UX Org Positioning and Funding Models

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February 17, 2017 by SDesign

I’d like to discuss a common and critical topic to laying the groundwork for a successful internal UX team: organizational design.  In particular there are three models I would like to look at, and we’ll start in order of most preferred to least preferred. 

Team Tied to Business Unit

In this model UX resources are tied to a specific business unit, division, or product.  This means that they are not ‘for hire’, but rather are dedicated to a particular set of resources.  Although I am in the minority, I far prefer this method over others.

Let’s look at why.  In a previous blog post I talked about the never-ending trust cycle, whereby the UX designer needs to constantly attain the buy-in of their development team to get their work implemented properly. This problem is magnified many times over for designers who are constantly working with new teams on new projects.  It takes a long time to get into a rhythm with your colleagues.

Another reason I prefer this mode is the type of work. It means you a part a team that is working on a common goal over a protracted period of time.  When you are truly embedded with a team over time, that is really how you achieve great work and great quality.

An added bonus is that you don’t have to spend time hunting around for projects to work on, or vetting whether these projects are likely to be worthwhile investments of UX resources.  The budget for the UX resources is built into the overall budget of the project, and as the project succeeds you and your team succeed.

Another big topic within this type of org design is: Who does UX report to? Engineering, Product Management, or its own separate function?  I do have thoughts on this, but I will save them for another day.  My only general comment is that when everybody is bought into the importance of a good UX, this org design question diminishes in importance. Only when different groups place different business value on the UX does this become a central issue.

Centralized Model –Funded through Corporate

Some designers in particular find that they want to work on different projects with different challenges, and for those people being tied to a specific project is probably not the right fit for them.  Being a central agency within a large company can be very satisfying. Your overall happiness will be based on the variety of projects that are available within the company, and whether the teams you get placed with value UX and are able to product good work.  If you end up with a dud project, it’s no big deal, you’ll be on another one soon enough.  Many of the challenges and problems that I talk about in my writing have to do with how to get your work implemented properly.  In a centralized model you may not even have to deal with this, in that designers finish up their work, hand it to the team, and then move on to the next design challenge.  It can be very freeing to not have to engage in the tug-of-war to actually get the UX implemented properly. (But if you aren’t doing it…then who is?)

The critical piece to making this work is that the group is funded through the corporation, so that they are not constantly trying to drum up work and find a way to justify their existence.  This may seem like a subtle point, but it is not – see the next section.  The reason a company might choose to do this is that they it views UX as a competitive advantage, and are therefore willing to incur the overhead costs to make sure there is a team capable of providing for the needs of the company. (As opposed to leaving it up to the managers of each product line, who may or may not value a good user experience).  So, it will be mostly be companies who place a high value on UX who implement this model.

I have heard of a centralized model where individual team members are permanently assigned to one business unit but report into a UX authority.  The business units may have nothing to do with each other or any overlap in products.  The thinking is that the UX designer has a ‘home’ with central governance, and that the UX members report to staff that has expertise in their area.  I find this type of org design to be really awkward. As an employee it is critical that you are aligned with the team that you work with every day.  You should share the same objectives, be culturally part of the same group. Further, it means that the manager of the UX resources has virtually nothing to do with the actual teams doing the work.  This sets up a situation absolutely begging for political warfare, with the centralized UX management wanting one thing and the project-specific management wanting another, with no established way to resolve the disagreement.  All of this stems from lack of alignment in priorities, and ultimately different business goals.

Centralized Model – Project Funded

In this model, the UX designers and their management need to find sponsors who will pay for their work.  I would never want to work for a company under these circumstances because the internal customers dictate how much UX they are willing to invest in, and whether they are going to pay any attention to the advice they receive.  Maybe they can only afford a small dab of UX, which you know will result in hardly any improvement at all (the proverbial lipstick on a pig). However, because your existence is dependent on getting the funding from this group, you have to take the work anyway.

Ultimately the UX designers and management must have some discretion over what projects they are going to take, and to take corrective action for projects that are failing (see my post on Saying No).  Otherwise, the team is just going to be desperately taking whatever comes their way regardless of whether the project is producing good results.  Whether or not a UX engagement is going to be successful should be a key criteria for any engagement in the corporate world.  Having the internal customer pay for UX services, and having the UX team needing to find sources of income to justify its existence, means the UX team has no say in what projects it takes on.  This is a recipe for having a lot of bad engagements, and a lot of miserable employees.


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