We won the moral argument but did we lose the business case for UX? | February 11, 2016

When we first started Clearleft 10 years ago, the bulk of my effort was focussed on explaining to clients what user experience design was, the extra value it offered, and why design needed to be more than just moving boxes around the screen. I’m pleased to say that it’s been a long time since I’ve had to explain the need for UX to our clients. These days clients come to us with a remarkable understanding of best practice, and a long list of requirements that contain everything from research, strategy, prototyping and testing, through to responsive design, mobile development and the creation of a modular component library. I think it’s safe to say that the quality of the average digital project has soared over the past 10 years, but so has the effort involved.

This isn’t unusual and happens across all kinds of industries as they develop and become more professional. You only have to look at the advances in health care over the last 50 years to see the dramatic rise in quality. Back in my childhood, the most advanced diagnosis tool was probably the X-ray. These days a whole battery of tests are available, from ECGs to MRIs and beyond. The bar has been raised considerably, but in the process, so has the average cost of patient care.

Over the past few years I’ve seen client expectations rise considerably, but digital budgets have remained largely unchanged. We’ve done an amazing job of convincing digital teams that they need proper research, cross-platform support, and modular style guides, but somehow this isn’t filtering back to the finance departments. Instead, design teams are now expected to deliver all this additional work on a similar budget.

I believe one of the reasons for this apparent lag is that of tempo. Despite the current received wisdom of continual deployment, most traditional organisations still bundle all their product and service improvements into a single big redesign that happens once every 4 or 5 years. Most traditional organisations’ understanding of what a digital product should cost is already half a decade out of date. Add to this the fact that it takes most large organisations a good 18 months to commission a new digital product or service, launch it, then tell whether it’s been a success, and you have all the hallmarks of a terrible feedback loop and a slow pace of learning.

I think another problem is the lack of experienced digital practitioners in managerial positions with budget setting authority. It’s relatively common for digital budgets to be set by one area of the company, completely independently from those setting the scope. Project scope often becomes a sort of fantasy football wish list of requirements, completely untethered from the practical realities of budget.

I couldn’t begin to tell you the number of projects we’ve passed on the last couple of years because their budgets were completely out of whack with what they wanted to achieve; or the number of clients who have asked for our help when their previous project failed, only to discover that the reason was probably due to their previous agency agreeing to deliver more than the budget would actually allow. These organisations end up spending twice as much as they could have done, because they wanted to spend half as much as was necessary—the classic definition of a false economy.

Fortunately once you’ve made this mistake once, you’re unlikely to make it again. Speed of learning is hugely important. In fact I think the organisations that will fare best from the effects of digital transformation are those who can up their tempo, fail faster than their competitors, learn from their mistakes, and ensure they don’t happen again. Basically the standard Silicon Valley credo.

It is possible to avoid some of these mistakes if you hire strategically. I’ve seen a fairly recent trend of hiring in-house digital managers from the agency world. You end up hiring people who will have delivered dozens of projects over the past 5 years, rather than just one or two. These people also tend to be fairly savvy buyers, knowing which agencies have a good reputation, and which are little more than body shops.

As for us practitioners, I think we’ve done a great job of convincing our peers on the value of good UX design and digital best practices. We now need to up our effort getting that message across to the people commissioning digital services and setting budgets, to ensure we can actually deliver on the claims we’ve made.

Posted at February 11, 2016 3:35 PM