Insights from corporate UX

Having worked as a designer at some of the largest and most well-known technology corporations in the valley (Oracle, Adobe, and most recently Cisco) in their respective UX teams, I’ve gained insights into how design functions across diverse contexts (both positively and negatively) and learned vital points about digital product design processes in general.

** Collaboration vs. deliberation: There is a subtle yet critical difference between these concepts.

Collaboration involves active multilateral, multidirectional engagement (verbally and physically co-present) by team members across integral disciplines (engineering, quality, documentation, marketing, etc.) towards a shared purpose–building the best user experience possible, given time/cost constraints. There is give-and-take, back-and-forth, compromise and argument, blow-ups and chillouts, but all of this guided by a common sense of working together in a cumulative, aggregative fashion of building up the best solutions to the identified problems. There is active sharing of knowledge, a high degree of “human touch” interactions (phone/IM/video/f2f), a social sense of teamwork & pride, etc. And there’s a concern when people are not around, or goals are not achieved, with a desire to course-correct to improve things for everyone.

However, too often corporate managers ascribe the label of “collaboration” to what is really just empty, trite, ineffective deliberation: a group of strangers artificially thrown together to debate project issues or status updates with no connective thread or assured sense of solving problems collectively. Often these occur via conference calls with 20-30 people across the globe, multiple functions–but nobody knows each other! Or their role/value! In other words, just lots of sitting around talking but no action…or even worse, no concern that actions are being taken by someone for some goal! No sense of forward progress with some tangible outcomes. No sense of working together to wrestle the points and their merits. This leads to malaise and disaffected team members, lacking the requisite motivation to inspire and generate innovative possibilities.

** Respect vs. contempt: Nothing great can be achieved without a strong degree of mutual, professional respect for each other as teammates striving to do something productive and worthwhile. Anything less leads to a poisonous atmosphere of malice and laziness, in my view.

Respect quite simply is an essential ingredient to effective multi-disciplinary product development, period. This implies acknowledgement of the other’s professional know-how, prior experience, and tactical skills and resulting deliverables as well as their value to the overall project’s success. Respect also implies (imho) a sense of empathy for that person’s contribution–how difficult/challenging it might have been, what hoops that person has to jump through, how to make that person feel like a welcome, valued part of the process, etc.

The opposite, contempt, is the utter lack of appreciation or acknowledgement of that person’s value. Contempt implies arrogance, hubris, pomposity, and a generally subtle attempt at reducing the dignity of the teammate’s humaneness. Contempt is admittedly a very strong word, I realize, but imho it’s an apt description of a sadly common attitude in massive, territorial bureaucratic institutions.

** Engagement vs. detachment: This is a hard lesson to learn but is vital for long-term professional growth, being able to be fully engaged in a project with all your might, yet cooly detached to respond to fluid situations and finicky issues. Passion is necessary to achieve greatness (or at least meet your milestones!), yet also needed is a calm rational detachment to sort out sticky frustrations, scheduling snafus, vendor/contractor misunderstandings, botched file deliveries, etc. It’s a tricky balance, that takes years of practice and experience to hone carefully, like a samurai blade skillfully wielded. I recently read an article about Barack Obama’s demeanor on election day: “peaceful, focused, confident.” That’s where you gotta be as a designer to help make forward progress and get amazing results while being a productive teammate!

** Coordination cost: Related to collaboration as a factor to be managed and balanced well is the number of people involved in a project, and their geographic locations (at least remote/local). The more people to work with (and thus exchange information/deliverables/assets, etc.) then the greater the coordination cost. That cost, in my view, is multiplied when those teammates are based in remote or offshore locations. Why? Time zone differences primarily, causing conference calls to be held at odd times, often affecting social or non-work schedules. Foreign languages can be a barrier to understanding, as well as cultural habits/differences/misunderstandings, which have to be addressed up front. And let’s face it–nothing is better than just being there, face to face, hashing out the problems and brainstorming solutions! Technical difficulties (which inevitably happen) raise the coordination costs: conference call dial-ins fail, video calls stutter and crash, inability to share screens/documents across firewalls, etc. All adds up!

** Dysfunctionality: All corporations to some degree have some form of “dysfunctionality”, kinda like families–all families are dysfunctional! :-) The problems occur when the maladies adversely impact the collective work of achieving a strong solution benefitting the business and the customer. What are the common elements of corporate dysfunctionality? Well, here’s a few I’ve noticed: unstated expectations, contemptuous attitudes towards co-workers, apathetic view of project, unspoken/unclarified assumptions, poor lines of communication, lack of concern for the “coordination cost” of remote teams, lack of understanding new methods/tools, overall broken processes with no feedback loops to fix them, etc.

** Sources of authority: To get positive results as a designer, it’s important to recognize the various “sources of authority” that bolster your attempts to persuade, convince, enable, facilitate, etc. And basically get what you want done, thereby influencing the corporate design situation.

The three main sources of designer’s authority that I have identified:

1. An official, sanctified process: “This design is right” b/c it followed a corporate sanctioned process, involving data points, analysis, reporting, etc. Or if teams don’t follow the process, then they can be corrected accordingly per the statutes of what is allowed and valued.

2. Title, rank, and position: “This design is right” b/c I’m the “senior interaction designer” charged with the responsibility to make the call, leveraging my prior experience and education, etc. So you need to trust my professional judgment as I play that role on the project.

3. The power of personality: “This design is right” b/c my force of personality through charisma, drama, voice, theatrics, etc. will convince you of it, period. (Obviously you’d need to employ this with some degree of caution…and make damn sure you can back yourself up when challenged by a brusque technical architect or equally fierce marketing manager)

So which is the “right” source? It really depends on the culture and temperament of the corporate context you’re operating within. Some companies may not take a strong personality-driven designer very well, while other places may respond very well and in fact demand that kind of approach. Meanwhile other organizations may value a more structured, quantitative, itemized process-driven authority structure for justifying a design. In the end, I think a great designer knows how to smartly blend a combination of approaches accordingly per the context and situation (and the design project in question), as well as the attitudes of the team players involved.

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