Who Owns Your UX Philosophy?

I’ve been in three board meetings in the last month where it was painfully apparent that there wasn’t a person in the company who owned the UX philosophy of the product. I’m explicitly saying “UX” (user experience) rather than “UI” (user interface) as each company had an excellent designer and the application looked great. But the UX broke down quickly, especially as you went from novice first time user to experienced user.

Now, it’s not that the apps sucks. In each case, the apps ranged from good to great. They had huge amount of functionality, did unique things that other apps didn’t do, and solved a clear set of problems in a compelling way. They were fast, pretty, used nice fonts, and had good screen layouts.

But each had a jumble of different ways of doing things. As you went from one set of activities to another, the approach quickly became inconsistent. I kept noticing that my when I was doing a different set of things in the app, the user flow would change. Or when I switched modalities, I would have different ways to do things that were dependent on where in the app I was.

Sometimes I’d click on a label to take an action; other times I’d click on a text description of the action. In some places I cared a lot about the Tab key; in others it was the Enter key. In some screens data was automatically saved after I exited a field; in others I had to take an explicit action. In some situations all the actions I could take were exposed; in others I had to search a menu tree for them. Orientation of the iPhone mattered in some cases and didn’t in others. Sometimes the key set of data that I was working on was the focus on the screen; in others it was only part of the screen.

When I start feeling uncomfortable with UX, I start counting extra key and mouse actions. When I think I should be able to do something with one action and it takes three or more, there’s a problem. When I realize in one part of the app that I can do something with one action, but in the other it takes four, there’s a problem.

In each of the companies, there is an excellent VP of Engineering. They each have a strong design / UI person. Two of the three had founder/CTOs. And the CEOs in each are excellent. They are each obsessed about the product, but they are approaching it from an engineering perspective. What are the features that the user needs? What is the feedback we are getting about what individuals want to do? Each of these things ends up being a story or a task – a feature – but there is no unifying UX philosophy.

In each case, when asked, no one in the company owned the UX. In one case, no one felt qualified. In one case, no one really knew what I meant and kept conflating UX with UI. And in one case it was a revelation that users were struggling with a chaotic and inconsistent UX.

I’m noticing this more and more in the different apps I use, especially at the early stage. Some are crafted beautifully from a UI perspective, but once I start using them on a daily basis I want to scream. Others have acceptable UIs and a layer of UX consistency that breaks down immediately when I become an advanced user. And others are radically different UX experiences across devices.

I’ve come to appreciate the important of a single person in the company owning the UX with this person being the arbiter of discussion around how to implement the UX. There’s nothing wrong with lots of different perspectives, but a single mind has to own it, synthesize it, and dictate the philosophy. But first, they have to understand the difference between UI and UX, and – more importantly – the product-oriented execs who approach things from an engineering perspective need to understand this.

I’ve decided it times to up our game significantly on this. I’m curious about what resources you rely on, thing are amazing, and would give to an executive team that is struggling with this.

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  • Uggh. How ironic.

    Was typing in a thoughtful reply [into the disqus comment box] when input suddenly was blocked, my typing didn’t result in add’tl words in the box… and it was locked up.

    I try to ignore stuff like this, but the frequency w/ which it happens is now pretty high. 1 of 3 or 4 interactions w/ disqus includes some issue like this. Not just here, either – anywhere that I use disqus.

    • Strange. I use Disqus daily and never have this issue. What browser are you using on what platform?

      • Chrome on a Macbook Air OSX 10.8.2.

        I’ve seen it on other systems, too, but not recently enough to recall details w/ precision.

        • Had the same problem trying to leave a comment with Chrome on MBA OSX 10.8

      • Do you comment on other sites or primarily just respond to comments here?

        Perhaps the issue is suppressed if you’re logged in as the site admin.

        • I comment regularly on other sites via Disqus. I just sent Daniel Ha (Disqus CEO) to check and see if there is a new Chrome bug that popped up. For example, the latest version of Chrome that I have on my Mac is having periodic Shockwave crashes (blech).

          • Yep, I know Daniel – met him one night at dinner w/ Howard.

    • acoustik

      I’ve had the same thing happen to me in Chrome on my iPhone 5. So frustrating.

      • Well, I don’t want to overreact to it – shit happens, and in the big scheme of things, this doesn’t even register.

        When disqus works, it just *works* & I don’t notice it all.

    • What browser/device do you normally use when this happens?

  • Thought-provoking post, Brad. Could you share examples in mind of companies in general that have done a good job of owning the UX philosophy, in your view?

    • Re: Big companies:
      – Google went from having this nailed, to having it be fragments and chaotic, and are now getting it nailed again.
      – Twitter went from being totally chaotic to having it nailed
      – FB has been between good and great from inception
      – Adobe is embarrassingly baed at this.
      – Apple is great at the hardware / OS level. They are awful at the software level.
      – Microsoft is great in some apps; horrible in others.

      Re: Smaller companies
      – Path is one of my favorites for this
      – WordPress is a great example on the more “tech / product enabling” side – I’m not a huge Evernote user but it jumps out at me as a good example

      • WordPress is a great example.

