I've written a lot about the importance of executive championship and governance in supporting the institutionalization of a user centric design capability. There is no question that that is a prerequisite. But, a second key to success is a leader who will run the internal usability organization. This leader will be full time working on UX issues. And the quality of this leader is profoundly important. The ideal head of this group will have a deep understanding of the organization, excellent political skills, strong presentation skills, and a complete capability as an expert in user experience design. Unfortunately, there are probably a dozen people like that on earth. Therefore, we have to accept that the leader will not provide a complete set of these characteristics. And given that the leader will not a have a complete set,I've seen enough different leaders to know a bit about what tradeoffs will work.
The leader of the UX operation must have a
bit of passion for the user perspective. Obviously, if you have someone who is just a manager, or just a technology specialist things will go very badly. But, that said, lots of expertise in the UX field is not the key.
I have two friends, who are roughly in my ancient cohort, who coincidently are both leaders in two different financial organizations. They have been in each for over a decade. They are each brilliant technically. They each have a PhD in the field. I like them and respect them as colleagues. But they have each single handedly crippled their organizations. Certainly, they do fantastic work. But that is their strength. They do great work and lead great small teams. They are respected and valued. They have done nice design work. But they have also failed to build usability into their organization. They have operations that are dependent on their personal skills. They both have solid little teams. But they have not made UX work routine in their organizations. They have not developed executive support beyond personal support for themselves. UX work does not happen by established process, convention, templates, and tools. It is simply not an industrial strength operation.
Of course, the experts are not as
detrimental as the person pretending to be an expert. There is a huge systems integrator in India...I keep getting called in by their customers because their software is so very unusable. They have low prices. They code nicely. But, they have horrid interface designs. Remarkably, they have a UX team, with about 50 people! So how can they have such awful designs? I was intrigued by that. On closer investigation we found that the head of the organization is a graphic artist who was briefly exposed to HFI many years ago. He has acquired enough of the UX language to talk about the field. But he was never actually a qualified practitioner. And now the dynamic appears to be that he is carefully hiring only staff who are even less qualified then he is. It seems he is afraid of being shown to be technically weak. So he avoids strong hires and even strong consultancies. He does not understand that the power of a strong leader is in having people in the organization that are technically better than himself.
I have never seen a leader deposed for
building and motivating a strong team. Leadership is actually not about how well you can do the work. It is your ability to glue the team together and appreciate (even celebrate) work that is better than you could ever do.
In the end, I think that the head of the UX operation need not be a super expert in the field. Passion for the field is essential. Some knowledge is essential, but can be acquired. The key is having someone who can provide leadership, who understands the organization and can find the right people and the right issues. Get someone who knows how to make friends and knows how to fight politically if necessary. And then a strong technical team can be filled in underneath.