The 5 Models of Corporate User Experience Culture

The 5 Models of Corporate User Experience Culture

I believe there are five general models of Corporate user experience cultures. Here’s a brief overview of each

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.

What’s more, from the many consulting engagements and seminar / conference conversations I’ve had with user experience practitioners in other companies, both in the U.S. and abroad, I’ve learned that there seems to be a pattern to how companies incorporate user experience in their businesses.

These patterns are recurring, and can be found in almost all companies that have a user experience practice. I have grouped them into 5 models of how companies incorporate user experience in their culture.

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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 this article, which is Part I of the two part series, I’ll review what the 5 models are, and then in my next article (which I’m cleverly calling “Part II”) I’ll explain how I learn which of the 5 user experience cultures a company may have.

Part I – The 5 Models of Corporate User Experience Culture:

Four of these models I see pretty often in businesses. However the 5th I’ve only seen rarely, even though I think from a business perspective, that it is the most powerful and influential of all the user experience models for business success.

So here’s the list which I have ordered in ascending order of benefit to the business – from weakest to strongest:

Model 1 – User Experience in I.T.

Craig Tomlin's Model 1 - User Experience in IT
For many business cultures, the user experience practice is a component of the Information Technology division. There are several advantages to this, including incorporating usability as part of the Software Development Life Cycle in a very tight manner, and applying usability standards on all software that is created by the business.

However, I consider this the weakest model because of the strategic miss-alignment between the two functions of software production and user experience. Sounds crazy, right? After all, don’t we preach that usability and user-centered design must be present in software development? Yes!

But, I think the core strategic benefit an I.T. organization brings to a business is the ability to produce software on time, and on-budget, it is that division’s primary reason for being. I.T. executives and management are usually compensated based on their ability to deliver products when required. As such, typically a project plan with drop-dead dates usually rules all decisions. Yes, usability can and should be included in that project plan, and often is.

The truth is that I’ve witnessed many examples where even though problems with the application are revealed by the user experience team, the application process continues without many, or sometimes all, of the recommended changes being made.

Why? Because it would slow down the project and cause the deliverable dates to slip, which is the primary objective of I.T.. Thus the miss-alignment between I.T. and User Experience.

In my opinion, placing user experience into an I.T. organization, although beneficial from a process perspective, can cause the user experience to take a back seat to deliverable dates, and therefore is not as beneficial to a business as other user experience culture models.

Model 2 – User Experience in Operations

Craig Tomlin's Model 2 - User Experience in Operations
I’ve only worked for or consulted with a few companies that use this culture model of having user experience in the Operations division. But it can be a good way to incorporate user experience functions, especially for companies delivering Software As a Service, for which this is actually a fairly powerful model.

Operations is typically where the customer interactions take place, where the “rubber hits the road” so to speak. As many business owners can testify, saving (aka retaining) a customer is much cheaper than trying to acquire a new customer. So smart companies that include user experience functions in operations can continually optimize the customer experience, which means real bottom-line improvements in revenue for the business.

However, the problems inherent with placing user experience in an I.T. division are also present in this model. Because of the needs of operations, it’s possible that user experience issues might have to take a back seat to operational modifications that may help, or hurt, the user experience.

In addition, supporting operations from a user experience can be a very full plate, leaving little resource time to assist marketing or I.T. divisions.

Finally, because the user experience team reports to operations, other divisions may feel that the user experience function does not apply to them, and may either outsource or completely ignore the user experience needs they feel are necessary (or not) to support their division’s needs. This can often be witnessed for example by the Marketing team going to advertising or online agencies to create web sites without internal user experience support, or I.T. divisions that create applications with little or no user experience testing and optimization.

Model 3 – User Experience in Marketing


I have seen many examples of the culture of user experience being a function of a Marketing or Branding division. The advantage here is usability is often focused on driving better sales or transaction conversions, and thus directly benefits the business.

However, having had direct experience in this type of model, and having spoken with other usability practitioners who reported the same, I can tell you that there are significant detriments to this model as well.

