7 thoughts to foster UX Culture in large organizations

Having worked for a few years now in massive, Fortune 100 companies, it's been a personal mission, for better or worse, to understand the "cultural gaps" between the "creative class" and the "business class."

It's not always successful. Really, it's hardly ever successful, at least in those initial conversations. That's totally understandable. It shouldn't be easy. We've trained, entrenched, and hardened ourselves into our values systems, like anything that truly matters to us.

The opportunity to fully foster UX Culture is immense. But on numerous dimensions--operationally, culturally, systematically--the will for a company to embrace it, when it wasn't part of the initial DNA of the company, feels like not only scaling a mountain, but scaling it up and down repeatedly. It takes years, and immense patience.

I genuinely know that UX, when embedded deeply into an organization, has a positive effect on the bottom line. There are tangible benefits to assign UX champions at the highest level possible.

In that effort, here's what I've learned in my own professional effort for UX to take root in big companies:

1. Culture is the hardest thing to change.

If we're considering "Culture" as the cumulative attitude, operationally and linguistically, of the collective organization, then this is the end-game for internal organizational change. Calling it cultural zooms out our outlook on the problem as much as possible.

The benefit to transforming the company's culture is multi-fold: UX-centric impact to their business strategy, their executive mandate, their operational thinking, their legal policy, and their staffing. And, ideally, their working environment. Best of all, your work is no longer uphill. Your work, and your ideas, are met with less resistance.

While it doesn't speak as much to the bottom-line business mentality that you need to couple with this more "emotional" component, it's still key. 

Obviously, having a positive effect on the business roadmap is to everyone's benefit, but the culture comprises of the conversations that are necessary to have that effect. Talking about those conversations as Corporate Culture, smarmy as that may sound, starts to solve the problem of speaking the same language.

Ultimately, connections--not misunderstandings--will be made if the means to communicate is framed as such.

2. Defensiveness is natural, understandable, and problematic.

I've run into this often, even within internal stakeholders and contemporaries in the field. I have the same problem: we get stuck in our ways and confuse that stubbornness with conviction.

I'm certainly not going to declare that I know everything about this, but the deepest level of my value system--the thesis for my place as a professional--is that UX, coupled with brand, can transform an organization. Everything else can sway, potentially pivot, a core conviction, but that conviction is my compass. Let people sway you if it holds true.

As UX professionals, we need to personify the UX cycle: build ourselves to embrace open change, measure our ability to do so, learn how to do so.


3. Don't build a ladder. Build pulleys. 

Find the highest person in the organizational pyramid that you can that cares about UX, and herald them as a champion. If she cares about UX in any way, she deserves to be called that. (Even if she's not even calling your efforts "UX," you can at least guide her thinking, gradually, into the methodologies and processes.)

More than likely, there are broad similarities that will act as a pilot light to begin making those necessary connections between her methodologies and that of UX. (Think Marketing, the idea of metrics, call-and-response, etc.)

Here's the thing: building "ladders" to the highest levels is problematic. The implication is that there's only one person able to climb up or down at the same time.

We have to work faster than that. Pulleys are a better way of describing the dynamic. Pulleys are great. They're cyclical, you can attach multiple points of conversation in one long circular line, and not just in single-line movements. Pulleys transfer power up and down. They lift loads. They apply forces. Those are the kinds of dynamics that should be taking place from one level of an organization to another.

So when you find this UX Champion somewhere in the ether of your large organization, make sure they trust you enough to herald the pulley-like dynamic. They should let you "lift loads" through leading one-off projects that advocate for the broader cause. They help modify "forces" to the UX culture. They can maybe even help on team headcount. (Or at least provide supplier budget that you, or your team, can leverage).

4. UX needs PR. 

Internally, any big win in UX shouldn't be limited to happy stakeholders. They may provide word of mouth, but what other mechanisms can you think of that would accelerate the momentum? Is there an intranet you can ask HR to publicize? An internal Wordpress blog that you can publish? Social Media promoting the work? An open mic conference that has that UX Champion you've been working with? Are you throwing around paper airplanes all over the building (or, littering) with news of these developments? 

Not every project you complete is going to be a win for the cause, and we've all run into those situations. So when it is a win--when you found out the specifics behind the problem and built a solid solution, and/or had a direct positive impact on your part of the organization--it's not bragging. It's validating User Experience as a viable practice that the rest of the organization should apply. So sell the hell out of it.

Also--we all know what metrics can define success in UX. Find ways to make those successes conversational. And then tie that into the broader effort of design culture. 

5. Even matured UX Culture is still in choppy waters. 

Entrenched Product Managers are admirable, but pretty frustrating, right? They have their vision, their budget, their stake, and their own deeply-rooted value system. The resulting bias can cloud judgment, or the potential to explore alternative solutions.

Even in matured design cultures, where the UX headcount is more than meager, and budgets provide us with adequate opportunities to foster innovation and internal growth, we're still going to have sources of obstruction from that.

Be patient. Win their trust. Be open to their suggestions, but make sure you're measuring/testing the product. If these managers/stakeholders have "trust issues" with the data, that's a higher degree of resistance that's going to require multiple rounds of proof to the contrary.

Your value as a UX Professional isn't just about operating in a theoretically perfect situation. It's about educating, mentoring, and gently pivoting those who aren't seeing its value. Thankfully, data, when it's robust and insightful, is the ultimate mediator. Eventually. 

6. Connect the Dialects. 

Within large organizations, there may not be a holistic, overarching UX division. Ideally, it would run independently of itself and swoop down to each part of the organization, and advise, consult, recommend, strategize, and execute. Often, if the UX Culture isn't very mature, it's left to each division to assess how necessary, in its own lens, UX headcount can be. That's where the silos start. They may be speaking a similar language, or even the same, but the "dialects" are different. They're in the practice of UX, but the emphasis is on a different thing. They lean on one part of the word versus another.

That can be particularly problematic when you start Zooming Out and seeing the obstructions to unify and standardize. You get misunderstandings, different processes for progress, etc.

In these situations, the first thing I've found necessary is to simply get these silos to talk to each other. Misunderstandings are bound to happen. They probably will, especially when there's discussion about "jurisdiction," "governance," "jurisdiction," and any other words that sound like they're sourced from a low-shelf court drama.

But a lack of connection is the seed of resentment, which is why silos need unified as soon as you can set it up on everyone's calendar. Meet, talk it out, workshop (with purpose), do whatever. Just keep the connections lit up.

7. Remove "I" from the broader cause.

You don't own UX in your company. You simply administer it. 

Any degree of personal / professional gain you're trying to get from this work, be it a promotion, or status, is valid. But that's a fairly surface-level motivator, and the journey to affect change is going to feel profusely more frustrating. It definitely won't be enough to want to stay around.

Really, this isn't about you. It's about ensuring your friends in the industry, and your co-workers in your company, have job security in an increasingly volatile, difficult world. UX is a process that can enforce stability and predictability in large organizations.

It helps the bottom line because it puts the ownership and direction of the company to its customers. That's a fairly simple mandate, but not everyone is seeing it as such. That's where you come in. 

Either way, if your efforts, and that of anyone else by your side, are successful, everyone wins. Even if some didn't see it as soon as you may have, that shouldn't stop them from getting rewarded and recognized.