Ending the UX Designer Drought

Written by: Fred Beecher

The first article in this series, “A New Apprenticeship Architecture,” laid out a high-level framework for using the ancient model of apprenticeship to solve the modern problem of the UX talent drought. In this article, I get into details. Specifically, I discuss how to make the business case for apprenticeship and what to look for in potential apprentices. Let’s get started!

Defining the business value of apprenticeship

Apprenticeship is an investment. It requires an outlay of cash upfront for a return at a later date. Apprenticeship requires the support of budget-approving levels of your organization. For you to get that support, you need to clearly show its return by demonstrating how it addresses some of your organization’s pain points. What follows is a discussion of common pain points and how apprenticeship assuages them.

Hit growth targets

If your company is trying to grow but can’t find enough qualified people to do the work  that growth requires, that’s the sweet spot for apprenticeship. Apprenticeship allows you to make the designers you’re having trouble finding. This is going to be a temporal argument, so you need to come armed with measurements to make it. And you’ll need help from various leaders in your organization to get them.

  • UX team growth targets for the past 2-3 years (UX leadership)
  • Actual UX team growth for the past 2-3 years (UX leadership)
  • Average time required to identify and hire a UX designer (HR leadership)

Then you need to estimate how apprenticeship will improve these measurements. (Part 3 of this series, which will deal with the instructional design of apprenticeship, will offer details on how to make these estimates.)

  • How many designers per year can apprenticeship contribute?
  • How much time will be required from the design team to mentor apprentices?

Growth targets typically do not exist in a vacuum. You’ll likely need to combine this argument with one of the others.

Take advantage of more revenue opportunities

One of the financial implications of missing growth targets is not having enough staff to capitalize on all the revenue opportunities you have. For agencies, you might have to pass up good projects because your design team has a six-week lead time. For product companies, your release schedule might fall behind due to a UX bottleneck and push you behind your competition.

The data you need to make this argument differ depending on whether your company sells time (agency) or stuff (product company).

When doing the math about an apprenticeship program, agencies should consider:

  • What number of projects have been lost in the past year due to UX lead time? (Sales leadership should have this information.)
  • What is the estimated value of UX work on lost projects? (Sales leadership)
  • What is the estimated value of other (development, strategy, management, etc.) work on lost projects? (Sales leadership)

Then, contrast these numbers with some of the benefits of apprenticeship:

  • What is the estimated number of designers per year apprenticeship could contribute?
  • What is the estimated amount of work these “extra” designers would be able to contribute in both hours and cash?
  • What is the estimated profitability of junior designers (more) versus senior designers (less), assuming the same hourly rate?

Product companies should consider:

  • The ratio of innovative features versus “catch-up” features your competitors released last year. (Sales or marketing leadership should have this information.)
  • The ratio of innovative features versus “catch-up” features you released in the past year. (Sales or marketing leadership)
  • Any customer service and/or satisfaction metrics. (Customer service leadership)

Contrast this data with…

  • The estimated number of designers per year you could add through apprenticeship.
  • The estimated number of features they could’ve completed for release.
  • The estimated impact this would have on customer satisfaction.

Avoid high recruiting costs

Recruiting a mid- to senior-level UX designer typically means finding them and poaching them from somewhere else. This requires paying significant headhunting fees on top of the person-hours involved in reviewing resumes and portfolios and interviewing candidates. All the data you need to make this argument can come from UX leadership and HR.

  • Average cost per UX designer recruit
  • Average number of hours spent recruiting a UX designer

Contrast this data with:

  • Estimated cost per apprentice

To estimate this, factor in:

  • Overhead per employee
  • Salary (and benefits if the apprenticeship is long enough to qualify while still an apprentice)
  • Software and service licenses
  • Mentorship time from the current design team
  • Mentorship/management time from the designer leading the program

Increase designer engagement

This one is tricky because most places don’t measure engagement directly. Measuring engagement accurately requires professional quantitative research. However, there are some signs that can point to low engagement.

High turnover is the number one sign of low engagement. What kind of people are leaving—junior designers, seniors, or both? If possible, try to get exit interview data (as raw as possible) to develop hypotheses about how apprenticeship could help. Maybe junior designers don’t feel like their growth is supported… allowing them to leverage elements of an apprenticeship program for further professional development could fix that. Maybe senior designers are feeling burnt out. Consistent mentorship, like that required by apprenticeship, can be reinvigorating.

Other signs of low engagement include frequently missing deadlines, using more sick time, missing or being late to meetings, and more. Investigate any signs you see, validate any assumptions you might take on, and hypothesize about how apprenticeship can help address these issues.

Help others

If your organization is motivated by altruism, that is wonderful! At least one organization with an apprenticeship program actually tries very hard not to hire their apprentices. Boston’s Fresh Tilled Soil places their graduated apprentices with their clients, which creates a very strong relationship with those clients. Additionally, this helps them raise the caliber and capacity of the Boston metro area when it comes to UX design.

Hiring great UX apprentices

Hiring apprentices requires a different approach to evaluating candidates than hiring established UX designers. Most candidates will have little to no actual UX design skills, so you have to evaluate them for their potential to acquire and hone those skills. Additionally, not everyone learns effectively through apprenticeship. Identifying the traits of a good apprentice in candidates will help your program run smoothly.

Evaluating for skill potential

Portfolio. Even though you’re evaluating someone who may never have designed a user experience before, you still need them to bring some examples of something they’ve made. Without this, it’s impossible to get a sense of what kind of process they go through to make things. For example, one apprentice candidate brought in a print brochure she designed. Her description of how she designed it included identifying business goals, balancing competing stakeholder needs, working within constraints, and getting feedback along the way, all of which are relevant to the process of UX design.

