In business today, “user experience” (or UX) has come to represent all of the qualities of a product or service that make it relevant or meaningful to an end-user — everything from its look and feel design to how it responds when users interact with it, to the way it fits into people’s daily lives. You even people talking about UX as the way in which a consumer connects to a business — all the touch-points from marketing to product development to distribution channels.
It’s the “new black,” to borrow from a fashion phrase — as well as a reference to its influence on profitability.
The value of UX as a corporate asset is no longer in question. Just look at the
$1 billion price tag paid by Facebook for Instagram, whose primary asset is not technology, but the best photo sharing UX in the business (and some of the best UX talent as well). Look at the recent Apple vs. Samsung judgment: 93% of the damages were related to design patents that define the iOS user experience. The growing appreciation of the value of UX is not restricted to consumer-facing tech companies, like Google with their new focus on unified design or Microsoft Windows 8 with its sleek new “Metro” design language. At frog, we hear the same things from executives in financial services, healthcare, and infrastructure. Companies like GE and Bloomberg are recruiting leading designers to build UX capabilities at a corporate level. We even hear it from our clients in the international market, such as regional telecommunications companies, who see a “unified user experience strategy” like Apple’s as a sign of status.
The recognition of UX’s importance seems to be slowly sinking into corporate culture the way “brand” did a decade ago. Today, it is not uncommon to hear an executive talk about managing a $30 billion brand. But that was a foreign idea not so long ago. As brand thinking has been institutionalized, management has figured out ways to assign value to this “asset.” So, if you are an enlightened executive in the post-Steve Jobs era, how do you grow and manage this emerging corporate asset? Some companies believe that outsourcing to design firms is becoming less attractive as the value of UX as a core business asset increases. frog and our peers in the design consulting world have become more adept in recent years at helping companies build this capacity internally. But even as big business looks to bring UX and design talent in-house, few companies are willing to embed designers on every product development team (and, frankly, there is not enough talent to go around even if they wanted to). So in-house UX groups generally focus on a few high-impact product releases a year, leaving much of the business — and most of your offering — untouched. So what is management to do? How can large organizations deploy this capability on an enterprise scale?
To close this gap, leading businesses like Google are exploring scalable strategies that make UX relevant to engineers and MBAs across their organizations. Here is a quick look at some of the different strategies that they are deploying:
1. Lean UX: In many cases, the best way to embed UX thinking in your product development teams is not to focus on design as a specific competency. Instead, inspired by the startup market, many businesses are experimenting with lean, agile product development processes, which benefit from customer insights, participatory design, and prototyping. UX methods can be a crucial ingredient in catalyzing this “lean” approach by forcing teams to identify specific user needs in the market and requiring that they take early prototypes out to customers for feedback. This process has been incubated successfully at SAP, where teams have compressed the product development process into three months for some new releases. Done this way, UX is practical and efficient, dispelling preconceptions about the slow pace of design.
2. UX in R&D: There has been a startling change in the technology environment with a rich new array of tools (HTML5; do-it-yourself software/hardware kits like Arduino; and affordable 3-D printers) that allow teams to much more rapidly experiment with new product and service concepts at the UX, and not just the engineering, layer. It is exactly this sort of UX R&D that is letting companies attract and retain critical crossover talent, i.e. engineers who work in code but think in “experience.” This form of experimentation is a Trojan Horse for getting product development teams to capture requirements in working UX prototypes instead of documenting them in endless Powerpoint decks and PRD’s. It also provides the executive leadership with a steady stream of “demos” to show off at CES.
3. Baby-Step UX: By now, your organization has probably dipped its toe into the app market with mixed success. While the app marketplace has not necessarily been a great contributor to the bottom line for many businesses, it has created an easy environment for organizations to strengthen their UX muscles. Companies like Bloomberg, whose core user interface is hobbled by their terminal infrastructure, have released successful iOS apps that meaningfully shifted perceptions in the broader market. Bloomberg’s core customers are aging; a new generation of iPad-era traders are joining Wall Street with significantly different expectations for a user experience that’s well beyond their current terminal offering. While Bloomberg’s iPhone app may not be a serious driver for its business, it certainly has changed expectations for what is possible within the organization. (The recent hire of Lisa Strausfeld, a former partner at the revered design firm Pentagram, as Bloomberg’s global head of data visualization is another strong sign of the company’s renewed interest in design.)
4. Six Sigma UX: Successful UX is often about doing less, not more. This can be hard won in today’s engineering culture in which middle management is generally rewarded on product features and releases — more, not less. While brand leaders have typically tried to shape organizations from afar, through broad based-messaging and high level guidelines, UX has the potential to reach much deeper into the product development process. But great UX requires some teeth — the ability to delay or kill product releases if they are not aligned with the corporate UX strategy. Many organizations, like Google, are waking up to the need to integrate UX and design criteria into tollgates and other standard product management processes (parallel to, say, Six Sigma) to ensure that products stay on track.
5. Customer-Driven UX: Sales teams generally believe that they know what customers want, yet they are usually terrible at asking that precise question. UX requires the space and time to support a more open and continuous dialogue with key customers — supported by prototypes and other design artifacts. While this dialogue can often build trust and increase loyalty, it can be hard to convince sales teams, particularly when you are an outside consultant. Corporate design leaders have not typically grown up with that sort of power. They are more diplomats than enforcers. Typically they need a strong partner in the exec suite to open the doors to key customers and engage them in the sort of participatory design process that leads to great UX.
It is easy to see that there are a few common ingredients across these different strategies, such as executive commitment, access to customers, new technical prototyping skills, and small, interdisciplinary teams. All of these ingredients are critical not only to UX, but also to developing the sort of bottom-up, risk-taking culture that is central to succeeding in the 21st century market. These skills are standard in the startup market where UX is increasingly appreciated as a key to success and value creation. The startup market is creating a new breed of business executives, like Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Square, who are impatient with requirements-driven waterfall product development processes. They think “UX-first”. The big challenge now is to drive these same skills into the more traditional, top-down management culture at big companies. The companies that get it right will be either be at the forefront of disrupting business or much more likely to thrive in the era of disruption.