        Use it every day for years and it just does the job.

        Pro tools, you mention Adobe are surprisingly horrible. With Audio and video as well.

      • When you’re building a framework on which other people are going to build solutions, you have to remember developers are users too and they deserve a high quality user experience as well.

        WordPress is great as long as you never want to go off-the-reservation.
        When you need to, WordPress can take the developer into the weeds quickly. It’s gotten much better with the last major release, but there are still major architectural inconsistencies that can make the developer’s experience a real pain.

        As a content creator — WordPress is great! As a developer implementing custom solutions – not so great….

  • UX ‘is’ the product to my mind.

    More and more, whomever owns the final touch of the product to the market needs to own that point of view.

    Truth be told, there aren’t enough people who can really do this. You can find great product and design folks. People who talk and communicate in wireframes. But UX is more than best practices, its understanding and connecting customer behavior with product value.

    • I agree that UX ‘is’ the product! I think the most beneficial products allow for more meaningful ways for users to accomplish goals. It’s the experience that adds the value. After all, I could still hand write letters to my friends and family, but instant message is more meaningful since I get a connection in real time.

      Design thinking is where it’s at.

      • Yup…and the gulf between the capable and the truly talented is huge.

        Good news is that it’s a skill whose execution is really testable and the process of iterating UX with users is in my world a strong piece of the product launch process.

        • What’s your favorite or most useful part of the UX iteration process?

          • UX is about assumptions on the users part. We assume they will share this. We assume they will want to connect the dots in a certain way. We assume that what we feel is the shiny thing in our product will be what draws them in.

            Bit challenge is of course seeing if this is true, watching people use it and finding your ‘alpha users’. I find that early communities of users maybe enthusiastic (hopefully) but that alpha user who represents the core user over time is often not there.

            Discovering that user to me is key.

          • yes, but

            there’s testing the idea after you already have it, and thinking thru workflows and iterations

            but having the idea is a separate though related piece

          • agree completely.

          • talking to people, listening.

          • the example i keep in my head: users would not have invented an ipod, but you test your idea for an ipod on users

          • blueMUSTARD

            Monitoring adoption phase users as they become proficient then in some cases advanced

      • smooth, delightful, beautiful im: irq has been around for a long time but it’s not http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Relay_Chat





    • +10

    • the experience is the product: every aspect of it.

      disqus is smooth, disqus builds/connects communities — each is an equally important aspect of the experience. bbbs : disqus as linux : gui.

      facebook’s settings gear widget that lets you change identities from personal to whatever orgs/groups; a beautiful feature — but the shady privacy finagling undermines the overall experience

      twitter’s signup and login processes are beautiful: part of the experience

      starbuck’s took coffee shop hanging out to a mass and uniform scale; in places that had no coffee culture they created the experience, and others have gone on to customize and refine it

      part of the irrational love i have for my mini cooper is that being in it just makes me happy — and i regard cars as mere compensatory evils for the failings of places lacking mass transit


  • Mahesh Guruswamy

    Usually in big companies there is a chief experience officer. Who focuses on pure user experience, sets up UX tests etc. I guess in smaller companies the product manager could fit that role. UX (IMO) is not difficult to get educated on. I picked up http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Make-Me-Think-Usability/dp/0321344758 and it was a light read but had simple but powerful techniques to make the user experience better for your customers.

  • fantastic post brad! from my own experience with ux, it’s about unifying product story, design, logic, flow and data architecture. one of the challenges of rapid iteration is consistent ux. even path went through several iterations before they found their ux.

  • I think UX needs to either be it’s own group where the head is at the same level as VP of Product, VP Marketing, Engineering, etc. If that’s not possible, the head of the group should report to the head of product to be part of the product org. I think it’s problematic for UX to be in the engineering org, even if members of the team do front-end development.

  • migdesigner

    Brad, I love this post for simple reason that it is what I do (and have been doing) as a UX Director for internet software for a decade. Not to alter discourse here, but I would be interested to know “who owns your UX philosophy” at Foundry Group? What heuristic measures does that philosophy hold to be true when it (arguably) evaluates companies in it’s portfolio currently, or is considering new ones for inclusion?

  • I once had to fire someone over this issue. The failing was mine, though.

    In my experience, many small companies are 1) running for their lives and 2) consensus driven. Both of these issues kill good UX. For 1, running fast means not taking the time to contemplate how you’d expect to interact with an application and also means no time is being spent thinking about the implications of design , features and experience across devices. Something’s just take time and this is one of them. In order to plan for consistent interaction you need to have both a deep understanding of ways of interacting and vast experience across platforms. Acquiring those skills take time, too.

    2, when there are only a couple of employees it is really easy to go with what the opinion of the room is. This doesn’t work at all with UX. UX is a dictators game, for anal retentive ones at that. Someone has to have the iron fist that says this goes here and that goes there and I expect this other thing to work like this. The group can decide what features should be emphasized and which deemphasized, but one person in the end must take responsibility for consistently enforcing those efforts. Input is fine but in the end one person makes the call and everyone else follows.

    Anyway, great topic Brad.