Mindset. The number one thing you must identify in a candidate is whether they already possess the UX mindset, the point of view that things are designed better when they’re designed with people in mind. This is usually the light bulb that goes off in people’s heads when they discover UX design. If that light hasn’t gone off, UX might not be the right path for that person. Apprenticeship is too much of an investment to risk that. Evaluating for this is fairly simple. It usually comes out in the course of a conversation. If not, asking outright “What does user experience design mean to you” can be helpful. Pay careful attention to how people talk about how they’ve approached their work. Is it consistent with their stated philosophy? If not, that could be a red flag.

Intrinsic motivation. When people talk about having a “passion” for something, what that means is that they are intrinsically motivated to do that thing. This is pretty easy to evaluate for. What have they done to learn UX? Have they taken a class? That’s a positive sign. Have they identified and worked through a UX problem on their own? Even better! If a candidate hasn’t put in the effort to explore UX on their own, they are likely not motivated enough to do well in the field.

Self-education. While self-education is a sign of intrinsic motivation, it’s also important in its own right. Apprenticeship relies heavily on mentorship, but the responsibility for the direction and nature of that mentorship lies with the apprentice themselves. If someone is a self-educator, that’s a good predictor that they’ll be able to get the most out of mentorship. This is another fairly easy one to evaluate. Ask them to tell you about the most recent UX-related blog post or article they read. It doesn’t matter what it actually is, only whether they can quickly bring something to mind.

Professional skills. UX design is not a back-office field. UX designers talk with clients, customers, stakeholders, developers, and more. To be an effective UX designer a candidate must possess basic professional skills such as dressing appropriately and communicating well. Simple things like sending a “thank you” email are a great indication of good professional skills. (Physically mailed  thank you notes get extra bonus points. One-off letterpressed mailed thank you notes get even more!)

Collaboration. UX design is a collaborative discipline. If a candidate struggles with collaboration, they’ll struggle in the field. When discussing their work (especially class project work), be sure to ask what role they played on the project and how they interacted with other people. Complaining about others and taking on too much work themselves are some warning signs that could indicate that a candidate has trouble with collaboration.

Evaluating for apprenticeship fit

Learning pattern. Some people learn best by gradually being exposed to a topic. I call these people toe-dippers, as they prefer to dip their toes into something before diving in. Others prefer to barrel off the dock straight into the deep end and then struggle to the surface. I call these people deep-enders. While apprenticeship can be modified to work better for deep-enders, its gradual exposure can often frustrate them. It is much better suited for toe-dippers. Evaluating for this is tricky, though. Asking people whether they prefer to dive in or learn gradually, they’ll say “dive in” because they think that’s what you want to hear. Asking them how they’ve approached learning other skills can give some insight, but this is not 100% reliable.

Learning by doing. Apprenticeship helps people acquire skills through experiential learning. If this is not how a person learns, apprenticeship may not be for them. Evaluating for this is very much like evaluating for intrinsic motivation. Has someone gone to the trouble of identifying and solving a design problem themselves? Have they practiced UX methods they have learned about? If so, it’s likely that learning by doing is effective for them.

Receptiveness to critique. Apprenticeship is a period of sustained critique. Someone whose response to criticism is defensiveness or despondency will not be successful as an apprentice. This is easy to identify in an interview within the context of discussing the work examples the candidate has brought. My favorite technique for doing this is to find something insignificant to critique and then hammer on it. This is not how I normally critique, of course; it’s a pressure test. If a candidate responds with openness and a desire to learn from this encounter, that’s a very positive sign. If they launch into a monologue defending their decisions, the interview is pretty much over.

If you’re fired up about UX apprenticeship (and how could you not be?), start making it happen in your organization! Do the research, find the data, and share your vision with your company’s leadership so they can see it too! When you get the go-ahead, you’ll be all ready to start looking for apprentices. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll get great apprentices who will grow into great designers. Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series where I’ll get detailed about the instructional design of apprenticeship, pedagogy, mentorship, and tracking!

Mentoring as an Investment

Written by: Chris Poteet

Have you ever asked for an update on a project you’d invested a great deal of time and energy in, only to hear “they have completely redesigned it since then”?

I did, and it left me with this very empty feeling.

After some wallowing, I realized I needed to discover a new way to think about the way I work and what really matters in my consulting career. My answer: The mark of a truly good consultant is investing in people. Focusing on investing in people will ensure that your work will still continue to see results long after the application is redesigned, and that is change that matters in the long run.

In the following article, I will give three areas in which we can focus our efforts: mentoring, client education, and our own team members. I hope that the reflection will help us all be better consultants and make better investments.

Client mentoring as an investment

There are often opportunities for us to invest in “client side” people, but they might not be readily apparent. I will give two examples of this.

On a recent project, I was the designer paired with a recently-hired UX director, who was a little bewildered still by the new gig. When we talked, it became apparent that what he needed was someone to mentor him in an intentional way because he was overwhelmed and feeling lost.

I spent lunches with this gentleman talking about UX strategy, how my company had handled process definition, and I eventually worked on a project where I invited him to come do user research with me.

Now mind you, this mentoring was not the part of any statement of work. This was something I did because it was the right thing to do. It was an opportunity to make an investment much bigger than the project at hand—and to see someone blossom right before your eyes makes the time investment very much worthwhile.

By the end of the client engagement, he was extremely thankful to have had someone invest time in him, to point him in the right direction—which allowed him to lead the UX capability much better than he was before. It turned out to be the most satisfying work I had done in ages. Fortunately, both my company and the client were extremely appreciative of the time spent with their people.

A second example is on the implementation side. I was the interface developer for an intranet project, and the client had a talented UI person who had questions about the CMS and approach we were using. To complicate the situation, we came to the project after they fired another firm for an inability to deliver. This woman had been given poor advice by the previous vendor, and she naturally had lots of questions about how to do the implementation the right way. It is easy to become exhausted with external consultants, and I wanted to ensure that she and their team quickly came to trust us to deliver.

