It's an important, yet sensitive, question.
Because I am an Experience Strategist and Designer, I feel that I should be saying that the UX team owns the UX. But these days, from my experience and observations of teams, that just isn’t true.
There are too many people who have a stake in the product - including the user experience team:
- Product owners and product managers need the product to succeed, or rather, attract users and achieve revenue targets. Often usability factors make or break a product - is it visually appealing? Is it fun? Is it easy to use? Products need to be simple and familiar to a user's life experience for them to use it often.
- Developers want what's simpler to implement, especially for the UI. They would rather architect an interface to be easy to implement, maintain and enhance - something scalable. They also want what is optimal from a page load and system resource perspective.
- Marketing wants to be sure that the interfaces use the right colors and wording, but it also wants to be sure that the app experience "feels" consistent from a brand perspective.
- Users like what’s simple and easy to use. Ideally they should be driving product development (Product budget money technically comes from users and customers; it is granted to product owners/managers to use as they deem fit by the company).
- The corporation funding the product and customer experience group want to be sure that the product accurately reflects the corporate missions, vision and brand (and for brand, like the marketers, this isn’t just colors and look and feel - it's the full customer experience with the app and the process to access it).
Those are the immediate stakeholders I can think of off the top of my head.
With all of these stakeholders and decision makers involved in the design, we can probably claim that design takes a village and design heroism is dead.
Design today is about collaboration. And a designer's job is to facilitate the discussion.
From my perspective, Steve Jobs was less a designer than a product owner/product manager who valued good design. There is a difference. Product owners think about the business - revenues and new markets - and are often influenced by design thinking because that is what customers want - elegant, familiar products that make sense. Product owners want their products to innovate their industries, which means that they want to influence change in people's behaviors. That's a noble cause, but this is about business, so there has to be a profit component. The product has to look good, and it has to work even better to sell. It's not design for design sake.
My favorite Steve Jobs story is the iPhone and its glass face. Originally it was plastic - and it got scratched being in pockets and didn't wear very well. Steve was using the prototype and realized that no one wants a phone with an easily scratched plastic face. It just wouldn't sell. It needed a glass face - eventually, gorilla glass from Corning. But Steve was driven not just by creating a new way of using the phone and the innovation, he was also driven by the design - by how people would use it and how it would wear.
He drove better design based on business and user needs.
- The business need - no one will buy a phone with an easily scratched face.
- The user need - a durable phone face that supports touch-screen technology.
He gave the direction - engineers and designers found a way to make it work.
Product owners drive me to do my best work. That is the line of balance. They know what will work for their customers, they know what they need to have to sell a product. That's the collaboration with UX - how do we make this experience the simplest and best it can be with all of these constraints. Sometimes I'll do what I think a user wants to see, making the interface simple from my perspective - fewer clicks, fewer screens. But I haven't been on sales calls or heard from customers about what they really want in a product - that's where the product owners come in and give me their perspective to simplify a solution even further. They give UX teams a mission and drive to make experiences better.
And if you can add usability testing to that mix and get direct feedback and input from users, you have a hit!
UX team members are influencers. We are experts in making interfaces easy and providing guidance about how users think, how simple they sometimes want things, how trends are forming, and other observations. There’s no way a UX team could solely own the UX for a large-scale product - there are too many factors to consider - from financial to technical to marketing to sales.
But UX can present options that we believe solves the problem defined by the business.
If anything, it is our responsibility as UX professionals to:
- Outline the problem we are really solving for
- Confirm with the business that we have defined the right problem and concerns
- Think through all of the issues and risks surrounding the problem and potential solutions
- Research and discuss ideas about how users perceive problem (and if it is a problem to them)
- Determine how users may want to interact with a system to solve that problem (based assumptions on research, experience, or on what other sites do)
- Create as many solution options as possible to consider
- Outline the pros and cons of each solution
Design can be subjective, but it is our responsibility to keep it based on facts and leverage design as tool to solve problems.
