When we want to learn someone's true agenda, especially in politics, we follow the money.
- Who is paying the Senator or Representative?
- What is the donor getting from Congress?
- How does that relationship work?
- Who does that Senator REALLY work for?
In American culture, money is exchanged for goods or services; we work in a system of trade. For products, the exchange is for "what you see, is what you get." There's not really any customization available, unless the person or company selling the product is offering it. However, in the case of services, whomever pays the money is getting something back that benefits them based on their specifications. So if you own a house, and you pay an architect to add a porch or a greenhouse or whatnot, the architect won't be doing exactly what he likes - he'll be designing and creating a porch that will meet your expectations and needs, with his design flair added.
This makes you wonder if the same assumptions apply to UX professionals. Who are they working for? And does this person influence the team's work?
I think it does. If UX teams within a company were independent teams responsible for contributing to the bottom line and had metrics to measure success, users would have a better experience, spend more money, and generally, revenue would increase for any product. Otherwise, if the UX team is part of another group (business or technology), they are "managed" by them and aren't able to make all of their own decisions.
We all do commissioned work
In a company, all employees are doing commissioned work; they are being paid to do work for someone else based on specifications. They aren't working completely on their personal goals; they are completing work to help an organization achieve its goals. Sure, employees meet some of their personal goals, but the goals are mainly driven by whom they work for.
Artists will sometimes do commissioned work as well, and they are basically selling a custom service.
To begin with, working on commission, creating a work of art on spec from scratch for someone other than yourself, is totally different than selling a finished piece at a show, at a gallery, or out of your studio. Selling a completed work of art is an event; producing a work of art on commission for another party is a relationship. Never confuse the two. - ArtBusiness.com
In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, royalty and nobles would commission artists to paint their families. Some of these paintings romanticized individuals and made the subjects notably more attractive. I mean, why would you make someone paying your way ugly? It's probably not a good idea if you like the nice meals and living in the castle or manor home.
Scientists (all types) can also be commissioned to do research work. Needless to say, one has to wonder about the integrity of this work because someone is being paid to prove a theory, idea, or concept or the results could be interpreted with a "spin." Most scientists will get a government or foundation grant to continue their research to remove outside interest, but getting commissioned to do research by a company means that the scientist is technically working for that company, and potentially it's interest. Altimeter makes it clear on their site that there is a high potential for a conflict of research for commissioned research.
Branding: Altimeter prefers that the research be branded to the company and not to Altimeter so that it is not confused with Altimeter’s own branded research. The less the commissioned research reflects the Altimeter’s brand, the less the conflict. - Altimeter - Commissioned Research Policy
The concern for conflict of interest for commissioned work goes across industries - from art to science and design. It's a fairly consistent - and valid - concern.
Internal UX Teams as Consultants
If a UX professional works in the product management/business team, then he is collaborating with them to make their vision a reality. UX provides insight into what will provide an effective user experience; the business provides direction as to what the product should do. Sure, we all work together, but the business team is defining the problem the team needs to solve.
I want to be clear that I'm addressing UX employees rather than consultants. Consultants have a very different relationship for whom they work. They are being paid for their expertise, but also getting paid to help get a project done. What's different about a consultant and employee is ownership - a consultant doesn't really "own" what he is working on; the consultant is a resource who raises issues, but he doesn't necessarily have responsibility to increase the bottom line (there is always a final decision maker/owner for that) or have insight into all aspects of a product as would an employee who works on a project every day, all day. Employees often assume that they are contributing to the bottom line and "own" a project/product to a certain level (meaning they have input into the project/product's direction).
If the business team (product management team) funds the UX budget, then UX works for the business and needs to do what they want. If the business has a requirement, then the UX team will include it in their designs. In more democratic teams UX can give feedback, but at the end of the day, it is the decision of the business as to what is included/excluded for a release.
