Are We Taking the “U” Out of UX?

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What is a UX designer?

I recently saw a great ad for a senior UX specialist from MathWorks. Some excerpts:

  • Work with the development team to follow a user-centered design approach as you work collaboratively to brainstorm and design innovative solutions to complex problems.
  • Make recommendations to team members about which usability methods to use to answer their questions about users and design directions based on projects’ needs, goals, and constraints.
  • Work closely with team members to conduct user research, identify pain points, develop user profiles, and create task lists.
  • Collaborate on paper and functional prototypes.
  • Run usability tests, conduct interviews and site visits, organize surveys, and perform other usability assessments you think are appropriate.

It outlines exactly what I would expect in a UX job. We learn everything we can about a project from stakeholders and competitive products, find ways to research what users want and need, evaluate those needs with stakeholders, modify the project plan, and create solutions which are validated with users before finalizing the product.

But when I was looking for a new gig, that was the exception. Many of the job descriptions I saw asked for a wide array of UX skills, with some even asking for more than listed above. But it seemed that they really wanted a visual designer who could prototype.

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Ending the UX Designer Drought

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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.

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Mentoring as an Investment

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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.

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Grow Your Career without Leaving Your Company

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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

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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.