Written by Joe Natoil

When you or I have a problem, it’s pretty easy for us to imagine a solution. And that solution is filtered through our experiences and responsibilities. So if I’m a Business Analyst, for example, I may look to my statistical research for answers.

If I’m a Product Owner, I’ll fall back on established User Stories, or create a new one I think solves the problem. If I’m a UX consultant, I’ll likely look to existing user research or start planning to do some. If I’m a Developer, I’m going to look into tools and processes that demonstrate possible ways to solve the challenge. If I’m a UI designer, I’m likely to fast-forward to how the UI interaction might behave.

These are all, in and of themselves, solid, time-tested approaches. At the same time, they are all fundamentally, inherently flawed.

Why? Because each only addresses a small slice of what the real problem — and appropriate solution — truly is. When there’s an issue with a digital product, the problem is almost never one thing. It’s rarely just usability, rarely just the underlying technology, rarely just the UI design, etc. It’s almost always a combination of those things, all of which is usually the result of a larger team or organizational issue.

And that larger issue is usually the fact that these folks aren’t collaborating and leveraging each other’s expertise in order to come up with the right answer — the one that delivers something valuable to users. The one that, as a result of delivering that value, helps their organization make or save money.

This is nobody’s fault, mind you. Everyone is doing what they do best, and what they’re trained to do. What’s missing is a shared focus on User Experience; a common lens with which to filter their activities. What I’ve learned across nearly three decades is that without this filter, without this focus, a great deal of time and money and effort is completely wasted.

I believe in this fact so deeply and so vehemently that I dedicated an entire book to the very topic. It’s called Think First: My No-Nonsense Approach to Creating Successful Products, Powerful User Experiences and Very Happy Customers. And it’s core mantra is this: great UX is everybody’s business — and it starts with what’s between our ears.

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It’s not what you do, it’s how you think

On the first day I sit down with executives and team leaders, I spell out some version of the above. And then I explain that the goal is not to radically change their existing workflows and processes. Mainly because that never, ever works in enterprise organizations, but more so because it won’t solve anything. The key is changing how people think about what they do, and the degree to which they interact with each other. It’s also about getting everyone to see how their decisions affect everyone else — and therefore the quality of the user experience:

  • Every feature mandated by a Product Owner before consulting with the team at large introduces the possibility that the team will spend 2 weeks on something that doesn’t really need to be solved, because it has no effect on perceived or delivered value to customers.
  • Every Use Case a Business Analyst develops without talking to UX or Designers or end users increases the possibility that interactions and workflows will run counter to what people expect or are willing to use.
  • Every choice a Database Architect makes without talking to Designers or Developers limits their ability to stand up data and interaction in the UI in a way that’s expected or appropriate for users.
  • Every style decision a UI Designer makes without consulting Business Analysts or Developers introduces unexpected time and effort on decoration instead of design, expanding scope and putting budgets at risk.

Get the idea? When people are working in relative isolation, the majority of their time and focus is on cold facts and predetermined needs and approaches; we do what we’ve always done, what we know best. The messy human emotional component that drives cognition, expectation and motivation — which is the key to great UX – is missing. Everyone is certainly looking into what can happen or should happen in a process or series of interactions, but the “UX lens” that allows us to learn how people feel about those interactions and processes is missing.

Add the fact that most people — designers included —aren’t traditionally trained to ask the kind of questions and conduct the type of inquiry that digs deeper into underlying expectation and motivation. The result? Those keys to success never surface. The team works hard and long, but the end result satisfies no one. It’s a lousy place to be.

Hiring a UXer isn’t the answer either.

Common thinking is often that if we “hire some UX people” the problems will go away. When I’m asked to work with an organization, the assumption at that point is that I’ll solve these issues for them and they’ll stay solved.

Truth is, they won’t — not until everyone learns to filter the work of their specific role through the lens of good UX. Until everyone takes moment prior to acting to ask themselves three critical questions:

  1. Is this worth doing? Will the time and effort spent deliver some meaningful, measurable result? How does it contribute to positive UX and to delivering value, both to users and back to the business?
  2. Does everyone agree on and understand what we’re creating? Does every member of the team share the same understanding of what’s being built and why it matters?
  3. What value does it deliver? Does this improvement, feature or function facilitate a desired outcome, for both customers and the organization? And do we know it will deliver that value, or are we guessing?

There are other questions, of course — but the simple act of stopping to think about these things will often change what happens next, in a very positive way. This is what I preach, the message I do my best to hammer home while working with organizations. And that message is the reason I wrote Think First. I go to great lengths to explain why what’s between your ears is infinitely more powerful than anything you can do with your hands. Anything ever worth doing started with a strategy; if you don’t know why something matters, you don’t know if it’ll succeed, either.

Strategy is a stand or fall proposition. If you fail to get everyone thinking in a strategic manner about what constitutes positive UX, you are building something that people either don’t want or won’t be able to use. And when that happens, there’s no win for the organization either; that planned profit or increased market share or reduced operating costs never materialize.

Until everyone considers how their decisions impact strategic issues, the proportion of effort to result will remain grossly unbalanced. You’ll certainly be moving fast, plowing through a monstrous amount of heavy lifting — but you’ll be doing it on a treadmill.