5 approaches to integrate UX skills and professionals into organizations

Over the last years, many companies adopted user experience (UX) good practices and hired professionals. Some created centralized teams of UX consultants, other included designers into development teams, yet others created a team to contribute a design system or user research. This article is a collection of five approaches on how to include UX skills and UX professionals into organizations, open for discussion and refinement.

How to best structure an organization for User Experience (UX) popped up over and over again in the many enlightening contributions at the European UX leadership network (EUXL): “Our team of UX consultants”, “We manage our design system”, “UX professionals are right in the development teams” is what people referred to. There are some commonly applied approaches. Here are five:

  1. UX service team: provide a specific UX service to mainly internal customers
  2. UX consultancy: provide UX consultants for teams
  3. Integrate UX professionals: UX professionals as full members in interdisciplinary teams.
  4. Spreading UX skills: develop the skills of many in the organization.
  5. UX community: establish a network around UX

A word or two about four aspects

Any structuring of an organization also impacts what the organization is going to deliver. Looking from the perspective “great products and services for users”, I found the following aspect especially interesting:

  • Culture / strategy: A company that is able to deliver products and services with great user experiences over a longer time will also have corresponding values in their culture and a strategy where UX plays an appropriate role. While the culture is crucial so that the voices of users can reach the people in an organization, the strategy helps to form the right priorities.
  • Integral UX: Organizations with a high UX maturity are capable not only of designing a single feature or an individual product. They can deliver a system of product families and services with a consistent and exciting user experience. Thus people take an integral view and deliver a great user experience over all touch points.
  • UX expertise: Companies can create great user experiences because many people across all hierarchical levels have at least some skills and know how so they can contribute.
  • Efficiency: Not all ways of creating user experiences are equally efficient. Processes and procedures, work separation and coordination, information flow and much more have a huge impact on how well and how quickly a company can deliver innovations.

Approach 1 – UX service team

A UX service team provides a specific UX service to internal customers. Typical examples are:

  • UX/CX data analytics
  • User research
  • Customer and user journey management.
  • Design system
  • UX testing

These service teams define, operate and manage the service they offer. Some of them calculate a business case, define a service model, do marketing, and standardize and optimize processes to use the service. Many service teams invest significant amount of resources for assets, e.g. a design system, a user pool with detailed profiles, a research results repository, data analytics tools, a dedicated usability lab with eye tracking equipment, a typical hospital room, etc.

What a service team can achieve

  • High-quality, stream-lined and thus efficient UX service.
  • High-quality results.
  • High level of know how acquired in the company

To be aware of

  • Ivory tower: The service team is prone to commanding “the best way” rather than providing something helpful.
  • Hand-over to service users causes loss of important knowledge.
  • Involving more people makes things more complicated. Services tend to be used less often than needed, not for the right thing or not at the right time.
  • Compliance to use a service can become more important than profiting from the results.
  • Narrow field of activities leads to over-specialization, bottlenecks and over-capacities.

Expertise and efficiency: You can expect that a service team develops a high level expertise around the service and that using the service can become very efficient. Still, a service team supports only a small slice of the needed UX releated activities. Service users must fill the gaps and also understand when and how to make use of the service, otherwise the overall effect can easily become zero. Finally, those providing the service become highly specialized. This causes work flow issues like bottlenecks and more coordination. Most importantly it causes information flow issues, e.g. loss of important information.

Integral experience and culture: Some service teams help keeping an integral user experience, e.g. if the service offers a design system or does journey management. The service team has however limited influence when it comes to adopting UX practices and user-centric spirit. In fact, it can become counter-productive, if teams use the service to proof that they “did UX” whilst actually they are anything but user centric.

Service teams become especially valuable when many teams need access to the same resources. E.g. they share a design system, interact with the same user groups, etc. There are however preconditions: first, service users must understand and apply enough user-centric practices and know when and how to best use the service, and second, the service members need to define a really useful service.

Approach 2 – UX consultancy

UX consultancies manage UX professionals and their skills, offer career paths and will invest some budget into a shared set of tools. Rather than offering some specific and clearly defined service, the consultancy provides UX experts for other teams. This usually creates a matrix organization. A UX consultancy:

  • provides UX consultants with a variety of skill profiles for teams. These consultants join teams as specialists.
  • consults teams about how to include and do UX related activities in the specific situation.
  • hires external UX professionals to cover over-demands.
  • develops and positions UX internally.
  • teaches development teams to do some of the UX activities themselves.

What a consultancy can achieve

  • Smooth and efficient UX activities in the development team
  • Highly and broadly skilled UX consultants
  • UX related career model for experts.
  • A “home” for UX specialists with like-minded persons.
  • Provide UX expertise where it is needed.

To be aware of

  • Risk of frustration and burn-out, see UX in a burn-out system.
  • Tasks from development teams have a higher urgency than developing UX in the company and thus receive priority.

