The Paradox of Control Versus Collaboration :: UXmatters

Who’s in Charge?

Now, we need to answer this key question: If everyone should own part of the user experience, can User Experience have sole ownership of design? The natural follow-on question is: If we share ownership and advocate that everyone take responsibility for the ultimate experience, wouldn’t there inherently be chaos in the design of the experience? Not if User Experience takes on a role similar to the conductor of an orchestra—directing the different disciplines in collaborating together.

When User Experience tries to hold onto complete control over the user experience, we actually help build the silos we need to prevent. At one extreme, in waterfall development processes, some UX teams do not want to release anything but perfectly polished designs to Engineering—designs whose usability they have proven through usability testing. This is analogous to Product Management’s not releasing a Product Requirements Document (PRD) until it is finished. The irony is that, while UX designers often complain about not having a seat at the table when business decisions are under discussion, they sometimes get frustrated when a Product Manager makes a comment or criticism about their design, even if it’s constructive.

One implication of UX designers’ holding such tight control of their designs is that Product Management and Engineering think of designers as arrogant and controlling. This, in turn, tends to make them want to control their own deliverables more closely and diminishes collaboration. Designers need to find ways to share our in-progress work and take feedback, so Product Management and Engineering feel like true partners in our work. By being open to input and willing to make changes, by working together as equals, and by offering others help with their deliverables, we build partnerships.

While agile development has broken down many silos, it hasn’t eliminated all cases of territoriality. And, even though many engineers and product managers tout the benefits of agile, many of their UX colleagues are not loving the process. Without having a Concept phase prior to the first sprint, UX designers feel like they’re building the pieces of a boat without knowing whether it’s a battleship or a dingy.

Nevertheless, in either waterfall or agile development, when User Experience tries to own the user experience, we fail to take advantage of the resources at hand to help shape the product and fulfill our vision. When you hand over your project, your baby, to Development before it is complete, you might fear that your vision may be lost or your intent be misinterpreted. In contrast, if you see others on a product team as collaborators who can help you bring the product to life, you can leverage the best efforts of all who are involved on a project.

We need the insights of other team members in our design process. We need to collaborate, both formally and informally, to make sure we are crafting experiences that differentiate, solve real user and market challenges, and can be built. Engineers and product managers think differently from UX professionals, and we need to realize that we need these different types of thinking. Often, designers seek out people who think like them, as is often true in human social interactions. As UX professionals though, we need to begin to recognize the value and internalize the perspectives that our partners bring to the design process. Integrative thinking means leveraging everybody’s insights and using those insights to improve the design solution.

Shared Responsibility

Now, let’s consider two of the closest partners of User Experience: Product Management and Customer Experience.

Product managers, who now often call themselves Product Owners, may think that, to be recognized as a leader, they need to define product roadmaps independently. Unfortunately, those roadmaps often comprise features rather than intended experience outcomes. To get the best results, we need to show them that, through collaboration, we can help them to define the right experience outcomes and user stories. Product managers will probably still want to own the roadmap, but if we’re able to help them be more successful, they’ll want us to be part of the team defining roadmaps. We must demonstrate that we can help them to visualize stories and scenarios and create prototypes that reveal the dimensions of interaction and movement.

Customer Experience often reveals facts about the degree to which products are usable—as well as levels of customer adoption—through numerical evidence and metrics. They define improvement programs based on those numbers. The challenge is that Customer Experience programs are often data rich, but information poor. User Experience can help Customer Experience interpret that data and design an experience that ultimately solves the problems their data identified.

A user’s journey starts with learning about a product, continues with the purchase and use of the product, then through getting support for the product. However, the user’s conceptual model does not include who is responsible for different aspects of their experience—what goes on behind the scenes. If any part of the end-to-end experience lacks harmony, the overall experience suffers—even if the product is usable, useful, and creates an emotional connection. User Experience has a unique focus on the total user journey. Thus, we can help bridge the gaps that exist between the efforts of the different disciplines on a product team, including Marketing, Sales, Product Management, Engineering, and Support. By envisioning the total journey, representing the concerns of the user throughout the product-design process, and orchestrating the way multidisciplinary teams work together in crafting a seamless end-to-end experience, User Experience takes responsibility for creating great experience outcomes.

Fluency and Influence

To participate successfully in collaborations with product teams, UX designers must be able to advocate their designs as readily as they can create them. Individual UX researchers and designers need to take the time to understand the business for which they’re designing a solution—including its corporate strategy and priorities, revenue and profit targets, the cost of goods, profit-and-loss statements, market expectations of the company, and much more. Great designers can translate their intent and articulate why the user experience they’ve designed is good for business. They must do this in language that others would not perceive as UX jargon. Instead, they must learn to use the terms their Business and Engineering counterparts would use. They must demonstrate the value they contribute to a business by envisioning and visualizing product opportunities, by creating prototypes, and by highlighting the value of their designs in the context of corporate priorities.

When User Experience gives Product Management and Engineering greater ownership over the experience, UX designers must also become more influential in defining and communicating the intended experience outcomes that drive the product roadmap. This requires facilitating discussions or working sessions that help multidisciplinary product teams come to a common conclusion. For example, UX designers can make their influence felt by

  • creating experience maps that document the end-to-end experience, including bottlenecks to user success or delight—depending on product priorities
  • facilitating multidisciplinary workshops early in the product-definition cycle, during which the team aligns, defines requirements around user needs, and designs user flows
  • influencing the product-development cycle to ensure there is a Sprint 0, during which the team can craft an experience and validate the concept with customers in the marketplace—before committing to build the solution

These soft skills ultimately lead to our getting respect and being able to influence others.

Scenarios and Approaches

If your company is not already working toward product teams having joint responsibility for the user experience, it’s important to assess what kind of situation you’re in. There are three basic scenarios:

  • Your company simply doesn’t understand or value User Experience and doesn’t see the potential of user experiences to differentiate products.
  • Your company appreciates User Experience and wants good user experiences, but has no system set up to ensure successful differentiation.
  • Your company understands that user experience is a strategic differentiator and even wants to include User Experience at a strategic level.

In the first scenario—that is, if your company doesn’t understand or value User Experience—there may not be much a single UX designer can do. Changing this situation would require a major cultural transformation—and that is more than I can cover in this article.

In the second scenario—that is, if your company already values User Experience—the ground is fertile. So, it is the responsibility of User Experience to build collaboration on product teams, as I’ve described in this article. User Experience needs to involve people in other disciplines in the design process. UX designers must clearly articulate their design ideas and influence those in other disciplines.

If you are fortunate to work for a company in which the third scenario prevails, you can start to transform multidisciplinary product teams to think about intended experience outcomes rather than features and define the software architecture only once you’ve defined the experience.

A Joint Adventure

In the end, don’t all of us need to relinquish control to the customer anyway? So, make it the responsibility of everyone on a product team to craft a great experience. Of course, doing this means UX designers must relinquish their sole ownership of design. Instead, they must help entire multidisciplinary teams to align around a unified experience-first vision. By working collaboratively toward an aligned vision, product teams can together craft extraordinary experiences that transform markets. 

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