Saturday, February 04, 2006

Making changes to a company's culture

Both of the first two Designing for User eXperience (DUX) conferences included multiple stories of attempts at changing corporate culture.

Two -- one told at DUX 2003 about Alias|Wavefront and one told at DUX 2005 about Intuit -- are particularly interesting to compare.

In both cases, many years had passed since a software company had last designed, developed, and released a "version 1.0" product. Neither company was well-poised to do so again.

As told at DUX 2005 (and elsewhere -- see my earlier blog entry entitled, "On concept design, ethnography, MRDs, and product vision"), at Intuit the obstacle was an "organization ... entrenched in twenty-one years of legacy processes and mindsets":
"The entire organization, its skill sets and processes, was centered on creating an annual version of a product on a fixed schedule with a fixed deadline. Every mindset, timeline, and assumption had to be challenged..."
As told during my opening plenary interview of Bill Buxton (along with Mitch Kapor) at DUX 2003, at Alias|Wavefront the similar obstacle was that they had no design process at all akin to the design process successfully used again and again by its industrial design customers -- "some of the best industrial designers in the world" -- or akin to the preproduction process successfully used again and again by its film making customers -- "some of the greatest filmmakers in the world."

Nevertheless, in both cases, existing process (or lack thereof) was ignored, an excellent, user experience centered and led research and design process was initiated and followed, and a new product was brought to market. In the case of Alias|Wavefront, the product even shipped early.

And in both cases, market response to the new product was phenomenal.

However, a comparison of the organizational impact reveals very different results.

At Intuit, much of the new process has become a standard. More new products conceived and designed in a similar fashion are on the way, and the title of the "User Experience Lead" on the project was extended to include the words, "Product Visionary."

At Alias|Wavefront, noncomformance of the new process with the corporate norms was not well-received, so in spite of the phenomenal success of both the new process and product, Bill -- Alias|Wavefront's "Chief Scientist" -- found himself out of a job.

Why were the organizational responses so different?

Bill has long been attentive to issues that need to be addressed in order to make changes to the way companies approach design. At CHI 99, I interviewed Bill on stage (along with Cliff Nass), and I asked about some the obstacles to doing good design in business. One of Bill's answers:
"I want to find out how to have the skill of user interface design understood so that people will respect it in the same way that they respect the skill of hacking an operating system or designing a microprocessor. Since the skill of design is not well understood, everybody is an expert, and they all have an equal vote. There's no other discipline that I'm aware of where everybody has an equal vote, regardless of their skill or expertise. So, one of the ingredients that will bring us to better design within companies and other organizations is getting to the essence of what the core elements of design are that we have to put into terms of the organizational structure of our teams and so on." (from Conversations with Clement Mok & Jakob Nielsen on Web & Web Design Limits for HCI, and with Bill Buxton & Clifford Nass on Human Limits to HCI, interactions, January+February 2000)
However, a key problem at Alias|Wavefront appeared to be a lack of executive support. Recently, Bill wrote about the importance of executive support, in the form of a "Chief Design Officer" (akin to the "Chief Experience Officer" I wrote about in an earlier blog entry):
"Is design leadership an executive level position? Do you have a Chief Design Officer reporting to the president? My view is that if you do not, you are not serious about design or innovation. Furthermore, you are telegraphing this fact to all of your employees, along with a clear message that they need not be either. As a result, you might as well fire all of your creative people, since you are setting them up to fail anyhow." (from Innovation vs. Invention, Rotman Magazine, Fall 2005)
Though there is no Chief Design Officer or Chief Experience Officer at Intuit, a maturing financial software market had prompted CEO-level support for the development of new products that "would truly make a difference in people's lives."

Late last year, Bill was hired by Microsoft, a company he refers to as:
"in transition from being an engineering-led company to as much a design-led company. There are more designers at Microsoft on any single team as there were not too long ago in the entire company. It's a wonderful change." (see Newsmaker: PC or people--who's the boss?, December 20, 2005)
Evidence of that change includes Microsoft's having given control of the design of Office 12 to a team of user experience designers, as reported by lead designer Jensen Harris at the December 2005 BayCHI meeting. And the Office 12 user interface is dramatically different from any Office user interface which has preceded it.

Have these changes been favored by executive support? At Microsoft, they wouldn't have happened at all without such support.

Hence, Bill contributions are likely to be received much more positively at Microsoft. Bill's personal mantra -- below -- will be repeated within Microsoft often.
"Ultimately, we are deluding ourselves if we think that the products that we design are the 'things' that we sell, rather than the individual, social and cultural experience that they engender, and the value and impact that they have. Design that ignores this is not worthy of the name." (from Bill's website)