Kevin Cheng  

Too Big? Too Small?

December 21st, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

When I gave my presentation, one person asked me, by way of a statement, “I think the UX community should be thinking bigger”. Except he gave no indication of what he meant by bigger.

I gave three distinctly different definitions of “too big” and they’re different. One is about the discplines battle being senseless, the other about the fact that each discipline is trying to claim ownership of UX and the last about the size of most UX organizations not warranting these discussions.

All of these are pretty different definitions so simply saying “needs to think bigger” isn’t very telling (I should add that the question was later clarified). So equally, Christina Wodtke’s The User Experience Community is Thinking too Small as a title may be clever, but it doesn’t tell me much other than that it is perhaps an opposing view.

Except it’s not.Perhaps I didn’t articulate my view well enough but it seems to me we’re saying the same thing. Let’s compare points:

- I say: the inter-displinary wars are senseless. Work on the organization level. Get buy-in from a corporate level. OK, this is different from her. She thinks ROI is a done deal. She’s also been in Yahoo! for quite a few years, a place which has about 14 job openings at the moment. I think it’s fair to say Yahoo! is bought in but I don’t feel it’s at all the majority case.
- I say: There is no owner of UX. She says it’s a silly question. I don’t think that’s saying different things and in fact, my premise has been, “here’s what discussions go on right now and here’s why I think they’re the wrong discussions to have.”
- I say: most UX organizations are too small to worry about social boundaries. She says “you’re not your job title”. As a commentor of hers said, “Amen”. Again, are we saying different things there?

So I guess my question is, what’s “too small” even mean?

13 Responses to “Too Big? Too Small?”
Christina wrote:

Traditionally “big thinking” is strategic, and “small thinking” is tactical. The user experience practioners by and large have gotten terribly naval-gazing as of late, and spend a lot of time infighting and crating new organizations. UXnet is a good sign, I think, but even better signs are the resurgence of innovative work such as flickr, del.ici.ous, tivo, treos, etc etc…
You and I do agree that there seems to be a lot of wheel spinning going on in some of the forums.

I *think* you are saying, get down to brass tacks and get better at your work and justifying it. I’m saying start dreaming, learn business factors so you can speak the language, and start working more strategicly. ROI is a red herring– it turns design into a commodity that can be measured with hard numbers. Better is to look at value, and understand what competitive advantage your work provides… but better still is understanding *your* business and getting better at figuring out what competitive advantage your work *could* provide… align yourself to the company not your company to you.

I’ve been out of Yahoo for six months now, and world view is healthy and broad (it always has been… I talk and travel a lot, and extremely active in a community that tells me stories). Most UX people who don’t get respect blame business, but they should instead blame themselves for not understanding business well enough to help business in a way that the value would be clear and obvious. Sometimes it takes time. But it can be done, if one whines less and listens more. You make your own trouble. You make your own solutions.

I’m arguing rather than take a “I’ll add up the numbers and then they’ll respect me” or “I’ll just keeping working hard and getting better and then they’ll respect me” attitude, User experience professionals remember that they have got these wonderful user research skills, and use them to learn more about businesses and organizations and help them with better questions than radio button usability. Usability is essentially QA, and while valauble, it’s far from the richest thing the user *experience* community can offer business… even Don Norman has moved on to emotional design.

Ah well, this is gonna get me flamed. Let’s go….

Peter Boersma wrote:

Christina wrote:
> Ah well, this is gonna get me flamed. Let’s go….

You’ll stand a good chance to get flamed for the “Usability is essentially QA” statement, but the rest is sound, and I still think you, Kevin and I agree.

How is “learn business factors so you can speak the language” different from having ROI discussions? True, ROI is not the *only* business factor and in fact moot as soon as you’re sitting next to the CEO, but until then…

Peter Boersma wrote:

Christina wrote:
> Ah well, this is gonna get me flamed. Let’s go….

You’ll stand a good chance to get flamed for the “Usability is essentially QA” statement, but the rest is sound, and I still think you, Kevin and I agree.

