Organizational Structure - Organization - Institutionalization of UX: A Step-by-Step Guide to a User Experience Practice, Second Edition (2014)

Institutionalization of UX: A Step-by-Step Guide to a User Experience Practice, Second Edition (2014)

Part III. Organization

Chapter 11. Organizational Structure

Image Three types of organizational structures are commonly considered for the permanent user experience design team.

Image Matrix—There is a central user experience design group, but rather than doing all the work, it supports user experience design practitioners working within different project teams. The matrix structure works well for medium-sized and large organizations.

Image Centralized—All members of the user experience design staff are a single team, assigned temporarily to help on specific projects as needed. This structure works well for small organizations.

Image Decentralized—User experience design staff members are allocated to specific projects and report up through the various lines of business. This structure has some inherent flaws; it is not recommended.

Image All organizations need a central user experience design team. Although this team in reality is often found in many parts of the organization, it ideally exists under a chief user experience officer (CXO) or the head of marketing.

Image Have an effective escalation pathway in place for problems with funding, staffing, and even specific design decisions.

Image Graphic artists, writers, and other user experience design-oriented staff may best be placed in the same organization as the central user experience design team.

Once you have a proper infrastructure in place and a full understanding of your organization’s needs, it makes sense to build a user experience design team. This team can be structured in many ways, and it is important to find the right structure to meet these needs and to place the people in the correct parts of the overall organization.

In the end, the success of the user experience effort depends very much on the quality and appropriateness of the staff recruited to do the work. Without skilled staff, the infrastructure will be of little benefit. Take care in assembling your team.

In the Organization phase, the benefits of user experience design begin to accumulate. You can start to make user experience a competitive differentiator and can expect to see well-engineered experiences become routine. The projects can begin in earnest and incorporate internal staff. This will, of course, bring new challenges in scheduling and resource limitations that will test your organization’s ability to work smart within practical limitations.

The single most important organizational principle is that user experience design does not reside in a single group. Even if you have a team with that title, user experience design must permeate the entire organization.

Compare this situation with the health care model. In a health care organization, there are surgeons, doctors, physician’s assistants, and nurses. All these people wear the “health care professional” title, have technology and training at their disposal, and are always aware of the latest research findings and tools. Although they form the official health care organization, everyone in society is a part of the larger health care system, because everyone has a basic understanding and a direct appreciation of health issues. Just as everyone must be responsible to some extent for his or her own health, so all employees should be aware of and feel responsible for user experience design issues.

It has been a common strategy to drop a user experience design team into an organization and hope for the best—which is about as effective as dropping a small group of well-meaning doctors into a foreign country where they don’t speak the language. Let’s consider the challenges. The user experience design team has its own jargon and perspective, which can lead to communication problems with the developers. When usability professionals talk about “personas,” “scenarios” and “affordance design,” developers won’t have a clue what they mean. Those communications problems and different perspectives may lead the development community to mistrust the user experience design staff.

Interface design has also often become the fun part of the marketing specialist’s, business analyst’s, or developer’s day. (And it is a nice diversion if you don’t need to be rigorous.) Everyone thinks he or she is an expert in interface design, which lays the groundwork for a major power and control issue. The user experience design team must wrest control from other groups that are large, powerful, and entrenched.

Given these communication and control issues, the user experience design team often sees problems only when it is too late to fix them. This is a universal symptom of an incomplete institutionalization program. Developers are not sensitized to user experience design issues, so they do not realize that a problem exists until the users reject the application—or they find that the application’s performance measurements are dismal. Developers proceed to create interfaces without knowing the basics of good design. They don’t gather data from users, model and optimize the users’ taskflows, apply research-based principles of good design, or begin routine user experience design testing at the early stages of the project.

Given the practices of many development organizations, it is no surprise that they build sites that aren’t usable. Usability teams may feel helpless and ineffective in the wake of poor designs and end up clamoring for resources to fix broken interfaces. The solution requires a proactive approach: routine practices and perspectives must change throughout the organization.