    • running fast off a cliff doesn’t get you where you want to go

      the application is the ux: and it works best when it is collaborative across the team

      • Team provides input, among other inputs as well. One person makes final decisions. That one person must make sure that any decisions that get made is consistent across platforms and fits into the design themes.

        • that works yes but it’s best if the team also shares the overall vision

  • Great post, Scott. In particular, the issue of serving the needs of both novices and experts, or making the first use experience delightful and also supporting those same people to become power users, catches my attention. This one of the facets of a talk I am planning for BIG(D)ESIGN 2013. This is a huge item as working apps move into the cloud.

    • Bob

      Who’s Scott? Did I miss something?

  • Andrew

    I believe in design-led engineering. Every line of code should be written with the user in mind- always. Sounds like your team is taking the opposite approach. If your mother can’t figure it out – throw it out and start over. The main issue might be that they are packing too much functionality within the app. Keep it simple, always.

    • Ed

      If your mother can’t figure it out, maybe she is not the user. Keep it simple is bad advice for an app full of expert users….

      • Andrew

        As someone who practices design led engineering this is what works for me. I bring people in off the street to see how they interact w/my projects. “Mother” was a figure of speech…. Dumbing things down or keeping it simple makes a huge difference. Too many features can kill an app. Just look at the FB app. It used to do a lot more, now it does less and it’s better. I spend a lot of my free time helping my iOS dev friends smooth out their apps and simplifying things translates into higher reviews.

      • heavywinter

        The KISS principle isn’t about dumbing things down or removing features and functionality for their own sake. It’s about removing complexity and simplifying the effort needed to complete tasks. Something “complex” that’s intended for expert users needn’t be complicated.

  • UX is like the culture, if no one takes explicit charge of it, it will develop regardless, often with bits and pieces of everyone’s personality and large blind spots. Also very difficult to course-correct.

  • The problem is not so much the companies producing “inhumane” products — it’s the end-users, who don’t usually consider UX in their evaluation.

    Norman discussed this in “Psychology of Everyday Things”. When a user is faced with Blueray player #1 or Blueray player #2, the user will often look at feature lists, and choose the product that has more features, even if the user does not need the additional features or the additional features only complicate the interface of the product.

    People want to maximize what they get for their dollars, and because UX is invisible (done well you don’t even notice the interface), people don’t consider UX as a “feature”.

    Now there are shifts in the software landscape that are selecting for improved UX. Among them, the advent of SaaS, improvements in software distribution (through app stores and social media), and reduced vendor lock-in.

    Software with better UX can increase engagement and decrease churn (hugely important for SaaS), which selects for companies that pay attention to UX. User reviews in app stores and social media also help, because while most users do not consciously pay attention to UX, higher UX will make them happier and result in more positive reviews. Finally, because people don’t “buy” software, but “lease” it, and because of the proliferation of APIs, the barrier to transferring from one app to another is dramatically lower than for boxed software or physical products, which can make users more likely to look for alternatives to software that is painful to use.

    All of these effects occur even when users aren’t aware of why they like to use the software so much (e.g. Dropbox).

    For a relatively small company, bringing on an experienced UX guy will cost six figures, and the short-term effects will not be noticeable. UX tweaks the numbers slightly, and the amplification of those numbers over time can make or break companies, but those effects take time and it’s hard to quantify the ROI. Beyond that, and as you’ve discovered, most CEOs don’t know or understand the importance of UX, so there’s a fundamental educational problem that must be overcome.

    Posts like yours will surely help to raise awareness of the importance of humane software.

    • StevenHB

      Psychology of Everyday Things! The original title. Nice.

      My experience is more with enterprise software. When I worked for a large SI, we helped our clients with software selections relatively often. The comparison points were always feature-driven. I can’t think of one time I saw one of these when usability was even considered.

      That said, I think that a large part of Apple’s success has been user-experience-driven, starting with the Lisa->Mac and then with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. I remember thinking that some of their ads were selling usability, which seemed unique to me.





  • Worst UX I’ve experienced lately is Comcast.com. Good luck trying to navigate and get info there. Awful. So frustrating, in fact, that if there were other options in my area I’d be gone as a customer.

    • heavywinter

      There’s the rub, eh? If you’re a monopoly, you can afford not to sweat the details.

  • André Thénot

    As a mac user in the early 90’s, this brings back memories of debating about “look & feel” vs. “just looks”. Many UI systems had great looks (often better than System 7 / Mac OS) but just didn’t feel right. That was one reason many of us fans stuck with Apple despite their poor performance.

    • pick one
      — smooth and useful
      — useful but not pretty
      — pretty but broken
      — ugly and broken

  • This is a blog about startups – so it’s simple – the CEO owns the UX. Just like the CEO owns sales, culture, strategy. Post that, whoever knows the customer and market best should own it in my opinion.

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  • just run all UX by me before committing any code. I’ll decide.

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  • acoustik

    We should really break this out into two questions:

    1. Who owns the final UX decision?

    This is the person who makes the call, especially after a long UX debate. Usually it’s CEO, assuming your CEO is a product person. But if not, then you need to find someone.