Expertise and efficiency: If done well, the consultancy acquires a broad and deep UX know how and spreads it through the organization. This allows to efficiently carry out UX related tasks. However they tend to work as specialists in teams and thus make the teams themselves more complicated and adding overhead. Some companies seem to be so fond of the consultancy approach that they apply it for every possible specialization. The resulting teams are huge and utterly ineffective and adding UX consultancy will only make matters worse.

Integral experience and culture: Given that the current development projects have high priority, the risk is high that the consultants spend all their time working in the project teams and do little on a strategic level and taking on an integral view. Unless of course, such experts are included in strategic initiatives as well. On the other hand, when working close with teams, some UX professionals inspire user-centric thinking in the team and foster a user-centric culture.

For a UX consultancy to work well,

  • Consultants will acquire a broad set of skills in the field of UX and also in managing projects, engaging stakeholders, agile development, teaching and coaching others and much more.
  • An organization needs to be able to manage their portfolio and set appropriate priorities also for UX, otherwise consultants can easily be swamped by work.
  • As a leader of such a consultancy, you may want to explicitly limit the time you “hire out” the consultants to development teams. This leaves room to work on developing UX further and to participate in strategic topics.
  • There are at most one or two other consultancies around.

Approach 3 – Integrate UX professionals

Instead of setting up dedicated UX teams, UX professionals can be integrated into the agile organization.

What integration can achieve

  • UX professionals can fully focus on the development and efficiently support the team to achieve a high user experience

To be aware of

  • UX professionals need inspiration from other UX professionals which is not provided in this setup.
  • In the commonly applied waterfall SAFe and Scrum, UX professionals rat race alone. Very high risk of frustration and burn-out. See UX in a burn-out system.

Expertise and efficiency: As full members – usually the only UX professional – in a development team, a UX professional could, theoretically, apply the whole breadth of UX know how. In practice, this seems to be reduced to what a team accepts as needed, which can be frustratingly little. The results are UX professional who create high fidelity mock-ups 24/7 rather than talking to users.

Integral thinking and culture: Being fully in a team leaves little time for strategic thoughts and integral thinking. However, some UX professionals will turn the team into a user-centric team and thus help build a user-centric culture bottom up. It makes sense to add UX professionals on the different hierarchical levels. UX professionals higher up in the hierarchy work more on the strategic topics and on an integral user experience whereas the others help the team in the development topics at hand. Such a setup would also give a UX related career path.

Be warned: when integrating UX professionals into agile teams, frustration level and risk of burn-out can be high, especially if the organization is not user-centric, reduces UX professionals to beautifiers, and works in the nowadays prominent assembly line SAFe. There are thus some pre-conditions:

  • Teams need education on UX and guidance on how to work interdisciplinary with UX professionals.
  • Truly collaborating agile team. No waterfall, no agile waterfall, no assembly line setup (e.g. from product owner to business analyst to UX professional to developer to tester).

Approach 4 – Spread UX skills

Instead of integrating UX professionals, an organization could generally increase the UX skills.

What spreading skills can achieve

  • User-centric thinking is widely spread within the organization
  • Bottlenecks around UX specialists are gone. Teams can invest into UX as much as is needed.
  • Those who create the products and services are those who know the most about users.

To be aware of

  • Not everyone wants to or has the time to acquire deeper skills in designing user experiences.
  • Under pressure, UX goals are likely to be dropped.
  • Most non-specialists will not achieve a similar level of expertise as UX professionals.

Expertise and efficiency: The needed skills for creating great user experiences stem from design, engineering and psychology. Each of the fields has a multitude of directions with several years of study and constant developments. Overall, if UX skills are widely spread in an organization, one would expect a broad but not to deep know how for most people while some will become UX expert. Thus expect a wide variety of what can be achieved and in a specific time. The more UX know how an agile team has, the easier it will generally be to efficiently incorporate a UX specialist where needed.

Integral thinking and culture: Having people who know the why, the what and the how around UX can create a big impact in regards to holistic thinking and use-centric action, especially if they can wisely trade-off UX related goals and activities with all the other ones and communicate this well. The higher up such a person in the hierarchy is, the more leverage this person usually has on the whole organization.

Increasing the skills and understanding of UX throughout the organization can definitely have a high impact. However, many company need world-class specialist who know e.g. everything about the mating behavior of the seven-legged alpine ant (if such an ant exists) and thus do not have time to know too much about other interesting things like users of their products and the like.

Approach 5 – UX Community

In this loosely coupled unit, UX professionals and others exchange and learn about relevant topics. A community usually has some more active members that make sure things happen and less active members that participate more or less often. In the community:

  • UX professionals and others from all over an organisation meet and exchange
  • participants get inspiration and gain some insights into UX
  • sub-groups can spin-off to develop a specific topic within the organisation
  • a shared repository can capture valuable know how and assets.

What a community can achieve

  • Raise awareness for UX within the organisation
  • Provide basic UX know how to many
  • Promote, coordinate and exchange on UX activities within the organisation
  • Maintain an informal network over the different units
  • Align different parts of the organisation around UX

To be aware of

  • A wide variety of interests clash: Overview, alignment, personal development, user insights, design trends, new methodology, regulations. A balancing act.
  • Communities compete with many other activities in the company. Expect only best effort and interest based participation.
  • Many people should be involved in a UX community and the resulting size becomes a challenge.