The objective of the institutionalization effort is to ensure the user experience quality of all new sites and applications. This can be achieved only through a user experience design assurance system. When you consider implementation of this system, keep in mind that it should encompass the entire development organization, just as the health care system encompasses everyone in the community. Without this perspective, you will not have a successful operation, and the user experience design team will be ineffective.

I’ve participated in hundreds of meetings to plan the ideal organization for user experience design work. There are many nuances to attaining the optimal structure, communication, and task allocation, but really only one structure works well for large companies: a small centralized user experience design organization that supports user experience design practitioners who work in specific lines of business and are assigned to specific projects. For smaller organizations, the central user experience design team may be able to support the infrastructure and complete all the user experience design work itself.

This chapter discusses these organizational structures, the escalating problems that can occur, and means by which the user experience design team can work with user experience design-related groups.

Organizational Structures for User Experience Design Teams

You need to establish a structure for your permanent user experience design organization. However, the goodwill and the leverage of the people involved have as much or more impact than the structure on the success of user experience design. Air traffic controllers manage an amazingly complex task, occasionally handling crises where lives are at stake. Their systems are often antiquated, but they make the process work. Any structure can be made to work: people can scavenge resources and work out informal networks of support. Any structure can also be made to fail: if people decide not to accept the user-centered approach, they will sabotage it—whether willfully or inadvertently.

That said, it still makes sense to select an organizational structure that makes success more likely. We’ve mentioned three types of organizations that are commonly considered for a user experience design facility: decentralized, matrix, and centralized structures. Let’s briefly review each of them.

Decentralized Structure

The decentralized structure allocates all user experience design staff members to specific projects. The UX staff then report up through the various lines of business. The benefits of a decentralized structure would seem to be that staff members become an integral part of the design groups. However, without a central group to provide a coherent set of methodologies, standards, facilities, and consultative support, or to provide a unified message to the executives, this type of structure almost always fails in the long run. Unsupported by a user experience design-focused leader, practitioners often end up doing software testing or some other activity needed to meet a project date rather than satisfy UX goals. The user experience design effort thus loses focus.

Matrix Structure

A matrix solution works well in mid-sized and large companies. In this structure, a small central user experience design team, as well as user experience design practitioners, work on projects and report to the various lines of business. The user experience design staff members are integrated and accepted within the project team, and they become deeply aware of the user experience design issues and techniques that can be applied to that team’s initiatives. A matrix structure can be very effective as long as there is a small, central user experience design team to support user experience design practitioners on the project teams.

In the structure depicted in Figure 11-1, as the dotted arrow indicates, the central user experience design group has a reporting arrangement with UX practitioners on the project teams. The practitioners have a secondary reporting pathway, with the user experience design leader providing career counseling and input on performance reviews. The central group works with practitioners on the project teams. The central team members are responsible for methods, tools, facilities, training, and sponsorship. They help select new staff, advocate for user experience design practitioners when conflicts arise, and provide ongoing consultative support and mentoring. If the central team is not strong, the institutionalization effort will fail.


Figure 11-1: A matrix solution for a large organization

The central user experience design team must have an influential leader—his or her connections, political skills, and charisma are vastly important. In addition, the central user experience design staff (see Chapter 12) should include strong technical experts who can update standards, coach development teams, and operate as internal consultants. It is common for organizations with a central user experience design group to have three to five people working full time to support the methodology and consult with project teams. The team may also include a user experience design testing group that finds test participants and runs testing rooms and equipment. This group would include one or two people who can customize this process as well as other staff qualified to run tests.

For a large organization, the matrix structure seems to work well as long as the central group maintains momentum and provides a cohesive strategy. While the group doesn’t have to be very large, it is essential to have one in place.

Centralized Structure

A centralized structure with all the user experience design staff in a single organization works well in smaller companies or in companies that undertake only a few development projects each year. In this structure, staff members are assigned to work on specific projects. It is relatively easy to maintain the user-centered perspective of staff members, upgrade their skill sets, and preserve the infrastructure needed.

In a large organization, however, the central group is likely to become disconnected from project teams and lines of business; in fact, they are often excluded from project work. Their staff are not understood and valued, and there is an unmet expectation that practitioners will deeply understand each domain and division. This disconnect explains why it is really necessary to have staff permanently assigned to design projects or lines of business in large organizations. That way, the complex domains can be fully understood and there can be solid integration with the working teams.