    2. Who’s responsible for making sure the UX is consistent (and keeps getting better)?

    I think this actually more directly addresses the problems you had. Someone (ideally a team) at your company needs to be constantly evaluating every flow, design, screen across all devices to make sure that the experience is consistent and awesome.

    Btw it’s worth pointing out that “consistent” doesn’t mean “identical.” I’m a big fan of UX’s that are true to their platform. Our iOS, Android, WP, and web UX’s are very different, but we do work to keep them consistent.

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  • fwmiller

    I 100% agree with your assessment. I would even expand the scope of such a person’s role to include not only the web experience but any mobile applications. Facebook and LinkedIn are good examples of why this is important IMHO. Facebook has a decent web experience, LinkedIn’s is better I think. Both platforms have radically different mobile interfaces from their web pages which bugs me to no end. The UX person should be thinking about a unified experience between fixed and mobile devices.

    I’m a little suprised you even mentioned a VP Eng. In my experience, their focus is on execution with little or no design input.

  • Matt McLean

    Brad- can you share a list of apps that you think nail UX?

  • Brad – thanks for pointing out several key challenges that are facing many companies. In my experience, corporate culture has a large impact on how to get an organization thinking holistically from users’ perspectives (vs. being engineering or marketing focused, for example). Sometimes helping the CEO with “design thinking” (one buzzword that is common) is it. Sometimes, naming a “Chief Experience Officer” with responsibilities across the product lines and channels is it.

    Usually, it takes many, many smaller steps to get to the right way to address it.

    Sometimes it starts with a grass roots “up rising” from all of the UX teams, who decide to share information and work together despite the bureaucracy above them. A sort of UX strategy can evolve from the bottom up, and sometimes it comes from the top-down. Sometimes they meet in the middle.

    Often, companies start by hiring an outside firm that specializes in assessing how a company addresses larger UX challenges and proposing organizational changes to solve the problems you see. Disclaimer: that is what I do.

    The user experience community as a whole has had lots of debates about this over the years. It is nice reading about it from your perspective!

  • I’ve been saying this over and over again and I’m always surprised at how few really smart people get it. I was fortunate enough to work with a CEO that *did* get it, but it’s extremely rare. Yesterday I met with an SVP who asserted that product mgt owns the UX. The day before that a different SVP told me that we should be able to fix all the problems in his product just by making is “sexier”… and I should be able to do that with 1-2 graphic designers (there are around 60 software engineers on that same product). I’m whining a bit, but I really hate to see lost potential – products that ship out the door that could have been so much better. I fancy myself a decent salesman, but I need to up my game to move PM and engineering leadership to invest in the right approach to UX.




  • Making




    • so much this

      house metaphors still work.

      you can have a 10k sf house or a 2k sf house — how will you use the kitchen?

  • I would rather have a company acknowledge that no one owns UX than have them push their personal user experience desires as the UX agenda. Everyone has a personal opinion that comes from their personal interactions with the application, but an effective UX designer puts aside their personal desires in favor of the needs of the user(s).

    Effective UX is about observation, experimentation, measurement and iterative evolution (IMHO). Since software can have usable UI without UX, many companies find it hard to invest in UX because they find it hard to measure the tangible value. Or they invest just in UX research, without investing in the full resource suite behind it required to implement and measure it’s effectiveness.

    I’ve lived through companies where UX took 3-4 months to evaluate one user flow where no changes were ever implemented. I’ve also experienced the “blue versus orange button” epiphany where a simple color change skyrocketed conversion.

    Just like a tech company needs to “be Agile” and not “do Agile”, we need to all get better educated on what UX is, understand we’re not the experts at it, and we need to radically evolve our fundamental mindset when we approach UI design.





  • So totally agree with the frustrating misunderstanding and undervaluing of UX. Why people think a programmer knows what to program… and a designer knows what goes on a screen… is beyond me. It’s like asking a civil engineer and a graphic designer to do your architectural project. They wouldn’t even know where to start…

    But that’s an uphill battle – going against the mental models of all the stake holders – investors, entrepreneurs, and users. They all think a team/product = engineer + designer. People forget that Steve Jobs (as much as I don’t like Apple) was neither.

    • I agree, Jobs was neither. Not a designer in what most people think a designer is. I think of design as ‘how things work’, not ‘how thinks look.’ In that sense, Jobs was a designer or what’s termed now as a product designer. I separate ‘design’ and ‘visual design’ because of the confusion.

      • Yes Stephan… but most people do not separate ‘design’ from ‘visual design’… nor do they separate ‘how things work’ from engineering. How do you deal with that. Your work depends on other people’s mental models and terms.

        UX is too fuzzy as a term. In fact it doesn’t seem as a ‘term’ per se – as in a pair or a system. It has no context. Not being a clear, widely understood and shared term (notion) makes it culturally invisible and of no “real” value.

        I think the correct term for UX is ‘architecture’. But most people have a problem with ‘architecture’ too (that’s a whole other conversation).

        • I work with a lot of people who don’t understand startups or the Internet, so it’s helped me to call anything user/customer related (UX, UI, brand) as “strategy.” I still refer to design as “visual design”, since that’s commonly understood. You can almost use strategy for every instance of “design” and have it make sense.