I set up bi-weekly meetings with her throughout the four month implementation. Before we even started development, she and I mapped out the scope of the work and talked about all kinds of details, down to and including minutia like CSS class names. The regular meetings gave her a chance to see and give input throughout the entire process.

Another advantage of this approach—beyond those that accrue through collaboration—was that there was no big knowledge handoff at the end. It was something that was built into the project from the beginning.

As companies become more lean, we can get a double benefit of increased collaboration and knowledge sharing: First, we spend far less time writing copious documentation because we have been sharing all along, and second, the solution has a much greater chance for long-term success due to our time spent investing in these individuals who take over after we leave.

Client education as an investment

We can also educate clients even if they are not themselves in the UX world. A big intranet project I worked on was scoped to be responsive, but it became very apparent in the beginning that the design that went into it was not done in the best way for my company to implement; it was not designed in a mobile-first fashion.

I had two options: Either I just let it go, do my work, and move on; or, I could take the time to reach out to the client and educate them. I knew that this project was already moving forward, but I could set up a foundation for this client’s future success.

One thing to gauge is whether the client is even interested in such a relationship. Sometimes, despite your best intentions, clients are only interested in timelines and not interested in spending lots of billable time learning or re-learning.

And I had to ask: What did I value? Was I only in it for the money, or could I help enact lasting change and provide real value?

This client was not himself a UX practitioner, and he was looking for someone to be the expert he could trust. Working with non-UX people is a challenge, because you have to sell them a bit harder on why doing things the right way is important, even when they do not understand the implications or appreciate the time necessary to do it the right way.

I pulled him aside in a couple of private meetings and talked about everything with him, from defining responsive design correctly, understanding mobile-first design, and even things like home page carousel use and abuse. In the end, it not only furthered our relationship, but it afforded me a high level of trust and rapport with the client.

This particular client was open to the discussion and was even excited about extending the relationship, but if you have a hesitant client, don’t give up on them. Show them the quantifiable benefits of this increased collaboration by pointing to your experience in the past, or that the time they spend with you learning will only pay dividends in the future.

Remember that even if things aren’t changeable in the short term, you can make investments in people for the next project and longer term.

Teams as an investment

There is one last, important group we can’t forget: our co-workers. These are the people that become like a family in ways our clients never will. Project after project, these are the people we are tasked to work with, and in some ways these are often the most strategic people to invest in but also sometimes the most difficult to do it with because we can so easily overlook them.

During my firm’s adoption of the CSS preprocessor SASS, my team was mostly junior people who were looking for leadership in all kinds of areas. This time, I was given the opportunity to help others use this powerful tool. I took the lead in understanding its implications and how to use it in our teams, and then I spent concentrated time with each member of the UX team to help them understand how to use the technology in both a programmatic and process way. Taking advantage of opportunities like these furthers your relationship with your team members and demonstrates to them that you care deeply about their professional development.

To this day, those team members reach out to me with questions and best practices due to the trust gained through leading in this way. It is amazing how doing this even on a detail like a CSS preprocessor can assist your team members greatly.

We all have different motivations for doing the work that we do, and I imagine that for most of us money—as good as money is—is not the primary factor. Instead, very talented people tend to thrive on being an expert, enacting change, and leading others. True leaders are not given an opportunity to lead—they find those opportunities. Leading inside your organization will make you as close to irreplaceable as you can get.

Grow Your Career without Leaving Your Company

Written by: Lis Pardi

When I wanted to make a career shift to information architecture, I was reluctant because I loved the team I worked with. So instead of leaving to find the right work, I tried to start doing it where I was.

What follows are my recommendations on how to make similar moves. It’s not rocket science, but it’s always nice to get some reminders. The least rocket science-y part is the first: Set a goal. You can’t get to where you’re going unless you know where that is. But once you have that, you can move on to the real stuff.

Pretend to be good at your job

This is the part where you take your perceived weakness and you pick up somebody else’s strengths. It’s more nuanced than just pretending to be good. You’re pretending to be someone else, who is good at those things.

When I’m acting, I like to have props. I knew there was a joke about UXers being obsessed with post-its, Sharpies, and dry erase markers, so I went to the supply closet and got as many as I could carry. As my friend who owns a tuxedo once said, “If you own a tuxedo, you’ll find a place to wear it.” And he was right. Suddenly, all of my work required huge white-boarding sessions and arrays of colorful post-its.

The unintended consequence was that it took all of my processes out of my head and put them on the walls around me. Without much of a change, I suddenly looked a lot smarter and more engaged with my work. Accidentally, I got a bit smarter, too. Writing things out and staring at them on a wall prevented me from skipping over important details or making huge leaps of logic. It also helped to explain to my co-workers and clients how I was tackling problems. When I was being transparent with my work, it was easier for them to engage with me and participate. Pretending to be good at my job was going so successfully that I decided to try something else.

Refer to your work as IA

This wasn’t anything elaborate. I would just look at something and say, “From an information architecture perspective, this is a great design.” I was planting the seed for the discipline. This is a good step for those who aren’t very good at self-promotion, because it takes the focus off of you and puts it onto the discipline and how that will help your company.

Build alliances

After I had been acting good at my job for a while, I realized my plan might actually work. But I knew I needed to be a little more strategic about things to make it happen. I had to build alliances. But I’m not on Survivor, so I didn’t want to be a creep about it. Instead, I made friends.

This was a pretty easy step because I already had friends. And as you do with friends, I looked around to see who I could help. I saw that the designers were way overworked.

They were our unicorns. They handled the IA, UX, and visual design, and I wanted to get in on the action. They would sit in meetings and be working on things for another client. That would be frustrating for the people in the meeting because we couldn’t get their full attention and frustrating for them because they just needed to get things done.

