What do you think of when you hear the term “UX?” Do you think wireframes and software interface design? It’s true having designers to translate marketing requests into visual representations for your developers is a competitive advantage, but user experience design is more than just visual.

A Systematic Approach to Empathy

In order to truly be “UX” design, a solution should be based on a process that reveals what users really need. With research techniques like contextual interviews and user testing, designers validate and prioritize the user goals and tasks. Ideally, these are balanced with business goals; arriving at a design that is useful, usable, and profitable.

“Empathy is my stock and trade,” says Joe Sokohl, a UX consultant in Richmond, VA. “Empathy is what differentiates a UX designer from other roles: business analyst, product owner, developer. The product owner or marketing team considers the customer, he explains, but from a business perspective. And visual designers may approach the problem from an artistic, introspective perspective.

“We are the people with the skills to bring empathy,” says Sokohl, “through training, focus, and attention.”

UX to Define the Problem and the Market

That empathy ultimately leads to a better definition of the core problem. When NASDAQ OMX first approached him, they were only looking for a revamped website structure, says Chris Avore, now Managing Director of Strategy and Design there.

But as he began talking with their management team to assess their needs, he began advocating for a more comprehensive, “Big D” design approach. How could its online presence support the goals of the organization? Avore thought they needed to approach that problem by having discussions that went deeper than improving navigation labels. “We don’t know what the issues are,” Avore told management, “We don’t know how to measure it.”

So Avore advocated for an intense discovery phase, resulting in six months of research and high-level sketch prototypes. Only then did he begin assembling a team of designers to begin building the solution. In that way, he was able to match the roles he was hiring to the business needs and to the solution they were building. And by starting further upstream, Avore was able to contribute insights towards differentiation and market positioning of the company.

Karthi Subbarraman describes “Big-D” Design

Sokohl recommends that startups carve out time for at least two design activities: research and realizing the visual design. Engineering resources are often prioritized over other roles in a startup, and he acknowledges that sometimes success comes at the expense of design quality. “Startups have to deliver working software. The ones who deliver that without an understanding of users have a strong possibility of failing.”

Professor Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School is known for his “jobs-to-be-done” theory. The idea is that companies need to segment their market by which jobs customers “hire” their products to perform, rather than by demographics.

A Harvard Business Week article calls his theory “milkshake marketing” after an example he uses in his MBA course in which a fast food company is able to improve milkshake sales by researching why customers choose milkshakes over other menu options for their morning commutes. Companies gain this understanding of customer goals (empathy) by studying user behavior.

Match UX Hires To the Business Goals

An understanding of clients’ business  goals is the basis of building the user experience team at Vitamin T.

“We start with: what business goals are you trying to achieve?” says Susie Hall, President. “It’s too far forward to start immediately talking about roles. What’s your pain? What are your revenue goals?” After those discussions, they consider team structure. How does the role fit among the resources the client currently has? If the company doesn’t yet have any designers, Vitamin T can look to comparable past client experiences to make recommendations.

“Define a strategy and stick to your growth path,” says Matt Regan, Account Executive at AIM Consulting in Chicago. At advertising agencies and creative consultancies, losing a client can mean firing people. To create a more sustainable culture, Regan recommends working with a top strategist to define a three-to-five-year road map. How many people do you need? Do you need to use an agency? When can you begin to hire in-house designers?

“Be strategic. You can’t fix everything at once,”he says. “Get smart people in the room.” He recommends finding an agency known for strategy, such as SapientNitro or Accenture. Or, you can look for people who have seen that type of strategy developed, such as a project manager who has moved into a VP role, or a VP-level account director at a staffing agency.

Choose a Staffing agency with UX Expertise

Not every agency is equipped for effective UX recruiting. Recruiters who approach designers with job descriptions that reveal ignorance can damage your reputation. UXers are in high demand, and they learn quickly how to spot a recruiter who will waste their time by submitting them to positions for which they are a poor fit, or to companies that don’t know what they want. Work with an agency that has a recruiter or account manager with UX expertise.

“We watched interactive evolve into user experience,” says Hall. To build out their specialty in user experience, Vitamin T hired a lead who had run creative teams and who could serve as a central source of experience design knowledge for the company. He conducted trainings and lunch-and-learn sessions, and he talked extensively with clients about their needs. The firm also formed partnerships with other organizations, such as UIE, to discuss job roles and descriptions. One result of those efforts is Vitamin T’s Teambuilder tool that gives companies a starting place to begin learning about the different roles.

A skilled agency will help you clarify the roles and skill sets you really need based on a sustainable strategy. If you’re doing your own recruiting, base your hires on your unique business goals.

[Photography: echtpraktisch]