          • Hmmm… strategy – you are probably right… this probably makes sense to most people.

  • Important question for early stage tech companies and especially when the senior management has engineering not product/marketing backgrounds. Here are some of my suggestion that I hope you all find helpful:

    Who own UX philosophy? IMO that is the CEO also known as the Chief Experience Officer. The CEO is responsible directly (early on) and indirectly (later, with bigger team) for making sure every stage of the user experience is “the best”. And this UX focus applies to the marketing/sales, customer service, team development- everything. But for a startup, the product is a good place to start. 🙂

    So how would a CEO who has no UX training ensure that “the best” is delivered?

    First, UX is not magic so learn about it. The best resource I have found is _Designing for the Digital Age_ by Kim Goodwin, VP of Design and GM at Cooper Designs. Allan Cooper popularize User Centered Design Process and he has published some other great books. THis book is designed for agencies (who have tight deadlines and often fixed budgets- sound like a startup?) but the whole book is excellent. Take a weekend and read the whole thing- you can skim, try to understand the process. User center design applies to all design but especially to mobile and to B2B apps IMO.

    Second, try to share this understanding with the team and start to create a design process. The starting point is user research (“get of of the building”) and building personas. Personas help the team focus on the objective user of the product, promote talking to users, and reduces “I think” wars. In a startup with a small team it is easy to get fixated on the screen you are working on right now and lose sight of the overall _consistency_ and _flow_ of the user experience (problems you noted in your demos Brad). Part of the iterative process must include slow, full, end to end walk throughs to identify problems. Part of the process includes building a shared understanding formally. When the UI is considered, try to agree on conventions to be used throughout the app. A great pattern book is _Designing Interfaces_ by Jenifer Tidwell. We have brand guidelines- we should have design guidelines, even in an early stage software company. It can change but at least it will force a conversation. And as part of the process, get user feedback with what you have created. Usability tests are low cost and can even help you find early user/customer. Let the user tell you what design approach works (is easiest/fastest/simplest/most fun/etc) while you manage the product roadmap towards your larger vision using that feedback.

    Third, share this understanding with the rest of the team. Help them get educated. Create a culture around it. But most importantly have the discipline to do it. Fighter pilots use checklists because they are confronted with task saturation in fast moving, highly emotional situations, that involve life and death situations (sound like a startup?). Put together some simple checklists to get started and help you and your team remember check the UX thoroughly against the company’s agreed upon patterns, to do high level and low level reviews, etc. Make it a habit. Then hold each person accountable for delivering the specific features in the context of the overall whole.

    So who own UX philosophy? The market ultimately (external), and therefore, the CEO (internal).

    All of this has been said before. And trying to do this, especially in an early stage startup where there is immense time pressure, financial constraints, product and market volatility, and team formation uncertainty is incredibly difficult. As we head toward launch, we struggle with all of the same and we are not perfect with this, by a long shot!

    Hope this helps.

    (Thanks for getting me writing Brad.)

    Bonus: when you are ready for new design practices or just some ideas, check out _Universal Methods of Design.







    • those three roles would be my must-have founding team. biz, eng, ux. this is especially true for a consumer-facing, mobile-first company. here, small real estate and butterfly usage patterns means the consumer has less patience to “figure it out”. it either “works” for them on first app open, or they never open it again. and in a crowded app-store universe, with many apps that probably do something similar to yours, if you don’t nail UX, if the app doesn’t immediately “work” for the consumer, you’re DOA.

  • UX is theoretically where startups should be killing the big incumbents. Once you have a mature product, it’s really hard to account for all the dependencies and features nooks and crannies that you’ve accumulated over time. As startups we don’t have any excuse. We have a relatively blank slate. I’d argue that the enemy of UX isn’t lack of attention to it – it’s all the dead weight features that get built and ultimately aren’t that useful, that just consume real estate, create data tables that have to be cross referenced, and get in the way. It’s so hard to strip out things after you’ve introduced them, and the UX suffers most. Ironically, I’ve also found that “personalization” features that we try to build tend to muddy the UX more than help it. Go figure.





      • …and learn what is interesting to users by studying …

    • ++++++++

    • Killing your darlings (especially the old ones that are just sort of hanging around) is essential to creating a consistent and smooth experience. The best product teams —in addition to understanding the user, having intuition and good design, along with all the other attributes that arise in a typical UX discussion — are those willing to actually prune their work.

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  • As a UX designer, this breaks my heart. But the real problem is that most people who label themselves UX designers are not legitimately trained, suck and don’t prove their worth, resulting in no one respecting them or the practice they’ve bastardized.



  • Bad UX – you fail eventually.

  • sounds like a case of big ux vs little ux

    big ux: every last thing about the app or the product; every touchpoint, every piece of workflow, rom login to customer service; content strategy, ia, and look and feel roll up into it

    little ux: fixing a scenario

  • As a UX practitioner having worked on dozens of products and with numerous companies I can’t agree with this post more. It would be interesting to hear how others have navigated situations where there are numerous product stakeholders who may think they are owners but often do not put the so called “User” and their experience first?

