Be Ornery

I’ve never worked in an environment that I would call user experience friendly. That doesn’t mean I’ve had bad employers or clients. In fact, I’ve been lucky over the years to work at some pretty great places. But if you mapped my resume based on how highly each organization valued user experience expertise, the spectrum would be narrow and range from “somewhat tolerant” to “nearly hostile.”

Of course, you’ll rarely find a joint where people directly disparage the importance of users and their goals. Everybody talks a good game by now about how much they value the human beings using their products and services, but under deadline, revenue and political pressures, pretty words can lose their weight and float away. Repression tends to be quiet, insidious and subtle. It can sound something like this:

For the content strategist: “Oh, don’t worry about that, we have a writer/producer/intern for that.”

For the information architect: “So you do wireframes, right?”

For the interaction designer: “Gee, are you sure that’s really necessary?”

For the usability expert: “We’ve got that covered already; we’ve scheduled user acceptance testing.”

For the user researcher: “That sounds great, but we really don’t have the time and I think we already have a pretty good idea what the users want. I mean, we did focus groups and everything, so we’re all set.”

For the visual designer: “Let me see three versions and I’ll pick the one I like.”

For me, this stuff is just another flavor of the ambiguity inherent in my work. I bring a quirky mix of skills to each assignment, so there’s always confusion around my value. Sometimes I help clear up that confusion and sometimes I ride it like a wave throughout the project. (Ideally, I use whichever tactic I think is going to get the best solutions on the table.)

But I frequently have to coach other UX professionals as they deal with environments where they feel minimized and this is what I tell them: Be ornery.

I’ve been to a bunch of user experience industry conferences over the years and I still feel a bit envious when folks from dedicated UX shops talk about the deliverables they routinely churn out for every project. Non-UXers in the environments where I work might still treat staples like mental models and storyboards skeptically. They finally buy the concept of personas, but only in their most shallow incarnation (basically: “our imaginary friends.”) Tools that are similar to development artifacts (stories, scenarios, process flows, etc.) have the highest levels of acceptance, but only as long as you stick to their historical definitions.

The user experience professionals I coach are frequently alone or in tiny UX teams on their projects. They have little influence on the overall project plan and few opportunities to adjust the client’s expectations. There are little or no standardized UX methods in place and the title of their role on the project may have just a passing relevance to the work they actually do.

In other words, if these folks don’t stand up for what they think is important, nobody else will. The pressure is on them to be right most of the time, but open to feedback and new data at all times. When they feel minimized, they have to figure out the most important thing they’re saying that’s not being heard and they need to focus on getting those points into the overall project conversation. They have to be stubborn, but not in a self-involved quest for victory. Their job is to provide the greatest possible value to the project even, and especially when others don’t see that value. And they have to muster whatever skills they’ve developed in their careers to get that done without getting themselves fired.

Ornery is not necessarily rude, (although that has frequently worked for me). Ornery is an incessant and stubborn dedication to converting the goals and needs of real people into superior solutions to address a project’s hairiest problems. An ornery user experience professional can make for a better project; but their ornery efforts will definitely make them a better professional.