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Vice-president of user experience?

Greater product variety and shorter product life-cycles have put the onus on design, which goes a long way in determining what we buy and what we are prepared to pay for them

Andrii Glushko 

From time to time, the title of 'chief experience officer' is used in the business world. It is a new term yet to be adopted at any large scale, but its existence casts an important light on an often overlooked connection. Part of the role, clearly, is to act as a liaison between the design teams and the executive teams, to assure that throughout an organisation, user experience is a chief consideration for all executive decisions.

That's easier said than done. In the design and technical world, it often seems that executives and designers speak entirely different languages. Yet increasingly, tech businesses understand that the user experience is a big deal (and maybe the biggest deal). In a article, Phil Gilbert, general manager of Design, discusses the acquisition of his company, Lombardi Software, by in 2009. He points out that the investment in Lombardi didn't bring any new computing capabilities to Rather, it was acquired because it brought "a really thoughtfully designed product that more people could actually use. We applied the same design principles as we had done at Lombardi and turned 40 IBM products into four products and made them, in a sense, delightful to use."

It is difficult to change the mindset or culture of an organisation. Even if the company is small, it takes a fair amount of effort. In many ways it requires that everyone, from the top down, learn to think and speak differently... while still being able to speak to each other. For better or worse, designers tend to speak one language, business executives another. Both groups need to find a common ground or language. Gilbert refers to it as moving away from a "process-orientated engineering mindset to a creative design oriented model."

Not unlike lean manufacturing, in which implementation teams are developed from all departments (creating a bottom-up buy-in), in the design world, designers - whose focus is on the user experience - should have a significant role in decision-making. In other words, someone at the design level needs to have both the power and authority to say "no" to over-engineering and unnecessary complexity, in order to create a better user experience.

Gilbert points out that "making stuff simpler is what we want to do. But in the enterprise space, some of the stuff we are doing is very complex." He then goes on to suggest that everything doesn't have to be as simple to use as an Apple product. It is questionable if the majority of users would agree with that statement but the reality is that not everything can be designed to do everything the user wants in two or three simple steps. Still, making designs straightforward, elegant and a pleasure to use should be the goal of everyone selling a product, not just the designer.

At the same time, it's important that designers understand the business goals of what they are creating. That way, designers are better able to appreciate and understand the dependencies between design decisions and business results.

Some people have suggested the creation of C-suite level positions whose job is to ensure that the vital role of the user experience permeates every aspect of the company, from top to bottom. Wayne Neale, writing in UX Magazine says, "I think a vice-president of user experience could collaborate with a VP of marketing to not only set a strategy and vision for the customer/user but to use the skills and approaches of user experience to help execute the plan beyond just the product experience and into other customer touch points. The VP of user experience would focus on the whole customer experience and ensure great experiences through design and design thinking across all customer touch points and organisational silos that deliver those touch points."

The thinking for someone at the C-suite level in this role is that they would have the clout to steer company policy and culture. It's not a concept without problems. As far back as 2007, Richard Anderson, a user experience practice, and organisational strategy consultant, led a CHI 2007 (Human-Computer Interactions) panel session titled, "Moving User Experience into a Position of Corporate Influence: Whose Advice Really Works?" To everyone's surprise, most of the panellists thought the idea was fairly unrealistic. One of the panellists, Jim Nieters, then senior manager of user experience design at Cisco, noted, "I'm not sure that a would be able to make an impact in the company because we are very stove-piped as a company - we have business units and technology groups. It is like a kingdom - every business unit is its own profit and loss centre, and each of the executives owns everything..." (Nieters is now senior director of user experience for travel products at HP).

Several of the panellists felt that the role of (or whatever title the role may have) should best be performed by the chief executive officer. Some argued that since everybody - all departments of the company - should be focused on the user experience, placing the responsibility for it on the shoulders of a single person would be counterproductive. Within a company, it's certainly useful if the executives and the designers are speaking the same language and have the same goals. For executives, providing designers with goals and challenges will be more rewarding - and quite likely more successful from a user perspective - than pushing your own solutions. Perhaps it merely comes down to trusting the skills and insights of the designers you hire.

Within the enterprise, from designer to top executive, everyone needs to understand that any product or service, even after official release, is a prototype. There is no final design.

That's worth repeating: There is no final design.

Products will be tested and monitored constantly in order to achieve better results in terms of usability and task completion. They will also be constantly evolving and reacting to their environment and ecosystem changes as they do so, which is the heart of personalisation.

The tensions are obvious: business needs, such as making a profit and keeping costs down; technical needs, such as developing a product that performs a complex job; and the users' needs, which is to have a reliable product that performs the complex job in as easy-to-use a fashion as possible. In order to get to that point, though, everyone - from the designer to the CEO - has to communicate the importance of all the goals to each other and have the ability to leverage their individual expertise in order to achieve those shared goals.

UX Designer, SoftServe, Inc

First Published: Mon, October 20 2014. 00:12 IST