    I have also been thinking a lot about service design and how all of a companies touch points from initial discovery to loyal customer play a part in the “user experience” above and beyond the App, Game, Saas web product etc, think overall customer experience rather than the products user experience. I think this is an area that is often does not get enough consideration.

  • Excellent point and post Brad. We’re hiring for a director of UX right now: http://hire.jobvite.com/CompanyJobs/Careers.aspx?nl=1&k=Job&j=ocqTWfwb&s=SEOmoz_Site and it’s been a hard role to fill, but I concur that it’s a critical one.




  • Brad – so glad you blogged about this! Lots of great comments already so I won’t rehash them but the points that resonate with me the most are 1) good UX is invisible 2) UX is NOT the same as UI 3) its almost impossible for consensus-driven startups w/o a person owning UX (and knowing what they are doing) to do this right, and 4) its not helpful to say UX is the product and dismiss this. There are thousands of successful products with terrible user experiences. Rather – its what makes some products truly great and loved by their users IMO.

    At Filtrbox I was super focused on getting features out while holding onto the 3-clicks-or-less approach, but it wasn’t holistic and our UX showed it. (Note to self – pick a UI stack you can iterate stupid-fast on). On a related note – I do have to give Jive Software a lot of credit in the UX department. The team there is super passionate about UX and has dedicated folks (NOT UI devs, not designers) who work on improving and streamlining the product around the key use cases so “it just works”. Jive has a ton of functionality that shows itself at the right time. Their latest releases really show the work here – its way deeper than UI. The software/interface disappears eventually as you get work done.

  • In my company, i as the CEO have the UX responsibility. the only tool which is non-negotiable is the mckinsey way to make presentations. 1. draw in paper first 2. build clean, consistent, and CTA (call to action) driven “screens”. 3. use as little different fonts and font sizes as possible. 4. make each screen stand on its own. 5. some candy is allowed.

  • panterosa,

    I agree with awaldstein that the UX is the product, and I agree with bfeld that someone really need to own the UX.

    As the Founder and CEO designer of an ipad app game and complimentary physical products, I’m being told that I have quite a bit of Steve Jobs in me regarding how tightly I control my UX and how fluid and elegant I want the experience. I am applying for a patent on the app, for now the design is so clean it can be applied to other data sets.

    I completely agree that there should be a seamless experience for my user, especially since my youngest will be around 4. I have never designed an app before, and there are some challenges to work in that space, but I take clues from other apps I like and am mindful of the mistakes of others.

  • This is one area where the machines have not won yet 🙂 I do think you nailed it by calling out the single owner point – this will give you the 80% improvement.

    The challenge is much tougher in large organizations due to the people and politics so I commend the ones that are getting this right (Google gets my vote for most improved UX recently) and you’ll probably find that it had something to do with making one person or a small team accountable for the overall experiences.

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  • Mr. Brad Feld, I love what you said here: “Some are crafted beautifully from a UI perspective, but once I start using them on a daily basis I want to scream.” And, thank you so very much for sharing your thougths on this matter.

  • the true customer advocate, the keeper of the flame. And then institutionalize that so every employee understands the inherent injustice in poor user experience.

  • I see a lot of great comments here pointing to the ownership of UX and the consistent point of decision and direction. I agree this needs to occur to have any hope of and application (or dare I say a suite of applications) to have a consistent enough feel for users to be happy with the day-to-day experience vs. the happy sales meeting.

    One thing I find however when working on new systems or revamping old systems is that it’s not enough to just have an identified person in control of this but you need an architecture for interaction. Yes I know that architecture in software can be considered a dirty word but bear with me for a moment.

    When I’m talking about UX architecture I’m speaking in the terms a brick and mortar architect would about the consistency of interaction with the space. This person needs to think not only about how the interactions will occur and in what way those should direct the response of the application, but also about where the user came from, why they might be there and who they are. If these questions can be consistently answered, the experience can be driven very simply, basically your take them to the item they need in the most expedient fashion. I see a lot that applications are developed generically without taking these role and responsibility potentials into account which leads to many different ways to get to a piece of content. This seems to stem from the application developers not being quite confident about where the users should go first. I think this is the core of the responsibilities of the UX architect, in that they are focused on understanding the who, when, and why’s of user interactions in their systems and the rest will fall out.

  • The crux of the problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of what user experience design means. UX design, by it’s most fundamental definition, means focusing on the user at a every step of the design process. *Every* step, not just visual design or interface design. The reality is there are tons of less visible aspects of a startup that are designed, whether consciously or not, from content strategy to the user’s flow through the application, to the context or behavior for which the product is designed.

    A true, unwavering commitment to UX also means measuring business decisions based on their impact on UX. Could that lead gen campaign, or viral sharing mechanism, or giant ad unit, or shiny new feature negatively impact the user’s experience? If so, a startup with UX as it’s guiding principal will forgo short term benefits in favor of building the best, most sustainable long term experience for the user.

    UX is a cross-disciplinary function that touches product development, business analysis, marketing, and operations. Any decision or business process that impacts the user benefits from UX thinking. Customer service and sales have an incredibly strong impact on the over customer experience. If you’re committed to UX then you better take those business process into account as part of the overall UX.

