The four-legged stool and why ux experts are critical

While I believe it’s important for everyone in an agency or corporate marketing/communications department to understand user experience fundamentals, there’s a critical place for UX specialists in the equation. Just like in the medical profession, it’s important for primary care physicians to have good knowledge in many different areas, it’s important for specialists to be involved when deep expertise is required.

But it’s not just the deep expertise that UX specialists bring, there are other important reasons they are needed. Each role in an agency or corporate marcom department brings a unique and valuable perspective — but with those perspectives can come biases that may be counterproductive to good user experience design.

I’ll use a four-legged stool analogy and talk about how this applies to an agency environment. (The same principles apply in corporate marketing/communications settings.) In an agency, it’s often a three-legged stool:

  • The account management team brings the business perspective (that includes the client’s perspective first and foremost, but also, along with project management and agency ownership, they also focus on the agency’s perspective — efficiency, profitability, client satisfaction, etc.).
  • The creative team brings an imaginative, innovation perspective (things that clients value very highly from agencies, to be sure).
  • The development team brings a technical, functional perspective (if the thing you’re making doesn’t work, it’s all for nothing).
3 leg stool

While every person in an agency often brings some understanding of all other areas, that doesn’t trump the primary lens through which they view things. I’m not implying there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, people’s strength and effectiveness in their roles depend on viewing things through those lenses.

Pause for a moment and ask:
What perspective is missing?

If you answered the customer’s or user’s perspective, you’re with me. That’s why CX (customer experience) is the new black. Major brands and agencies have been busy for years adding CX expertise, hiring CXOs, building CX teams, and learning how to measure and improve customer experiences.

UX is a subset of CX in the digital realm (and actually extends far beyond just digital). 

4 leg stool

Therefore, in my analogy, the missing fourth leg of the stool—needed to provide solid footing—is this:

  • The UX team brings the user’s perspective.

As I mentioned earlier, the reason I believe this goes beyond just the need for specialized expertise. I think that the perspectives brought by the roles represented in the other three legs of the stool bring with them biases that can sometimes be counterproductive to good UX. For example:

  • Account management’s focus on meeting the client’s (or agency’s) business objectives, while all important, may cause them to lose sight of the user’s or customer’s goals. Account managers, despite their obligation to bring outside perspective to the agency-client relationship, can’t help but take on the client’s perspective to a lesser or greater extent.
  • Creative people’s focus on making something innovative and unique can get in the way of the user’s desire to have information or functionality that’s simple, fast and easy. Please read my post, Why Agencies and Developers Struggle with UX, for more on that topic.
  • The dev team’s potential blind spot stems from the fact that they are much more technically skilled than the people who will use the websites or apps they build. As such they may have a hard time understanding why users don’t “get it.” Along with account management and creative staff, they can unintentionally violate the first of my 12 Dictums of UX design: The moment you make something, you know how it’s supposed to work and you can no longer understand it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t.

Only with a dedicated UX expert or team is the user’s perspective represented on balance alongside the other perspectives. A UX expert brings deep expertise and a bias toward the user’s perspective.

Structuring a small UX team

If you buy into my thesis, then you’ll agree it’s important for an agency or corporate marcom department to have one or more UX specialists. In my experience, I’ve found that, while one UX person may be able to do it all in a small firm if necessary, the ideal UX team would include at least two positions (or two groups in larger organizations):

  • Researcher(s) or user testing specialist(s) — for contextual inquiry (ethnography), web analytics insights, card sorting and information architecture, user testing, UAT, heuristic analysis and associated deliverables like reports and presentations. The best researchers are curious and have a knack for passive observation, reading between the lines and digging deep to uncover insights.
  • UX designer(s) — for heuristic analysis and information architecture (overlapping/duplicating the researcher’s job functions), wireframing, hi-fidelity prototyping and associated deliverables like site maps, user flows and interactive prototypes. The best UX designers are people who love to solve problems using design and have understanding of design thinking, HCI (human-computer interaction) and human-centered design.
UX help for agencies and developers

If you have the need for good user experience design but you’re not ready to take the leap to add dedicated UX staff members, you can look to freelancers or other outside resources as an option. My prediction is that once you integrate UX people into your process, the quality of your work and the business outcomes will improve significantly. Perhaps more importantly, the value that your work offers to users and customers will be such that you won’t want to be without a good UX team in the future.

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