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This is my latest post from my blog: useful-usability. What do you think about the 5 models I've suggested below, are these representative?

I believe there are five general models of Corporate user experience cultures. Here's a brief overview of each

I had recently asked on Twitter what usability topics I should blog about next. This reply from Jonathan Hung seems to me very timely, because I actually am investigating companies and their corporate user experience cultures right now.

I have been working in marketing, branding and user experience with large and small corporations since 1982, and during that time I've seen quite a few examples of how companies incorporate user experience in their culture.

What's more, from the many consulting engagements and seminar / conference conversations I've had with user experience practitioners in other companies, both in the U.S. and abroad, I've learned that there seems to be a pattern to how companies incorporate user experience in their businesses.

These patterns are recurring, and can be found in almost all companies that have a user experience practice. I have grouped them into 5 models of how companies incorporate user experience in their culture.

These 5 models are based on where in the corporation the user experience practice resides, and what types of interactions the user experience practice has with the rest of the organization.

In this article, which is Part I of the two part series, I'll review what the 5 models are, and then in my next article (which I'm cleverly calling "Part II") I'll explain how I learn which of the 5 user experience cultures a company may have.

Part I - The 5 Models of Corporate User Experience Culture:

Four of these models I see pretty often in businesses. However the 5th I've only seen rarely, even though I think from a business perspective, that it is the most powerful and influential of all the user experience models for business success.
So here's the list which I have ordered in ascending order of benefit to the business - from weakest to strongest:

Model 1 - User Experience in I.T.

Craig Tomlin's Model 1 - User Experience in IT
For many business cultures, the user experience practice is a component of the Information Technology division. There are several advantages to this, including incorporating usability as part of the Software Development Life Cycle in a very tight manner, and applying usability standards on all software that is created by the business.

However, I consider this the weakest model because of the strategic miss-alignment between the two functions of software production and user experience. Sounds crazy, right? After all, don't we preach that usability and user-centered design must be present in software development? Yes!

But, I think the core strategic benefit an I.T. organization brings to a business is the ability to produce software on time, and on-budget, it is that division's primary reason for being. I.T. executives and management are usually compensated based on their ability to deliver products when required. As such, typically a project plan with drop-dead dates usually rules all decisions. Yes, usability can and should be included in that project plan, and often is.

The truth is that I've witnessed many examples where even though problems with the application are revealed by the user experience team, the application process continues without many, or sometimes all, of the recommended changes being made.

Why? Because it would slow down the project and cause the deliverable dates to slip, which is the primary objective of I.T.. Thus the miss-alignment between I.T. and User Experience.

In my opinion, placing user experience into an I.T. organization, although beneficial from a process perspective, can cause the user experience to take a back seat to deliverable dates, and therefore is not as beneficial to a business as other user experience culture models.

Model 2 - User Experience in Operations

Craig Tomlin's Model 2 - User Experience in Operations
I've only worked for or consulted with a few companies that use this culture model of having user experience in the Operations division. But it can be a good way to incorporate user experience functions, especially for companies delivering Software As a Service, for which this is actually a fairly powerful model.

Operations is typically where the customer interactions take place, where the "rubber hits the road" so to speak. As many business owners can testify, saving (aka retaining) a customer is much cheaper than trying to acquire a new customer. So smart companies that include user experience functions in operations can continually optimize the customer experience, which means real bottom-line improvements in revenue for the business.

However, the problems inherent with placing user experience in an I.T. division are also present in this model. Because of the needs of operations, it's possible that user experience issues might have to take a back seat to operational modifications that may help, or hurt, the user experience.

In addition, supporting operations from a user experience can be a very full plate, leaving little resource time to assist marketing or I.T. divisions.

Finally, because the user experience team reports to operations, other divisions may feel that the user experience function does not apply to them, and may either outsource or completely ignore the user experience needs they feel are necessary (or not) to support their division's needs. This can often be witnessed for example by the Marketing team going to advertising or online agencies to create web sites without internal user experience support, or I.T. divisions that create applications with little or no user experience testing and optimization.

Model 3 - User Experience in Marketing

I have seen many examples of the culture of user experience being a function of a Marketing or Branding division. The advantage here is usability is often focused on driving better sales or transaction conversions, and thus directly benefits the business.

However, having had direct experience in this type of model, and having spoken with other usability practitioners who reported the same, I can tell you that there are significant detriments to this model as well.

First, because the usability function does not have direct influence over the other divisions, such as I.T. or Operations, often the usability function is considered strictly a "Marketing" function that does not apply to software development or customer service applications. The usability of a web site, especially marketing pages, is the normal realm of this model, but internally developed applications or customer service functions are often strictly "hands-off."

