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Five Strategies for Moving Your Culture Toward User-centricity

For the last two years I’ve taught the HFI course “How to Support Institutionalization of a Mature UX Practice” to students from hundreds of organizations, from Fortune 500 stars to five-person startups. During the course we encourage the students, many of whom head up UX teams, to tell us stories about how user-centricity is evolving within their organizations. Although I do hear a good number of success stories, unfortunately, I also hear one story with troubling frequency.

The story typically goes like this: the student reports having fought for the resources they needed to create a mature User Experience team within their organization, but they aren’t seeing all the benefits they expected. They have upper management support, they’ve assembled a highly qualified and energized team, and they’ve created the standards, templates, and methodologies needed to drive a world-class user-centered organization. But many influential stakeholders still don’t understand or appreciate what they do, their team is under-utilized, and the standards, processes, and methods they worked hard to create are inconsistently applied, or even worse, ignored. Many are convinced that this lack of UX acceptance and integration is having a negative effect on the organization’s performance and how it is perceived by customers, employees, and investors.

If this story sounds familiar to you, then your problem is cultural. As I say to my students: it’s easy to build the machinery of user experience, but bringing along the people takes time and a great deal of effort. Here are five strategies you can follow to progress your organization from merely prepared for UX to being driven by a truly user-centric culture:

  1. Create Peer Pressure – Research shows that one of the most powerful tools we have to change people’s behaviors and attitudes is peer pressure. In the 1970s, University of Illinois researcher Leann Lipps Birch conducted a series of experiments on children to see if they could get them to eat vegetables they disliked. They tried telling the kids that they were expected to eat the vegetables and telling them all the reasons why vegetables were good for them. They even tried rewarding them with ice cream if they did eat their spurned vegetable. None of these approaches worked.

    But Birch found one thing that did work well — peer pressure. She put a child who didn’t like peas at a table with several other children who did, and within a meal or two, the pea-hater was eating peas like the pea-lovers.

    If the culture of your organization is not fully user-centric, then you need to take on the role of the pea-lover in Birch’s experiment and create some peer pressure. You need to sit down with those who don’t currently have an appetite for user-centered design and convince them that UX doesn’t taste so bad after all. One of the best ways to do this is to create case studies of projects where user-centered design had a measurable positive effect on the outcome. Distribute these case studies widely and present them in as many forums as you can. Don’t be afraid to use case studies involving your competition also. Your goal is to get those stuck in the old culture to think that everyone else has adapted this new way of thinking and have them questioning why they haven’t evolved also.

  2. Educate the Masses — In my experience, the more organizations know about user-centered design, the more likely they are to adopt it and have it ingrained within their culture. The problem is, very few people in many organizations have more than a cursory understanding of what UCD is and how it can make them efficient and competitive.

    When I was heading up the internal UX team at a major financial services company, we moved our employee culture up the maturity curve by putting over 70 employees through HFI’s Certified Usability Analyst (CUA) training. Few of these employees were traditional UX team members – most were business analysts or product managers – but they gained a deep enough understanding of user-centered design that they could go back to their organizations and be effective advocates. This had a tremendous impact on the company’s culture – more projects included user-centered design methods and the acceptance and usage of design standards skyrocketed.

    If you are committed to changing your culture, it is imperative that you take on the role of educator within your organization and develop a user-centered design curriculum aimed at not only your UX team, but also for all the roles within the entire organization.

  3. Use Empathy to Motivate Change — In their book Blue Ocean Strategy, W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne cite a lack of worker motivation as one of the major hurdles facing managers striving to institute positive cultural change within their organizations. To get over this hurdle, Mr. Kim and Ms. Mauborgne found that successful organizations used tangible experiences to create empathy for their customers/users, and that this empathy created worker motivation to actually drive any needed changes.

    As an example, they tell the story of the former New York City Police Commissioner, Bill Bratton, who in the 1990s forced his top brass to ride the subways day and night to understand why frightened New Yorkers had come to call it the “Electric Sewer.” This experience created not only empathy to citizens’ complaints, but also a sense of urgency and willingness to change within the police force that contributed to major reductions in crime on the subways.

    For organizations looking to overcome cultural barriers to becoming more user-centric, user testing is the equivalent to a night on the subway – it’s our great opportunity to create empathy and drive change. Invite middle managers and other important stakeholders to observe live user testing. To reach an even wider audience, create and distribute “highlight films” that show users struggling during a usability test. The point is that it is your job to ensure that everyone in your organization understands the plight of your users.

  4. Recognize and Reward User-centricity —In doing research for their book Outside In, Forrester analysts Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine observed that many organizations inadvertently discouraged their employees from focusing on the end user. “They create operational targets…while providing zero recognition for work that improves the customer experience.” Manning and Bodine go on to recommend that organizations create “informal rewards that recognize personal achievement and formal rewards that compensate employees based on customer-centric metrics.”

    To coax your culture toward user-centricity, look for opportunities to highlight positive behaviors. For instance, if a developer utilizes a standard screen template, be sure they not only get recognition informally within their development community, but also formally by their manager. Praise product managers who invest in user testing and project teams that integrate user-centric methodologies in their processes. Most importantly, be sure you are collecting user-centric metrics so you can measure and acknowledge improvements to the user experience.

  5. Be Sure You Have “True Grit” — In their bestselling book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, authors/brothers Dan and Chip Heath cited recent psychological research showing that the best predictor of a cadet successfully completing the grueling West Point military academy was not standardized test scores or physical aptitude. Instead, it was something that the Heaths refer to as “grit” — “endurance in pursuit of long-term goals and an ability to persist in the face of adversity.”

    To successfully change your organization’s culture, you need to be sure you have “true grit” — a single-mindedness about chipping away at the current culture and slowly, but surely, steering it in the direction of user-centricity. Chart out a long-term plan and stick with it. There will seldom be big wins to celebrate, but in the end you will have a happy ending to your story.


    Birch, Leann Lipps, Effects of Peer Model’s Food Choices and Eating Behaviors on Preschoolers’ Food Preferences. CHILD DEVELOPMENT, 1980

    Kim, W. Chan; Mauborgne, Renée. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant. HARVARD BUSINESS PRESS, 2005

    Manning, Harley; Bodine, Kerry. Outside In. FORRESTER RESEARCH, 2012

    Heath, Dan; Heath, Chip. Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. BROADWAY BOOKS, 2010

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