This user experience success tips article is written by guest UX author Eric Olive.


In 5 Tips For Overcoming Resistance to User Experience, we explained how to begin building an in-house culture centered around customer engagement and inject a user-centered mindset into your organization’s culture.

In this piece, we present six expert tips for gaining a solid footing and sustaining support for user experience within your organization.

Not surprisingly, leadership commitment is essential to establishing and sustaining support for UX: “If you’re fighting culture, and you’re fighting leadership, you’re doomed,” says 20-year UX veteran Dr. Jeff Horvath, CEO of Balanced Experience and a former executive at a large user experience firm.

Expert Success Tip #1—Study Your History

User Experience and Corporate Memory

While corporate memory might be short, it pays to study the company’s history. In large companies it’s likely that some form of UX has come and gone, often more than once. Years ago I was one of the original members of the UX team at a large financial firm. A few years after my departure, the entire team was disbanded. Three years later, my former employer called to ask if I was interested in doing contract UX work. The person had no idea that I had been an employee working on the UX team. Clearly this person did not know the history. In short, I passed because I felt no sense of commitment to user advocacy. A shame really, given the cultural knowledge and contacts I had developed during my tenure at this firm.

In a similar vein, author, behavioral scientist, and UX thought leader Dr. Susan Weinschenk recounts how she consulted for a large financial firm for several years. During this time, she developed a deeper knowledge of the company’s UX history than its own employees. The point, says Weinschenk, is that “You had better find out. Where was the group? Why didn’t it work?”

The cliché holds; those who fail to study the company’s UX history are doomed to repeat it.

Leveraging Past Success

Certainly, history shows us what has failed and why, but it can also shed light on what does work. When consulting with clients who are launching a serious UX initiative within their organization, Weinschenk advises them to identify past situations in which change has been successful and to then emulate those successes. This thought process is important because every organization is different. For example:

  • In some organizations, change works because one person goes and does something, shows results, and it percolates and everyone gets excited.
  • In other organizations, someone at the top says “we’re going to do this now.”
  • In some cases, the best approach is an internal, mini-conference with a closing presentation by an executive lauding the value of user experience to the firm’s mission and bottom line. This worked well at one of my former employers when the Marketing VP said precisely that.
  • In still others, an initiative is more likely to succeed when experts from the outside are hired to help establish a new initiative.

In short, figure out how to leverage these lessons to grow change.

Expert Success Tip #2—Demonstrate Capability and Quality

As you draw on these lessons, you must demonstrate real capability says Dean Barker, Vice President of User Experience at Optum, who has built seven UX teams during his career: “You have to have the capability. You have to have something to sell.” Naturally, quality work is essential, “If that first project kicks butt,” says Barker, “someone will ask you to do a second project.”

Weinschenk agrees: “If you want to survive, you have to do impressive project client work really fast.” She goes on to explain that people starting UX teams sometimes make mistakes similar to someone starting a new business. Just as new business owners often fret over blogs and business cards when they should be scaring up business, new UX teams tend to dwell on the UX infrastructure of processes, guidelines, and deliverables. Initially, it’s best to set the infrastructure aside, advises Weinschenk. High quality work that helps users and makes your internal clients look good will gain credibility far faster than a slick set of design guidelines. You can (and should) establish guidelines and processes but only after demonstrating capability and quality.

In a similar vein, Barker advises eschewing extended discussions about profit and ROI, “A lot of people will attack it from the profit angle. I’ll attack it from the people angle. Put good UXers on the ground, and they will figure it out,” says Barker.

Don’t confuse profit with budget. Some emphasize ROI when pitching UX, a risky strategy in Barker’s view. Software and product development include many moving parts making it difficult to attribute a precise profit or savings figure to user experience efforts. Instead, focus on capabilities and do your best to acquire the budget necessary to showcase these capabilities.

Expert Success Tip #3—Don’t Bust the Budget

Indeed, how you handle in-house budgeting can make or break your nascent UX team. In the early stages, reports Horvath, you can’t bill internally. Directors and product managers simply won’t budget for UX at first. If you do try to bill for user experience, it will be the first thing to get cut.

The key to budgetary success (and the UX team’s survival) is to understand the company’s funding mechanisms. For example,

  • Most large corporations include internal cost centers such as HR, Finance, and the Project Management Office (PMO). Think of these as corporate offerings.
  • New product initiatives often include budget for hiring other departments including the user experience team. Not only would the UX team have work, how great would it be to participate before the product was designed and built?
  • Seed funding that crosses product initiatives such as regulatory compliance in finance or accessibility compliance for a federal government contract.

While all three are valid funding channels, Horvath advises new teams to make user experience a corporate offering whenever possible. One option is to enlist an executive who understands the value of UX. If you’ve already attained executive support as in the previously mentioned example involving a marketing VP, this VP now has a stake in your success. Helping your team acquire a budget increases the chance that you will succeed and make her look good.

