Thursday, September 21, 2006

Changing the course or pace of a large ship

The challenge of building and establishing a corporate user experience function, getting it understood and valued, enabling it to contribute to a business to the extent that it can, etc. can be a big one. As the head of a now large and quite successful corporate user experience organization recently told me, early on (i.e., ~5 years ago when he joined the company as manager of a very small UI group), he felt like he was rowing a small boat to try to change the course of the large ship to which it is attached via a rope.

Interestingly, a director in another very large corporate user experience organization recently invoked a similar metaphor, describing the pace of change he was able to achieve as akin to the pace of an oil tanker rather than a speed boat. However, he was talking about the situation now, not years ago when the organization was in its infancy.

Does this boat metaphor never lose its relevance in the business of user experience?

It has long been argued that changing the role "user experience" plays in a business can take a long time. Back at CHI 96, I led a discussion about what was needed to achieve such change as suggested by several papers presented at the conference. At the top of that list of needs: a considerable amount of time.

How much time?

Well, to reference one example, a DUX 2005 case study entitled, "Creating a User Experience Culture at a Non-Software Company," describes a 5-year process that had its beginnings before that 5-year period and was not yet complete.

Over the years, several scales have been published which demarcate stages companies pass through as their way of addressing user experience (or some aspect thereof) matures. Earlier this year, Jakob Nielsen presented his version of such a scale, accompanied by estimates of the time it takes a company to move from one stage to the next:
  • "Stage 1: A company can remain hostile toward usability for decades. Only when a design disaster hits will it be motivated to move ahead.
  • Stages 2-4: Companies often spend two to three years in each of these stages. Once it enters stage 2 (usability recognized, but derived from the design team's own opinions), a company typically takes about seven years to reach stage 5 (forming a usability group with a usability manager).
  • Stages 5-7: Progress in maturity is considerably slower at the higher levels. A company will often spend six to seven years each in stages 5 and 6, thus requiring about thirteen years to move from stage 5 to stage 7 (integrated user-centered design).
  • Stage 8: Few companies have reached this highest level of usability maturity, so it's premature to estimate how long it takes to move from stage 7 to stage 8 (user-driven corporation). In most cases, it's probably twenty years."
Must these things always take so much time? Do companies always have the luxury of taking so long?

In earlier postings, I've referenced cases in which significant change was achieved quite rapidly, and described approaches to contribute to such change. But, as stated simplistically in a paper I co-authored entitled, "Improving the Design of Business and Interactive System Concepts in a Digital Business Consultancy," "old habits die hard." In that consultancy, process and role changes were made in such a way as to become infectious. However, in spite of the enthusiasm, groups tended to return to more familiar ways of working without an adequate system of support for the new ways.

Indeed, much is needed to make such change an ongoing and increasingly effective part of a company's culture.

In addition to a considerable amount of time, needs suggested by the papers I referenced during that 1996 CHI conference discussion included:
  • collaboration with others;
  • benefit (likely and realized) to all participants;
  • high-level organizational committment.
However, there can be numerous obstacles to achieving these three. (See "Organizational obstacles" and "What to do about those organizational obstacles.")

Yet, when such needs are achieved, stable cultural change can be possible; when they are not, ... (See "Making changes to a company's culture.")

A corporate user experience VP I spoke with recently talked about how her medium-sized company's DNA was still akin to that of a start-up. Several other user experience management personnel with whom I've spoken describe their companies as technology-centered through and through.

What is the nature of the culture of the company where you work? Does that nature impact the role user experience plays or can play?

What boat metaphor describes the feeling that you and/or others focused on user experience experience in your place of work?

See "Corporate usability maturity: Stages 1-4" (Alertbox, April 24, 2006) and "Corporate usability maturity: Stages 5-8" (Alertbox, May 1, 2006) for Jakob Nielsen's full description of the above-referenced maturity scale. These types of maturity scales have their critics, but they do provide some helpful guidance.

The CHI 96 papers I refered to: Atyeo, M., Sidhu, C., Coyle, G., & Robinson, S. "Working with marketing"; Comstock, E. M. & Duane, W. M. "Embed user values in system architecture: The declaration of system usability"; Gale, S. "A collaborative approach to developing style guides"; Miller, A. "Integrating human factors in customer support systems development using a multi-level organisational approach"; and Sawyer, P., Flanders, A., & Wixon, D. "Making a difference - The impact of inspections." There is lots of good stuff to be found in such older publications.