Sometimes, the business will look to the UX team to create visualizations early in the process. And this is ok - in fact, this needs to happen so everyone is aligned with the vision. UX isn't driving the process. UX is documenting ideation, helping the business better understand what the product needs to do by putting the abstract ideas of software into a concrete picture of UI interactions.
At times, team contributions in this process can get a little bumpy.
At one extreme - UX competes with the product owner to own the product.
Yes, UX becomes mini-me business/product owner.
I have heard this behavior described by a number of scrum masters and have observed this first-hand myself. In fact, early on in my career, I acted this way as well (I'm embarrassed to admit it, but it's often a newbie mistake). There is often a fine line between product owner and UX and who owns what.
Ownership is often determined by fiscal responsibility, and UX doesn't usually get that opportunity (the product owner does). At least for me, that keeps the debate simple and straightforward. If you don't have revenue or fiscal responsibility for something in any way, you just don't own it.
Further, UX doesn’t have enough insight into the business side of things to drive decisions, but UX can provide options and advice.
Other reasons why can't UX make well-informed product decisions?
- They don't usually attend budget meetings and understand the financial targets the product needs to hit
- They don't usually fight for product funding and budget money
- They don't usually attend sales calls and answer questions about product viability or why a product does/does not make sense
- They aren't on all of the calls where the product owner collaborates with development to get the server to move faster, for example, or solve problem with the QA server and production
- And more
If you are in UX and you get that level of visibility, then you may want to talk to your product owner about sharing responsibility for results. I just know that most of us in UX have our own work to do - and often those meetings and discussions aren't included in our day.
Competing with the product owner for ownership destroys the credibility of the UX team. UX may understand what the user wants in an interface and experience, but it only knows and understands what it sees on the surface. They just don't have enough insight into what's driving the decisions, consistent product history, and what the product REALLY needs to do.
Acting like mini-product owner discourages people from working with UX. The product owner doesn’t want to be told what to do by someone who doesn't fully understand the system, and will often avoid working with UX if this happens frequently. Why deal with such frustrations?
What happens when UX isn’t included in the process or the discussion?
Product owner/product manager owns the entire experience and makes all decisions.
UX thinks differently about the experience. They have empathy for users and can quickly see if a process is too complicated. They yearn for simplicity. Product owners don’t think like UX - and that’s a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say! We need people on projects who think differently to get to the right solution. Everyone has a different focus.
- UX wants simplicity and ease of use
- Product owners want what’s less expensive to implement and best for the user
And simplicity isn't necessarily cheap. That's where the product owner's insight comes in handy. They understand the impact of budget, resources, and user needs - and they are responsible to create the best product possible to balance all of that.
Without this balance, product owners sometimes make ok design decisions, but with everything going on in their world, they don't think through all of the details, which arise during development and costs more money. Or they may make design decisions based on personal preferences rather than a user need-based decision and keep the solution choice more objective.
Developers ignore the UX recommendations.
Sometimes the developers may find the recommended UX to be too difficult to implement and decide to simplify it themselves. The problem is that developers sometimes make the UX simpler for the system to process a request - but not for the user.
Or they may find UX isn't giving them timely answers. UX needs time to think about what the solution should be, but it shouldn't take more than a day or so. Often development will be on a deadline and just needs an answer - and they sometimes just make it up themselves to meet target deadlines.
And creating development-led software won't win over users. This is why computers were so scary in the 70s and 80s - they weren't designed to mirror how people think about problems, only how machines processed data and input.
However, if the designers and developers aren't collaborating to find solutions that meet both teams needs, ignoring UX is a possible outcome.
I have found in my experience, if a developer thinks UX is coming up with an elegant, simple solution for the user, something they think is "cool," they will find a way to implement it.
What does the UX team own for the UX?
UX should be an idea and innovation center. They should partner with:
- Product owners to understand the challenges of the business
- Users to understand what they want to do
- Developers to understand how technically, the product could be made simpler
They should be creating ideas and making recommendations. They should empathize and think like their users. They should be up to date on current interface approaches, usability trends, and new ways of approaching digital experiences - from content to interactions to media.
They should provide advice and guidance. They provide options. They are a resource.
Again, UX needs to shift its role and influence the team. And influence can be powerful.