So, I struck a deal with them that I’d go to the upfront meetings–the really tedious ones where you’re just trying to get the stakeholder to say the same thing twice. Then, I’d compile everything I’d learned and hand it off to them. This was an obvious win-win because they had more time to do work, and I got to try out some new things I wanted to learn.

Take on side projects

There were more skills I wanted to pick up, so I decided to take on a side project. If you’re looking to do something extra but are having trouble deciding what type of side project to take on, think about the things you and your friends snark about at lunch. What’s the thing that drives you nuts?

For me, it was the fact that we didn’t have an interface messaging voice and tone guide. To turn this into an actual project, I had to find other people who were interested in consistent messaging. I identified some likely allies (marketing, sales, technical writers) and some less likely ones (developers, translations manager). Together, we started to chip away at the style guide and tackle the worst messaging.

Have the right people on your side

Whenever you’re trying to do any corporate maneuvering, it’s always important to have the right people on your side. And in this case, I was just lucky.

So, that’s my tip: Be lucky.

For me, that luck came in the form of a new boss who couldn’t believe we didn’t have an information architect on staff. Her boss, who allowed her to make me that IA, knew me as someone knowledgeable about the internet from the previous summer…when I taught him to use Twitter.

Don’t be mysterious, be helpful

So, success! I became an information architect. Now the problem was that I had to convince people I was worth keeping. I had seen other people try to do that by silo-ing off their responsibilities and trying to make their work seem really mysterious, and therefore extra important. That never worked because everyone saw right through it. I wanted to take a more transparent approach, so I spent a lot of time explaining to people what I did.

Educate your team

Since my company had never had an information architect, I had to educate everyone about why this new role existed and how it would help them achieve their goals more effectively.

Early on, I showed a stakeholder a wireframe, and she asked why the interface was black and white now. This was adorable but also totally my fault. She never should have seen that without knowing what it was. So I added a few upfront stakeholder meetings so everyone knew what I was doing and presenting.

One mistake I made was not paying attention to the corporate comings and goings around me. When new people joined the team, I had to quickly explain to them why this role was important, and I wasn’t always good at that. After being closed out of a number of meetings and big decisions, I realized I wasn’t convincing some people of my value. Since then, I make a point of keeping a few examples of the things I bring to a project that wouldn’t have been there without an IA in my back pocket. And if I can’t identify anything, I know I’m not contributing enough to that project.

Never stop pretending to be good

When I started my ruse to pretend to be good at my job, I didn’t realize that I could never stop pretending to be good. In fact, now that I had the title I wanted, I had to be MORE good at my job. Outwardly, this meant bigger white-boarding sessions and more post-it notes. But behind the scenes, it meant more strategic twitter follows, local meetups, and reading to make sure I was up on what our industry leaders were saying.

Live happily ever after

This might not be your exact story, so this won’t all be the same for you. The part that’s universal is the importance of figuring out what someone else needs, putting that together with what you want, and identifying a path to meet both goals.

What my company needed was someone to provide continuity to a range of projects, help out the designers who never had time to do the work they wanted to, and have everyone write from a common style guide. What I wanted was to be an information architect.

When I put these together I had an opportunity to help my team and try out some things I thought would be interesting. Keep the focus on helping others, getting smarter and being a good human being.

Designing for Harmony

Written by: David Bloxsom

In 1982, Scott Cook was watching his wife sit at the kitchen table struggling to balance the family checkbook. Personal computers were just becoming popular and he had seen them transform work at Procter and Gamble; yet here was his wife fighting to do something challenging for humans but trivial for computers. In a flash of insight, he realized that software could replace pencil-and-paper accounting for everyone. This aha moment set him on a path of user-focused innovation.

Cook met programmer Tom Proulx at Stanford. With partial funding from Cook’s father, the pair not only founded Intuit, which improved many a math- and time-challenged life, but also gave another gift to the software industry that they borrowed from the consumer packaged goods industry: usability testing. They had users try their new software, Quicken, while they ran a stopwatch. Then they’d tweak the software and retest until processes that took an hour were reduced to a quarter of that.

Cook also pioneered a process at Intuit called “Follow Me Homes.” The CEO himself would go to software stores and when someone purchased a copy of Quicken, he would ask if he could follow the customer home and watch her use the application. This type of user research was useful because it allowed him to see customers using Intuit’s software in real-world environments.

By using these nascent user-centered design methods, they were able to meet the expanding needs of their user base and claim over 90% of the small business accounting software market.

Intuit went public in 1993 and then acquired Chipsoft, giving them the product that would become TurboTax. The now ubiquitous QuickBooks came out the following year.

As Intuit evolved, it acquired companies that added payroll, online payments, checks and supplies, online tax preparation, and more to its product line. This expanded the offerings but created a fragmented company where each product had its own division with separate management, design, and–in some cases—offices. A noticeable lack of focus prevented them from innovating as a company; their user-centered design DNA was disappearing. Was their size and rapid growth diluting their design-driven culture?

Solving for the innovator’s dilemma

In 2000, Steve Bennett became the CEO of Intuit. Fresh from GE, Bennett’s goal was to see Intuit act more like a grown-up company. His efforts were good for the bottom line–Intuit’s sales increased $1.7 billion during his seven year tenure–but acting like a mature company appeared to take the company even further away from its scrappy, innovative roots.

Over a decade after those early guerrilla user testing days, Intuit recognized it faced the “Innovator’s Dilemma”–the company was doing a good job of supporting their core products but they weren’t having any success creating new products and they weren’t keeping pace with the changing software industry.

A major change for the industry was the move to the software as a service (SaaS) model, often referred to as “the cloud.” This was a reinvention of the software publishing model that had customers pay a subscription fee to access software online rather than buy a copy for their desktop. SaaS meant companies could push out updates to their customers faster. It also made many things easier for customers, including remote access to work and simplified installs.

