Sept 16, 2007

Boston CHI Panel: Organizational Design and User Experience Teams


There was a good cross-company discussion of organizational models for User Experience (UX) teams at Boston CHI on Sept 11 (check that link for full bios on the speakers). Companies represented by managers, directors, and VPs of UX: EMC, Oracle, Symantec, and Fidelity (with Sun and others in the audience).

Some themes that emerged:

  • Need to maintaining standards and cross-company guidelines requires having high level management or at least view that spans the organization — with creative org charts and management across sites often happening as well;
  • Difficulty getting enough staff to meet demand (settle instead on doing fewer things well rather than over-extending, and making the case for more people that way);
  • Organizations have more interaction designers than usability, by 2-to-1 or more (again, a separation of design from testing roles);
  • Assumption that "good user experience" is no longer something that has to be argued for, it's seen as an obvious competitive advantage (the only mild disagreement from Fred at Fidelity);
  • Engineering pay scale for their UX staff (common except for Fidelity, where pay didn't come up — since Fidelity hires a lot of low-paid contractors, I suspect they don't pay their internal folks by engineering scales ).
  • Get the design right up front, or pay for it later. Very broadly assumed to be understood here!
Less obvious themes that resonated from my past few years in the field as manager and individual:
  • UX people can get bored working on the same thing, or the thing with too small a scope. Being able to move across projects will help with this issue.
  • Not having to be accountable for all your project time means being able to do cross-product things and user studies that will improve design work downstream (it doesn't mean goofing off on long lunch breaks!).
  • Long-distance management working remarkably well with the right management attitude.
  • From Oracle, being responsible for good products, not just good specs (teamwork in an organization). [Adobe, while I was there, was terribly concerned with the checkoff that UI had delivered a spec on time and were not "blockers" on the product schedule; this was an ill of centralized UI management that wasn't very flexible in the development process or in terms of their deliverables on each team.]
  • Value of being managed and reviewed by people who know what you do, not being dependent on managers who don't understand your process, value, and work products.
  • Investment in prototyping and development.

Relevant past post on my blog: my study of the job postings for UX folks on the BayCHI mailing list for 3 years. Oracle, Symantec, and EMC are on the graphs, but not very high in terms of number advertised for relative to overall size of the company. Fidelity doesn't appear at all, but it hires mainly in MA, I believe.

My Sketchy Notes

For EMC, Allen Schell, Director of UX:

User experience reports to the Senior Director of Finance. Formerly it was the VP of engineering, but there are now four heads of engineering under him; it was more important to cross the organization, so the Director of Finance whose role spans everything was a more appropriate choice. Same pay scale is engineering; varied work arrangements, including distance work.

Steady headcount: 7 interaction designers, 5 use case designers who are domain experts, 5 graphic designers, 29 technical writers. Compare to 1000 total in R&D in the division. Making inroads into other parts of the company, most recently with a matrix managed UX person paid for by the storage division. That person reports to the VP of Engineering in Storage.

Engaged in a standards effort for the products that are used side-by-side from the same company: It's a 70 person effort including non—UX people, focused on appearance and behavior.

High profile focus on UX at the company: An on-site masters program given by Bentley College, a huge booth at the user conference with a banner: "How Can Complex Things Be Made Simple?"

For Fidelity, Fred Leichter, Senior VP of Customer Experience and UI Design:

He reports to President of E-business. A centralized design organization, with 160 design professionals. Design is a peer with technology and marketing.

"We are not a financial services company. We are a web company." Fred illustrates how close the customer is to them with a close-up of eyeballs and a nose. It disturbs some internal stakeholders, but gets the point across.

Their products span many websites and user personas (Family Office, Adviser Channel, E Workplace for HR, Active Trader Pro, Fidelity Labs...).

The expertise they cover on the team: information architecture (often playing the role of project lead), visual design, editorial, usability, measurement. Some individuals play multiple expertise roles.

In terms of organization structure, he wanted to span business lines with standards and methods, but still be responsive to them. Rejected an agency model with disciplinary groups under VPs of information architecture, usability, producers (project managers), etc. Also rejected strict business line teams with all disciplines within business units, because of difficulty of enforcing any standards across products. Rejected geographical model for same reasons.

A hybrid organization was the result: one branch responsible for division business activities (retail, employer-based, brokerage); another branch working on cross company planning and tools (for example, retirement calculators that should work the same in all products); a creative direction branch responsible for standards guidelines, process direction; the usability organization distributed across the sites but with central management.

All projects start out with a checkpoint review of business goals, use cases, and metrics for success. They do a lot of design reviews and share work across design teams. Specific reviews: the first with business objectives, use cases, wireframes, usability test plan; second, a review of prototypes; third, check if development matches the design; fourth, check how we did according to metrics for success established at the beginning (we don't do this enough).

For Oracle, Dan Workman, Senior Manager of UX:

There are lots of UX organizations in the company, not one centralized organization. The applications team has 130 UX folks, but over 10,000 people total. Middleware own standards across the company, the UX people number 27 out of 240 (11.15%). They report to a senior director. Enterprise has a VP lead of UX. Business intelligence, of which Dan is Sr. Manager, has 10 UX people. They report into the VP of Development.

His team: 6 interaction designers, 3 usability, 1 prototyper for high fidelity mockups; use external resources for graphic design.

Across the organization, all UX groups report to UX managers, all have headcount and don't need to lobby for it. "UX is a fundamental competitive requirement, like QA. I assume this is known everywhere by now." They report to product teams, which means they "don't mediate disputes between billionaires with egos" (executives above the different product teams — this got a recognition laugh). "We know who to align with."

