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  • Writer's pictureJakob Nielsen

Improving UX-Business Fit

Summary: UX professionals often struggle to thrive in corporate environments. To work better in a company, UX staff can adapt their methods, shape the company to be more UX-friendly, or select a new company. Adapting is the fastest and most effective approach, followed by shaping and selecting.

 

For my entire 41 years in user experience, UX people have voiced the same grievances: we don’t get respect, we don’t have enough influence, we don’t get enough budget, and management doesn’t want to embrace the full scope of UX methods. All of these are symptoms of a deeper mismatch: UX is often ill-suited for business, and UX professionals typically struggle to thrive within corporate environments. (There are honorable exceptions, of course.)


  • UX methods are expensive

  • UX people are difficult to work with

  • UX terminology is confusing for non-specialists, in part because UX professionals frequently introduce new terms and change existing ones, making it difficult for stakeholders to keep up with the evolving vocabulary they have gradually learned over the past decade


You have probably heard the Darwinist motto, survival of the fittest. However, this insight begs the question of what it means to be fit. Is an elephant fitter than a mouse? Elephants are certainly bigger than mice, and if an elephant steps on a mouse, it won’t end well for the mouse. On the other hand, mice far outnumber elephants globally.


Elephants are the largest land animals, but are they the most fit? They only live in a small range of ecosystems. (Midjourney)


The fable of the city mouse and the country mouse gives us an idea of why there are so many more mice in the world than there are elephants. Mice are capable of thriving in a much wider range of ecosystems and can survive on much less food. (Midjourney)


Considering mice vs. elephants makes us realize that being fit to survive is not just a matter of the animal itself but also of its environment. Survival is determined by the fit between the two.


The psychologist Robert J. Sternberg described 3 conceptually different ways to improve the fit between an organism and its environment:


  • Adapt: The organism itself can change so that it becomes a better fit for the given habitat.

  • Shape: The organism can modify the habitat to suit its needs better.

  • Select: The organism can move to a different habitat that’s better for it.

  • We can apply this model to analyze 3 different ways user experience and UX professionals can work better within companies.


Adapt: Change UX to Be Better for Business

These trees in South Africa almost look like they were cut to a straight shape designed by André Le Nôtre for the royal French gardens at the Versailles Palace. But they were browsed by animals who could only reach so high, and no higher.


The lower branches on these trees have been browsed as high as the local animals can reach. (Real photo by Jakob Nielsen, Sabi Sands, South Africa)


Any animal with a longer neck would be able to reach more branches on such trees. In effect, it would have sole access to eating all those yummy leaves. As we all know, that’s exactly what happened: the giraffes evolved a longer neck and now browse contentedly on leaves that the antelopes can only dream of.


Giraffes have adapted (through millions of years of evolution) to be more fit for the savannah ecosystem: they now have so long necks that giraffes can eat leaves that grow so high above the ground that antelopes can never reach them. No competition for food! (Midjourney)


Just as the giraffe adapted to the realities of life on the savannah, UX people can adapt to the realities of life in a corporation. Evolution takes millions of years for animals, but it can be fast for UX. After all, the concept of “intelligent design” does work when we’re designing our own work processes. Simply decide that you’ll do things differently starting tomorrow, and you have the power to do so. (Changing other people, as we’ll discuss in the next section, takes more time.)


UX people can decide to do things differently, to improve the 3 mismatches between UX and business:

  • Too expensive: Start using discount usability methods. Test with 5 users, not 15, in each round of testing. Embrace other fast methods, such as paper prototyping and fast iteration, where you test a new design version every week. AI helps expedite the UX process by making ideation fast and cheap, both for the design itself and for the planning and analysis of user research.

  • Difficult to work with: Realize that the business of business is to make money. Put money first in everything you do. How does X make more money for the company? (Whether X is a new button or a new research idea.) If you can’t answer this question for any X you propose, you have no business being in business, because you’re an impediment, not a solution. There are only two ways to increase profits: bring in more revenue or spend less on expenses. UX helps on both, but you have to say so, or how would non-UX’ers ever know.