Second, any conflict between the user experience needs and the needs of the other organizations are often handled "upstairs," meaning the executive team must resolve the issue. Faced with either producing a product on time, and thus keeping investors happy, or modifying a project to suit a better user experience and potentially face delays, Executives will often choose the former, and thus user experience is not maximized.

Finally, Marketing budgets are normally the first to be slashed when the economy slows down, or when the company is faced with financial hardships. I have seen many organizations cut or eliminate user experience functions when these functions are attached to the Marketing division, because the user experience function is not considered a "core business function." This negatively impacts a company's ability to provide a superior user experience, especially when the economy is slower. This is bad for a business because when the economy is slower, it's usually a golden opportunity for a smart business to increase market-share via a superior product.

Model 4 - User Experience as a Unique but Equal Entity

The business cultural model of having a separate, but equal, user experience division that services all divisions in the company makes sense, and seems to be a growing practice based on my experiences.

The benefits are clear, by reporting to none of the other divisions, user experience can operate in a non-biased atmosphere where equal resources are shared among the business units. In addition, the user experience team can operate as the holder of standards and best practices, and leverage learnings from one division across the other divisions.

However, the problem of "separate but equal" causes the same conflicts that occur in the other corporate user experience cultural models. Any differences between the user experience needs and the needs of the other divisions are often settled "upstairs" with Executives, who have the need to produce products on time.

For those of us in the United States, the term "separate but equal is inherently unequal" is a well-known phrase relating to Civil Rights and a famous Supreme Court decision to overturn the practice of separating people by race. Although less significant, the same phrase can be applied to the practice of having a separate user experience division as a business model.

The illustration above, showing the user experience division as being off to the side of the main business functions is sometimes an accurate display of the feelings of the business segment owners, who may feel that when pressed, their own division's goals must come first over user experience goals.

As with the other models of corporate user experience culture, differences of opinion will often be settled "upstairs" by the Executives.

Because there is limited or no real control over the user experience, there may be fewer opportunities for the user experience to be maximized to the full extent possible across all divisions, causing missed improvement opportunities for the business and thus missed revenue enhancements.

Model 5 - User Experience as a Unique but Superior Entity

This is a rare corporate user experience culture, but examples are out there. If you replace "UX" in the above illustration with "Customer Experience" you'll have an accurate description of certain Companies that take customers, and their satisfaction, very seriously (think Zappos, Google or Apple).

In some of these businesses, there is no actual user experience entity that oversees the other units (so remove the box in your head, or better yet, widen it so that all divisions are within the user experience box), but by providing incentives to the business division owners to continually improve the customer/user experience, the same goal is achieved - all divisions are focused on providing an optimal user experience.

In certain gaming and software companies, this corporate user experience culture drives all aspects of the business, which in turn drives continual optimization and improvements in the user experience.

Of all the models of user experience culture, this model by far can have the greatest impact on a business, because all divisions in the business are focused on maximizing the user/customer experience. Maximizing the user experience means more revenue and/or savings for the company, which over time adds to the profitability of the company, pulling it out ahead of it's competitors.

So, that's my vision for the 5 models of corporate user experience culture. Do you agree, disagree or have other models? Please share them in the comments.

Part II of this post will answer the question; "how do you determine what type of corporate user experience culture a company has?"

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Comment by Arun Srinivasan on August 24, 2009 at 1:31am
thanks Craig quiet an eye opener!!
Comment by Torey Maerz on August 4, 2009 at 11:50am
Great Post. It encouraged me to write about my experience while I fit user experience into my company.
Comment by Cornelia Sproat on July 23, 2009 at 7:40am
Thanks Craig!!!!!!!!
Comment by Sheri Leigh Sipsis on July 22, 2009 at 12:05pm
One last issue I'll point out is:
An ineffective application of customer centric practices
It scares me how many UX professionals and even agencies promote ineffective approaches, which leads to failure and degrades the credibility of the overall UX industry. If you truly study Apple and listen to Steve Jobs, he doesn't ask people what they want. Apple seeks to understand the market, what people need and then apply the intellect of their experts to define the solutions. This is why I personally don't like focus groups. I have seen more projects derail because companies asked the customers what they want, what they liked. And the business owner looks bewildered and says in frustration "Being customer centric doesn't work."
Like Henry Ford said "If I had asked what people wanted, they would have said faster horses."
Being customer centric is about an indepth knowledge of customers and their needs, but it doesn't replace the talent and expertise of highly qualified UX professionals.
Comment by Craig Tomlin on July 22, 2009 at 11:59am
Hi Cornelia,

Good news! Just send them a link to my blog, this same content is also available there - no login required.
Comment by Cornelia Sproat on July 22, 2009 at 11:51am
here is what sucks about this article:
I keep trying to send it to my coworkers, some of whom only have degrees in Usability, but not CUA certification, so alas they cannot access it.

sign me,
"Information wants to be free"
Comment by Sheri Leigh Sipsis on July 22, 2009 at 11:41am
I guess my primary point is though it's interesting to look at org structures, the primary obstacles I have encountered have existed regardless of org structure and successes have occurred in different structures.