The cloud created opportunities for hungry young startups who were moving into Intuit’s space. Many of them were building their customer base from former Intuit users or from other startups looking for a slick, integrated user experience that Intuit wasn’t providing. After enjoying almost total market domination, Intuit finally was beginning to face some competition.

Years of incremental additions and piecemeal changes had turned QuickBooks into an awkward application with a dated interface. Intuit had developed its mobile platform late in the game, creating an inconsistent experience. If Intuit wanted to stay ahead of these new competitors–and the market–they would need to return to their roots.

The cloud also created opportunities for hungry young startups who were moving into Intuit’s space. Many of them were building their customer base from former Intuit users or from other startups looking for a slick, integrated user experience that Intuit couldn’t provide.

 

With Intuit’s market share, they probably wouldn’t see a decline for another ten years. A different company might have felt that was good enough. A different company might have been satisfied with just making money from their core products. A different company wouldn’t have tried to pull off a project as risky as Harmony.

Inspiring innovation by democratizing design

In 2007, Scott Cook had another important insight: He realized that he’d never be Steve Jobs. He’d never be that lone visionary who was single-handedly driving design and innovation at his company. What might have discouraged a different man inspired Cook. After getting advice from one of his design contacts at Procter & Gamble, Cook led a one-day program focusing on what he called Design for Delight (D4D).

His managers applauded in all the right places–Cook was the founder, after all–but there was little enthusiasm.

Undaunted, Cook had a consulting associate professor at Stanford named Alex Kazaks give a second presentation. Kazaks started with a ten minute PowerPoint presentation followed by an exercise where the managers worked through a design challenge that involved prototyping, feedback, iterating, and refining.

This time, the workshop inspired his managers and excited them about the power of design. This lesson–hands on workshops are better at engaging people–would help set the foundation for how Intuit would teach D4D moving forward.

To bring D4D to Intuit, Cook turned to a gifted in-house design director, Kaaren Hanson. Hanson, in turn, put together a team of nine people to help her. In making her selections, she was not only looking for user-centered design thinking but she also needed people interested in working together to solve problems. She wanted them to be outgoing and, most importantly, they needed to be passionate about sharing their skills and experience. If they were going to make a difference, they had to empower other people.

This core team would become known as the Innovation Catalysts. They would lead workshops with Intuit’s employees, educating them on the power of design. Any manager at Intuit could request an Innovation Catalyst to help them drive design and experimentation on their projects. And they were responsible for teaching new Catalysts. The initial group of nine would grow to over 200.

Hanson was not only looking for user-centered design thinking but she also needed people interested in working together to solve problems. She wanted them to be outgoing and, most importantly, they needed to be passionate about sharing their skills and experience.

 

Cook’s attempt to bring innovation to Intuit appeared to be a success. The Innovation Catalysts were teaching innovation and inspiring the rest of the company to think from a design perspective. Intuit was creating an environment that actively supported and encouraged innovation. The true test for the company, however, would be if they could produce successful new products.

In 2007, Bennett stepped down and the current CEO, Brad Smith, took over. Smith identified that Intuit had an innovation gap: Only four out of 50 products introduced in the past decade had grown to $50 million or more in revenues. Following in Cook’s footprints, Smith set out to bring innovation to Intuit’s products.

Taking it to the next level

In 2013, five years after Smith took the helm, Intuit was seeing the benefits of innovation and producing successful products, but to stay on top they would need to keep evolving. The company was still a collection of walled-off products and, although innovation was the goal, it wasn’t the reality in many departments. A focus on profits and products had watered down their culture of user-focused design.

Design-driven innovation was no longer a radical new approach. The industry—and Intuit’s competitors—was also using these processes to build successful businesses; many of them had learned their methods from Intuit. And although Intuit had successfully extended their experience to mobile, they had yet to take advantage of the cloud, a space their competitors were already at home in.

Smith announced a radical and risky new plan: Intuit would move away from being a desktop software company and move toward becoming an SaaS company.

They would do something they hadn’t done in more than a decade: a complete redesign of their flagship product. The centerpiece of this new Intuit would be called Project Harmony: a completely new QuickBooks Online, rebuilt from the ground up as an open and integrated platform. From that work, Harmony’s team would then create a new design vocabulary and apply it to QuickBooks Online and every other product Intuit offers.

This wasn’t Intuit’s first time at the rodeo: they had introduced QuickBooks Online in 2001. At the time, the technology was not up to the task of translating the desktop environment to the browser, so the experience suffered. Their customers were familiar with the desktop application and wary of change, and the ones who did try the new service were generally unhappy with it. Like any true innovator, Intuit would incorporate what they learned into the new product and move forward.

Klaus Kaasgaard and Dan Wenikoff
Klaus Kaasgaard and Dan Wernikoff during a design review.

Heading up Project Harmony was Dan Wernikoff, senior vice president of Intuit’s Small Business Group, and Klaus Kaasgaard, vice president of experience design. Wernikoff provided the executive backing so the project wouldn’t get derailed, and Kaasgaard acted as the project’s main advocate and development lead. Working together, the two sketched out the roadmap for Harmony, including a set of principles to guide the project:

  • Each product represents the entire ecosystem, so each product needs to deliver ease, benefit, and delight during a customer’s initial experiences.
  • Each product is designed individually but maintains the look and feel of the ecosystem.
  • Each product is designed in the context of its role in the ecosystem: understand the context in which each product will be used and create systems that respond intelligently when it changes.
  • Make it easy for a user’s data to follow them and move between products.

Design principles are often seen as fluffy and end up getting skipped or glossed over in projects, but the Harmony team couldn’t afford to skip any details for such a critical project.

It turns out that they made the right call. The design principles unified, inspired, and guided the developers. And when the team was in the middle of the warring desires of different business groups, the principles reminded everyone of their goal.