As an example, I worked on a product where we were designing a My Account page. I was a UX person (employee) on the product management team. I gave some suggestions as to how we could display data and handle some of the functionality. However, the product manager had already made a number of decisions with engineering that were driven more by what made sense for engineering rather than what was best for the user. I was not included in any of the discussions. I continued making recommendations to make the experience a little smoother for the user, but I was told that the approach the business decided to take was the final decision - even though I had valid feedback. I voiced my concerns and risks, but the business made the decision. If you think about it, I worked as a consultant, providing advice, guidance, and benefits/challenges of a decision.
The leader of this group later told me that I didn't own anything - that the business was responsible for revenue and metrics so it was their decision. That's understandable, however, why be an employee in a situation like this? I might as well have been an independent, outside consultant providing advice that may or may not be used. For UX to be a contributing member of any team, UX needs to be able to contribute to the team as an equal and have a degree of ownership.
Are all teams like this? Definitely not. I've had clients who are partners, respect my position and bring me in to give advice as to what to do. However, I've also been an employee where I was treated like an outside consultant. This is why at times UX professionals prefer being consultants - at least his role is well defined.
It is also the decision of the business to allow the UX team to include users in the development process because they are funding the work and it needs to be approved. I have been refused funding many times for user research activities. I consider research to be very important, but if the business doesn't want to include it - what can I really say? I can only advocate as much as I am an equal.
Similarly, if a UX person is part of the technology team, and the technology team is paying for him, then he is working for the technologists. The technologists may be more open to user research and including their recommendations, but the bottom line is that UX is working for their interests.
Product management and technology are usually separate teams so that they don't have a conflict of interest - they both represent their own needs and they are treated as more or less equals. They are both employed by the customer payments (revenue). The business may dictate the priorities, but technology decides how the project will be implemented. If IT owns a project completely, it will be too technology driven (most early IT/computer applications); if the business owns a project, the interests of the technology may be overshadowed. However, if UX is part of either of these teams, and represents the voice of the users as part of either team, the business is at risk for losing opportunities and revenue and better understanding its audience because UX is not an equal voice to the other teams.
The Irony - Customers are the one who are paying for you
The irony of this situation is that it's the customers who pay for the services (or it's the investment bankers who fund the project - and want it to get customers and succeed - meaning extreme profits). It's the voice of the customer - or the actions of the customer and where their money goes that proves the success of the product. So if the UX team does some research and has a recommendation that the business doesn't listen to, the business is damaging the product. If you really want to hear your customer, you need to make UX an independently funded team in the organization, treated as an equal to the other teams and interests. It can't provide only services to a project. It can't be a filtered voice. UX needs to be equal to the business and technology teams and work directly for the customer and be funded by what the customer directly pays.
Independence for UX
This is why the UX team needs to have full fiscal responsibility for its work. If UX had responsibility for the results, then there would be more input from users, the UX team would be have more invested ownership - not be just a consultant, and most likely, customers would have a more successful experience. The UX team would actually own the experience and be responsible for its success, have a set of metrics to meet, and there could be real research, rather than opinions, guiding the work.
Discussions about features would have a broader perspective where the UX team represents the needs of the users, the technologists provide cost-effective approaches to problems, and the business represents the bottom-line needs and is able to prioritize what will bring in the most revenue. Increased revenue comes from hearing the needs of the user - and you need UX to independently represent that voice - from both quantitative and qualitative perspectives.
Metrics could include drop off rates in purchase paths, shared responsibility for adoption (and work with the business to define what that means - which team is responsible for what), general site satisfaction, return user rate, and a number of other metrics that are more thorough than revenue - and could prove that the user experience is contributing to the bottom line. There could also be metrics from usability studies, showing that users like what they are using. There could also be discussions with users where they express their opinion or share stories to tell what they like or don't like about a product. The dashboard you create has endless possibilities depending on your business and what makes sense to track. But in all cases, it allows the user to have an equal voice with other interests.
If you want to get more money from your customer, you have to find out what they really want. UX does this best. That's why the money should be used to directly fund UX work, not allocations to other teams as the middlemen. UX Independence!