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Facilitating Organizational Change Through UX

As the year comes to a close and businesses plan ahead for 2014, two areas I’m urging you to explore in a formal way are organizational change and cross-functional leadership.

Why—and why now?

The answer is this: the foundational skills you’ve honed as a UX practitioner are a perfect match for the demands of any industry looking to stay focused on its customers, while keeping up with rapid technological change. The struggles of digital transformation have been well documented. In addition, the elevated focus on creating holistic customer experiences has pushed the relevance of UX and organizational change to the fore.

Our roots: cross-functional partnerships are at our core

The last 15-20 years have seen immense change and progress in the evolution of the user experience practice from its origins in software design and engineering. Today, UX teams champion, create, and deliver user-centric digital products on the web, mobile, social platforms, apps, kiosks, and wearables. Team members have long played a significant role crafting product strategies, from first-hand user research, competitive analysis, concepting and design through to execution. None of these activities are taken on in isolation.

The increasing relevance of user-centricity has meant UX collaboration with an increasingly broader mix of partners, expanding beyond tech stakeholders to include marketing, product management, brand strategy, CRM/loyalty, customer service, and new business development.

A UXer sits like a buddha with many arms, juggling tablets, phone, Sharpies, notebooks, and more.

Playing the facilitator role, however, has never been a formal designation, at least in the eyes of peer disciplines, departments, or even the organization's senior leadership.

How can UX teams effectively translate their unrelenting focus on the end user into a formal role and gain organizational accountability? And how can UXers elevate the things we do to align with the organization's overarching goals?

Formalizing areas of focus for UX leadership

Often, UXers revel in product details and the activities that define them: unearthing unmet user needs, defining feature sets, interaction models, and UI designs. While defining the strategic underpinnings of product experiences and their execution are essential, roadmaps and metrics that help demonstrate the value and effectiveness of what we design and build are arguably more critical for corporate-level buy-in. Depending on the “flavor of UX” practiced in your organization (driven largely by the type of industry you represent and types of solutions you provide), my suggestion is to take a more proactive role leading the charge in defining and quantifying the business value of your designs over time.

One of my former clients was a luxury cruise industry leader looking to convert more prospects through their online channels. After a rigorous discovery phase and two initial test-and-learn launches over 6 months, we proposed an 18-month roadmap that demonstrated a progressive build of features on top of pilot launch metrics. All features were subjected to revenue modeling projections run by business leaders with revenue targets. We were also part of quarterly planning meetings where the full in-house team and various agency partners met to work through marketing objectives and product development decisions collectively.

This approach resulted in significantly reduced cost-per-acquisition for each booking, attributed directly to enhanced search results pages, reformatted and reconceived cruise destination pages, as well as closer integration between mobile, web, and travel consultant (phone) channels. In addition, revenue from pre-booked services increased significantly, as customers discovered relevant and enticing activities to sign up for to enhance their overall cruise experience.  

Senior level UXers (directors and discipline leads) should proactively be looking for opportunities to lead these conversations and play a key role in involving all stakeholders who have a revenue stake in the final solution.

Start by exploring the following questions.

What are the organization's "misses" with its customers/users, and how can we demonstrate where the internal fixes are?

UX audits are excellent vehicles for uncovering pain points and missed opportunities. Focus your efforts on mapping out the sequence of events that consumers experience across all touch points and then summarize your results in two ways:

  1. provide an overview of where the product or service “breaks” from the perspective of the user/customer
  2. succinctly aggregate your results using the established internal teams as an organizing framework so that actions are immediately apparent.

In a cross-platform audit my team performed for a cable competitor client, we found that customers lacked motivation to switch providers due to perceived cost complexity. While the value proposition of speed and quality were well articulated on TV, the online channels and print collateral failed to deliver effectively on a critical step in the consumer’s decision making. Our recommendations were clearly segmented so that internal teams were able to prioritize their tasks and understand how their efforts were tied to peer teams and the “bigger consumer picture.”

What partnerships can we forge internally, and what should we do if we encounter resistance?

Look for all the peer groups in your organization whose activities either drive traffic to or from your products. One of the core competencies of a UXer is the ability to see connections between entities. Apply that strength and step back to see all the connections between your company’s assets.

Outside of the obvious alliances in technology, development, and product management, your partnerships should also include your social media team, marketing, brand managers, project/account leadership, human resources (HR), operations, and finance. HR partners and ops leads are an untapped source of support and help for UXers looking to take on larger organizational change and cross-functional leadership roles. Schedule monthly meetings with your HR partner to better understand organizational priorities and offer to facilitate or run cross-domain workshops where you can apply Design Thinking methods to solving organizational challenges. Collaborate with your ops lead to define processes and demonstrate how Lean methods can help improve efficiency and overall employee satisfaction. Turn your UX toolkit into an enabler for your organization.

Using the user/customer as our north star, how do we ultimately "stretch" the organization's capabilities to lead to greater competitive advantage?

Over time, I see business transformation as the next frontier of applied UX design. The discipline’s focus on empathy, innovation, problem solving, and being technology savvy provides it with all the necessary ingredients for marshaling change. This Fast Company article The 5 Questions Every Company Should Ask Itself is a must-read and does a great job painting a world of possibilities for seasoned UX leaders looking for their next calling. Building "soft skills" on top of hard UX skills is critical to transforming the domain's value and strengths to bring about long-lasting, business-impacting organizational change.

UX leaders, your skills are waiting to be harnessed enterprise-wide, be it agency-side or in-house. Let 2014 be the year you get out of your comfort zone and take on some new, exciting professional challenges. Write me to share stories of your challenges and successes. I can’t wait to hear them. Break a leg!

Illustration by Matthew Magain

Lynn Teo

Lynn Teo

Lynn is a veteran product and customer experience leader. She has spent 16+ years developing strategic user experience practices at some of the world’s largest agencies. Lynn’s leadership roles have enabled her to morph in-house capabilities and service offerings to clients in lockstep with market demands.

As former Chief Experience Officer at McCann Erickson, Lynn helped transform traditional advertising for the agency by introducing Design Thinking approaches to consumer research, innovation, and cross-domain ideation.

She is a mentor in the NY startup community, external thesis advisor at Detroit's College for Creative Studies and an active public speaker. She holds an MA from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA.

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