The centerpiece of this new Intuit would involve doing something they hadn’t done in more than a decade: a complete redesign of their flagship product, QuickBooks.

 

The Harmony team lived up to their name: They designed one Intuit experience despite many business units. But Harmony wasn’t just about changing Intuit’s products. It was also about changing Intuit’s culture and the way that their employees work and relate to each other. It was about strengthening the user-focused design culture that had brought Intuit its early successes. These changes were reflected in a powerful set of decision criteria, including:

  • Intuit’s core products will work together; any product that acts as a customer’s first point of contact will introduce the customer to the entire ecosystem.
  • When there are common jobs or tasks across products, Intuit will use common designs and components. It may not be the best for one, but it will be the best for all.
  • Share data across teams: If a product captures it, that product needs to enable other products to use it.

For Harmony to be successful, it had to work across all of Intuit’s products. And for Intuit to be successful, all of its employees would need to work together too.

From now on, there would be one team with one goal, and it would be design-driven.

 

Win together

At the core of this change is Harmony’s central design team, who act as advocates and caretakers of the Harmony design language. The Harmony team works with Intuit’s business units to insure that the designs are consistently implemented across the entire company.

The core team also evolves the design language. And, to help support their efforts, the design and development teams were reorganized to create an environment that encourages and supports creativity and excellence.

…not only does XD have a seat at the table, in many cases–like the project I lead–we’re driving the process.
— Dorelle Rabinowitz, Intuit Experience Design

Dorelle Rabinowitz
Dorelle leads a brainstorming session with the Harmony team.

According to Kaasgaard, the key to making the Harmony team a success was giving them license to change what needed to be changed and the encouragement to do it. Like the Innovation Catalysts before them, the Harmony team would bring Harmony–and the mindset behind it–to the company.

If Harmony succeeded with QuickBooks Online, the redesigned product would prove the value of the new design system to the rest of the company. If it didn’t, only one product would be affected. It was still risky, but there was no way to avoid it if Intuit was going to keep up with the industry.

To succeed, Harmony had to do three things:

  • Develop a scalable UI framework and the underlying services and infrastructure that make up a modern technology platform.
  • Unify its disparate interaction models and interfaces into one coherent ecosystem across the various products.
  • Institute a completely new way of working for Intuit’s designers and developers that placed the needs of the company above the needs of the individual business unit. From now on, there would be one team with one goal, and it would be design-driven.

Although it’s a relatively new term, design-driven innovation comes from classic design methods: observing people, understanding what their needs are, and making prototype solutions until you discover the right products and services.

By staying in the sweet spot of what people need rather than what they ask for, a company can evolve with its customer base. And it works. According to the Design Management Institute, design-driven companies have outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 by 228%. Companies like Apple, Herman Miller, IBM, Nike, Procter & Gamble, and Walt Disney have consistently shown that focusing on your user experience is very good for your bottom line.

Early customer response to the redesigned QuickBooks Online has been positive, as seen in a gushing review by Bill Murphy of Internet Accountant:

…this QuickBooks Online is the most visionary change I have seen out of Intuit in ages; heck it is almost ‘Apple-like.’

Others, used to the desktop version of QuickBooks, have left less flattering reviews in which they complain about changes in functionality and appearance. Time will tell if these complaints are a reaction to the fact that things have changed or if they are the result of actual issues with the updated interface.

Of course, one of the advantages to the SaaS model is that Intuit can quickly roll out updates to its products, giving them the agility they need to react to the market as well as to user testing and experimentation. Intuit’s investors are happy: Intuit’s stock recently hit an all time high.

The Harmony Ecosystem
The cross-platform view of the Harmony ecosystem.

The Harmony team isn’t done yet. Intuit’s designers will continue to evolve their design vocabulary, improving the customer experience for both QuickBooks Online and the rest of Intuit’s products.

Intuit is a 30 year old startup where all 8,000 employees are entrepreneurs, and it’s everyone’s job to create, invent, and improve their customers’ lives.

 

Innovation is everyone’s job

Brad Smith describes Intuit as a 30 year old startup where all 8,000 employees are entrepreneurs, and it is everyone’s job to create, invent, and improve their customers’ lives. The most powerful tool they have to do this is user-centered design, which allows them to improve their customers’ lives and create delightful experiences. As long as they hold on to that–regardless of what method they wrap around it–they’ll continue to be successful.

Instead of waiting for a lone visionary to arrive, Intuit chose to teach design to all, and make the entire company responsible for innovation. The Innovation Catalysts empower and train their coworkers, and those employees find the insights that makes Intuit innovate. The Harmony team provides the consistent design that maintains a uniform experience across Intuit’s products and platforms, speeding innovation and integration.

Scott Cook’s famous kitchen table sits in Intuit’s Cook Campus Center. The walls around it are covered with whiteboards, and anyone can sit at the table to meet, brainstorm, or work. Intentionally or not, the table is a symbol for user-centered design and how it improves people’s lives. And everyone has a seat at the table.

Scott Cook's kitchen table
Scott Cook’s kitchen table holds a special place in Intuit’s culture.

UX Researcher: A User’s Manual

Written by: Victor Yocco

This article is a guide on what to expect, and how to get the most from your UX researcher–a user manual, if you will.

You will invest a lot in your researcher and you deserve the greatest return. You should have high expectations for this critical component of your UX team, and following the recommendations presented in this article will help maximize your return.