Expert Success Tip #4—Manage the Middle

Budget and winning executive support are necessary but hardly sufficient. While teaching a design class for UX professionals, one of the students, a UX Director, explained his challenge. He had executive backing and support at the staff level. The missing link was middle management buy-in. In response to his request for suggestions, I recommended:

  • Skipping World Usability Day. It’s a great deal of work and rarely draws key decision makers. Instead, follow the customer experience money train. Many companies hold customer experience events. Volunteer to host a booth, give a presentation, or even join a customer experience Q&A. You’ll help you’re your colleagues, promote user experience in-house, and continue honing your presentation and persuasion skills.
  • Find a small, low-risk project where the UX team can shine without significantly affecting the project schedule. When the product is released to rave reviews, the product manager looks like a hero. At this point, you don’t just have an ally; you have a UX evangelist.
  • After every successful project where UX is involved, write a short case study highlighting the UX team’s contribution and publicize, publicize, publicize.

This last recommendation brings us to our next step.

Expert Success Tip #5—Showcase Success


This tip seems simple, but it’s easily overlooked when you’re on the project hamster wheel.

When you achieve great results, put up a poster or present at the next staff or division meeting. Make it clear that the project succeeded, in part, because the project leader took time to harness the UX team’s expertise and, in so doing, ensured an engaging user experience for customers.

This is no time for modesty. You and your team members must act as your own marketing department.

No time for modesty, but no need to brag either. According to Barker, you have to sell UX but in an evangelist vein. At Optum, Barker takes a more professorial tone. He is not selling so much as teaching by exposing colleagues and clients to design thinking, though with an eye toward quantification.

As mentioned above, an extensive discussion about the ROI of user experience is not always productive. Instead, advises Barker, use metrics judiciously. For example, rather than attributing a doubling in sales to UX, it’s wiser to point to something specific such as a streamlining of the sales funnel with fewer steps, simpler instructions, and a subsequent decrease in customer complaints about the shopping cart experience.

With this preliminary, internal marketing underway, the next step is to develop robust case studies that you can draw upon when making the case for a healthy UX budget and a larger headcount.

As you develop case studies and portfolios, think carefully about the organization’s culture. How does leadership define success? How do your colleagues define success? Is it quantitative? Customer-driven? UX work that demonstrates value in terms that mesh with the organization’s culture is likely to succeed.

If you’re new to the organization, or the answer to the measuring success question is murky, look for cues. The key, says Barker, is to identify the appetite for UX-related activities. For example, at his previous employer, there was a strong appetite for voice-of-the-customer so Barker grew his team’s customer research capability as he built the user experience team.

At a different organization, there was a strong appetite for formalizing the user-interface design process, so Barker grew his team’s design capability as he built yet another user experience team.

In summary, understanding the appetite for certain UX-related activities and learning how the organization measures success will allow you to showcase the value of user experience in a way that speaks to colleagues and leadership alike. Succeed here, and you’ll be one step closer to integrating user experience into the organization’s culture.

Expert Success Tip #6—Get Creative and Passionate

In cases where formal budget requests are denied or the C-Suite appears uninterested in user experience, it might be time to go around or go underground.

“Underground” doesn’t refer to subterfuge but to forging ahead without announcing your intentions, says Weinschenk. Simply put, when working on a design or product development project, don’t say anything about user experience. Integrate as much UX as time allows. When the project succeeds, go back to the team and explain what happened: “We inserted some user experience methods, and look what we accomplished.” Properly presented, this approach can serve as a gentle introduction to user experience and might well lead to future support from designers, developers, and product managers.

Another approach, says Weinschenk, is to attach yourself to a rising star, someone looking for a way to shine, to do something unusual with a big impact. If you can attract that person’s attention, she might say to herself “If I could pull this off, that would be really cool.” The rising star is not at the top but on her way and will work hard to make a name for herself. When budgets get tough, she won’t necessarily cut UX.

One way to capture the rising star’s attention is to show your team’s passion for user experience. Weinschenk “goes for passion more than knowledge.” If you are a seasoned user experience professional, you can find the right people and teach them UX, but you can’t teach passion. Weinschenk has seen people with great skills and experience who did not care that much about the user’s point of view: “They will never be good at this work, no matter how much they know. And, they won’t stick with it,” she says.

Passion is contagious. Coupled with a solid business case based on your knowledge of budget, the company’s history, and your ability to showcase your team’s capability, you’ll be off to a great start as your organization strives to create engaging and delightful experiences for customers and employees alike.

Leave a comment to let us know your own user experience success tips. From your experience, what have you seen that can have an impact for sustaining support for user focus in organizations?

About the Author:

Eric Olive is a speaker, teacher, and user experience consultant who:

  • Shows clients how to establish a user experience culture at work and how this culture helps customers and boosts the bottom line.
  • Draws on his testing and fieldwork experience in the U.S., Mexico, and South America as he advises clients about how to conduct market and user-focused research that serves as a basis for culturally intelligent web sites and web and mobile applications.

UX trainer
Learn more about Eric Olive and connect with him online at: