6 Tips to Research a Corporate User Experience Culture


There are 6 Easy but Powerful Tips for Job Seekers to Research a Company’s User Experience Culture. Prospective full-time or consultant applicants can use these tips to be better prepared when contacting a company.

I had recently asked on Twitter what usability topics I should blog about next. This reply from Jonathan Hung seems to me very timely, because I actually am investigating companies and their corporate user experience cultures right now.

I have been working in marketing, branding and user experience with large and small corporations since 1982, and during that time I’ve seen quite a few examples of how companies incorporate user experience in their culture.

I have grouped them into 5 models of corporate user experience cultures. These 5 models are based on where in the corporation the user experience practice resides, and what types of interactions the user experience practice has with the rest of the organization.

In Part I of this article, I reviewed the 5 corporate user experience cultures and provided a brief description of each. I included the pros and cons of the 5 models, as based on how the culture could best provide a business value to the company.

In this article, which I’ve decided to cleverly call “Part II,” I’ll explain the 6 tips I use to learn and research which of the user experience cultures a company may have – based from a the perspective of either a prospective consultant looking for a gig, or a job hunter looking for a full-time position.

For this article, I’ll use an example of a job that was recently posted on Yahoo’s HotJobs for a User Experience leader. This job posting, which was recently posted by Verizon Wireless, is a typical example of how I use the 6 tips to research the user experience culture.

The 6 easy but powerful tips to research a company’s user experience culture.

Tip 1 – Carefully Read the Job Posting Title & Reporting Division

In this example, we can see that the title is “Executive Director – User Experience” implying that this will be mostly a managerial position, with direct reports and responsibility to oversee the management of projects. Most likely, a good fit for this position is someone with prior experience managing user experience teams, which may mean little or no hands-on work. In addition, the reporting division is “Marketing.” This implies that the user experience group is the third of the five models, the UX in Marketing model. There are pros and cons to this model, note especially that political skills will be crucial, as often other divisions in a corporation may feel “Marketing” has little or no bearing on operations or I.T. UX projects.

Tip 2 – Read – In Order – The Job Duties
From years of experience creating job postings, I can tell you that almost always, the “critical” duties will be listed at the top, and the less critical duties will be listed in rank order underneath. Focus on the top 3 duties especially, as this is most likely where the company really needs help, and where you will be spending the majority of your time. Usually, the other duties are nice-to-haves or less important functions that occupy less focus, thus less time.

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It’s very important to compare these top 3 job duties, and especially their order, with any Annual Report or other type of CEO communication which spells out the major goals for the Company. Misalignment between these top duties, and the Executive vision for future projects for the company spell trouble. I’ll review this in more detail below, but for now make sure you note the order of the duties.

In this example, note that the applicant will be required to have experience with mobile applications and devices. For the mentioned responsibilities, the top 3 in order are:

1. Building a UX team
2. Creating a unifying vision for UX
3. Driving research, analysis, conceptual and detailed design

Note that the 2nd to last item is Identifying and driving cross-division synergies (this will be important later, after we review the CEO’s vision).

From the sound of the top 3 duties, it would appear that there is heavy need for team-building, unifying and only then researching and designing. From a user experience management perspective, it appears there are multiple areas in the company that must be aligned into a centralized user experience vision and team.

Tip 3 – Research Company News
Now that you have a better understanding of the job and the top 3 duties, it’s time to research the context into which this job fits. Be sure to use Google or Yahoo News search to read news stories about the company, and also visit the Investor Relations or About Us section of the company’s website to see what news has been important to the company.

In this example, a recent merger of Verizon Wireless and Alltel as was announced in 2008 would seem to fit the pattern of the duties noted above, which were to build a centralized UX team and create a unifying vision of UX in the organization. After a merger, unifying diverse teams is very important if a centralized user experience team is going to be successful.

Tip 4 – Research the Annual Report
For public companies, such as Verizon, the Annual Report is a goldmine of information. In it, the executives clearly define their vision or road-map for success.

Carefully note what the executives are defining as being critical to corporate success. If the job duties and descriptions align, then the user experience culture is in step with management and the potential for growth is there.

If however the duties and job description do not align with the executive vision, then proceed with caution. Misalignment of the user experience model with corporate vision spells an uncertain long-term future for the UX team.

In this example, the 2008 Verizon Annual Report has several statements that clearly define what the corporate vision is:

1. Move from voice and data to content & applications
2. Move from separate platforms to unified platforms
3. Build an application once then deliver it anytime, anywhere on any device

And later on in the Annual Report, the method for how the above strategic vision is to be accomplished is spelled out:

1. Increase efficiency through self-service initiatives
2. Centralize I.T. and Marketing efforts

The good news here is these executive visions and methods closely align with the top 3 duties as mentioned in the job description.

More good news, notice that the executive vision includes “superior customer service experiences as a competitive differentiator.” Clearly, user (in this case customer) experience will have high visibility in the organization, and usability projects designed to improve the customer experience should have an executive champion, and thus executive support.

The only potential bad news, if any, is that there might not be the ability for the user experience team in this particular model to work with other divisions in the corporation on an equal footing. Referring back to the above job duties (noted by the arrow), note that the 2nd to last job duty is:

“Identifying and driving cross division, and product group, product design synergies”

The fact that it’s 2nd to last might mean that it’s not very likely the user experience team will be conducting cross-division synergies, meaning the user experience model of user experience in Marketing might be somewhat of an island.

Tip 5 – Identify Compensation Criteria
It seems more often than not that compensation is left off of many job postings. As a user experience professional, you must try to identify what compensation is available, to try to estimate if the job is a level on par with your experience.

In this case, it would appear from the above Annual Report that a bonus structure may be in place for this position that provides additional compensation besides just salary and benefits.

“Key objectives of our compensation programs are pay-for-performance and the alignment of executives and shareowners long-term interests.”

We could assume this means a bonus plus stock options / awards are part of the user experience compensation for this job posting.

Tip 6 – Use Your Network
It’s helpful now that you’ve done your homework about the position and company to use your network to try to establish contact with someone who works inside the company, preferably in the same division as the job.

Use LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and your other social media channels to try to contact an employee of the company. Often the employees may be able to provide you with much more information about the culture, the overall job expectations and importantly the stability of the company (especially in these trying times) than you can learn from other sources.

In addition, the internal contact might be able to put you in contact with the hiring manager, so that any general job questions you may have can be answered.

A word of caution here, resist the urge to contact the hiring manager and request an interview or meeting prior to the proper channels being used. It’s enough to gently probe about the position, not make a full frontal assault!

Conclusion – 6 Tips to Research a Corporate User Experience Department

This overview of the 6 tips I use to try to identify the model of the user experience culture is not all-encompassing. There are plenty of other ways to learn more about a user experience model at a company. However, these are the 6 that I use most often, and hopefully they will help if you are in the position of researching a company, either for a consultant or full-time position.

If you have other tips that you use please post a comment below, that way we can all learn and grow smarter together!