A long and prosperous future

Congratulations on hiring a user experience design researcher!  When maintained correctly, a full time researcher will give you many years of strategic insight and validation, eliciting oohs and ahs from jealous shops that have chosen to forgo a researcher and cheers from your many satisfied clients. There are many benefits of having a researcher on staff, which include:

  • Making insights through on-site observation
  • Validating business hypotheses through customer research
  • Discovering usability issues through user testing
  • Initiating new projects in an effort to constantly expand their interests and skills

First, let’s spend a minute discussing the return component of return on investment. Incorporating user research into your product ensures its usability. According to Forrester (2009, pg. 2), product experience is what creates value and establishes power in the marketplace. Specifically, they found companies providing a superior user experience led to:

  • 14.4% more customers willing to purchase their product
  • 15.8% fewer customers willing to consider doing business with a competitor
  • 16.6% more customers likely to recommend their product or services

Investing in a UX researcher is a critical part of ensuring you provide your users with the superior experience Forrester notes as being such a critical differentiator. Everything covered in the following article applies to teams of researchers as well as those in a department of one.

Expectations

You should have high expectations for the quality and quantity of your researcher’s work. She should be a main contributor to your organization, a team player, and someone you look to for new ideas and fresh perspectives on long-standing issues. Your researcher’s unique background in asking questions and finding solutions, as well as the fact that she is likely spending ample time listening to your clients, provides her with insight she can provide your team on how to move forward with addressing various issues.

You might be saying anyone can accomplish the tasks in the paragraph above. You’re correct. I’m pointing out you should expect this from your researcher fresh out of the box, no questions asked.

You might have hired your researcher with specific duties in mind; however, you should expect her to want to know what others are working on, to be a part of the bigger picture, and to ask for feedback allowing her to become more proficient at what she does.

The following are some of the key expectations you should have for your researcher.

Asking questions

Asking the right questions is a basic expectation. Don’t laugh. This is harder than it looks. Asking questions involves the preliminary step of listening to understand what the issue actually is. Not everyone can do this.

Solving a problem isn’t as simple as asking the question you want answered.

For example, your overarching question might be “Does this website work well?” You could ask 1,000 people this question, and you wouldn’t know much after counting the “yes” and “no” responses.

What you need to know is “what about this site works, what doesn’t, and why?” Responses to these questions can be obtained in a variety of ways, allowing solutions to be identified. You can rely on your researcher to determine the most appropriate questions to ask in situations like this.

Researchers spend years listening to professors, clients, peers, and stakeholders to identify core issues to solve as well as what questions will provide data to find a solution. When meeting with project staff from a recent client, don’t assume your researcher isn’t engaged if she is quiet. It is likely she is observing verbal and physical interactions in the room as she designs a plan of attack.

Navigating relevant literature

Most likely, other researchers have published findings from studies related to what your researcher will examine. Your researcher should easily navigate and compile reports and studies from the body of knowledge in UX, HCI, and other relevant fields. The fact that someone else has explored questions similar to those of a project you’re asking your researcher to tackle helps shape their thinking on how to move forward, using existing resources to their fullest potential.

Literature can serve to inspire your researcher. For example, studies of ecommerce sites suggest trust is a key factor in determining users’ purchasing behavior. If you have a client developing a site meant to provide information, not selling a product, how might trust be developed? Your researcher can use findings from ecommerce studies to shape her questions and study design and then potentially publish a report contributing to the field, beyond the needs of your client.

Using the right method

Asking the right questions and reading up on relevant literature leads to the next critical expectation for your researcher: Using the right method.

UX research is more than usability testing. Your researcher knows methods shouldn’t dictate the questions asked, but the opposite: Your methods should be tailored to get relevant data for the questions to be asked.

Picking a method is hard work, this is why you need a researcher in the first place, they have the training and experience needed to select the right method for the question being asked. Use your researcher to do this. Your researcher carries a toolbox of methods. They might have preferences, or be more comfortable with certain methods, but they should not be a one-method pony. Some researchers are on a constant quest to define or refine new methods to answer questions. These can be exciting models to work with–the sports cars of UX researchers–willing to push the pedal to the metal to see where things go.

Regardless of the amount of planning, you often find yourself in a situation less than the ideal one written up in a methods textbook. Adapting to on-the-ground scenarios is something to expect from your researcher. Whether it’s using her smartphone to record an interview when her digital voice recorder dies, or adjusting on the fly when a busy client decides they only have 45 minutes to complete a 90-minute interview, your researcher should walk away from each scenario maximizing her ability to be flexible and still collect relevant data.

Translating findings

You’ve asked the right questions and selected the right method to collect data; now your researcher should serve as a translator for the application of research findings. Study results can be confusing if not interpreted appropriately. This includes verbal and written reports tailored to the experience and expectations of your audience. Your researcher should embrace the opportunity and challenge presented by making the results of her labor relevant to her peers.

Silo-busting

Researchers should come with the ability to break down silos, serving as ambassadors internally and externally, across teams and projects. Researchers are often deployed with surgical precision at specific intervals in a project timeline. This means your researcher might be actively involved in five or six projects simultaneously, giving her a breadth of insights. Few others within your organization are as able to communicate on the goals and achievements of multiple projects as she is. If findings from one study being conducted for client A would impact a recommendation for client G, your researcher should ensure everyone working with client G is aware of this.

Academia: A land far, far away

To make the best use of your researcher, it’s important to know where they come from. Especially if she is one of the PhD models, she was likely assembled in a far away land called “Academia.”

In Academia, your researcher gained or honed some of her most useful attributes: critical thinking; exposure to broad topics; research methods, both quantitative and qualitative; analyzing, interpreting, and presenting results; and connections with fellow researchers and academics.

Academia is the land of publish or perish. There are plenty of opportunities to give presentations to groups, write papers, teach courses, and create visual displays of data for various projects. This experience should leave your researcher well polished at speaking and presenting research in various formats well before they land at your front door. Although not all researchers are the best orators in the room, they should all be highly proficient at tailoring the message to their audience.

Additionally, your researcher has navigated an unbelievable amount of bureaucracy to escape Academia with a degree. She comes with the skills of diplomacy, patience, interpreting technical documents, and correctly filling out these documents under duress. This contributes to refining her ability to successfully reach the finish line and receive the prize. Your researcher is a doer and a finisher!

