Building effective enterprise UX teams - lessons and pitfalls

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 15, 2015
Building great enterprise UX teams means overcoming multiple roadblocks. Jon gets a view from the field from AKTA's Drew Davidson.

Drew Davidson of AKTA traces his user experience (UX) fascination back to aerospace. He points to the design of plane cockpits as an early example of UX in action. When enterprise UX is limited to UI design, it falls short of delivering results. Today's enterprise workers - decked out with an array of devices and wearables - are not dissimilar from pilots navigating across a complex set of displays and physical controls.

As the VP of Design at AKTA, Davidson's team has worked on a range of enterprise UX use cases. Most of them involve mobile solutions, but AKTA doesn't start with selling apps. They start with advisory and user research. Copying a desktop function to mobile apps is a recipe for failure; AKTA takes a different approach. The first step? Research the actual user need. Usually, that research challenges the client's own assumptions about the apps or UX they need. Then a solution can be built or customized.

Given his Enterprise UX fieldwork, I figured Davidson would be an ideal victim sounding board for my pressing questions on how to build effective enterprise UX teams. Which skills can you train or upskill? When should you outsource to a design agency?

Davidson's diverse background is relevant to his UX thinking. In 2006, when cell phones were small but not very smart, Davidson won Motorola’s People’s Choice Award for the best portrayal of a seamlessly mobile society. He's now an internationally recognized designer, but not a typical one. During his college days, Davidson realized he wouldn't be an effective designer if he didn't get a handle on digital UX. What to do? Design your own educational program:

My main background's been in cognitive psychology, studying how people learn, how they pay attention. When digital started coming out, I was still in school. There weren't a lot of programs in it. That's why I had to roll my own program between cognitive psychology, industrial engineering, and technology.

Now Davidson sees a new UX dilemma. Just as the importance of UX is finally dawning on the enterprise, the rules of UX are changing:

Enterprise didn't really get UX until it was almost too late. In this day and age of how user experiences evolve, we have to get at that root understanding of people's behaviors, and that is just changing so rapidly. Companies are just now getting on board, saying things like "We should be consistent across all of our applications." But consistency goes out the window when you're talking about a watch and a desktop application. It's more about apps and functionality, and what you need to be able to do on each device.

The next piece of unlearning? Letting go of a fixation on visual design:

As the design industry comes to the enterprise, a lot of people think good design means good visuals only. They don't realize that good design is a lot more than that. We have to go through the exercise of identifying the users and what their needs are. Especially in the enterprise, you run into situations where visual design would actually be bad for some of those users.
In those cases, what we're trying to do with UX is make somebody more efficient and faster and reduce the number of steps that it takes to get them to complete the task or give them information at the right time. Visual design may not be very important to that.

Tips for closing the enterprise UX skills gap

Drew Davidson


With those caveats in mind, what does AKTA recommend to enterprises trying to build UX teams? How do they close the UX skills gap?

1. Design skills can be effectively outsourced. When it comes to pure design skills, companies struggling to recruit top design pros can succeed with a third party design firm:

Generally, companies down have their own UX teams or designers internally. They look to firms from the outside because they know don't have those people. An outside firm can fill that gap.

2. However: an internal digital product manager is a must-have. While Davidson's team will help out on the product management side as a stopgap, he strongly advises an internal person step into this role:

Another gap that we see - and this is a very important one at a lot of companies - is they don't really have a product practice. They don't have people with product manager titles. They might have project managers, but that's something different. In the digital world, software is never done. It's always going to need updating. You need to have an internal practice that can manage that process as evolves. That's the biggest gap that we see.

Can an internal manager could be upskilled into this role? Short answer? Yes, because the key capability is someone who can be the glue between different UX/app stakeholders. Basically, you need someone with super-powered "soft skills":

An internal person is ideal for this role, because it involves talking to everybody. That's marketing, that's gathering use requirements, that's managing training and change management - dealing with all kinds of people.

Davidson adds that this person needs to be resilient and skilled at dealing with "warring tribes":

The key thing to look for is a product manager with broader skill sets around communications. And they're going to need a good, positive perspective, because a lot of companies have warring tribes between the marketing, IT and business units.

This person is at the center of all those conversations. They also need to have the knack for gathering detailed requirements. I've seen marketing people successfully make the jump, and I've seen business analysts make the jump. Some designers have been able to do it as well.

The toughest UX skills for companies to cultivate

So which UX skills are tougher to cultivate in-house? Davidson points to three:

  • user researchers
  • experience design
  • digital UK design

I asked him why these three skills pose a problem:

User researchers - Davidson cautions that companies think they know their own customers/users, but it takes deeper research to discover the motivations central to a good design. This skill is hard to cultivate internally because it requires unfettered access to customers:

User researchers are looking to come into a place and know they're going to have space and breathing room and access to customers to be able to come up with insights that are going to affect change. Companies might already have a stringent process for how a change order or happens. An external user researcher might be able to work around that.

Experience designers - Companies may find it challenging to recruit experience designers, who expect flexible, modern platforms:

An experience designer might come up with wireframes. They don't want to be too tied to stringent platforms. Platforms that you can't customize much is an immediate turn-off to a wireframer, for example, because you literally cannot make the experience as good as it needs to be.

Visual designers -Visual design isn't an easy skill to cultivate internally either. Transitioning to digital platforms is part of the challenge:

A lot of companies have very stale brands that are not being applied to digital well. They might know how to use their logo, but they have nothing to say around motion, how to use animation, or using the whole brand color palette - not just the primary colors. Not having a clear digital definition, or even understanding the importance of it, is a big thing that turns off UI designers toward those companies.

That's a wrap - for now

For ambitious companies, there is a payoff to including UX in a broader digital platform initiative. This means pursuing a digital center of excellence. Davidson's team has had success helping companies build a digital skills practice, through what AKTA calls "digital excellence consulting." The biggest obstacle, however, is not skills development. It's culture:

Digital excellence consulting is really about helping companies build the capabilities that we have internally. The biggest challenge we've had is a lot of our clients - especially big enterprises - have a stigma attached to their culture. The people they need to hire to do this work don't tend to go out and seek jobs at places like that.

There's a certain amount of education with the workforce as well. That means extending the conversation to HR on how you talk about roles and positions and how reporting structures work. It usually requires some coaching on how to attract and retain the UX talent companies need to keep this going.

Davidson had more to say about putting these skills into practice for a good UX result. I'll get into that in the second (and final) installment.

End note: this piece is part of my ongoing diginomica series on Enterprise UX. If you know of an excellent UX story I should consider, please contact me on LinkedIn.

Image credit: Business team tablet © alphaspirit -

Disclosure: AKTA was recently acquired by Salesforce, a diginomica premier partner. That news has already been noted by diginomica. This interview was pre-arranged to discuss AKTA's take on UX. They were unable to comment on the Salesforce acquisition at the time of the interview due to legal constraints.

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