First, because the usability function does not have direct influence over the other divisions, such as I.T. or Operations, often the usability function is considered strictly a “Marketing” function that does not apply to software development or customer service applications. The usability of a web site, especially marketing pages, is the normal realm of this model, but internally developed applications or customer service functions are often strictly “hands-off.”

Second, any conflict between the user experience needs and the needs of the other organizations are often handled “upstairs,” meaning the executive team must resolve the issue. Faced with either producing a product on time, and thus keeping investors happy, or modifying a project to suit a better user experience and potentially face delays, Executives will often choose the former, and thus user experience is not maximized.

Finally, Marketing budgets are normally the first to be slashed when the economy slows down, or when the company is faced with financial hardships. I have seen many organizations cut or eliminate user experience functions when these functions are attached to the Marketing division, because the user experience function is not considered a “core business function.” This negatively impacts a company’s ability to provide a superior user experience, especially when the economy is slower. This is bad for a business because when the economy is slower, it’s usually a golden opportunity for a smart business to increase market-share via a superior product.

Model 4 – User Experience as a Unique but Equal Entity


The business cultural model of having a separate, but equal, user experience division that services all divisions in the company makes sense, and seems to be a growing practice based on my experiences.

The benefits are clear, by reporting to none of the other divisions, user experience can operate in a non-biased atmosphere where equal resources are shared among the business units. In addition, the user experience team can operate as the holder of standards and best practices, and leverage learnings from one division across the other divisions.

However, the problem of “separate but equal” causes the same conflicts that occur in the other corporate user experience cultural models. Any differences between the user experience needs and the needs of the other divisions are often settled “upstairs” with Executives, who have the need to produce products on time.

For those of us in the United States, the term “separate but equal is inherently unequal” is a well-known phrase relating to Civil Rights and a famous Supreme Court decision to overturn the practice of separating people by race. Although less significant, the same phrase can be applied to the practice of having a separate user experience division as a business model.

The illustration above, showing the user experience division as being off to the side of the main business functions is sometimes an accurate display of the feelings of the business segment owners, who may feel that when pressed, their own division’s goals must come first over user experience goals.

As with the other models of corporate user experience culture, differences of opinion will often be settled “upstairs” by the Executives.

Because there is limited or no real control over the user experience, there may be fewer opportunities for the user experience to be maximized to the full extent possible across all divisions, causing missed improvement opportunities for the business and thus missed revenue enhancements.

Model 5 – User Experience as a Unique but Superior Entity


This is a rare corporate user experience culture, but examples are out there. If you replace “UX” in the above illustration with “Customer Experience” you’ll have an accurate description of certain Companies that take customers, and their satisfaction, very seriously (think Zappos, Google or Apple).

In some of these businesses, there is no actual user experience entity that oversees the other units (so remove the box in your head, or better yet, widen it so that all divisions are within the user experience box), but by providing incentives to the business division owners to continually improve the customer/user experience, the same goal is achieved – all divisions are focused on providing an optimal user experience.

In certain gaming and software companies, this corporate user experience culture drives all aspects of the business, which in turn drives continual optimization and improvements in the user experience.

Of all the models of user experience culture, this model by far can have the greatest impact on a business, because all divisions in the business are focused on maximizing the user/customer experience. Maximizing the user experience means more revenue and/or savings for the company, which over time adds to the profitability of the company, pulling it out ahead of it’s competitors.

So, that’s my vision for the 5 models of corporate user experience culture. Do you agree, disagree or have other models? Please share them in the comments.

Part II of this post will answer the question; “how do you determine what type of corporate user experience culture a company has?”

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8 COMMENTS

  1. This is a great analysis. I see mostly UX-as-part-of-marketing, and, frankly, this is the easiest to sell to as marketers understand the value of research and the value of test.

    Next I see UX-as-part-of-IT, but this is a diminutive and reactive 'Krug style' of UX, good to make simple gains but little else.

