The importance of design is growing as we demand more digital services.
Yet, despite all the rhetoric, organisations seem to be neutering their user experience (UX) and design teams through a lack of understanding and sponsorship.
What changes are needed?
The reality of UX and design
Through many conversations with marketing teams and UX professionals, I have seen common challenges for UX and design. See how many you recognise.
1. No head of design
Design should be equal partner with technology and business, and to do this it needs to have a body at the top table. Without a head of design reporting into the CEO, unless a company has a culture of defacto user advocacy, it is that much harder to organise in a way that promotes user-centred design.
Even for companies that are not bringing a product to market, building effective services necessitates design thinking – or the question of 'what do our customers need and desire?' GE's chief experience officer, Greg Petroff, summed up this triangle of design, tech and business in 2013 in the chart below.
2. No understanding of UX across the business or of what roles are needed
The debate about UX and design is similar to the broader debate about digital transformation. There is still a lack of understanding across many businesses, often at c-suite level, about what good UX entails.
How many CEOs and CFOs understand what service design is, and what resources proper user research requires? How many CEOs and CFOs understand the disadvantages of waterfall project management, the complexity of multichannel customer journeys, and the desire of consumers for transparency and control?
3. No involvement of UX or design professionals at project conception
A familiar refrain from many UX specialists and designers. The brief is passed down to them after being created by someone perhaps outside of the digital team and is consequently not fit for purpose. The job of UX specialists is then to make the best of a fudge.
Getting UX and design involved at the project brief stage, whether it be a marketing campaign or new product creation, will help to mitigate for ill-thought out user needs.
4. UX and design teams are trying to work in an agile manner, when the rest of the business is working waterfall
Another problem of no sponsorship for design rears its head in the differences in ways of working between design teams and the rest of the organisation. When UX and design teams are trying to adopt agile methodology in order to prototype, test and iterate, this puts them at odds with development teams working with heavily detailed briefs and waterfall methodology.
Design teams are therefore forced to compromise on their principles.
5. Too much focus on delivery, which means UX teams do not have the proper time to do their jobs
A consequence of waterfall perhaps, or simply misunderstanding of the UX function – businesses are often focused on delivery to the detriment of user-centred design.
6. A siloed digital team, which sits separately and often downstream from marketing
A common challenge of digital transformation is the siloed digital team, sitting separately from marketing, and this is a familiar refrain amongst UX and design teams.
The effect of a siloed team is disjointed processes and digital services seen as an afterthought or follow-on, rather than an integral part of the whole.
7. Design is seen as a service
Far too often the extent of UX and design in a digital context is 2-5 specialists employed within the digital team. Effectively these specialists represent UX and design as a service.
When design is seen as a service, it is used ad-hoc and off the shelf, in a way that is antithetical to the concept of user-centred design.
The Design Council is clear in its description of three levels of design within the organisation. The most immature is 'design as a service', next is service design teams that are equal with marketing and contribute from the beginning of product or service design, and the holy grail is strategic design, where design shapes business strategy.
8. Old design guidelines, made for print, with little or no consistency
How often have you seen this? Design guidelines, originally shaped for print, not updated properly, not adopted properly, and with colleagues wondering how design consistency can be achieved.
It is no coincidence that many organisations with designers at the top table also have public design guidelines. Aviva and Co-op are cases in point.
Just look at the Co-op design manual and you'll find design principles, content guidelines, assets, prototyping kits, pattern libraries, accessibility standards, supported devices, examples, and archived versions of the manual.
9. Broken user journeys that are well known but not fixed
A consequence more than a reason, but something worth mentioning. Broken user experiences and customer journeys are fairly common and serve as an indictment of the understanding of UX within business.
Where they exist, they may do so for some time as waterfall processes preclude teams from iterating.
Too many journeys resemble a Heath Robinson
10. Agencies kowtow to unknowledgable clients
More agencies need to stand up to clients and resist taking on briefs that fail to meet user needs.
11. Stakeholders only trust stats or first-hand experience
Marketers and UX professionals often bemoan the difficulty of convincing stakeholders of the validity of their arguments. This struggle shows a lack of trust in user design, which comes from a lack of education, but also a focus on numbers rather than a focus on first-hand insight.
Where managers may be used to looking at analytics and reports, they need to see user research first hand and understand the impact of design decisions on the user journey.
12. A lack of workforce diversity
Design works best with a diverse team in terms of age, ethnicity, background and gender. Where organisations are failing to recruit a diverse workforce, insight into user needs is reduced.
13. UX teams are not working together across the business
Again a product of having no design leadership. UX professionals may work separately in separate parts of the business, but to no central purpose. This means they are not particularly consistent or efficient. The next step for these organisations should perhaps be some consolidated centre of design (the internal consultancy).
14. Managers want shiny new things
We've all been there when a manager decides they want a chatbot, or an Alexa skill, or animation on the website when it is either not desired by users, not needed, or not a business priority.
This is a yet another symptom of lack of education or understanding of the process of human-centred design.
A reminder that design is a competitive advantage
The chart below from the Design Management Institute (DMI) shows how design-centric organisations have prospered over a period in which digital technology has matured.
Though the data here only runs to 2013, and one might argue that the definition of 'design-centric' includes some ambiguity (it is based on a set of six criteria from the DMI), the chart is nevertheless compelling.
A layman can point to changes in several industries that show how human-centred design is coming to the fore. For some less competitive sectors, this change is more recent than in others.
- Government is having to bring lots of service online, with the UK's Government Digital Service a particularly fine example of digital transformation and efficient service design.
- Utilities companies are moving comms, onboarding and billing online, representing a challenge for organisations so focused on CRM and direct mail.
- Telcos have had to increase transparency and provide users with all their account information at the click of a button.
- Professional services have moved from a business that revolved around reputations and referred business (face to face), to one that relies on information architecture and search.
And even in seemingly more innovative sectors, the challenges for incumbents keep coming. Fintech sets new standards for banking, pureplays do so for multichannel retailers, and online-only services have already massively changed travel and real estate. The list goes on.
User-centred design has been the catalyst for these changes, as consumers demand transparency, control, ease, security, and even fun. As digital becomes less of a relevant word over the next decade, design will still stand proud as a differentiator.