Seven things your boss needs to know about UX

As someone who has been in the user experience domain for a LOOONG time, I have had lots of conversations with many different executives. And, most of the time, these execs knew how to spell “UX”, but they didn’t know much else about it. There were many misconceptions that needed correcting and while it was sometimes frustrating, I also enjoyed the opportunity to educate these key decision makers on the discipline and how it worked.

Here’s seven conversation topics that came up when I was discussing UX with managers, and all are worth pointing out to YOUR boss – especially if you are a UX consultant and your boss is your client:

UX is iterative

“What is taking so long?” One impatient CFO once asked me. He expected the design for the application my team was doing to be “one and done” and the idea that we were having iteration cycles confused him. I had to explain to him that the process we followed was iterative, and that we had to refine the designs to get to the point where it was at the appropriate level of quality. He resisted that idea, but the results convinced him that iteration produced results.

User research is vital

“We already talked to our customers, why do you need to?” A project manager was surprised at the request, and we had to explain to him that a proper UX project required insight and understanding about what people thought and felt about the domain, and we couldn’t just leverage marketing research. Having those one-on-one conversations let us build out personas, and these personas, representing what we learned about the users, gave us “targets” to align our designs too. The project manager grudgingly accepted the results.

There is no standard “UX process”

Some managers are very process focused, and they want to see a Six Sigma-like UX process chart, one that is approved by some central UX “signing authority.” Well… while UX is a mature discipline with many different defined processes, it’s more flexible than that. In fact, UX is more a series of tactics and approaches than a formalized process. Many design teams and consultancies have formalized their specific processes, but there’s on “one UX process to rule them all.” Which is a good thing, in my opinion. It allows us to apply a flexible toolkit to solve specific business and user problems in targeted ways – letting us use the right tool for the right job.

UX is not UI

Well, specifically, UX is not JUST UI. Many executives that I encountered think that UX work was just designing screens. It’s not. And in fact, as we move more towards a connected “Internet of things” world, user experience design is going to be less about screens and more about how different systems and processes interact with each other. And burgeoning UX specialties like service design and content strategy are leading the way to be more about process and content design than UI creation.

Even if you are designing an application or a web site, there’s still more to the jib than designing and documenting screens. There’s the aforementioned user research, scenarios, storyboards… and of course:

Usability testing is incredibly important

“You guys are experts, why do you need to test the designs you come up with?” That was the question one stakeholder asked me as we were planning out the engagement.

My response was as follows: “Even if you have confidence in the design you have done, you are not the user. You can apply best practices, use the right design patterns, and do all the necessary research… but you still will not know how people will react to the design until you test it with them. And the best way you have got the design right is to have the user engage with it and then TELL YOU how it works, with no instruction or demonstration before hand. If they can do that, then you know you’ve got the design right.”

That answer convinced him. Because it’s true.

Usability is not UX, either

“You’re the usability guys, you tell us what it should do.” I sometimes think I should start a consultancy called “The Usability Guys” because of that comment. Usability is not UX – it’s important, but UX is much bigger and broader than that. In fact, because people’s standards have increased as they are exposed to better and more usable apps, usability has become the “table stakes” that all solutions need to provide. Anything that isn’t usable, in the competitive marketplace of ideas… will not succeed.

UX “Unicorns” are rare

“Why do we need a lead, a designer and a graphic artist? Can’t we just hire one guy who does all of that?” That was an executive looking at a proposed job ladder that was created for my team. I had to respond that what he was looking for was a “UX Unicorn,” a rare breed that is nearly never found in the wild. UX is a broad domain, that encompasses many different disciplines. While I believe that, as Robert Heinlein famously stated, “specialization is for insects,” it’s incredibly difficult to become proficient at all the skills in UX. Sometimes, specialization is useful and necessary.

There you have it, seven things that bosses should know about the user experience discipline. Hopefully, you can use these points to educate your superiors and “manage up.”

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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