How is “learn business factors so you can speak the language” different from having ROI discussions? True, ROI is not the *only* business factor and in fact moot as soon as you’re sitting next to the CEO, but until then…

David Heller wrote:

I think the “too small” is another direction here. I ‘m in total agreement w/ the spirit of both Kevin and Christina. “Just do it” and “be it” … But that is an individualistic approach.

there is another side to the big. Besides thinking big, there is “being big” and in this way I feel the “navel gazing” is of value. I’m not talking about organizations for their own sake, but community is power, union is power, knowledge sharing is power and to do any of these we need to be clearer and sharper and than we currently are.

What does this effect? This effects how we educate? How we organize our career development paths? How we communicate internally to one another. If you say “blue” and I think that means everything except for “indigo” but you mean it includes “indigo” then we have a problem here. When Christina says that usability is QA and most UPA spokespeople would disagree (I agree w/ you Christina!!!!) and I need to go out and look for Christina’s version of a Usability person, we have a problem here.

There are two tacts we need to be thinking big about. One is represented quite well in an article I just saw on Businessweek–“Redesigning American Business”. Talks about how design needs to be about innovation and less about form. I couldn’t agree more and I think this is what Christina is talking about when she means thinking big. Thinking beyond bits and pixels and thinking about providing value to business.

But I do think that if we want to do more than have individual success stories and have a powerful community of success we do have to work a bit more together and doing this hard and annoying and time consuming work of definitions.

Its just like when you enter that company that “doesn’t get it” (its been my entire career). it takes a TON of time to get them to get it. But it is time that is well spent. Time I’m spending right now.

Keith Instone wrote:

I am finding it hard to make sense of this “big” and “little” debate. Does size really matter? Apparently so.

Anyway, more seriously, from what I can decipher, then I think we are on the same page. UXnet is trying to make it easier to have Kevin’s 3 points a reality:

  • Stop fighting, start working together. I know it is easier to start a fight than it is to get along. I hope the UXnet meeting in London helped people start to get along better. It is a long and painful process, however.
  • To me, user experience is not about “local” ownership but about “wholistic” ownership. The whole company is responsible for the user experience of its products, for example. (I think that was one of Don’s main points in the panel, but it may have been lost in “translation”.) In my own professional experience, the term UX has worked better as a unifying force than other terms have in the past.
  • More disciplinary boundaries need to be broken down to help people do what they need to do. Just because your job title is “technical communicator” does not mean you should not also know IA and UCD and a little marketing.

In general, I spend all day at work helping people to collaborate for the greater good and breaking down organizational boundaries that make it difficult for us to serve our customers.

We need to do the same to ourselves. Too many silos and not enough collaboration.

Herb Simon's Contrarian Shadow wrote:

I like your distinction between big and small as strategy and tactics.

It seems that on a tactical level we do think too big. Claims like “we own innovation” or “we own the customer experience” seem particularly specious in thier gradiosity. And let’s not even start on how so many in the design community have misused Herb Simon’s over-reaching definition of design to puff up their own ego.

Yet on a strategic level we think so small that one wonders if designers truly understand the meaning of strategy (beyond being a sloppy synonym for imporatant). In terms of professional credibility, the design community does not yet appear to have the will to make strategic progress. Of course public discussions help–we just have to have some patience I suppose.

Anyway, no flames from me.

Herb Simon's Contrarian Shadow wrote:

To me, user experience is not about “local” ownership but about “wholistic” ownership. The whole company is responsible for the user experience of its products, for example.

Which then means that the executives are the core UX team. If everyone is responsible for UX (which I agree with), then the executives are the only ones in a position to oversee and coordinate everyone’s efforts.

I wonder how different things would be if the execs generally saw themselves as the core UX team?

More disciplinary boundaries need to be broken down to help people do what they need to do. Just because your job title is “technical communicator” does not mean you should not also know IA and UCD and a little marketing.

But to cross boundraies you need qualifications, and not all qualifications are created equal. I’m about as interested in the legal department’s opinion on my color schemes as they are in my position on medical jurisprudence.

