6 mistakes that prevent UX teams from having boardroom influence

We’re seeing a sea-change in our industry as firms scramble to build fledgling user experience (UX) teams. While this is a sure sign of a maturing discipline, it is not without its teething problems. In particular, the voice of the UX team can sometimes sound more like a whisper. Why do some UX teams fail to achieve the impact expected of them? Here are 6 mistakes we’ve seen in UX teams that prevent them from having boardroom influence.


As companies continue to invest in usability and build their own UX teams, we increasingly find ourselves working with inexperienced teams in a coaching and training capacity, and it is immensely rewarding to be able to guide new teams and work alongside new UX managers to help them get established.

But there are risks in launching a new UX team. Over the years we’ve seen a pattern of mistakes that are pretty much guaranteed to get things off on the wrong foot.

Here are 6 mistakes that UX teams frequently make:

  1. Not doing proper user research
  2. Trying to build UX from the bottom up
  3. Falling into the ‘cargo cult usability’ trap
  4. Being too academic
  5. Being too insular
  6. Failing to educate the organization about UX

Let’s look at each in turn and then I’ll provide some possible solutions.

Not doing proper user research

I’ve noticed something rather curious about some UX teams — they don’t seem to be doing any user research. They claim to be doing user research in theory, but that’s not what they do in practice. Instead they seem to be engaged in a mishmash of homegrown activities that fail to meet even the most basic standards of experimental research. Some of the work might be called ‘preference testing’ and amounts to asking people what they think about things, some of it seems focused on measuring product parameters, some bears a closer resemblance to market research than to user research, sometimes it’s clearly quality assurance work or user acceptance testing, and sometimes it just seems like made up stuff that may or may not involve red, yellow and green checkboxes. It’s like walking into a ‘wild west’ of consumer research.

Trying to build UX from the bottom up

You can’t build a UX team by starting at the lowest level and working upwards. Don’t expect to succeed if you start out by hiring inexperienced or junior staff, or by “converting” web designers simply by putting ‘User Experience’ on their business cards (we’ve seen this happen).

You have to start at the top with the two most two critical roles:

  • The UX team leader (this is likely to be a new hire)
  • An Executive-level UX champion (this should be an existing VP-level sponsor who will blaze a trail through the highest levels of the company).

We’ve written about the UX team leader role in the past so here I’d like to expand on the executive-level champion role.

Most companies assume this role can be filled by anyone with ‘Manager’ in their job title, or by someone at Director level. We’ve seen players at this level, already too busy with other responsibilities, just give the nod at the outset and pay lip service to the value of UX, playing no meaningful role as UX flounders or grinds to a halt. In our experience, this vitally important role works only if it is operating at VP level. We’re talking about a major mover and shaker here, someone with clout who can open doors, create strategy, loosen the purse-strings, and knock a few heads together.

Falling into the ‘cargo cult usability’ trap

When I was 8 years old I really, really wanted a horse — preferably a white one with a long mane like the Lone Ranger used to ride. Instead of a horse (which obviously was never going to fit in the coal shed) my mother bought me a leather riding crop. It was all she could afford. That was my horse riding experience. Cargo cult horse riding.

Cargo cult thinking is predicated on the mistaken belief that the most important requirement for achieving your goals and aspirations is having the right equipment and paraphernalia. Alas, buying an expensive Stratocaster doesn’t turn you into Eric Clapton, and you’re never going to win the Triple Crown if all you have is a riding crop.

Cargo cult usability is what happens when a company mistakes having a state of the art usability lab for actually doing user research. Thousands of dollars spent on studio-quality cameras, microphones and half-silvered windows is no guarantee of success in user research. A quiet room is all that’s needed. Pencil and paper is fine. A camcorder on a tripod can be useful. Get Morae if you work with websites, software applications or apps. But don’t blow your budget on unnecessary equipment. Invest in good user researchers instead.

Being too academic 

UX teams are sometimes accused of being too academic and of being out of touch with the cut and thrust of real life business and product development.

We hear stakeholders complain, “I just needed a best guess answer but I got a full usability study that took weeks”, or “The UX team always wants to get the 100% perfect answer, when 80% is good enough”, or “Instead of a quick response I get a 30-page report in a week’s time.”

Avoid this kind of criticism by being pragmatic, adaptable and lean. Find out exactly what your team needs and understand why they need it. Then tailor your methods to the timeline, set expectations, and report back in an appropriate and effective way — whether that’s a written report or not. Don’t take weeks writing a dissertation-length report if a face-to-face chat over coffee is all that’s needed.

