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.
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.
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
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?”