  • Confusing terminology: Step one, when you’re in a hole, is to stop digging. Refuse any new terminology you hear UX consultants propose on social media or at conferences. Follow Churchill’s advice that old words are better for communicating. Your poor stakeholders might just have learned some of the UX terms that were common 5 years ago. Don’t make them learn an entirely new vocabulary just to understand what you’re saying. Even better, follow the old UX guideline to “speak the user’s language” and start using their terminology as much as possible.


When you’re in a hole, stop digging. If you’re a UX professional having trouble communicating with stakeholders, stop changing your terminology every few years. Allow them to catch up! (Midjourney)

Shape: Change Companies to Be Better for UX

There are many examples of animals changing their environment to be more hospitable for them. Here’s one:


Beavers shape their environment by building dams. (Leonardo)


Similarly, UX professionals can shape companies to become more accommodating of UX work. This is commonly referred to as increased UX maturity. The company allocates more budget to UX, it follows the recommended user-centered design process more closely, and teams and stakeholders recognize the benefits they gain from working more closely with UX. (These 3 advances are highly related: you can’t get one without the others.)


Shaping their environment is fast for animals. Unfortunately, increasing corporate UX maturity levels is slow for UX folks. It typically takes 20 years from a company starts doing UX work until it reaches a high level of UX maturity.


If you do good work and communicate it in terms that people from other disciplines can understand (and if you emphasize the profit impact of UX improvements), then gradually you’ll win over middle and upper management. Sometimes, you have to wait until the highest levels of management have been replaced with people who were middle managers when good UX work started happening in your company. Having personal experience with the benefits of UX for the bottom line and having personally watched some user test sessions do wonders for buy-in among stakeholders. But you can’t expect the biggest of the Big Bosses to have time to watch user testing. Eventually, those old-timers will retire and be replaced by executives with personal experience of UX from back when they were young and had hands-on involvement with projects that were helped by UX. That’s when you will really see UX budgets expand.


Select: Move to a Better Company

Migratory animals, including many birds, fishes, and whales, move between continents according to the season. Is it getting too cold in Alaska as winter approaches? Fly south. Is it getting to be too hot in Egypt? Fly to Germany.


Migrating birds move to a new place when their current location becomes unpleasant. Many species migrate twice a year. UXers should do the same, but hopefully only once. (Midjourney)


Even though birds can fly back and forth many times, this is harder to do for employees. Often, once you leave a company, you can’t come back. And even those companies that take back “boomerang employees” who regret leaving will be reluctant to welcome a yo-yo employee who goes in and out repeatedly.


Thus, the solution of leaving for better climates is not as great an option for UX as it is for birds. You will also often realize that the grass isn’t actually greener on the other side. That said, if you keep trying to improve your way of doing UX and keep trying to push for higher corporate UX maturity, and nothing helps, year after year, then maybe it’ll be time to give up and move elsewhere before you burn out.


Giving up at the smallest sign of adversity is for losers. They’ll never amount to anything unless they learn how to change things around. But sticking around in the face of repeated punishment and disappointment is for suckers. Don’t be a loser, but also don’t be a sucker. Eventually, it’s time to move on.


The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Companies may seem like they have good UX, and the hiring managers may talk a good game, but they may not actually be better places to work. (Ideogram)


Conclusion: Adapt First, Shape Second, Select Last

Animals can routinely migrate, and they can fairly easily reshape parts of their local environment, but it takes them forever to evolve into new species. So for animals, the priority sequence for achieving organism-environment fit may be select first, shape second, and adapt last.


But for UX professionals, the sequence reverts. As we’ve seen, it’s easy for us to adapt ourselves to fit better within a business. It’s much harder to shape a business to grow corporate UX maturity. And to avoid being a job hopper, we should only move to new companies sparingly.


Thus, our preferred sequence for improving the fit between UX and business is to adapt first and often. Second, keep pushing to shape the company to improve its UX maturity. You should employ both of these strategies but expect faster results from adaptation than from reshaping attempts. My advice is not to give up just because it takes years to make meaningful change happen in big organizations. That’s how it always is, so don’t despair, but keep pushing.


Then, as a backup option that should be exercised sparingly, consider changing jobs if your best efforts continue to fail.


The following infographic summarizes the 3 ways of improving the fit between UX and corporations:


Feel free to copy or reuse this infographic, provided you give this URL as the source.

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