Nowadays, in every business we see the technology as obvious. We take for granted that all organizations have a website. But it has not always been that way. Just a few decades ago there was not any technology in most businesses. Organizations kept staying in the market; faxing documents and sending papers along and relying on printed commercials. There were no databases, no computers and not even a digital network to exchange information.
About 25 years ago the information technology started and many businesses adapted right away to the IT Tipping Point, and others eventually managed to drag themselves across it. Many more did not manage to cross it and those businesses eventually died.
Businesses that started their journey across the IT Tipping Point, they already had the right technologies and an understanding on how to use it. Instantly they were competitors to the old giant market leaders of their industry. The market leaders, that thought they were unbeatable, suddenly found themselves in a vulnerable disadvantage to these startup companies.
Infomaker began their journey in 1992 as one of those technology startup companies. Their business was to digitize the editorial workflow for newspapers. Back in the days they developed this high technology editorial system, called Newspilot. In 2009, Apple conducted a survey of Swedish newspapers to find out which editorial systems they were using. The survey showed that Newspilot dominated the market.
Today we see a new revolution in the market's growth stage, and technology companies are struggling with the same journey to cross the next tipping point, the UX Tipping Point.
The UX Tipping Point
The expectations from the users have changed since the beginning of computer technologies. Earlier, when a new technology emerged, the user’s customs were to measure features among different products. But the time has changed and in recent years we have seen a new paradigm on the user expectations. The paradigm has changed from features to experience. If a product or a service lacks the expected experience, it will most often be the difference between success or failure. We can’t get away with just doing features, we have to meet up with the user’s expectations of a great experience.
Jared Spool explains the UX Tipping Point as the moment when an organization no longer compromises on well-designed user experience. He also proposes an evolutionary path for organizational UX design maturity that most businesses will follow to eventually cross the UX Tipping Point.
The organization UX design maturity
UX design maturity is the understanding of how the design elements actually play out a success in the organization’s products and services. There are five growth stages in the maturity of UX design;
The Dark Ages: Most organizations start in the Dark Ages. No one thinks about UX, nevertheless understands it. They build poor designs and deliver frustrating experiences. All resources go to business and technical needs, such as deliverance and features. There could be some sort of graphic design, which is applied after the development – just to make it prettier before a release. However, the priorities are to get the products out to the market before deadline.
To get to the next growth stage something needs to happen. Maybe a leader within the organization hear or reads about UX, or worse the organization loses a sale to a competitor with better experience.
Spot UX design: Someone in the organization starts to create some unrelated UX project with successful results. This sometimes leads to hiring either a consultant or bringing in an expert of UX, and they start to change the user experience under the limitation from the already bad experiences. Often the designers lack the authority to make big changes that are needed, so the small UX projects only brings limited success. The problem is still the lack of awareness on an organizational level, so the timing of UX is still often too late in the development process, and often not conducted with the actual users. The features is also still more important than the overall experience.
UX as a service: It’s when a successful UX project produces solid, clearly identifiable results to the business that the awareness to adopt user experience design spreads across the organization. What happens is that the techniques change and more teams adapt UX in an initial stage. The leaders start to invest more and UX design also becomes a team within the organization, now working as a service. This is the most common stage, and is also called The Barrier because this is where most organizations get stuck.
Embedded UX design: When good UX projects keeps bringing success across the organization, it will inspire leaders. The culture of the organization has also started to change at this stage. Most people are now thinking about UX and most leaders start to understand the importance of UX and how it brings huge impact on the business. The UX projects are now their own agile process and is also happening before the development. Incorporating user inputs is now a standard, even before the product is launched. Each team has different skills and tools to work efficient with user experience design processes.
Infused UX design: At this point, even people that are not referred to as designers, start to understand the design decisions they take, and start to make better design decisions. They also fluently handle most small design challenges, without an efficient designer involved. The efficient designers instead get the time to work on the real problems. The organizational culture has now changed to a point where every department now thinks about the more unified user experience across every aspect of the organization. All products should feel unified under the same user experience, and customer experience is equally important as user experience.
The infused UX organizations are looking at all the different customer touch points, which doesn’t necessary need to be a web site or an app. Non-digital service and product teams work together to provide a seamless, delightful experience for the customers, users and employees. At this stage, the UX investments can’t be separated from the rest of the organization. It happens everywhere and is now rooted in the organizational culture.
The time for change is now
Infomaker has always been working with close collaboration with their customers, which assured that they never built something in vain. However, the newspapers had its own goals digitizing their business, so the use cases to the developers most often came from the customers own IT departments. Project manager Ulrika Billström has said that because Infomaker is a business to business company, the customers biggest priorities was naturally their users, which is the readers. “We were often out on the field doing workshops with our customers, training their editorial staffs in our systems. Sometimes we could see patterns where the user encountered problems, but the feedback were most often not prioritized. The demands for quick releases was a momentum we couldn’t overlook”.