    The problem, I think, is that many startups make the mistake of thinking that the path to success is by moving as quickly as possible to build the product that *they* have imagined, by adding *features*, and maybe adding a nice coat of UI paint. The fundamental flaw is that most of our initial assumptions when conceiving of a product, strategy, etc. end up being wrong, and the only path to a great UX is by validating assumptions with actual user feedback. It takes a high level of discipline, focus, and commitment to get UX right, it’s a lot easier to just make decisions on gut judgements and assumptions, but the end result can be the difference between mediocrity at best, vs. true excellence.

  • I recently taught seminar on digital product design at UC Davis and included an introduction to user experience as part of the class – I agree with all those that said you can’t just add UX later (whether intentional or not, every app already represents the user experience philosophy of the creators), and great user experiences happen because they are baked into the company or product from day 1.

    My personal belief is that for most startups, the best way to tackle this is to have the product manager/product owner also own the UX philosophy – a good product manager is the keeper of a great user experience and is the last line of defense against shipping something that sucks. Often this is the CEO in early stage startups, and later someone else when the company can afford to have a dedicated product manager position.

    Here are lessons that have helped me over the years:

    Think in Flows, Not Screens

    Web and mobile applications are primarily about making it as fast and easy as possible for a user to complete a desired task or series of tasks. Unless you’re still at the most basic MVP stage, your application probably helps users complete at least several tasks, and each one of these tasks has a series of steps that the user must go through to be succesful. This series of steps is called a task flow, and when striving for a great user experience it’s important to think about how to make this task flow as easy as possible.

    In my design process, the very first iterations of a new feature happen entirely at the most basic level of outlining the task flow in a text editor. When drafting a task flow for a new feature, I try to remember that it’s not just about describing the task I’m focusing on, but also how the new task flow relates to the existing application and the other features (task flows) it contains. How the user accesses this new feature (the start of the flow) and where they end up after they complete it (the end of the flow) are as important as the steps in between.

    Additional info: Chapter 3 in Robert Hoekman, Jr.’s excellent Designing the Obvious – A Common Sense Approach to Web & Mobile Application Design.

    Understanding Mental Models

    If you’re a technical founder or product lead, remind yourself that your users don’t see the source code of your application. This may sound obvious, but it’s easy to forget that your users don’tknow why you designed a feature a particular way, they don’t have the benefit of understanding how all the pieces of your app fit together, and they don’t really care about the functional processes going on behind the scenes, except when things don’t work the way they expect.

    Real users understand products through a process of discovery and trial and error, and as they use your application they slowly develop a mental model of how they think it works. A mental model is effectively their internalized understanding of the task flows in your app. The process of building a mental model can be artificially supplemented through tutorials, tooltips and other learning aids, but the best user experiences are designed so that the application itself helps the user quickly build an effective mental model, without relying on additional learning aids to convey key information.

    Additional info: Chapter 5 in Designing the Obvious – A Common Sense Approach to Web & Mobile Application Design.

    Don’t Re-Invent the Wheel

    When designing the experience for a feature, think about how other applications address similar task flows. Humans are natural pattern matchers, a trait you can leverage to accelerate the construction of effective mental models by relying on existing design patterns that many users will already recognize from their previous experiences.

    Design patterns are often platform-specific (especially on mobile) so it’s important to build and maintain familiarity with platform standards and design patterns used in popular applications (apps shipped with the OS are a great place to start).

    The same point applies internally to your own application. If you have two features that are related in terms of similarity of task flow or the goal achieved upon completion, try not to re-invent the wheel. In the common case where you’re adding a 2nd feature where the flow is similar to an existing feature, consider refactoring the UI of the first feature to accomodate the needs of the new feature, keeping the interface harmonious and consistent. Just like your codebase, the user experience of your app will accumulate cruft over time – you will have to go back and rework things as you iterate.

    Additional info: Theresa Neil’s Mobile Design Pattern Gallery – UI Patterns for Mobile Applications – skim it once, then try to refer to it when specing new features or refactoring old features. See also Google’s official design patterns for Android and Apple’s iOS Human Interface Guidelines.

    You Are Not Your User

    Finally, as a founder or employee of a company building a product, you need to know that you are not your average user. Even if you started your company to scratch your own itch or solve a problem you have and you’re trying to serve a target market of people similar to yourself, you spend at least 100x more time thinking about your product than any of your users do.

    The difference in your level of understanding vs your users is often a source of angst (especially for technical people), and is commonly surfaced in you or your team’s negative reactions to user support requests. If you find yourself dismayed at the apparent lack of intellegence of your users, you’re guilty of falling into this trap.

    Building and maintaining empathy with your users is key to a great user experience. When you’re deeply involved with the creation of a product, you can no longer depend on your own intuition to maintain this empathy. Talking to real users is an effective solution, and it doesn’t need to be costly or time consuming. If you’ve never done it, you will be astounded by how much you’ll learn in a half day, informal usability testing session where you spend time with 3 actual users who don’t work at your company.

    Start running your own quick and dirty usability tests: skim Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems, watch the example usability test video, hire testers on TaskRabbit, and get to it!

