehensive) write up is what stood out to me, and what I think is interesting to share — both with those who attended the conference and those who didn’t.

The elephant in the room: Doing things differently

Let’s talk about the elephant first. I’m not referring to the logo, but to the technical and operational difficulties: from heat to wiring to AV, the conference was plagued with them. The organizers said they selected this particular space because it was cool, different, and more interesting than the typical hotel event space. They took a risk, and things went wrong. This, to me, was an interesting and powerful metaphor for all of enterprise UX.

The EUX organizers were trying to do things differently at least in part because enterprise design, as a field, is trying to do things differently. As a field, we’re trying to shake the stodgy image, bring in new thinking, and provide the kinds of great experiences our users expect from their consumer apps. There’s no question for me that all of enterprise UX output is improving as a result of these efforts.

Along the way, we’re struggling with the operational and tactical realities of doing things differently. Like the conference, we don’t have the metaphorical wiring, vents, and lighting in place to give our content the best chance of being seen and heard. Which is to say, there’s a good chance we haven’t collectively realized how hard it’s going to be to find our strategic partners, align our stakeholders, and get our teams up to speed on operationalizing the new way.

It’s worth mentioning that the organizers and speakers all did a beautiful job of rallying. Enterprise UX is nothing if not resilient and resourceful.

A quick word on design systems

Craig Villamor’s talk on the development of Salesforce’s Lightning Design System was timely as well as fun and smart. I sat at our Salesforce booth for a while after that talk, and almost everyone who came by wanted to learn about or talk about design systems. With good reason! See below for how design systems are really a Trojan horse.

My favorite moments

Elizabeth Churchill: time is a material we design
The opening keynote was from Elizabeth Churchill, Director of UX at Google, in a talk that beautifully married the academic and the pragmatic. I was particularly excited to hear her defending the word tactical. It’s not tactical vs strategic, as she explained.

If you look within anything tactical, you’ll find deeper goals, deeper insights, and a way to get things moving in the right direction. When she helped create Google’s Material Design system, it wasn’t just rules or a kit, it was a way to codify UX best practices and embed design principles into a service that the entire enterprise was able to use and digest. Basically, it was a Trojan horse with positive impact.

What matters, she stressed repeatedly, is what deliverables enable. What we’re really designing is time, and the best thing we can build with time is trust, conversations, and collaboration.

Tricia Wang: decision-makers need to be closer to the insights
My favorite talk of the conference was from Tricia Wang, tech ethnographer and co-founder of Constellate Data. This was a fascinating and fun look at the history of hierarchical decision-making and the impact of railroads (yes, railroads) on the modern-day failures of corporate innovation. The numbers are clear: corporate innovation efforts aren’t working! More money than ever is being thrown at R&D, but there’s a 65% decrease in ROI. What’s going on?

For one thing, insights are being divorced from on-the-ground realities and diluted into a stream of summaries and key metrics to keep decision makers well-informed. We believe that the people who receive reports and make decisions are more knowledge and more important than the people who make the reports. Yet, on-the-ground people are the ones who see change creeping in, the kind of change that can’t be quantified for summary dashboards or easily purchased with R&D dollars.

She has a robust and thoughtful series of proposals for solving this innovation problem by improving the experience of data. I recommend hearing it directly from her once the video is posted; I will certainly be watching it again myself. I’ll leave you with this teaser, which was hands down my favorite quote of the conference: “We can’t HBR our way out of this.”

Gretchen Anderson: work together thoughtfully
In this talk, the head of design at PG&E talked about the challenges of scaling human-centered design throughout an organization. I’ll summarize this talk in three quotes that I particularly loved.

“When we make things, we get our fingerprints all over them.” The same problem can have many solutions, and the way we all solve problems is different. We need to work together in diverse groups to do the best work.

“Lead through making.” Designers have skills no one else has, so we need to show up to the table, whether or not we’re invited, and shape the conversation through stories and deliverables.

“Who is they? All I see is us.” Design’s job is to form relationships and engage throughout the organization.

Peter Merholz: the org shapes the design
Delivering great experiences to your users and customers isn’t about getting the design right, or getting the strategy right. Ultimately, it’s about getting the organization right, so that a coherent experience is possible. If you haven’t encountered this content yet, I recommend reading Org Design for Design Orgs.

Mark Templeton: give gifts
The closing keynote was from Mark Templeton, former CEO of Citrix. In his authentic and heartfelt talk, he shared the many ways his love of the band The Moody Blues helped him make Citrix successful (really!). He also talked about his passion for wearing vintage clothes. Through these unlikely avenues, he defined the term legacy, or lasting impact that matters: giving a gift that outlives the knowledge of who created it.

Conflicts and takeaways

The conference was organized around four themes, some of which I’ve mentioned above. My summary of them is craft, teams, silos, and legacy. I appreciated the choice of themes, and enjoyed seeing each one reveal itself over the course of several talks. However, I felt like two of the themes were in conflict.

The conference began with talks on the importance of craft, but ended by belittling craft in the name of the greater good of legacy. Craft, several speakers stressed, is “aesthetics” and the real work is “reframing problems.” This is a completely false dichotomy, similar to the strategic vs tactical showdown in its missing of the point. Problem framing has limited impact if it doesn’t end in well-crafted output, while craft becomes undervalued if it isn’t aimed at an understandable problem. Both are important.

As the conference itself showed, what enterprise UX needs right now is a focus on delivering great experiences while navigating the operational realities of working in new ways, both within our teams and throughout the enterprise.