UX is part of the lifecycle of the product and the local organization. Success for the product is the goal, not writing a good spec. And adapting to the needs of the local organization is a skill. There are occasional problems with products and product teams that are too narrowly defined for UX, running the risk of boring the UX people, not focusing on the needs of the customer.

Pay scale is engineering pay. UX contributions are evaluated by peers within UX, career paths exist for UX folks, and we can shift resources around as needed for projects. There is no internal fee for service, no need for internal evangelizing, and we don't need to account for all of our time so we can take initiative such as broad user studies to inform standards for cross product work.

Distance management is common. We stream all usability tests, and more people watch them because they can do it at their desk even when they're local to them.

"You can either do a few things well, or try to do everything and do a crappy job. We chose to do the first!"

For Symantec, Doug Gibson, Senior Manager of UI Design:

Worked for Director of User-Centered Design who just left to go to Oracle (he didn't come back from vacation). We have a central organization, but physical co-location with their teams. "Act locally, think globally." 65 people in UX, on 14 sites.

There's a career path in UX, a manager who "gets what you do", but hallway chats with the team. Downside: Some designers may feel lonely and isolated, and there is less ability to switch between products (often useful when boredom sets in among UX folks). It's harder to reallocate resources across diverse sites.

Central pool of money with headcount from product teams. Pay is engineering pay scale. No need to evangelize, value of UX is taken for granted. He hires at senior or higher level (principal designers).

They work hard to keep community between the diverse sites: summit meetings for face-to-face contact, chocolate tastings, group meetings, wiki, blogs, the UCD "book of the quarter" discussion (recently the authors are on the call too!), a photo club, meetings the UI developers are invited to as well.

With the distance issue, have to be willing to fly designers in as backup, pay travel, fly to different sites and schmooze to make sure you have good relations when things get rough. [Picture of a cocktail! I approved. And it resonated from my time at Autodesk and Adobe, although Adobe paid for managers to travel more than IC's, even IC's on cross-site projects.]


Matt Belge (moderator): How do you share knowledge, especially for the development of your staff?

Dan (Oracle): I do have to hire junior people, we have some tedious stuff that needs to get done too! Hiring junior people and managing them remotely, plus mentoring, don't work very well, to be honest.

Allen (EMC): Our mentoring is informal, we share people across projects to create synergy.

Matt Belge: You've all got reasonable groups now: what was the growth path like, from one or two to the groups you have now?

Doug (Symantec): Years of fits and starts. If you do some things well, they ask for more. But people weren't always interested in having UX.

Dan (Oracle): Oracle has been very development driven. A former VP wanted a central organization, was our executive sponsor. When it started it was overly focused on guidelines that weren't very appreciated by developers. After he left, things devolved into our current distributed situation, but our largest group now is larger than it was when we were centralized. We try to be focused on the goals of the organization.

Fred (Fidelity): I don't think the value of UX is as obvious to everyone at Fidelity as the others have stated. I don't think most organizations understand how little things make a big difference. Satisfying internal partners versus end-customers is different, we have to keep making the case over and over, until they give up basically!

Allen (EMC): Value spreads slowly; things grow little by little. You convince someone it's important, and two years later a req appears.

Dan (Oracle): You can find people to hire now, it's a real profession with degree programs. That helps make a case.

Question: How do you foster innovation while still working on consistency efforts?

Fred (Fidelity): We have Labs trials, we relax our standards, work on new things.

Doug (Symantec): I don't think there is a contradiction necessarily.

Dan (Oracle): I agree, you have no time to innovate if you don't have standards

Allen (EMC): Innovation is a loaded word. What do people want, versus what will they really use?

Question: I'm a UI manager at Sun. We need to reorg, I have to make recommendations to the CEO about UX at Sun. We are feeling threatened by open-source and development arguments that we should do open-source design. We have lack of buy-in from UI developers in general.

Dan (Oracle): Our development team is building a toolkit for UI developers to use to keep to standards, but we keep buying companies who can't use our toolkits.

Fred (Fidelity): Prototyping is important. Overinvest in development relationships. But templates will change over time.

Matt: It takes a different mindset to develop code than it does to design. Despite the existence of standards and templates, you can't just hand those off and expect a good design.

Question: How do you keep up when you are growing by acquisition, and most companies don't have UX teams in place?

Allen (EMC): Sometimes we do acquire a company with a strong interest in UX who are interested in working with us. It can be a good relation.

Doug (Symantec): Acquired companies often want to know how to fit in. My answer is "use our guidelines!" Integrating different UI teams can be tricky.

Dan (Oracle): It depends on the tenor of the acquisition. PeopleSoft was a hostile acquisition, those people quit. Siebel blended in.

Question: How do you staff a new product? What's your recommendation?

Doug (Symantec): The equivalent of an engineer. UX done right reduces the cost of the product to build.

Fred (Fidelity): 12% (because I ask for 15% and get 12%, historically). If you don't spend enough now, you pay later. Some projects it's really 100% UX, like "vision formulation"

Question: I feel like I do a lot of things that are outside my job scope, like getting people to talk to each other in the organization.

Dan (Oracle): Our job often entails working very broadly. Sometimes we know more about what's going on with an engineer than their manager does.

Matt: I often see projects with a very poor start, a bad concept, or bad requirements.

Doug (Symantec): Teams with poor processes are hard to work with, and not worth it. Teams only change under catastrophes, slowly.

Fred (Fidelity): We sometimes find four or five teams doing the same project, under different names often with different goals. Luckily we can be there to point it out.