Being on Projects

Colin Hynes, President, UX Inc. Former Director of Site Usability, Staples

A lot of making user experience design work is frankly just making sure we’re on project teams. We are involved early in the process of every project on, and part of our goal for next year is to do that throughout the catalog, corporate applications, and retail applications. We are “on the streets” with them—whether they’re merchants or marketing folks, IS development folks or creative graphics people—showing our value to each project on a day-to-day basis. We don’t swoop in and say, “Here’s all the stuff that’s wrong with your catalog, your application, your website, and good luck fixing it—we’ll see you in another two months when we can do the same thing.” We’re integrated as part of the team.

I’m actually a business owner on some of those projects. For example, we’re redesigning the registration process on I’m the business owner of that—I’m the client of that project as well as being the user experience design guy. So the user experience design group owns some of the action. We’re not just staff advisors; we’re responsible for some of the projects.

Placement of a Central Team in the Overall Organization

A centralized user experience design team provides central coordination, infrastructure, and support. This team must reside in a given part of the overall organization and report to an executive champion who will support that group over the long term. I have seen a centralized user experience design team placed within the quality assurance (QA) unit, the IT department, and the marketing department, but none of these solutions seem ideal. Placement directly under a CXO is the best positioning within a company. The subsections that follow briefly discuss these options.

Placement within Quality Assurance

The quality assurance group usually becomes the home for the user experience design team when user experience design primarily has a testing function. To ensure that quality is independent and uncompromised by the IT group’s tough time constraints, the quality assurance team is usually not directly controlled by the IT organization.

When the user experience design team resides within the quality assurance group, the team functions as an auditor—a real positive for the summative user experience design testing process. The group can report tests of overall experience and performance with impunity. Group members may also be able to do consulting work with the detachment characteristic of an auditing organization. While this is an attractive solution in some ways, it can also be too removed from the organization’s direct business imperatives. Placement within the QA group can keep the UX team focused on meeting arbitrary user experience design metrics, thereby losing sight of the real business objectives (e.g., making money) owing to the obsession with bureaucratic requirements. One solution is to have a small, specialized user experience design testing group within the quality assurance organization and then assign the central group elsewhere.

Placement within IT

Many user experience design teams are placed directly within the IT organization. It’s a logical placement inasmuch as UX specialists are considered systems development staff. User experience design team members report to the CIO or more often to a second-level executive in the systems development division.

There is a downside to being attached to the IT organization, however: it makes the user experience design team completely dependent on the goodwill of the IT group. If the executive champion of the UX initiative works within the IT department, the placement of user experience design within IT may work very well. Conversely, if the executive champion works primarily in a different department, IT may be a tough place for the user experience design team to reside.

The IT organization is often focused on two main goals: meeting the schedule and eliminating bugs. IT group members often consider themselves successful if they get the site or application up in the time allotted. If the facility does not crash or have major errors in calculation, they celebrate a success—and are bewildered by users who say, “That may be what we asked for, but it is not what we want.” When they hear this complaint, they blame the users. If this is the character of the IT group, it’s not the right setting for an effective user experience design team.

Placement within Marketing

The central user experience design group is also sometimes made a part of the marketing organization. The marketing group is focused on making money—a goal it accomplishes by satisfying customers. Identifying a market niche, a unique selling proposition, and a brand, marketing generally has a strategy for moving the company forward. User experience design professionals then make sure that sites and applications support this strategy. Usability specialists ensure that the technology meets users’ needs and accommodates their limitations in a practical way.

Marketing staff members quickly realize that the user experience design process is the logical continuation of their work. That can mean that people in marketing try to take on the role of user experience design practitioners. If they receive training and certification, such an approach works well; without the needed training, however, success will prove elusive. In the best scenario, the marketing organization becomes the greatest promoter of user experience design engineering.

