The hidden business of user experience design

User research often throws up problems beyond the scope of designing websites and applications. Awkward things like corporate focus, content freshness, customer service relationships and database quality problems.

All affect the user’s experience, yet addressing the business processes responsible is rarely seen as part of user experience design. Which is a shame because failing to address business issues can undo all our design work.

Redesign the organisation

My first exposure to user research was the CABE redesign in 2008. The big (unsurprising) finding was that people wanted to find content by themes like housing, health or sustainability.

It didn’t take long to design the information architecture, but three years later we still had problems with creating the content. Sections like sustainability, which had a dedicated internal team, had great content. Areas which required cross-team collaboration, like health or housing, were poor.

The lesson? It’s not enough to redesign your website - sometimes you have to redesign your organisation. CABE should have created new teams, or refined their editorial processes, to populate our shiny new information architecture.

Forget the front end (sometimes)

Another site that I worked on had serious usability issues. Frustrated at my failure to convince people of their importance, I did some user research to show the need for change.

But none of the research findings related to my usability concerns.

Instead, the real user issues touched on multiple areas of the business. Addressing them involved difficult conversations, serious data analysis, renegotiation of contracts and even culture change.

The lesson? User research throws up some issues that can’t be addressed with wireframes and prototypes. (Also, don’t do research to prove yourself right!).

Fight for better processes

You might wonder whether these issues matter to user experience designers. They sound suspiciously like things other people should be sorting out.

Maybe. But many managers aren’t digital natives, let alone advocates of user-centred design. They won’t make good strategic or operational decisions without good advice and, weird as it seems, our research is often the first time they find out what users really think. So, for now at least, it falls on us to fight for the better business processes our designs deserve.

And if we don’t? The beautiful websites and applications we design won’t work for users. No matter how good they are on paper.

Let me know what you think on @myddelton.