Why do UX evangelists give up?

People often dismiss Twitter for being a pointless waste of time, but the other day I had a chat that illustrated how useful and interesting Twitter can be if you’re prepared to use it thoughtfully.

Charlotte Lewis tweeted a link to a comment I’d made on Craig Tomlin’s blog. “UX evangelist as step 1 of ux-ing an org, huh…See @James_Christie comment http://www.usefulusability.com/the-5-models-of-corporate-user-experience-culture/”.

Charlotte Lewis's tweet

Craig had argued in his blog that there are five levels of UX maturity.

Level 1 – IT has responsibility for UX.

Level 2 – Operations (ie the department that administers the organisation) has responsibility for UX.

Level 3 – Marketing has responsibility for UX.

Level 4 – UX is independent and equal to IT, Operations and Marketing.

Level 5 – UX is independent and has authority over IT, Operations and Marketing.

I had suggsted in my comment that there is an important lower, earlier stage in the evolution of UX within an organisation. That is when an enthusiastic and well informed individual has identified that the organisation’s neglect of UX is a problem and starts lobbying for changes.

I was curious about Charlotte’s tweet and responded, asking why she’d dug out my comment. She said that a feed she follows had highlighted it, and she felt that it was still valid. We then had a chat about factors allowing a organisation to move from the initial level 0 that I’d identified to level 1.

I thought that the question was framed the wrong way round. If there is an enthusiastic and well-informed advocate of UX within the organisation then progress should follow. I thought it would be more interesting, and useful, to look at the factors that block UX evangelists, hence this blog.

What makes a UX evangelist give up?

I’d never considered the problem in such explicit terms before. I had thought about the reasons that organisations find themselves in what I called the usability death zone in my comment in Craig’s blog. The death zone is where organisations aren’t even aware that there is a problem. Usability and UX simply aren’t on their radar.

There are three groups of reasons for organisations staying in the death zone; the way that software engineering matured, the isolation of usability professionals, and the culture of organisations.

I wrote my Masters dissertation on the reasons why usability hadn’t penetrated software engineering. That really looked at the first two sets of reasons.

My conclusions were that traditional development methods, structured techniques and procurement practices had made it extremely difficult for software engineers to incorporate usability. On the other hand usability professionals had isolated themselves because of their lack of understanding of how commercial software was developed, and their willingness to stand aside from the development mainstream and carry out usability testing when it was too late to shape the application.

The whole dissertation is available on line.

Cultures that suffocate

What I didn’t consider in my dissertation were the cultural factors that block people who’ve identified the problem.

The first group of problems I mentioned are historical features of software engineering. Likewise, the second set of problems arise from the way the UX profession developed. However, the cultural factors are much more widespread, and stop many types of organisations from improving.

The common theme with these cultural factors is that the organisation has become rigid and has stopped learning, learning from its customers, its employees and its rivals.

Large organisations can grow to the point that they become so complex that many employees are totally cut off from the real purpose of the organisation, i.e selling products or providing a service to customers. For these employees the purpose of the organisation has become the smooth running of the organisation.

Large numbers of experienced, capable employees work hard, follow processes, calculate metrics and swap vast numbers of emails, “fyi”. They are subject to annual performance reviews in which targets are set, achievement is measured and rewards flow to those whose performance conforms to those idealised targets.

Compliance with processes and standards becomes the professional and responsible way to approach work. Indeed, professionalism and conformity can become indistinguishable from each other. Improvements are possible, but they are strictly marginal increments. The organisation learns how to carry on working the same way, but slightly more efficiently and effectively.

Sure, in software development CMMI can lead to greater rigour and to steady improvements, but they are unlikely to be radical. As Ben Simo put it when he contributed to an article I wrote on testing standards; “if an organisation is at a level less than the intent of level 5, CMM seems to often lock in ignorance that existed when the process was created”.

Seemingly radical change certainly does occur, but it is usually a case of managers being replaced, organisation structures being put through the blender, or whole departments being outsourced. All this chaos and disruption is predicated on the need to produce a more polished and refined version of the past, not to do anything radically different or better.

Such maturity models effectively discourage people from saying, “hang on, we’re on the wrong track here”. People who do try to speak out and to highlight fundamental flaws in working practices are liable to be seen as rebels and troublemakers, not team players.

Improvement is tied to metrics. The underlying assumption on which this paradigm rests is that measurement and metrics provide an objective insight into reality. The only acceptable insights are objective, and there is a hugely damaging and unchallenged false assumption that objectivity requires numbers. If there is a problem it will be detected in the numbers. Unfortunately these numbers are the product of the existing worldview and simply affirm that worldview.

Potential usability evangelists can see the problem, and understand its cause, but working within such a constrained and blinkered environment they might as well be trying to make their colleagues understand an alternative universe in which the laws of physics don’t apply.

The metrics were designed only to illuminate the problems that were imagined. Those problems that were never conceived lack the numerical evidence that justifies reform. Without such evidence the concerns of individuals are dismissed as subjective, as a matter of opinion rather than objective fact.

As I said, such a culture inhibits all sorts of reform, but I believe that it would be particularly dispiriting for budding usability evangelists. Faced with rejection and crushing disapproval they would either learn to conform or they would leave for a more enlightened employer.

Is the picture I’ve painted accurate? I’ve no figures or hard evidence, but my argument ties in with my own experience of how a company’s culture can suffocate innovation. Certainly, too much focus on measurement can be damaging. That is well established. See Robert Austin’s book, “Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations”. Can anyone shed light on this? What is it that stops organisations moving out of the usability death zone? What makes the UX evangelists give up? I’d love to hear what people think about this problem.

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2 thoughts on “Why do UX evangelists give up?

  1. Hi James

    Thank you for your book recommendation. ‘Measuring and Managing Perfomance in Organizations’ has been in my bookshelf for quite some time, although still unread. I might want to advance it in my ‘to be read’ queue.

    It is interesting how there are many similarities in the perception of both UX and software testing. Unfortunately, in testing some people have found an easy (albeit totally misguided) way of quantifying the work products. If you follow the wrong numbers you just follow them and don’t question their validity anymore.

    I assume it is not a surprise that the expression of my opinion on maturity models tends to be sprinkled with expletives 🙂

    • I do try not to be too negative about maturity models. They do have a valid role, so long as you maintain a healthy awareness of the limitations of that approach and the dangers of obsessing about the level the organisation is at. I’ve not seen them applied in a very helpful way. I suppose that’s because I’ve seen them from the perspective of an outsourced supplier, targetted with getting accredited at a certain level by a certain date. In those circumstances the goal really is focussed on the maturity level, not the quality of the underlying work.

      Goal displacement is a great danger in any organisation. People focus on the targets, or on process compliance, not the underlying reality. However, with outsourcing the supplier staff are often not suffering from goal displacement. The contract requires them to focus on these targets, and there are significant commercial consequences if they miss them.

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