    • Dave W Baldwin

      Good reply, so I had to share

  • Alan Wells put up a great long post (with links) titled UX Basics for Startups. Well worth looking at – http://www.adub.net/blog/2013/01/13/ux-basics-for-startups/

    • I second this, good post and good point of view putting UX in the arms of the CEO early but the product team later. One of the key things of UX in my mind is to ditch the fancy design/computer and draw out the experience in its most simple form (its faster and more organic). I too think of app design and UX as completely different.

      Design for the Social Web is one of the better books I’ve read on UX and social interaction. http://rosenfeldmedia.com/uxzeitgeist/books/0321534921

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  • DanielHorowitz

    My feeling is you need one person to own it, and because customers and product are always changing, you need to always be testing (ABT?)

  • Great points. Most of us have learned the hard way that when engineering drives UX, users very often get lots of trees and no forest. And when pure visual designers drive it, UX = UI. And when there is no one person owning it, it’s easy to wind up with inconsistency across platforms and/or lack of context. I think good UX practices empathy – a difficult thing to do. As my wife once said, “before I can walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, I find I must first remove my own”.

  • B. Hamel

    Great post Brad.

    I’m a CEO of a cloud computing startup and I am completely obsessed with creating an awesome user experience. Too many times, people make things way too complicated and populate platforms/applications with tons of useless features – drives me nuts. I believe that if it’s not brain dead intuitive and super easy to use, adoption will be severely impacted and the product will ultimately fail. This is my first time owning UX and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think it’s an extremely fun process and one that I really enjoy being a part of and am very passionate about. We have done other things to increase our odds of creating a great product and great user experience:

    1. Teaching customer day 1. I think this has been one of the most beneficial things for us. We understand quite well how the end market users do their job today and how we can make it easier/quicker/much less painful. Lliterally working side by side with a teaching customer has really been enlightening. They tell us how painful the current apporach is when doing their job and what would be ideal to them and what they care most about. They want quick, simple, intuitive, effective. Dont assume you know what they want. Trust me, it’s a huge mistake to make.

    2. Our UI guy is involved in the process along with myself and our teaching customer. We discuss as a group features that need to be implemented, whiteboard flows, I usually come up with a sketch of how I see it being visually represented and working, Then my UI guy will take my chicken scratch and create a mock up version with suggested improvements and something close to look and feel. We’ll then run this buy the customer to get his reaction and feedback and discuss as a group what works and what doesn’t, then make additional changes/modifications until they like it. Once the customer is happy, then we build the page(s).

    The customer’s feedback tends to take a pretty high priority in terms of the product usability direction. I’m ultimately the one that decides from the company standpoint, but I let my UI guy actively weigh in, since he has a lot of experience. There are times I choose his approach and times where I take things in a different direction based on our teaching customer comments and my own gut instincts.

    3. We’re very focused on getting out the initial functionality to our first customer and get them to start using the product extensively. We will then take the feedback on what works well and what needs to be improved and continuously iterate until we collectively feel we have it going in the right direction. Then we’ll bring on more Alpha and early Beta customers.

    4. Our UX philosophy is:

    * Keep it SIMPLE!!!
    * Listen to our customers and use their feedback and suggestions – they’re the ones that have to live with our product, not us
    * When in doubt, take stuff out
    * Get it functionally correct, then worry about making it pretty/sexy
    * Use common sense
    * It has to be brain dead intuitive – give it to people who dont understand the app and see if they can use it successfully – if they can’t, back to the drawing board
    * Provide a help panel that actually helps

    Since this is my first time through this process, not clear that it will work as planned, but I trust my gut.

  • femmebot

    Short answer: It’s the person on the product team who decides what features to add or kill from the product and aligns product execution with the vision.

    Typically, lack of UX ownership at the systemic-level happens due to a number of things:

    — Vision is undefined, unclear or too broad. Often, vision (why) is mistaken for mission (what).

    — The product team doesn’t have the right skillset or simply isn’t able to adapt to the heterogenous needs of an evolving user base with different life stages. Often, they’re stuck with one user archetype: designing for themselves.

    — Process tends to be reductive and/or teams are fragmented which leads to defining and addressing product quality in parts, not as a whole. Product releases don’t prioritize coherent UX on a systemic level.

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  • Great article and love the comments. UX should be owned or at least part of a holistic branding approach. Brand experience, if done correctly of should be aligned to cognitive models or patterns of the intended user/audience.

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  • Lean UX (luxr.co) and Cooper (cooper.com/training) both teach advanced workshops to startups and executives on how to perform UX-driven thinking and integrate into their lean / agile processes. There are also top consultants in the SF Bay area I can recommend who work primarily with startups on early-stage products. Finally Amy Jackson is an amazing UX / UI designer recruiter who might be able to connect your startups with a full-time UX / product owner.

  • Lean UX residency (luxr.co) and Cooper (cooper.com) both teach advanced courses and offer training workshops to startups and executives on how to tighten their UX product and process. There are also a few top design consultants in the Bay Area I could recommend who do exclusively UX (not UI). Finally, Amy Jackson is an awesome designer recruiter who might be able to find your startups a full-time UX product owner.

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