Of the current most common options—quality assurance, IT, or marketing—the best location for the central user experience design organization is usually within marketing. The marketing organization has a vested interest in the quality of the user experience, and marketing staff members want to ensure that IT provides real value. They are determined to use IT expenditures in ways that really add value to customers. The user experience design team supports this process. In a sense, user experience design engineering is wholly focused on realizing marketing’s vision. User experience design practitioners ensure that the marketing strategy is carried forward through the detailed design of the site or application.

Organizations without a formal marketing department, such as government agencies, may find their user experience design personnel distributed among various groups. However, an increasing number of these agencies now have entities that are very similar to commercial product management or lines of business. Divisions in government focused on specific functional objectives are an appropriate part of the organization for user experience design staff to reside, with the IT department being seen as the last resort.

Placing the user experience design team within the marketing organization may prove challenging in several ways. First, some marketing organizations are not concerned with customer interactions. That is, they are primarily focused on advertising programs that create offers for customers, but don’t consider the customers’ taskflows or process while evaluating their offers or getting them fulfilled. User experience design work will be a poor fit for the marketing organization in this type of environment. Even if the marketing team members do have a wider view of interaction, their expertise and focus are not usually directed toward design and delivery. They may set the direction for the products, but their primary concern remains getting customers to the point of sale. Product setup, normal usage, problem management. and other subsequent issues of customer experience are not the main focus of most conventional marketing organizations.

In any case, most marketing groups are responsible for more than just online customer interaction. They must consider many channels of marketing communication as well as the customers’ behavior within a store, through the mail, and during interaction with company staff. This is, as a general rule, a good thing: usability work should be synchronized with the other modalities of interaction. While usability professionals do not design store layouts—marketers and consumer psychologists handle this task—synchronization is important. Problems can occur if sufficient consideration is not given to the online experience. Thus, if the marketing organization does not have a significant interest in online activities, it is a poor home for the user experience design group.

A second area of concern with the placement of user experience design teams within marketing groups is that they may not be clear on where marketing expertise stops and where user experience design work takes over. This is an understandable problem because both marketing and user experience design professionals gather data from customers, and both care about customer motivation and perspective. The key difference is that the marketing group defines the target, and the user experience design group hits it.

When members of a marketing group run group focus sessions, they are searching for a good product idea. They gather customer data to define the target market for the idea, and work to define a precise brand perception and selling proposition. With these elements defined, the user experience design team does its work with the development staff to ensure that the functional specification works for the defined user target. The user experience design team structures an interface and guides graphic designers to create that target brand perception, then engineers a taskflow that fulfills the unique selling proposition.

Some overlap may occur within this process. The marketing group often provides the logo along with the color palettes and corporate typefaces that are known to support the brand and are being used in offline channels. The marketing group may also select terms that describe a product offering, whether or not these terms mean anything to users. Members of this group provide feature lists that may sometimes be a close match for the real user needs. At the same time, the user experience design team may discover issues with brand values or the way the brand is presented. The user experience design team may suggest different descriptions of an offering or at least highlight those that will not work. It is important to be cautious when working in areas of overlap to ensure that the process remains smooth: a good user experience design team will be responsive to marketing throughout the design and implementation process.

Another challenge with placing the user experience design team within the marketing organization is that marketing may have almost no interest in systems that are not seen by customers. The user experience design team should work on the company intranet and customer service applications. It is certainly possible to have a separate user experience design team for internal applications, but it is a better use of resources to have a single user experience design group. This central group can then work on these projects. There is usually too much overlap in the work to be done on methodology, infrastructure, tools, and training to maintain separate user experience design teams.

Placement under a CXO

There is an increasingly common best practice (see Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business, 2012, by Harley Manning, Kerry Bodine, and Josh Bernoff) of placing the central user experience design team under the direct supervision of a CXO. The CXO is placed high in the organization and has responsibility across every line of business. A single interaction with the user may, in fact, involve several different divisions. The CXO has the position, power, and responsibility to see that this interaction is a coherent success.

An interesting issue is emerging in organizations that have CXOs. The CXO focuses on the overall customer experience across all touch points. This includes the digital facilities and digitally supported facilities, of course—but it also includes analog, tactile aspects of the business process, such as the layout of stores and packaging and marketing materials. This multiplicity of platforms creates an interesting organizational dilemma.

