Where should UX sit in the org?

Should UX sit in engineering, product management, marketing, under a special design organization, or somewhere else? There are advantages and disadvantages to each.  A few weeks ago I attended a great UX managers symposium run by Sarah Bloomer.  One of the topics discussed during this day by several of the attendees was around where they belonged in the organization in order to make the biggest impact that UX could make.  I think this question is often asked, and everyone wants the silver bullet answer.  Of course, as we love to say in UX, it depends!

Understanding your organization & your impact

The first part of the answer really is around understanding your organization.  Which division has the most pull and impact on company direction?  Where are there strategic players in the organization that you can align your UX team with in order to drive design and user centric strategies into the company?  What are the overall company goals for the next year, or next 5 years, that UX contributes towards?

Another factor to consider at this point is where you are in your UX maturity.  Using Neilson Norman’s Corporate UX Maturity Model, where are you?  If you are in 1 – 4, working in engineering might be more advantages because you can align UX people with development teams to create small wins to show the value of UX.  If you’re in 4 – 8, product management or a special design organization might allow you to be part of the strategic discussions that drive product direction before it gets handed to engineering.

Here at Red Hat, User Experience sits in the engineering organization.  UX is still a newcomer to the scene here, and the organization overall is tilt towards engineering-centric strategy.  Having UX with the engineering powerhouses allows UX to be part of the right discussions for strategic programs.  This means that for some products, UX doesn’t have a great tie with the product management and marketing teams.  For Middleware, I sit with the product management and marketing team and create that tie so that UX, Engineering, Product Management, and Marketing are all aligned towards our strategic directions.  This hybrid approach for an organization that historically has had some silos between engineering and product management and marketing has created some synergy that allows both angles to be addressed.

General advantages and disadvantages of each vantage point

There are some advantages and disadvantages that I have seen with working in different group locations that are fairly universal.  Understanding these might help you tailor your plan so that you make the right impact.

UX in Engineering

Pros
  • Participate in agile or other development process for the real work
  • Understand how the product works in detail and work side-by-side with the engineers who can enact change
Cons
  • Often handed requirements from product management without opportunity to influence them
  • Sometimes can get too mired down in the detail to understand how to make more strategic, significant changes to the product that would greatly impact the overall UX

UX in Product Management

Pros
  • Seat at the table for strategic, longer term discussions of product direction
  • Closer contact with customer needs and direction
  • Usually more connection with the rest of the business (Support, Marketing, Sales, etc)
Cons
  • Might not be closely aligned with engineering to accomplish product goals.  Designs might be treated as “concepts” more than “specs”.
  • Have to learn how to step out of strategic space to get UX designs delivered, otherwise all the strategic discussions don’t turn into anything real.

UX in Marketing

Pros
  • Participate in how you appear to your users and customers from an end-to-end standpoint
  • Help enact visual and brand guidance for all products
  • Tie marketing story into the product story more tightly
Cons
  • Might not be tightly tied to the product interfaces themselves
  • Might have more of a website focus than a product focus, and might not be able to drive change in product

UX as a Design Organization

Pros
  • Builds a team that is viewed as equal and as important as other departments
  • Can create clear growth paths for UX people
  • Can place and pull UX people on projects as seen fit to achieve organizational design goals.  Design is a first class citizen.
Cons
  • Getting an organization to head down this path and treat design as a first class citizen can take years, and requires some strong UX and Design leadership as well as total buy-in from the executive level.
  • Need to ensure that all other departments are aligned with the Design Organization to achieve corporate goals.  Design must be a clear part of the culture of how things get done.

UX spread among the company

Pros
  • You can put UX with the teams who will really utilize the resources, and they own/pay for the resource meaning they are more likely to use it well.
  • UX can be placed or hired in the right places to create strategic change based on the needs at hand.
Cons
  • Typically no clear UX growth path and career ladder
  • When projects change or release, the UX person might be left in the wind without clear direction

Hybrid models

Pros
  • Gives you powerhouses in multiple departments, enacting change from multiple directions
  • Drives UX into the minds of multiple organizations, not just one.  Creates a more design-centric culture.
Cons
  • Can result in communication mishaps and difference of opinion on direction
  • Might create corporate confusion about growth and careers for design/UX people
  • Have to have the right talent in the right places with a team player attitude, or collaboration amongst design/UX focused people won’t happen effectively.

Determining your plan

Understand your companies overall goals and how UX contributes into them.  If UX contributes by saving money it might be a different discussion than if UX contributes by creating higher profits or by forging into new markets.  Positioning the UX team with the right resources to achieve these goals should be the focus.

Think about where it makes sense for you to sit today, and create a 5-10 year plan for how you might want to advance over time.  Maybe you start living in engineering, but begin to build a UX center of excellence that leads towards a design group.  Maybe you start with product management where you can design new product, but then move towards a hybrid product management and engineering UX/UI Front End Developer approach where you can ensure designs are fulfilled in engineering.

With any plan that you come up with, make sure that you have some champions that you can align your UX goals with in that organization.  Champions should have the ability to influence the organization, and once you get them up to speed they will tell your UX story for you.  Your story is much more compelling coming from these champions than it will be coming from the “UX person” over and over again.

Good luck and leave your experiences and comments below!

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