We need boundaries. We need to make it clear what we will do, what we are qualified to do, and what we will not do and are not qualifies to do.

So while your statement is rhetorically satisfying, I find it overly simplistic in practical terms.

Michael Andrews wrote:

The question “Who owns user experience?” begs “of what?” Some people can’t see people as having anything beyond a web-centric existence online. Most businesses, however, have customers who they interact with via many touchpoints. Many businesses aren’t selling “the Web” as a product or as a service; the Web is just another channel supporting their product or service. Small wonder such businesses don’t consider a Chief Experience Officer the most important person in the company. They know that customers don’t aren’t shopping for a virtual “experience”, they are looking to buy products or services. The experience is a by-product of the product or service, not the concrete goal. While UX *can be* a useful phase, it becomes meaningless when applied to everything in life and business. Ask your grandma to define “user experience.” If she asks for clarification, user experience probably isn’t her major preoccupation.

Keith Instone wrote:

More disciplinary boundaries need to be broken down…

We need boundaries…

I did not say we need to break down all boundaries. Some are needed, fer sure.

Some are getting in the way, tho.

It seems easy, natural in a way, to create boundaries. It seems harder to cross them. Many individuals devote a lot of time and effort into being “boundary crosssers.”

Each of the various groups involved needs to devote time to their boundaries, but also set aside some cycles to cross them. This would make it easier for individuals who need to cross boundaries to do so.

Keith Instone wrote:

So, is thinking of “executive level ownership of the user experience” too big or too small? Or right on target?

David Heller wrote:

“executive level ownership of the user experience” is already there. The CEO currently owns the UX of everything out there. The question isn’t ownership, but rather education and understanding. UX’s biggest problem is one of education, not “ownership”. I don’t need to be a business decision maker to be successful, I need my x-functional (non-design & usability) team members to have the same understanding of the power of UX that they expect me to have about business and technology. It isn’t about expertise, but it is about perception and familiarity.

Christine said in her thread that we don’t have to prove ROI anymore. “Just go out and be valuable” was her call to arms. In spirit I agree. But to show value you have to have comparative measurement and measurement in and of itself requires changes across the enterprise. If the leaders of the enterprise don’t value what you are trying to achieve there are extreme roadblocks.

So Keith, in essence, I agree that we need to think high (not sure if that means big or small), but that doesn’t mean I become a CEO or there is a position called Chief Experience Officer, but rather it means that we need to work with executive team members.

The other side of this question is, what do you want to be when you grow up? If you think that an MFA + MBA is in your future b/c you want to make a bigger difference to the biggest group of people through management, then go for it and bring your expertise and your understanding of UX to the board room. But I would be weary of making the board room the only path for designers to reach towards in order to make a difference. Managing up I think is as important as getting into positions where you can manage down. This way I can get the business owners to understand UX and I can do the more valuable job of actually doing design.

I do think the over-arching question is still very valuable to ask and I’d be really interested in other people’s perceptions about this take on the big/small; high/low question.

Peter Boersma wrote:

Dave wrote:
> But I would be weary of making the board room
> the only path for designers to reach towards
> in order to make a difference.

There are two ways into the board room: as an innie and as an outtie (were those the terms, it’s been ages since I’ve heard them being used).

As an innie it may indeed mean getting the MBA-type experience, managing more and more people and processes, and becoming “one of them”.

As an outtie, it requires getting attention, backing up your business proposal with numbers and/or testimonials, and providing value. True, getting hired as an outtie may require an innie to break borders for you. But then again, outties can get together and promote themselves, or have a guru (yes, Jakob) break the borders too.

Ouuties may never have executive level ownership of the user experience for a long time, but they can assist those who own it to do a good job.

David Heller wrote:

Outties by definition never “own” anything no matter what service they are out-sourcing.

I forget where the thread was, but it related to the movement of designers towards consulting. The reason for this is b/c of the problem of UX professionals not being able to make headway in-house, so there is a perception of getting things done in a consultancy that very few of us see in-house.


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?