Why Your UX Design Really Failed
Originally published on Medium.
After more than a decade in UX design, I have seen a number of design projects fail. I have seen even fewer design projects reach success. And, I have watched entire programs fail in some instances. It would be easy to sit back, play Monday morning quarterback and chalk this up to bad design or bad development. Maybe we didn’t get the business rules right or our process was wrong. Maybe we used the wrong research method. Indeed, sometimes these are the reasons a particular product fails in the market. However, I think this point of view risks simplifying the overly complex.
We spend a lot of time discussing the use of the right tools or methods in UX design circles. But, I would propose many products fail, not because of any of the above sole reasons or because we used the wrong tools or methods, butrather because of organizational behavioral issues. Organizational behavior and psychology are key to how well a team or group of teams can function and efficiently create great products. In most of the designs I have seen fail, it has largely been because of some organizational dysfunction.
Think back to the last train wreck you saw coming. Was it really because you used the wrong method or was it because of organizational issues? Even if the research was off or the business rules were wrong or the developers went rogue, you can still trace those problems back to organizational behavioral issues at some level. The root cause is often deeper than you initially think. And, if you have read my article on UX ecosystems, you know how complex a design can become as well as the far-reaching aspects that can affect and influence a design in the market.
There are eight primary areas where I see organizational behavior factor into a failed design process — leadership, teams, culture, organizational structure, knowledge management, managing uncertainty, competing goals and too much emphasis on process.
Leaders are responsible for setting a vision and providing direction — much like the captain of a ship. Too many times, I have watched scenarios play out where teams do not understand (or even know) the vision and the direction they are moving in is unclear. Often, I have seen leaders adopt the wrong vision. For example, I have seen a number of organizations jump on themobile bandwagon believing they needed a mobile application in healthcare despite internal and external research showing mobile is not a viable option in most healthcare scenarios. I have literally seen millions spent on such efforts and later heard executives (leaders) ask why the metrics are not supporting higher adoption rates.
Having a vision is important, but it isn’t enough to induce change. Setting a vision and expecting everyone to follow that vision usually doesn’t work. Change takes effort. This is why leadership is so important. Leaders set the tone, they influence culture and they inspire change. Leaders with the wrong vision and wrong approach often cause more harm than good.
There is a popular saying: Give a good idea to the wrong team and they screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a good team and they will either fix it or come up with something better. There is truth in this. If you get the team right, you have won more than half the battle.
Having the right team, however, is interdependent on other factors such as leadership and culture. Put a great team in a bad culture with flawed leadership and you’ll watch them flounder in most instances. A team must be nurtured like a young seedling. They must have the right environment to thrive. The same can be said of your designs.
Keep in mind: Hiring the right people does not mean hiring someone with the right skills. Look beyond skills (which can be taught) and rather at potential.What will this person be able to bring to your team in a year from now? What raw talents do they possess?
The culture of an organization may, perhaps, be the most important influencing factor of innovative design. We call ourselves user experience designers. But in many ways, we are artists because we are highly creative in our endeavors. Thus, we must work in an environment that is conducive to creativity. This involves culture.
Teams must work in an environment where they are encouraged to fail,propose wild ideas and where they do not fear voicing their opinion. They also cannot thrive in a culture of fear where they trepidatiously move forward, making conservation decisions or no decisions at all. If your team does not have the right environment to thrive in, the designs will not thrive either. They will be conservative, lack innovation and will likely fall flat upon release.
Doing something new — developing innovative designs — requires a culture where taking a risk does not result in negative repercussions. Organizational culture that does not support this is not a culture where creativity will flourish.
Along with the above point concerning culture, the organizational structure must support the design and products you are producing. The biggest problem I see with organizational structure relates to hierarchy. Yes, organizations must have a hierarchy. But, this should not shape or influence the behavior of the organization.
Ed Catmull writes in his book, Creativity Inc., “If there is more truth in hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.” Hierarchy should not create barriers in communication, nor should it create totalitarian regimes within the culture. Everyone should be able to speak their minds, offer opinions (even when they differ with leaders) and anyone should be able to stop the “assembly line” if they see a problem.
The other area where I have seen designs fail in relation to organizational structure is in how design teams are structured. An organization with a different design team for mobile, the website and enterprise apps has obviously fragmented their design teams and staff along with their product teams. I have worked in many organizations like this and it usually results in a fragmented experience for the end-user. This is because it is far too difficult to coordinate product development among the different teams. The user is the one who suffers in this scenario.
Organizations are made up of people. Organizational structure places people in silos and often forces a hierarchy. What you produce is a direct reflection of your organizational structure in most instances.
As I note above, we create and are creators. This means we are often building something new. It is almost certain you will make mistakes and err along the way when creating something new. There will always be a level of uncertainty no matter how diligent you have been with your research, user testing and design methods. In other words: It is almost certain there will be uncertainty.The ability to manage this uncertainty and recover from mistakes is key to building a great user experience.
Once again, culture comes into play here. How flexible is your team and how resilient are they? Can they recover from a mistake or is your culture one of hierarchy, procedures, bureaucracy and rules? Such cultures will not have the agility to adjust for poor decisions or unforeseen events. Managing uncertainty requires teams who take calculated risks and can readily adjust when the risks equate to a failure.
It is inevitable for fragmentation to occur in an organization, which is why knowledge management becomes so important. What are other teams working on? What other projects or endeavors is your organization embarking upon? To understand this, you must have some knowledge management system in place to share knowledge and information.
Knowledge management is not a wiki or a Confluence page. That is information management (more on this in a future article). Knowledge management is a systematic method of developing communities of practice to share knowledge across an organization. The lack thereof often causes fragmented designs, duplicate work efforts and a dearth of coordination between different agendas.
Knowledge management also includes employee retention efforts. If you work in a specialized domain, do you really want a contractor leaving when their 12-month contract expires? Is hiring contract work really a good policy in a specialized domain? Moreover, organizations must make every effort to keep employees. Every employee who walks out the door takes all or most of their knowledge with them. This puts you right back at square one with no continuity in your designs or products.
Competing Goals (or Agendas)
Every team has an agenda and an ax to grind. As Ed Catmull writes, “If one agenda wins, we all lose.” I have been in numerous meetings where business or product or UX will have the clout to push their agenda without the agreement of other departments. This almost always results in poor designs and products both due to the lack of buy-in and the lack of balance.
This all falls back on a shared vision. The shared vision must be tied to the customer or user. If a decision is made by one team, ask how this will improve the user’s experience. If it doesn’t, then it’s a bullshit decision. Make sure your vision is shared and aligned between teams.
Too Much Emphasis on Process
We can’t build this until the specs are updated. We can’t move forward until our symbol library is governed and properly adopted. We have to follow the design process to a T. Any of this sound familiar?
Too much emphasis on process creates organizational bureaucracy — a direct reflection of the weighted nature of your organization. If you get too wrapped around the axle on the process, you lose focus on what it is you are truly meant to do and begin to move more like a sloth than a well-oiled machine.
The process is not the goal — building a great user experience is the goal.
In future articles, I will delve into some of the above elements in more depth. But, they all tie together and are problems at the organizational level — organizational behavioral issues. It isn’t that you have the wrong method, tool or are not properly applying design thinking. These elements can most certainly play a part. But, the largest factors influencing the success or failure of a design occur at a higher level.
There is no magic bullet for building great products. But to ensure success, you must start with the organization and the people within that organization.They are the ones creating and influencing the design. And, they must have the right environment to thrive.