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Centralised vs Distributed UX Teams (an outsider’s perspective)

Sean Owner 30th May, 2017

With private enterprise and government embracing a customer centric view of their product or service delivery, the role of User/Customer Experience teams within organisations has never been more important. Having always worked externally in vendor-side roles, I have found it fascinating to observe the different ways in which internal UX capability has been structured. There are two well recognised implementation models, centralised and distributed. This is my outsider’s perspective on the pros and cons of each and the model that I feel works best.

Centralised model
A centralised model sees the UX team performing like an internal agency, with the team of UXers, and their fearless leader(s), taking up the role of agency and product teams becoming the client.  As the projects are coming to this team it typically includes specialists (e.g. UX Researcher, UX Designer) and possibly some generalists. The benefits associated with this model are:

  • It provides a strong sense of identity for the UX practitioners within the organisation as they are associated with a team, rather than a product
  • It is easier to create a strong sense of “practice” as the team members are sitting and working together, better facilitating knowledge sharing and mentoring
  • As the team is centralised, it is easier to establish and maintain UX standards and processes
  • The risk of “re-inventing the wheel” is reduced as projects/activities are centrally coordinated and learnings are more easily applied across products

Some of the challenges typically associated with this model are:

  • Product teams can view engagement with the UX team as a “box-ticking” exercise, and not fully embrace the importance of good UX practices
  • The UX team can be seen as “gatekeepers” rather than partners in the product development process
  • There is an increased risk that the value the UX team delivers to the product development process is not always as easily recognised or realised

Distributed model
A distributed approach typically sees individual UXers spread throughout the organisation, embedding themselves within product teams to assist with the product development and improvement process. This model generally retains a centralisesd manager, or management, and often the UXers are generalists rather than specialists as they may be called on to provide both design and research support. Some of the benefits associated with this approach are:

  • UX practice becomes integral to the process and can more directly influence thinking and decision-making of the product team, others in the team can start learning from the UXer and participate in the UX process
  • By sitting with the product team, it is more likely the UXer will be part of those informal discussions that take place over the computer monitor where important decisions are made
  • Being directly exposed to the challenges faced by individuals within a multi-disciplinary team creates more empathy for the roles of others, making for a more rounded UX practitioner
  • The value of good UX practice is more likely to be recognised, reducing the perception of UX as a potential bottleneck in product development
  • Some of the challenges typically associated with this model are:
  • Creating a sense of practice for the UXers, the leader has to work hard to provide an environment where knowledge sharing and mentoring occurs regularly
  • The task of establishing and maintaining UX standards and processes across products can be more difficult

Which model?
Many factors will influence the decision as to which model best suits your organisation, perhaps the most important being UX maturity. Where UX maturity is low, a centralised model tends to work best as it demonstrates a clear commitment to UX and creates a standard bearer for UX within the organisation. As UX maturity increases, a distributed approach becomes more relevant. UX maturity aside, my observation is that the approach with the most promise, but undeniably the more difficult to implement successfully is the distributed model. It drives across the board engagement with UX, and reduces the risk of UX being seen as something you do at certain times rather than it being integral to the product development and maintenance process. However, thoughtful and strong leadership that provides a cohesive sense of practice for the UX practitioners and promotes the value and benefit of UX to the organisation is crucial to the success of a distributed model.

U1 Group has worked with many clients to establish internal UX capability, processes and frameworks. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you’d like to discuss how we can help your organisation become more user focused. Whether it is up skilling your own team, or providing capability, we’re here to help.

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About The Author

Sean Owner

Sean joined U1 Group back in 2010 as a Senior Consultant and since then his role has evolved going on to become Managing Director and now Owner of the business. Sean has been involved in experience research and strategy for over 20 years. With a background in Psychology and a keen interest in technology, Sean is passionate about the use of research to inform experience design decisions. He firmly believes that the best experiences are those which recognise the human that resides at the centre of all interactions.

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