Some issues I have faced include::

1 - Customer centric is perceived to be idealistic customer evangelism as opposed to supporting business success.
This is why I feel UX professionals need to look outside own discipline to truly master business principles. An effective user experience is an alignment of the customer and business to support the goals of IT, product, marketing, operations and customer support. It's important that we as individuals or teams have a solid understanding of all of these disciplines as well as learn to speak the language regardless of what department we report to.
2 - UX is viewed as a set of "best practices" or expert opinions
The essence of UX is a deep understanding of the customers of a specific business. Though best practices based on known user behavior can get you so far, it won't propel your business to greater success and innovation. Building a Voice of the Customer (VoC) program and culture is a much higher priority than attempting to influence where UX resides on a org chart or who has direct authority over it.
3 - UX teams don't always understand the impact of culture.
Of all disciplines, we should be masters at influencing culture. Our whole field is based on understanding the needs of others and being persuasive. By focusing our skills internally and understanding what the business owner, project manager, technical manager, developer or whomever is tasked with, we can find alignment with UX - as opposed to conflict.
1 - UX is perceived as souly tactical
Symptom is when a company jumps straight into wireframes. If not approached strategically the UX foundation is often faulty and execution fails. Without insight to the real issue, UX teams or the function itself is blamed, often undoing even the minimal infusion of UX in this type of culture.
5 - UX takes too much time
In my previous job, I often oversaw project recovery efforts to ensure on-time, within budget delivery of derailed (in the red) projects. I have successfully accomplished this multiple times and still managed to insert user testing. I don't buy that usability is a time suck. If we plan well, are agile, master rapid iterative approaches, focus the effort on the high impact/high priority aspects of the design and leverage time gained by minimizing internal disputes and endless design reviews and discussions, then you can get user feedback into projects with little to no impact on a timeline. I've achieved it with in-house facilitators and agencies. It is possible and we need to promote the appropriate skills and techniques so that we can stop this incorrect perception in its tracks.
When I started my new position, I was asked if we should look at the org structure and I said no - let's establish a VoC and continue to build a customer centric culture. No UX people currently report to me, nor are they all in one team yet we are making great steps toward making UX strong and effective - by influencing the culture. It's truly powerful.
Comment by Craig Tomlin on July 22, 2009 at 9:47am
Oops, using the keyboard too fast again, my prior post had some extraneous content.

Let's try that again!

PS - Usability enhancement request with this comments function - ability to edit the comment a short period of time after posting would be great, especially for guys like me that type first and read second! :-)

Here's what I meant to write:

Hi Sheri,

Yes. The tricky part of the label "superior" is in the fact that it's a comparison to the other models, in which there is less benefit to the company derived from UX because of the more limited application of UX.

For a business to be truly "superior" from it's competition, it must move toward a more comprehensive approach to UX as part (as you said) of a customer-centric culture. Companies that do this well (Apple, Zappos, Nordstroms come to mind) infuse UX/Customer Experience (CX) and the benefits of UX/CX as part of the Brand model, and center Brand and executive goals, strategy and tactics around the on-going improvement of the experience.

This was mentioned in detail many years ago in the book "" by Patricia B. Seybold, one of my favs by the way!
Comment by Craig Tomlin on July 22, 2009 at 9:31am
embrace UX (CX) as an operational reality, not just "Brand Speak" and infuse it with authority. OHi Sheri,

Yes. The tricky part of the label "superior" is in the fact that it's a comparison to the other models, in which there is less benefit to the company derived from UX because of the more limited application of UX.

For a business to be truly "superior" from it's competition, it must move toward a more comprehensive approach to UX as part (as you said) of a customer-centric culture. Companies that do this well (Apple, Zappos, Nordstroms come to mind) infuse UX/Customer Experience (CX) and the benefits of UX/CX as part of the Brand model, and center Brand and executive goals, strategy and tactics around the on-going improvement of the experience.

This was mentioned in detail many years ago in the book "" by Patricia B. Seybold, one of my favs by the way!
Comment by Sheri Leigh Sipsis on July 22, 2009 at 8:46am
Craig, I guess the primary disconnect for me on Model 5 representing the decentralized organization is that this structure doesn't necessary mean UX is superior or in authority, simply integral. Peppering UX throughout an organization doesn't automatically result in a customer centric culture, though that may be the intent. Other factors such as UX in leadership positions, process and culture are as impactful, if not moreso.

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