There are some things done in Academia, however, that don’t translate as well in the “real world.”

Academics have a unique language beyond the jargon typically found in professional fields. An example of research-ese is the statement, “I don’t think the items in this scale are valid at measuring the factor they purport to” translates to, “We might not be asking the right questions on this survey.”

Using obscure words–sometimes in different languages–becomes second nature to those moving through Academia. It is perfectly acceptable to tell your researcher she isn’t speaking your language. She should be able to translate for you; you just need to be clear when this is necessary.

Academia instills an unrealistic sense of time, as well. Your researcher may have spent one, two, or more years working on a single research project while earning her degree. Anyone that’s spent time in the real world knows you are lucky to have a timeline of one or two months to complete a study and, more realistically, about three weeks.

Adjusting the timeline for conducting a study is something you can expect your researcher to come to grips with rather quickly. You might see smoke coming out of her ears as gears that have been set to snail’s pace spin at hyper speed, but trust me, the adjustment will happen.

Be clear about your expectations for timelines at the beginning of a project, particularly if your researcher is fresh out of Academia.

The attributes instilled by Academia have become ingrained in your researcher. Enjoy them while you provide coaching to help her adapt to your business’s requirements. Experiences in Academia are part of what makes your researcher quirky, unique, and invaluable to your organization.

As time passes, she will become more polished, especially if you provide her with explicit feedback on what she is doing well and what she can do to improve. Patience is key when helping your researcher transition from Academia; if you exercise it, you will find the results quite rewarding.

Care and maintenance

Addressing the following will ensure your researcher stays running at optimal conditions.

Continuous learning opportunities

Researchers have an inherent love of learning. Why else would someone voluntarily go to 20th grade? Your researcher probably believes “everyone is a lifelong learner.”

It’s critical to offer educational opportunities and training. You must allot time and money for her to attend classes and seminars on topics ranging from research methods, to statistical analysis, to how to visualize data.

You should offer these opportunities to all of your staff; learning opportunities are key for ensuring a high level of morale throughout your organization. These opportunities aren’t always costly. Many organizations offer free or low cost webinars lasting the time of a reasonable lunch break.

Membership in professional organizations

Professional organizations allow your researcher opportunities to keep a pulse on the current state of their field. Professional organizations often host events and distribute publications promoting professional development and networking among professionals.

You should provide your researcher funds to join a professional organization; however, there are organizations that do not charge a fee to join. For example, I am a member and current Vice Chair for PhillyCHI the ACM chartered professional organization serving Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley region. There’s no charge to join, and monthly events are free for anyone to attend.

I suggest encouraging your researcher to attend meetings and allowing her time to serve as a volunteer or board member of professional organizations. There are numerous legitimate professional organizations at local, national, and international levels affiliated with ACM, IxDA, UXPA, and more.

Attending conferences and workshops

There’s a subconscious desire for researchers to congregate to drink beer and exchange ideas. Attending conferences allows researchers to meet peers from around the world and across topics, to learn the state of the art in their field.

Your researcher is most likely aware of the various local UX organizations such as ACM SIGCHI and UXPA sponsored groups, UX book clubs, and other UX meetups. Many of these groups offer workshops and one day events that are low or no cost (Thanks sponsors!). So, if you need convincing on the value of attending conferences, you can dip your toe in the water without blowing the budget. There’s also no shortage of national and international UX conferences that would satisfy your researcher’s needs. You can start with this list compiled by usertesting.com.

Besides getting a chance to feed off the ideas of others, interacting with professionals in her field, and allowing her to show off her work, there is another way of getting value from having your researcher attend conferences:

At Intuitive Company, staff give presentations on any conference they attend using company funds. This promotes the value of attending conferences to your staff, with the added benefit of allowing your researcher to present information to their peers, something most researchers already enjoy doing.

Reading

This was mentioned in expectations, but allowing your researcher time to read is your responsibility. She is one of those rare birds that actually recharge their batteries when reading, particularly when it relates to her research and practice interests.

Here’s a secret: You benefit from your researcher’s desire and ability to read! By allowing your researcher to read, you are actually allowing her to work, so long as you structure it correctly. For example, tell her you want her to conduct a literature review; therefore you are giving permission to read while at the same time setting up the expectation that there will be a usable product as the outcome of her reading. A literature review on a relevant topic can inform future research you engage in as well as design recommendations you make.

Win-win.

If you still can’t fathom giving your researcher time to read on the job, you should at least provide her with a book budget to purchase some of the must reads in UX.

Publishing and presenting

What good would research, professional development, conference attending, and reading do if your researcher couldn’t share her newfound knowledge with others?

Academia has hammered the need for dissemination into the fiber of your researcher’s being. Allowing time for writing and presenting is another area of maintenance that is your responsibility. You should encourage her to present at conferences and publish articles, blog posts, and white papers on relevant topics.

This is a way for her and your organization to build a strong brand in the communities you work in. For example, having your researcher cited as an expert on responsive design because she’s published on the topic is something you can include in future proposals and presentations you make to potential clients.

Conclusion

The success of your researcher is a two-way street. If you’ve already begun the journey with your researcher, this article might have highlighted expectations or maintenance that you’ve overlooked. If so, it isn’t too late to implement change; she can handle that as easily as a dead recorder, and you can enhance the relationship you have with her. If you haven’t started the journey, the advice provided can help ensure you get the most from your well maintained researcher for years to come.

What would you add or change to this manual based on your experience?

Additional resources

Forrester Report on best practices in UX (2009): https://www.adobe.com/enterprise/pdfs/Forrester_Best_Prac_In_User_Exp.pdf

Sandy Greene of Intuitive Company on evolving a creative workplace: http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/author/sgreene/