The Rise of UX Leadership
July 21, 2013 Editor 0
UX, as user experience is known, is the new black in business culture. Most of the executives I meet with, regardless of their industry, now promote UX as key to their product strategy. That’s a big change from only five years ago, when UX wasn’t on anyone’s radar outside the tech world. For a designer like myself, it’s easy to recognize which executives know their products intimately, and which manage from a spreadsheet. Thankfully, I’m seeing the emergence of a new generation of UX-oriented leaders with little patience for the hands-off approach. They recognize that as UX eclipses traditional brand marketing, they need to be more hands-on with their products.
The CEO as Lead Product Designer
Steve Jobs famously ushered in an era of the CEO as “Lead Product Designer,” as described by one of his close collaborators, Glenn Reid, who worked with Jobs at NeXT and Apple: “(Steve) told me once that part of the reason he wanted to be CEO was so that nobody could tell him that he wasn’t allowed to participate in the nitty-gritty of product design. He was right there in the middle of it. All of it.”
Given Apple’s success, it is not surprising to see many executives following Jobs’ lead. I recently met a top executive at a major enterprise technology firm who runs an $8 billion dollar product line and describes himself as the “Chief Product Designer” for his division (even though his title is SVP and General Manager, and he has never before considered himself a “designer”). A few years ago, this characterization would have seemed like a step down for a senior executive. The nitty-gritty of product design has become a badge of pride in many organizations, like Facebook, which has embraced a “learn by making” executive culture.
This product-centric mindset is not entirely new. The auto industry invented the blockbuster product “reveal” long before Jobs, with auto execs unveiling new “concept cars” at auto shows in an annual ritual of one-upmanship that continues today. For example, the now ubiquitous and much beloved Fiat 500 was first unveiled by Sergio Marchionne, no stranger to showmanship, at the Geneva Motorshow in 2004 following the buzz generated by the 2001 re-launch of the Mini-Cooper by BMW. This spirit is exemplified by executives like Akio Toyoda, the CEO of Toyota, who worked his way up the through the ranks from the assembly line. In a 2008 New York Times interview, he said, “If I am going to be at the top of the car company, I want to be the owner-chef — with knowledge not just of its vehicles but their ingredients. I taste my car, and if it tastes good, I provide it to the customer.” As Toyota CEO, Mr. Toyoda has lived up to his word, launching the radically redesigned Toyota Crown last year in a hot pink bubble gum hue that you could practically taste.
With consumer technology becoming such a status symbol in our culture, tech CEOs must put on a few good UX demos each year to reaffirm the connection to their products, or risk losing face with their peers and seeing their stock price plummet. This is a good first step, but it won’t make corporate culture more sensitive to UX. For that, CEOs must move beyond showmanship.
Some CEOs do get UX. They use their products on a daily basis. I recently met a senior executive of a financial services company who is so obsessed with his corporation’s product experience that he calls customer service with a new complaint each day, just to make sure the customer service representatives know their way around his product offering.
“Customers” Have Become “Users”
The opposite problem for some executives is that they can be too close to customers (for instance, IT managers who buy a solution) without understanding end-users (the people who actually use the solution on a daily basis) They get so much feedback from their sales teams that it leads to feature creep — adding features to satisfy every customer. Along the way, any semblance of a coherent user experience is lost. The result: a highly-reactive product development culture in which extra features are continuously bolted on, making the company vulnerable to more pro-active competitors who have a laser-like focus on UX, which can be a potent disruptor in many industries.
So, how do you know if your UX is actually working for your end-users? Start by conducting a UX audit that captures the sequence of interactions your customers need to take to complete basic tasks with key products, be it renting a car or checking into a hotel room. Most executive flinch when presented with stark visual evidence of the convoluted nature of their user experience.
Here is an example of the sort of visual audit that usually turns heads with executives. This map provides a concrete picture of each step that is required to complete a simple task, in this case installing a home router for an IP telephony company (this map was created in 2005 and does not in any way represent the current state of their products and services). The map is divided into three key stages in the “Out of Box Experience”: purchase and open, explore and setup, use and grow. We developed this map after observing a small set of novice users try to complete the process. We used quotes and anecdotes from these sessions to help make the case with executives for the need to overhaul the entire user experience around install, and not just redesign the physical router itself. (Click to see a larger image.)
The Next Wave
The gap is growing between traditional sales-and-marketing-driven behemoths with their “customer-centric” approach and the new breed of organizations like Square and Zipcar, who have a “UX-centric” culture. Tomorrow’s leaders need to be able to close this gap. Fortunately, there is a great training ground for new UX leadership: the startup market. MBAs and other aspiring professionals are seizing the opportunity to create something new, emulating start-up heroes like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Dennis Crowley. Not all of these startups will succeed, but leaders who join their ranks will learn valuable lessons seeing products and ideas rejected by end-users firsthand. These new UX-minded executives will take top jobs elsewhere, seeding a new UX culture in corporate America. And they’ll certainly be looking to join companies that “get” UX.
But what if you can’t jump ship and join a start-up to learn UX skills? Many organizations are developing strategies to increase their UX capacity and promote product-centric entrepreneurship. Some large corporations, like Comcast, have launched venture investing arms. Others, like Google Ventures, are seeing these activities as more than just a way to make money, and rather as a way to engage the UX community. Design Staff, Google Venture’s fantastic blog, has become an online hub for sharing lean UX methodologies. Similarly, organizations like GE are investing in innovation accelerators that pair product teams with outside experts (like Eric Ries, author of Lean Startup) to coach teams in launching new initiatives with a more entrepreneurial mindset. (We can only hope that this UX mindset migrates to Crotonville, GE’s vaunted leadership academy.) You can learn more about these sorts of strategies in my previous post on “Scaling Your UX Strategy” in order to prepare your own company for the rising tide of UX leadership
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