Where the UX team belongs in your organization

In the majority of organizations I consult with, their internal UX teams (or those to whom UX responsibility falls) are typically subservient to one of three major company divisions: Engineering, Marketing or Product Development. The names may change, but the essential roles are the same. Each department typically has management-level juice and C-level representation. In other words, both departments contain influencers and decision makers.

But as they’ll tell you themselves, the vast majority of their UX efforts fail. And in many of those cases, this is no fault of the individuals or the teams trying very, very hard to communicate and spread the UX gospel throughout the organization. Their efforts fail for one single, solitary reason:

UX teams don’t have a seat at the big kids’ table.

UX teams are typically lacking influence and authority — while still given a massive amount of responsibility for product success. This, my friends, is a sure recipe for failure, every time. At the same time, I am not advocating that UX or any other discipline should rule the day; rather, they should all exert the same degree of influence in order to create a holistic, well-conceived and properly executed solution.

“Thinking that one’s own discipline is the most important of all gets in the way of teamwork.”
– Don Norman

If any particular discipline rules all conversations, every other discipline suffers. Marketing-driven and engineering-driven cultures are common, and one of the two typically wield a great deal of influence across the organization. And unfortunately, it has also been my experience that both rarely hesitate to roadblock anything perceived not to be in their own self-interest. In these types of corporate cultures, the imbalance has a deep, negative effect on every team, and so UXers and Designers find themselves waging the same Sysiphian battles over and over again. This breeds a culture of opposition and nurtures adversarial relationships across the organization.

UX and the Organizational Model

The drawing on the left is something I scribbled in a notebook years ago; at this point I have no idea what the source was but I know I read it somewhere, and this bit seemed really important to me. It illustrated the precise problem, the exact reason why UX efforts inside so many organizations go nowhere. Why UXers and designers eventually get frustrated and leave. Why these areas of the business have extremely high turnaround.

When UX has no representation at an executive level, it remains subordinate to the strategic, tactical and political agendas of the other groups. So instead of the UX group being truly responsible and having the ability to affect a product’s success or failure, it is instead dependent on the goodwill or sponsorship of one of the other groups. Which as I’ve seen — in my 20 years of doing this — simply does not happen.

In most cases, the desires of product management and/or engineering overshadow those of UX —because while UX is the only functional group that plays a key role in product development, it has no representation on the executive management team. And I am here to tell you that no one at that table can truly, effectively make the case for the value of UX. Feelings get hurt when I say that, but it’s true — would an Engineer ask ME to comment on system architecture or back-end processes? No, and they shouldn’t. Because I don’t know the first thing about either one.

Respect is a Two- (or Three- or Four-) Way Street

True collaboration and teamwork is founded on respect. Not just the basic human respect that most of us have for one another, but the inherent respect that is created (sometimes inadvertently) by the organizational structure of the organization. Power structures are called that for a reason. So if Marketing, Engineering and Product Management all have seats at the big kids’ table where they can affect outcomes, UX needs a seat there as well. Otherwise every attempt the organization makes to incorporate UX as one of its differentiators or core disciplines or value-adds will fall flat on its face. Each and every time.

Whether the reason is financial, political, or just a consequence of the natural process of change, the UX department and its value become irrelevant very, very quickly. And when that happens, the entire organization suffers.

Interested to hear your thoughts on this: Agree? Disagree? Seen it work another way? Please share your experiences and comment below.