Members of the user experience design group that works on digital channels must have very different skills than employees who work on store layouts. Improving manual workflows is much easier than creating digital solutions and can conceivably be done based on common sense. Some organizations create multiple groups, often with names that actually mean the same thing—for example, a Customer Experience Group and a separate User Experience Group. Although they have different skill sets, they need the same ecosystem data. Moreover, because all channels of customer interface interact, they must coordinate: point-of-sale facilities, for example, need to integrate with the store layouts. The central user experience design group needs to expand, accommodating somewhat different types of staff, to manage that integration.

Once created, the role of CXO becomes one of the key positions in an organization’s power structure. It is certainly a position that needs to be filled by an executive with considerable savvy and vision. The head of marketing has the responsibility for getting people engaged with the organization’s products; the CXO is responsible for good things happening to the customer throughout that engagement. This is a huge responsibility, and one that is best placed with a single person who can oversee the entire range of engagements. For more information on the role of the CXO, see Chapter 12.

An Executive Must Champion Usability

Harley Manning, Research Director, Forrester Research

Almost every time we research organizational issues (including how the project is run), we find a project owner matrix-managing a cross-functional team. This project owner needs an executive champion who can make sure that he or she gets funding and gets support against all the organizational sniping that goes on. This executive champion should report to either the head of the division or the CEO. If not, the project has the potential to get derailed by efforts from other groups.

It’s just as important for the champion to know what not to do as it is to know what to do. If you are an executive, it’s important not to play other roles.

Escalation of Problems

When positioning the user experience design team, be sure to consider the chain of escalation for problems. With a new institutionalization effort, there are sure to be conflicts and difficulties over funding, staffing, and even specific design decisions. There may be a stubborn vice president who feels that a wiggly animation will really improve sales—especially when accompanied by a short, continuously looping music track. Project teams can bring these types of problems to the central user experience design group, and the leader of the central group can try to resolve them. Usually, a composite video of users complaining about download time and expressing annoyance with the design is enough to convince the well-intentioned executive. This approach does not always work, however. What, then, should the appropriate escalation path be? It is a critical question.

The CXO is the ideal path for escalation. Only the CXO has unambiguous responsibility for the user experience and a position high enough in the organization to successfully resolve these types of issues. When an escalation path to the CXO is lacking, there is a potential for problems to occur. A user experience design group in marketing may clash with the senior executive who has strong design ideas. A user experience design group in IT may clash with the executive who just wants to get the site up and running on time, regardless of user issues. A user experience design group embroiled in design problems may not get much help from a manager who is responsible for writing procedures, best practices, or quality assurance reports. The escalation path will inevitably go up through the area where the central user experience design group is situated. No matter where it travels, the pathway of escalation must be credible and effective.

Although the leader of the user experience design team should strive to resolve issues directly, a plausible and effective escalation pathway may exist when this approach fails. This is the primary reason for the leader to report to a position high in the organization. Otherwise, user issues will rarely win out over issues of schedule, politics, habit, and preference.

Graphic Artists, Writers, and Other Usability-Oriented Staff

A highly diverse family of specialists helps form the actual user experience. Graphic artists create icons and other graphical images, for example, while technical writers generate content and market research groups collect wide and varied data about users. How do all these different types of people interact within the organization?

If you have a CXO, you have someone in a unified position who can coordinate the disparate central groups that focus on user experience. Market researchers can raise issues to be studied by the user experience design team, and the user experience design specialists can bring challenges to the graphics team. A powerful creative synergy may emerge from such interactions. If you don’t have a CXO, you need to consider placing these staff members in your central user experience design group. Despite the fact that they are not user experience design specialists, these other staff members have a critical role in supporting the user experience design engineers and/or creating a positive user experience.


The single most important organizational principle is that the concern for user experience design should not reside only in a single group. There should be a team with that title with primary responsibility and serious capabilities, but concern for user experience design must permeate the entire organization. The structure you choose should be appropriate to the size and goals of your organization, and it should take into account the best placement of the central user experience design team. The next chapter provides information on effective staffing theories and strategies that will help you finalize the structure you have established.