About three years ago, still in the Dark Age of UX, Infomaker started a new big leap; to transform their editorial system to a cloud solution. The design decisions were still made with features in first mind, and even if it sometimes included the users in the process, the focus on the development was to create a product with the minimal demand the customer had – a minimum viable product (MVP). It took about a year in the development process before someone thought about UX within the management, and it resulted in bringing in an UX designer – which was me.
My first impression, as a designer perspective, was how unpolished it looked. I was also surprised that such a successful company like Infomaker was so far behind when working with design processes. There were no visionary design sketches and the different products had no unified graphical design, nevertheless not much user data to talk about. It was obvious that the teams was not communicating their design decisions. The CEO of Infomaker Karin Söderlund explained that the focus was all on features and trying to solve the technology so it could be shipped to the customers. “We have struggled with feature requests and in that struggle we have lost focus on UX”.
But the technology was great. I remember how amazed I was by the developer’s technical solutions, which could only have been made with deep knowledge, great teamwork and an advanced technological understanding. That’s when I knew that Infomaker had this great potential, and I only saw opportunity.
A designer’s struggle in the technology culture
My first six month at Infomaker I worked more with development, due to my degree in computer technology, than actually doing UX projects. I got in charge of building the company’s new website, which I saw as a possibility to prove myself and to gain trust among my co-workers. I started designing this big web platform with all the products as their own subsite and submenus, still unified under the same entity, like Adobe – but then Infomaker needed to respond to upcoming demands from the marketing team and I had to work in another direction. They wanted me to build a website with no menus, just to be able to have something to show at a conference. I created the site pretty fast, with no actual vision in mind. I just added the things the marketing team wanted, on one long page. I was never really pleased with how it looked and I struggled more with the limitations of actually building it.
Shortly after the conference we needed some more pages to the site and a navigation in the top. Those features were added, and that kept on going to where we are with the site today. Features were added to the site by demand from the management and the marketing team, and the site never felt thought through. There was no real vision and we never actually got time to think about the experience.
The website project turned out to be a good experience for me. I started to understand the culture state of the company and how it actually affected the focus away from user experience. So after six month I changed my contract to be UX designer only. That’s when Infomaker entered the UX spot design maturity stage. I started doing some UX design with limited success, most often after the actual development process; and while I was building trust, more and more spot UX project got to my table.
After about one year I started to realise that my vision of this unified user experience never was going to happen. The focus was still pro feature, and although we had close contacts with our customers, the actual users were rarely included. I started, very sporadically, to work on a living styleguide, which was going to give the developers the tools they needed to create smaller features without conducting me; which then would give me more time with the real problems. That was my plan and the development team had also requested it.
However, six month went by and only two element groups almost done in the styleguide. At least now UX design most often happened before the actual development process, but my to do list was piling up and a fast pace was expected. I didn’t have the time to actually do the big necessary changes to the already bad designs. I started to get frustrated.
It was at that time I listened to Jared Spool talking about organizational UX design maturity at a conference, in Stockholm. I started to realize that it would be impossible for me to do all those changes alone. So the first thing I did when I got back from the conference was to hold a presentation meeting, where the entire organization was present. I talked about the importance of UX and why it’s inevitable for us to cross the UX Tipping Point to even survive in the end. I got lots of positive feedback from my co-workers and most importantly, I got the ears of the management.
One small step forward, then 500 steps back
This happened just before the summer vacations. I felt pleased that changes finally were about to happen. But during my vacation, the management had an important announcement. They gathered everyone, and told us the breaking news – the company had been acquired by this big international company Newscycle, with HQ in the US. And if we were behind in UX maturity before, Newscycle was still in the Dark Ages. My idea of changing the organizational culture, from technology to experience, went from an organization with about 60 employees to now more than a 500.
Two month after the announcement, the new management crossed the Atlantic Ocean to visit our office in Kalmar, Sweden. I and Karin Söderlund took the opportunity and arranged a meeting with the CEO of Newscycle, Scott Roessler. We talked about the importance of UX; that we had to mature in UX design to be able to cross the tipping point, that we needed to either evolve or die. He seemed to understand the importance of our vision and he agreed to the concerns about startup companies. He explained that this is already happening, that promising startups have emerged in the US market recently. He made me UX lead to solve this, with a promise to eventually invest in an UX team.
My first goal was to take the development process closer to the actual users. I contacted one of our biggest customers; not the IT department, but the chief over the editorial staff. I visited them the week after for a naturalistic observation over their daily working environment. I introduced myself and assured them that I wasn’t there to judge them, but to build an understanding and to empathize with their daily working routines. I was welcomed with sheers of “finally” and the day was then mixed with observations and small talks, most often direct complains over features that had a bad experience. The biggest insight I got from that day was that something needed to be done, and it needed to be done now.
And that is where we are today, at the edge toward the next UX maturity stage, and now with far greater awareness of UX than ever before. Everybody within the organization now talks about UX in a more profound way. We have also recruited one new interaction designer and one new UX designer. The culture is changing, and now I have the authority to actually take action; to be able to rush the organization towards the UX as a service maturity stage, and then eventually break The Barrier. And most importantly, designing a lovable experience.