strategic ux

There is no UX, there is only UX

After years of trying to work out where the UX team should fit into the organisation, it feels almost inevitable that my current thinking is that it belongs everywhere and nowhere. That there is no UX team, but that everyone is the UX team.

I came to this way of thinking by trying to negotiate the organisational structure of the Government Digital Service and their philosophy about user experience. At GDS we don’t have a ‘UX team’  and no one person has a job title that includes the term ‘UX’. We have designers and researchers who work as part of multidisciplinary, agile teams and who practice user centred design (UCD).

On the surface that may all sound pretty trite. The truth is that, for many of our projects,  the truly challenging user experience issues come not from designing the interface*, but from the constraints of the product that must be designed. Those constraints and challenges tend to come from our friends in policy or standards, or procurement or other parts of the organisation. Try as you might, you can’t interface away inappropriate policy.

It is really important that no one in the team can point to someone over in the corner and put all the burden of user experience on that guy. No one person, no small group of people can be made responsible for the user experience of a service. It is down to the entire team  to achieve this, and we need to drag people into the team who make decisions way before we get on the scene. (Should we be there earlier?  Perhaps. That’s one for another day).

I don’t see this as a governance issue. It’s not about who is ‘in charge’ of user experience. It’s a philosophical framework for sharing the responsibility for the users’ experience and allowing problems to be directly attributed to the true source, often far more deeply embedded in the organisation than the interface.

It assumes the prerequisite that the entire team agrees that it’s true goal is to create a great user experience. That is no small assumption.  The UK Government is relatively rare in having a stated aim to build services so good that people prefer to use them. Many organisations pay lip service to caring about user experience, but sharing the responsibility throughout the entire organisation tests whether they are really willing to back this claim through significant organisational change.

Not calling people ‘UX’ does lead to interesting challenges in day to day work –  like how to refer to the team who do the interface design and user research. This is when we’re most likely to get lazy and just call people ‘UX’.  Although it can feel cumbersome, every time you don’t give in, it’s a tiny little reminder of what we believe. Every time we call that team the ‘front end team’ on the project I’m working on it reminds me of our belief. That makes the somewhat awkward title totally worth it for me.

Related reading:

How we do user centred design in alpha and beta phases (Service Design Manual)

How we do user research in agile teams (GDS Blog)

* Having said that, trying to design user interfaces that everyone in the country should be able to use is no small challenge.


21 thoughts on “There is no UX, there is only UX

  1. Amen. Amen. Amen.

    It is incredibly difficult to bring this to reality, however. I have proposed this in my current company and in my prior company. It seems the main barrier is people’s sense of identity with the term UX (and similarly people’s lack of understanding of design and research which results in having low expectations/views on what those two things mean; UX amplifies them and makes them seem more modern/relevant/meaningful).

    Yes, the challenge of what to call design and research under one umbrella is a bit annoying, but I’m ok with the compromise of calling them, em, Design and Research (imagine that!)

    Aside on governance: I agree this has nothing to do with governance. Governance is everything else you’re going to have to do (as an org) to provide infrastructure and support to steer efforts and help all excel in what they do to serve that common responsibility for the UX (and hopefully doing so in a sufficiently coordinated and cohesive way).

  2. A few solid home truths there Leisa.
    Amazing how much effort can go into convincing a few of what’s important to the many, and that this has to have acronyms and job titles etc.
    I’ve noticed a few small agencies who could, and have called themselves UX agencies in the past, have re-labeled themselves as ‘business design’ agencies. This sings out to the point you make about the real challenges in providing a great user experience coming from the constraints within the business, particularly those a few degrees away from the design side.
    Having a UX team is one stage of UX maturity in an organisation, but you’re right, the influence needs to come from further up the chain.
    Consensus-building is a significant and vital part of UCD and the ripples of truth that emerge from design / research activities usually need to reach this person, or those who influence them.
    Putting the interface to the side once more, it’s easy to see how shaping an org.’s attitude towards design and customer experience can become a broader goal, so while a lofty title, ‘business design’ or at lest business change seems to be a positive outcome of inclusive UCD.

  3. I have the same issue championing UX in agile teams in Australia. IMHO, the whole team is responsible for UX, not one or more individuals workibg apart from the core one Sprint ahead. It should just be the philosophy of the team and it’s organisation to think about the user and how to deliver an experience that adds value to their lives.

  4. Lisa, a great read and so true. One Q though: I often struggle to convince others of this from two points of view – I can’t find a great book to go ‘this is UX for beginners and why it matters to us all’ (any pointers?) and so many people just think ‘that’s not my job’ which is infuriating.

