UX Maturity: Ubiquity

by Dirk Knemeyer

This is the fourth of six articles in our User Experience Maturity series. Read part 1part 2, and part 3.

While the Web 2.0 period established user experience, it was the release of the iPhone in 2007 that truly took the profession everywhere.

Compared to other smartphones, the iPhone offered the perfect fit between work and play, moving the use of computing devices beyond working stiffs and geeks into the mainstream world of soccer moms and the glitterati. Along with its magical hardware Apple provided a tightly curated app store that made it safe and easy for people to load up their iPhones with interesting software. It didn’t take long before everyday use of apps convinced executives from Walla Walla to Miami that, “Hey, we should have an app, too!” The mobile explosion made creating software for your company a first-order consideration. By extension, this exposed different people and organizations within companies to UX, often outside of the product division. The seeds were spreading hither, thither, and yon.

Not only did the mobile computing revolution bring UX into companies everywhere, it introduced UX into different areas of even highly mature software companies where there had been little or no overlap. Marketing turned out to be a significant participant in this progression, often as the first to latch onto the potential of apps. As marketers watched social games take off, they quickly made “gamification” a hot trend, combining software and game mechanics to accelerate the spread of ubiquitous computing and help turn Facebook into a powerful social gaming platform.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social applications created a powerful circle that not only kept mobile climbing but gave us more reasons to use our more traditional computing devices. American pop culture revealed the sea change as traditional TV fare like police procedurals gave way to the top-rated show about geeks called “The Big Bang Theory.” Being a geek was cool, and walking (or driving!) around with a computer in your hand was the new normal. There was no better environment for user experience to heat up.

Prior to the mobile computing revolution, outside of Silicon Valley user experience had been largely limited to the domain of web design. Software design didn’t exist significantly outside of Silicon Valley, and the overlap between UX and emerging fields like service design was ambiguous. With the proliferation of software development, user experience became more broadly and correctly understood and considered. Along with the previous factors this created an environment where user experience in general and design in particular were in great demand, with not nearly enough supply. This kept consultants and agencies busy, as entrepreneurs increasingly began offering training to exploit these fertile new opportunities. User experience was everywhere, firmly established as a key pillar to successful products and an important resource for marketing and other areas as well.

“Growing up” UX in your organization

In the last article we talked about the awkward adolescence of getting UX established in your organization. While that may be the most challenging stage in UX maturity, the work is far from done. Now that UX is gaining space, respect, and an articulated place as part of your product and/or service organizations, it is time to deploy and implement it in a progressively consistent way. The reality is that, between little or no investment in user experience and what you might envision as an ideal, budget-doesn’t-matter form, there lies a massive gap. Once user experience is established there is a long way to go to actually exercise it in a full and correct way. In truth, few companies ever fully make that investment. UX might be accepted, but may still be viewed as a cocky upstart fighting for limited funds with an established and highly valued division, like engineering. If ubiquity is the goal, ultimately it's not going to be about doing everything, rather doing as much as you can as well as you can.

In order to have the most impact, focus on taking UX broadly. Every digital product, service, or experience coming out of your organization should have some degree of dedicated UX presence and contribution. It is kind of like the Foundation step all over again, but instead of trying to set up something new it is a matter of spreading out and deeper with what you’ve already established. Don’t accept limits on the impact of UX to the main product, or the new product, or your pet project. Make sure it is everywhere, a part of everything. Within the constraints of your budget, decide what constitutes the “minimum viable amount” of UX to be relevant and impactful and make it an assumed part of any work being done. For me, a meaningful up-front research component followed by a very high-quality designer or team and the ability to rapidly prototype designs is the place to start, flowering out from there as the budget and circumstances allow.

This is also a good time to establish a more specific framework for the different ways UX impacts initiatives. For example, while UX may be part of both the incremental iteration of your most profitable software as well as the completely new reconceptualization of a future tech product for the next decade, the reality is that the skills and temperament of the people—not to mention the tasks and processes being required—are substantially different in those two cases. It’s important to develop a sophisticated understanding of these contexts. This also helps to determine staffing and investment decisions: incremental evolution is typically best done by internal resources. The work is ultimately easier and can be accomplished competently by less expensive or less critical resources. On the other hand, you may want to staff a new initiative with an external agency that can provide a broader world view from outside your firewall. This is the time to start figuring out the right tool for the right job in all of your various contexts and making smart investments with that in mind.

The bottom line to achieving UX ubiquity is to have UX everywhere it needs to be. It may not be at a scale that you want it to be, but spreading user experience to all of the contexts it is suited for keeps the evolution moving forward. This sets the platform for easier budget conversations, and increases the capacity to move your company toward increasingly best-practice implementation in the years to come.


Topics: UX, user experience, Business of Design