Being too insular

The one thing a new UX team absolutely cannot afford to do is become isolated and detached from the main action. Yet many of the embryonic or failing teams we’ve seen manage to do just this.

Newly formed UX teams have a tendency to quickly turn inwards and focus heavily on their own practices, tools and methods: heads down, working in a vacuum, doing great work that doesn’t actually influence anything. As a result, we hear frustrated stakeholders say things like: “I don’t involve the UX team because they always seem too busy”. We’ve even heard UX team members themselves complain that, “We’re so busy and so mired in the day-to-day that we don’t have time to work alongside the development team.”

This reminds me of the (hilarious but true) story of the Staffordshire UK bus company. In 1976 it was reported that the buses on the Hanley to Bagnall route were not stopping to pick up passengers. People complained that buses would drive right by long lines of waiting passengers. The complaints prompted Councillor Arthur Cholerton to make transport history by stating that if the buses stopped to pick up passengers it would disrupt the timetable!

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: user experience is a team sport. If you’re following the design process in ISO 9241-210 (and if you’re not, you should), you’ll know that one of the key principles is “The design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives”.

UX teams can’t afford to be self-serving, or introverted, or become obsessed with whatever is the UX equivalent of not disrupting the bus timetable. There’s no point just beavering away in the background. If you don’t want to be excluded, don’t start out by excluding yourself.

Failing to educate the organization about UX

Let’s be honest: most people in your organization don’t really know what UX is about. They just know UX as a buzzword and want some of that secret sauce. You are about to introduce a concept that, although seemingly obvious, usually catches people off guard: the concept of user-centered rather than product-centered design thinking. We frequently encounter development teams who, no matter how many times they agree about putting the user first, simply cannot do it. They seem unable to think beyond the product or system they are currently working on, couching everything (including usability questions) in terms of product parameters rather than in terms of user capabilities.

Part of the UX team’s role is to educate people to help them make this subtle but vital shift in thinking.

If this sounds like you, here’s what to do next

First, don’t try to wing it. It’s far too important to play this by the seat of your pants. You may only get one real shot at creating an effective UX team. Any one of these six mistakes (and there are others just waiting to trip you up) can derail your hard work.

Here are 4 things you can do today to get back on track.

Get Agile

The days of isolated UX teams are numbered. Team members should be working (and sitting) alongside the development team who are designing the product. It’s really hard to do good UX work when you are parachuted in to solve a specific problem (like “Run a usability test!”) and then afterwards you return to base. Each UX person should be a fully paid-up member of the development team they are supporting, helping to answer their day-to-day research and design questions. Of course, this poses challenges for managers who need to simultaneously build a UX community — but if it was easy, your competitors would be doing it.

Help team members see where they fit

Some newly formed UX teams are an assembly of people with quite disparate backgrounds and skill sets. Multidisciplinary design is important, but without good UX leadership and training, team members tend to fall back on the disciplines they know well and try to apply the methods they are comfortable with.

This can account for an over-emphasis on statistical, psychology, engineering or design-biased work, at the expense of actual usability. “I know about stats so I’m going to focus on stats.” “I trained as an engineer or designer so I’m going to focus on the product components.” By all means hire people with a range of skills, but make sure they understand that although they may have got the job because they have a background in psychology, statistics, design or whatever, you’re not hiring them to be a psychologist, statistician or designer. You want them to apply the principles of their specialist disciplines to improving the user experience.

Say No to Dishwasherology

It’s not uncommon for UX teams lacking in direction and without a UX champion, to find themselves being appropriated by other groups who just need ‘some assorted customer research’. This can result in UX teams being asked to do market research, quality assurance evaluations, craftsmanship reviews (though involving actual craftsmen appears not to be a requisite), and generally faffing around with odd things that have low validity and low credibility. For example, when I worked in an internal UX team, I was once asked by marketing to develop something called ‘Dishwasherology’.

Never lose sight of the fact that your UX team has been set up to bring something new to the company, not to just roll over and help propagate the same old methods that weren’t working in the first place. So avoid this trap. Make a stand. Just say No (like I said no to Dishwasherology). Say Yes and you’ll get sucked into a black hole you may never get out of again.

Get your team trained

Think of UX training as providing your team with compass directions. Unless your new hires are already very experienced, without training your team will become aimless — at best an irrelevance and at worst a liability. Sometimes, a team needs re-orienting around the UX equivalent of magnetic north.

Some of your internal partners may also want to join the training classes so that they know what to expect from your team and know how to apply the output of your work. We’ve found in-house usability training to be particularly effective, and a great way to unite everyone, giving them a shared UX vision and a shared vocabulary.

 

Philip Hodgson, June 2015