I’ve been managing design, development and QA teams for the best part of 12 years. During that time, no other field has evolved more significantly than design. Early in the web’s history, developer-designed websites were all that existed. Over time, graphic designers were introduced to provide a layer of visual sparkle to otherwise dull, dark and boxy layouts. Their visual expertise slowly morphed into UI design and usability came to the fore. The current focus on user experience in software products - incorporating research, design and validation - has only recently gained a level of recognition in the software industry similar to that which exists in other fields such as industrial design.
This creates a range of questions that many companies are currently struggling with. Where does this new UX role fit within the organisation? How do you incorporate UX feedback into the company roadmap? When is the optimal time to invest in UX? (No it’s not “all of the time”). As the non-design founder of a mobile design and UX company, I think more than most about answering these questions and combining design with the other priorities of a growing enterprise. So here goes.
Every healthy company has far more ideas than they have people to implement them.
This means prioritising different ideas in an ordered way. In scrum, this is done through a product backlog. Anyone can add items to the backlog. The product owner then chooses the order they will be completed incorporating the vision, goals and targets of the company, using whatever approach (s)he feels will best provide the order.
The results of your UX research has 2 important roles here. Firstly, it helps bring new ideas to the backlog. Secondly, it helps prioritise the new and existing issues in relation to the whole backlog by using metrics and expected industry norms to identify the areas of maximum gain.
UX research will typically add a list of feature improvements, usability issues to be resolved and a more nuanced understanding of the market than market research or customer support feedback alone. A centralised place to store all this knowledge is necessary such as a backlog. It should be within the purview of the UX team to add any and all work they see as necessary to the product backlog.
User research also creates data and helps prioritise future production. The correct order for the roadmap is to maximise the return from the time invested. Thus, research results must aim to integrate with other sources of information to help prioritise the roadmap. There are many streams feeding into the discussion around the product roadmap and user research is just one of those.
The right roadmap order for a company is one that prioritises the fastest growth items first at all times. This can be over a short period of time or a longer period of time. I currently suggest to my team that we should have a 6 month outlook, looking at our growth and efficiency over that timeframe. This allows us to balance longer term improvements like code refactoring with shorter term growth “hacks”.
The right roadmap order for a company is one that prioritises the fastest growth items first at all times.
There are many competing factors which go into prioritising the product backlog. UX research results are just one factor to consider.
1. Product improvements
Primarily from UX research, market research and customer feedback at different stages of their conversion funnel.
2. Business focused improvements
Inputs that marketing, advertising and the rest of the business side of the company will have over the roadmap.
3. Productivity improvements
Where investing time in productivity improvements improves the long term performance of the company.
Of these, UX feedback will often be strong in the area of customer facing improvements, average in the area of business facing improvements and poor in the face of team and productivity improvements.
Clearly, the quality of the user experience you provide is an important factor in winning or losing a market. But, investing in UX is not always the answer. Sometimes performing user research is a poor use of company time. These times include:
When adding additional requirements or ideas to the backlog does not add value as the roadmap is locked for the foreseeable future.
When design time would be more valuable if used in another area of the company in order to remove bottlenecks there.
When the focus on UX isn’t likely to provide a big enough return on investment (for example when the product is considered very positively by the market but the size of the market is very small and would not justify the time and effort in improving it).
Understanding a problem is pointless if you don’t have the capacity to solve it.
It’s important to remember that UX research in and of itself has no business value. It is only the outcomes of that research, implemented and affecting your customers in a positive way that creates growth. When the roadmap is locked down or features are not being prioritised in your company, an investment in UX is significantly less valuable than at other times.
Recent studies strongly suggest that companies that have a strong design focus at management level perform better than those that don’t. It’s not hard to argue that particularly for software companies, a seat at the executive table or VP level should be strongly considered. Regardless of the exact structure, it is clearly obvious that having senior resources focused on user experience design in an organisation will significantly improve the profitability of that organisation.
The field of UX is broadening its horizons and in many ways is cannibalising from older fields around it with many practitioners eager to claim domain over areas that were traditionally their own disciplines. Customer feedback, data analytics, market research and UI design are all areas that UX needs some degree of ownership over in order to do it’s job well. While UX is primarily a product related discipline, the significance of an executive level presence focused on design and users cannot be understated.
I write this unashamedly from the perspective of a founder and CEO who has to balance all the competing and often valid discussions around different priorities. UX does not have a monopoly on what is “right” to do. The correct decision is always to focus on the path most likely to improve the sustainability and growth of the business. While UX research frequently can point in the best direction, it is not always the case. The worst user experience is one provided by a dead company, and design is not a solution any more than other parts of your company are. A strong “design focused roadmap” will help the company succeed and grow, not just improve the quality of your user experience.