A community provides broad and basic know how around UX to many persons in an organization and can play an important role in creating a user-centric culture. It can influence integral thinking.

Given the breath of topics and the potential size of UX communities, dedicated community managers are probably the best bet to keep the community valuable. They keep touch with their ‘customers’, organize attractive community events, provide channels so people can connect outside of such events, and more.

A bit of an analysis

First the comparison sheet, from left to right: Service team, consultancy, integrated professionals, spread skills and community.

The following table compares the approaches with a bit more details. By the way: SRV means service team, CON is consultancy, PRO stands for integrated professionals, SKILL represents the spreading of skills approach and COMM is short for community.

Execution of UX activities
UX pro does them and hands over..
UX pro leads, others join..
UX pro teaches, coaches and others do...
Someone does them.
Typical outcomes
High quality UX services and assets...
Creative think tank...
Products with great user experience.
User-centric culture
Integral thinking, alignment
Predominant Risks
Bottleneck, over-capacity!!!..
No priority for UX, ignored UX results!(!)(!).!
Too late, too early, missed UX activities!(!)(!).!
Frustration, burn-out.!!..
Ivory tower, not thought through, blah-blah!...!
Expected skill spread
Narrow – deep – few individuals....
Broad – quite deep – quite a few...
Job demands with gaps – somewhat deep – many...
Broad – shallow – many....
Likely feedback path
Leader → team.!!!!
User → leader → team....
User → UX pro → leader → engineer..
User → UX pro → engineer + leader..
User → team..

I did expect some difference in the horizon (i.e. long-term & visionary, mid-term & strategic, short-term & development, and present / past usage) between the approaches. It however turns out, that organizations include UX professionals in strategic work, give a strategic task to a UX service team, increase UX skills and awareness of visionaries and planners and by such means cover all the horizons. I similarly did expect differences in regards to the scope (i.e. company, product families, product and feature) of UX work and drew a similar conclusion. Thus it is how an organization sets up the approaches that leaves gaps in the scope or horizon.

Combining approaches

Every approach offers its special benefit, e.g.:

  • A competent consultancy attached high up in management can achieve a big change within the whole organization.
  • A UX community can spread awareness and news for the topic, start the discussion and by that increase the willingness to change.
  • UX consultants put into the right development teams can set an example on what can be achieved with UX and thus inspire people and the organization.
  • Development teams with UX skills can create great stuff by themselves, reducing the need for specialists and thus reducing knowledge transfer and flow issues.
  • Product owners, project leaders, product managers, technical leaders having enough skills and understanding about UX can identify and prioritize UX goals, judge the level of expertise needed, can bring in UX professionals where needed and create appropriate plans.
  • Service teams to manage key resources like the user journeys, design systems or a pool of users can stream-line some processes and by that make things much easier for other teams.

To start with UX, the approach taken is probably more a matter of opportunity than of strategic thought. In one company, a high up manager might decide that this company needs to be an experience company and might start with a service team providing high quality designs. Other companies might follow a bottom up approach and start educating their staff or hire external UX consultants to join their teams. In yet another company, providing a consistent design might be an entry point for a small group of UX consultants. In some companies, regulations demand a structured usability validation and documentation that can be the start for a service team providing regulatory compliance.

I would caution against starting with a service team, though. For one, a service team only covers a small set of the needed UX activities. Two, It cannot address the fundamental planning issues in development teams. Three, clients need some UX skills so they know when to use the service and what to do with the results. The risk is that a service will be seen as cumbersome, not fit for the task a hand, offer only little value and, in consequence, results are stowed away, unused.

Concluding remarks

We can hire UX professionals, increase UX skills, organize UX community and much more. The five approaches can help to reflect on the structure of an organization. However, just considering the structure around UX will not be enough.

  1. Taking the consultancy or service team approach for every field of expertise will result in a myriad of experts and thus huge and slow development teams. In consequence, whenever we create a new group around a field of expertise (like UX or one of the sub-fields), other groups need to change or even close.
  2. Like safety or security, everyone contributes to creating great user experiences – at least to some degree. Therefore, the chosen structure should help developing skills, culture, integral thinking and taking responsibility regardless whether your job title contains the letters UX or not.
  3. Thus a strategy, where user experience plays a due role, sets priorities and frames the whole organization is an important base for giving the right weight to each field of expertise.
  4. Working towards a great user experience needs to be rewarded. An organization that values time to market and features over important qualities will always produce products and services with lower quality. It gets even worse when some parts of a company are rewarded for time-to-market, other parts for user experience, again others for sales numbers and margin etc. Such a reward system will create a atmosphere loaded with conflicts.

It is important to think about how to structure an company so UX skills can develop, UX professionals find a great place to work and products and services are great to use. Still keep in mind that other things need to change equally: the company strategy, rewards and other groups.