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Organization in the way: how decentralization hobbles the user experience

Contrary to all the books, articles, Web sites, and workshops that suggest otherwise, the biggest problem in user experience design today is not one of practice. Any competent p...
Views: 1.117 Created 09/24/2006

Contrary to all the books, articles, Web sites, and workshops that suggest otherwise, the biggest problem in user experience design today is not one of practice. Any competent practitioner can dip into the current toolbox of methods and create a satisfactory product.

Right now, the biggest obstacle to good design is poor organizational structure. The fundamental makeup of most organizations runs contrary to producing quality designs, and as organizations get larger, this becomes increasingly apparent.

Centralize and Conquer

Once upon a time, massive organizations drove design innovation. In their centralized, command-and-control structures, the desires of savvy executives were pushed through an entire corporation. AT&T could hire Henry Dreyfuss to evolve the telephone, Thomas Watson, Jr. could proclaim that “good design is good business” and get IBM to work with such luminaries as Paul Rand, Charles and Ray Eames, and Eero Saarinen.

Such organizations, if they were ever prevalent, are now almost nonexistent. Companies have grown impossibly large, and decentralization — a boon to operational efficiency and customer awareness — has divided the modern enterprise into a collection of departmental silos.

As long as the objects of design are simple, effort remains largely within a single silo — marketing manages print and media design, while engineering oversees product design. But not all design products are so straightforward.

Find a Common Goal

Most of today’s design products are complex enough to require input across silos. That means, instead of having a team of collaborating individuals, we have scattered departments whose efforts are stitched together by a product manager.

A single electronic consumer product tumbles through a dizzying process: business owners assemble requirements, designers specify the system, another group engineers the hardware (distinct from the group writing the onboard software), outside manufacturers produce the product, and a team of marketers figure out promotional details. This lack of cohesion leads to confounding products that perpetually blink “12:00.”

What’s worse, each department has different measures of success. Marketing works to increase leads and brand perception; product managers strive to be on time and on budget; engineers want to meet requirements; manufacturers focus on minimizing defects; designers aim for useful, usable, and desirable products.

Ideally, these measures would balance to create a superior product. Realistically, all of those disparate objectives often conflict, leading to one of three results: 1) “design by committee,” where, in an effort to achieve consensus, innovative impulses are dampened, 2) “design by accretion,” where products are cobbled together in a serial fashion, each department contributing without regard to what the other groups are doing, or 3) “design by gauntlet,” where projects are subject to so many approval processes that they can be stalled at any point along the way.

Organize for Innovation

Web development, with its array of necessary competencies, is particularly sensitive to clashing departmental objectives.

Until now, user experience efforts have been focused on building teams that practice user-centered design (UCD). However, researchers at User Interface Engineering recently discovered that the size of an organization’s UCD practice is somewhat inversely proportional to the site’s usability. You read that right: Companies that invest in usability seem to be creating marginally worse products. If you consider the problem of design in modern organizations, there’s a clear explanation for this seeming oxymoron. The more a company invests in UCD, the more likely it is to create a separate UCD group or department. This group then plays the role of “interface cop,” reviewing everything before it goes out. Of course, this bottlenecks development processes; thus, the UCD department becomes a point of pain to route around.

Get it Together

What we have seen is that small, multidisciplinary teams create the best products.

These teams eschew departmental hand-offs and reviews. Instead, product managers, marketers, designers, engineers, and user advocates work closely on a single project. In order to succeed, it’s essential that, in this collaborative mold, the different parties are no longer bound to their departments’ distinct measures of success, but share a common goal.

UCD can’t work as a silo department — it must be a company-wide approach. Instead of hiring UCD specialists, develop multidisciplinary teams in which every member is familiar with UCD principles.

Right now, user experience designers don’t need any more design methods in their toolbox — they need management methods that enable them to spread those successful tools throughout the organization.

Peter Merholz is the Director of Practice Development and a founding partner of Adaptive Path. Peter has written a report on a wholly different subject: “How Labels Affect Usability and Branding.” Full of real-world examples, this report provides set of best practices for ensuring clarity and utility of the words you use on your site.

Team structure is one of the many topics at our “Beyond Usability” workshop in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on September 28 and 29.

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