    1. A Project Guide to UX Design: For user experience designers in the field or in the making, Edition 2

      Just thought this was good for me when I started UX Design,You can get it online as well.

  5. Great article. You didn’t event directly mention strategic UX, but that’s what it sounds like! There are lots of points that resonate with where I am at the moment, and that give me something to (continue) aspiring towards, so thank you for that.

    Definitely, trying to bring people around to the idea that we’re all responsible for the UX of something is critical to making it all work in a big org. In some ways, my UX colleague and I are lucky to be in a team without “UX” in the title (though people still know who we are and where to find us!), and I think we work hard to help our colleagues see that they have a responsibility for the UX of things, too. It’s especially how we work with developers and project leaders, so we’re not just “the people who do the UX testing”.

    As for getting in there earlier… as it happens, we seem to be starting to have success there, too, which is great. We have some big projects heading our way, and we seem to be in the front line – sometimes, our involvement is getting written into grants, as a starting point for a project. Progress!

  6. Leisa, great post.

    At the risk of sounding a luddite I’d like to challenge this view.

    Sharing responsibility for the organisational barriers to a good experience beyond the UX practitioners seems fair, after all you can only have responsibility for that which you can affect, and anyway it’s going to take a concerted effort. A similar argument runs through Total Quality Management.

    But I try to do this by advocating everyone share responsibility for UCD i.e. collaborative design, shared artefacts, in user testing, and asking “Is it good enough?”.

    As a UX practitioner yes I have distinct skills and experiences with research and design, but that’s not the end of it: advocacy and groupwork, IA, cognitive psychology, facilitation, demographic awareness, adaptive technologies etc. also figure. So on your model I see a risk of underestimating and misunderstanding what UX requires. I can code a bit but it’s really not very good.

    If I can’t be held responsible for the user experience, I can and and should be accountable. That’s a key distinction for me responsibility vs accountability. I think I’d be remiss if the issues affecting the UX weren’t understood, illustrated, and hopefully addressed at every level, though as mentioned, that’s not to imply exclusivity or priest-like expertise.

    If a job’s to be done it’s better to have one person’s name beside it.

    1. Seconded Lisa, great post and very on-point.

      Also agree with you Nick. The person/team charged with leading on UX research, necessary documentation, keeping the momentum in the UX learning, teaching/sharing/communicating/spreading that learning to the furthest corners of the organisation… that is work that can happen more or less effectively and successfully. Accountability for this UX driving needs to be in place.

  7. So this is the blog post you predicted here: ? :-)

    I agree with your suggestion and am fighting the same battle in my agency. As interaction design director and the person responsible for usability evaluations in my agency, I cannot define “the UX” alone; I need many, many people to be on board, including strategists, project managers, visual designers, front-end developers, and of course our clients.

    As Peter Merholz wrote, back in 2005, User Experience is a Quality, Not a Discipline (

  8. Yes! So much yes!

    Nick – to your “If a job’s to be done it’s better to have one person’s name beside it.” the problem, for me, is that the job is *way* to large for any one person. There are very, very few people who are really good at IA and IxD and CS and ethnography and visual design and … the list goes on. There needs to be collaboration.

    The lines we draw between UX and non-UX work are pretty damn arbitrary. So what I see again and again is that companies draw an arbitrary circle around a few areas and the rest gets undervalued or lost. Which usually ends up hurting the product and the business.

    Producing a great product – doing great UX work – involves a team. Working together. Having one person be accountable produces bottlenecks, which almost always means that UX loses out.

    1. Hi Adrian,

      I don’t think this is a point about what does or doesn’t fall under UX. You’re right the person who can do it all probably also trots into work on back of a unicorn.

      The distinction I make is that being accountable for user testing on the project, is different from having responsibility for it actually happening. That might lie with the researcher or multi-skilled developer of the whole team for that matter.
      I take responsibility for facilitating the ongoing dialogue about the design and experience that includes team, stakeholders and the user’s voice.

  9. Yes, yes, yes!

    You can see that the skills required to be good at UX are no longer just about familiarity with tools or even research, they now also need to be about soft power and persuasion i.e. getting what you need from disparate parts of organisations.

  10. Yes, I fully agree that UX isn’t a traditional role that can be stuck into an organization chart.

    For me, UX is the art/science of understanding the communication needs both within and between roles.

    I think one of the most important ways to improve UX is to understand that whatever role we have, that role is always about providing something to someone else. That someone else is the user. Thus to improve their user experience, the provider simply has to make sure it is understandable.

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