    The right Corporate User Experience Culture is critical to getting anything done, and I always consider it as a pre-qualification to taking on a piece of work as it is such a big determiner of success.

  2. Hello David,

    Thanks for you thoughts!

    I agree, determining which of the models your potential client has is very important to determining the potential for your usability input to be acted upon, and ultimately your probability of success.

    Understanding which model of corporate user experience culture a company utilizes has is a very important step in determining the scope of any potential consulting usability engagement.

    Thanks for the good thought!

  3. Great post, Craig.

    Most commonly I see UX operating inside and influencing IT (Engineering) and not the other cultures you mention; companies in California are mostly UX friendly. I do see the other models as necessary to an effective UX team; they must gather requirements from and endure the demands of Operations, Executives, and Marketing and combine them to influence Engineering.

    I'm eager to hear part 2 of your post. The 5th UX culture in your list appears to be easy to spot — Google, Apple, Adobe all give attention to designing usable interfaces — but with people like Luke Wroblewski & Bill Buxton at Yahoo & Microsoft, there must be other good UX cultures hidden in the folds.

  4. Thanks, interesting breakdown.

    Working at a not terribly senior level in the web department of a global company, what I find difficult is knowing where the UX is taking place elsewhere. I would hope that the strands can be bought together so that scenario 5 can be developed. But, its the old problem of how to promote a corporate UX culture to those that can really influence it happening.

    OK, I'm off to read your next article now!

  5. I agree Ivor, the challenge in promoting usability is how to find, and convince senior executives and business segment owners of the value of usability.

    Over at the CUA Central site by Human Factors Int., there's a healthy discussion of the model where there are multiple UX practitioners in multiple business units. This scenario would be covered under model 5 – where UX is across the enterprise – because the business segment owners understand they need usability as part of their services.

    Technically there does not need to be an "uber" UX entity, as is the case with that scenario. But this fits the superior model because UX is present in multiple units, meaning multiple units of the business derive benefit from usability, which will be a competitive advantage over competing businesses that do not have usability throughout the organization.

    The only tricky part, to your point, is trying to coordinate the activities to reduce the "re-create the wheel" phenomena, and to promote consistent use of standards throughout the company.

    Good luck with your situation!

  6. In fairness to Model 1, the weakest, i.e. where the UX practice is embedded in IT, I think there's at least one more model that's weaker.

    Actually, there's two if you count the usability death zone where UX just isn't recognised. There are stiil organisations working that way.

    The one I'm thinking of (Model 0) is where there's no practice, just informed and passionate individuals. They might be in IT, or Marketing, and they're the guys who can kick start an interest in, and commitment, to usability. They need persistence, charisma(?) and a thick hide. The model might be weak in terms of its current power, but it's a tremendously important phase in which these advocates need all the help and encouragement they can get if they're to move the organisation on.

    I guess that where these evangelists happen to be dictates which of the more formal models the organisation goes for initially. What's your experience?

    Have you ever seen an organisation go straight for Model 5 from the get go? Where do they usually start off?

    Finally, I smiled at your use of "Customer Experience" to describe an over-arching UX practice. I've certainly seen that name used, but only as a cringeworthy euphemism to describe a Customer Relations department dealing with complaints, letters to customers and managing the call centre. I've not seen it used in the admirable way you describe. I've clearly been mixing in the wrong circles!

  7. Hello James,

    Thanks, and yes! Where the grass-roots effort employees are who are internally "selling" the concept of usability and user experience are will often (but not always) be where the UX team ends up reporting to.

    I think a demonstration of going straight to model 5 is Apple and certainly Zappos. Both organizations started with founders who firmly believed a massively improved customer / user experience would BE the brand, and be everything the company would support.

    Yes, "customer experience" is not a term typically used in the past to define the user experience. But that is now changing because of the ever-growing number of new positions (and titles) of VPs and Directors with the title of "Customer Experience" leader that are more common in Companies.

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