Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Getting the organizational relationships right

The CHI 2005 website now reveals several details about the conference program, including information about the opening plenary. According the the website, Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon University will be opening the conference with a presentation entitled, "Confessions of a Technologist who has worked with Psychologists, Artists, Designers, and Other Creatures who are Strange to Me." And among the points Randy will be emphasizing is that "neither side can be there 'in service of' the other."

Recently, someone I know expressed concern about a new group in his company -- one that is being labeled as a group that provides design services. In this person's view, the group is going to have problems if it is positioned within the company as a service group.

Don Norman spoke of this when I interviewed him on stage at CHI '99 (for the full interview, see Organizational Limits to HCI: A Conversation with Don Norman and Janice Rohn from the May+June 2000 issue of interactions magazine): "An extreme oversimplification that a friend of mine made is that there are two kinds of people in organizations -- there are peers, and there are resources. Resources are like usability consultants -- we go out, and we hire them. We’ll hire a consultant, or we’ll have a little section that does usability and think of it as a service organization. We call upon them when we need them to do their thing, and then we go off and do the important stuff. That’s very different than peers, where a peer is somebody I talk to and discuss my problems with, and who helps to decide upon the course of action. As you get higher and higher in the organization, this becomes more of an issue. The executive staff talks to the executive staff, and they have beneath them all this organization, which are their resources that they deploy. But the big decisions are being made among peers. And it’s really important, to advance in the world, to be thought of as peers."

A design manager in one of my client companies would often say that product management tended to treat user experience personnel solely as "pairs of hands" rather than as "heads." Product concepts would be developed and sometimes pretty thoroughly fleshed out by product management before they would involve the user experience personnel (i.e., interaction designers, graphic designers, user experience researchers, etc.) in the company. Hence, user experience personnel, who believed they needed to be involved in product conceptualization, were often unhappy with the tasks they were limited to, and felt undervalued and not understood. Meanwhile, product management, who just wanted the user experience people to do what they told them to do and when they told them to do it, felt user experience personnel were the source of too much complaining and resistance. This was an unhealthy relationship that needed to be fixed.

What relationships do user experience personnel have with others in your company?