November 10, 2017

UX on the Corporate Battlefield

We often read stories about the miracles of design thinking — but they usually focus on smaller UX (User Experience) teams. We rarely hear, though, about design thinking at centuries-old Fortune 500 companies. In fact, instituting a culture of experimentation in an established corporate environment might seem next to impossible.

Because these businesses don’t prioritize usability testing, they often build products and services at a huge cost without delivering expected value to customers. But we can change that!

There is a reason some top MBA programs have shifted their curriculum that combines a “Mission Command” approach with design thinking — replacing an emphasis on the archaic “Command & Control” style of the past. The landscape has changed with the times and our corporate priorities must evolve, too (source).

I have been blessed to work for a big company that embraces innovation, encouraging my UX team to push our creative boundaries. There are unique challenges that may seem frustrating at first, but they’ve given me the chance to sharpen my own process. And I believe working for a large firm is a wonderful experience that benefits every UX person.

The most dangerous phrase in the language is “we’ve always done it this way.” — Grace Hopper

While working in UX at a large corporation can feel at times like a battlefield, we can transform create a healthy, functioning society.


Let’s start with some of the obstacles faced by a Fortune 500 UX team.


  • Silos: Classic waterfall. Designer throws deliverables over the wall to developers…never touches them again or even speaks with a developer.
  • Hoops/red tape: There’s many moving parts like peacekeepers (Customer Related Mgmt.), soldiers on the ground level (Ex: Farmers Insurance agents), propaganda management (designated Marketing team), political diplomats (established floor for legal). Getting all of them to align for one project is not impossible, but definitely a challenge.

You sit pondering “Well if (insert noun) wasn’t so (insert adjective…likely, a negative one), we would’ve had met our (insert metric–release date, KPI, etc.) goal!”

  • Speed: Things move slower. Luckily, a designated UX leader (not just a designer) on the roster can move mountains. The plus side, change happens slowly and with warning, so new hires/layoffs, mergers, etc. are planned for, preventing your project from being sent into oblivion.
  • Technology: It may feel like you’re constantly trying to play “catch-up” with the latest tool trending on TechCrunch. Do not let this intimidate you. Although not ideal, either you can fight tooth and nail to get an 100 year old, billion dollar company that’s invested insurmountable amounts of money into their backend to change or learn as much as humanely possible about the current tech and build with it.
  • Quantitive data isn’t good enough: User behaviors via usability test videos without accurate without the numbers can be a hard-sell in executive meetings.
  • Agile/Scrum: It does happen, but may be “mislabeled” or followed incorrectly, often becoming “WaterGile”.


But working in a large corporation also offers plenty of opportunity.
  • Conveniences: Whether its large Corporate Budgets allowing easier user-testing, a whole floor dedicated to customer analytics, or even something as simple as having your own desk. Leverage them and get the tools you need win on the UX front.
  • The Omnichannel: The Fortune 500 club is not putting all of their resources into launching one golden product like a startup would. There are many more wheels spinning to keep the lights on in your office. Now it’s just not empathy behind why a user clicked on that button on your landing page, but how they felt when a representative pulled up on their driveway or what the mailman put in their mailbox pertaining to what they paid for on their phone with ApplePay.

(Source: ControlPay)

(Source: ControlPay

  • Massive customer base: All of the pieces in place. It’s been established for close to a century that your user needs you[r services]. The majority of startups die within the first year without reeling in 100 legitimate customers. Whereas you are handed a golden ticket with a giant user pool and the correct outlets to reach them for quantitive/qualitative data.
  • Designated UX platoon: In Mid-level companies, UX is viewed as important enough to hire a person, but not important enough to be a separate, prioritized department. Or worse, UX professionals are thrown under an existing organizational hierarchy because they are not sure where UX people belong. A solid UX team is a godsend and if you have one, you’re well on your way over conquering the battlefield. (
  • Benefits: Tuition reimbursement or going to conferences are more generous, allowing you to improve not only your own skills, but create a knowledge center for your team!

Action Plan:

I would urge you to begin with a practical survey of your firm’s landscape and focus on the How+Why your floor is pumping large amounts of cash(Remember, corporation here, not startup budgets) into these services and then applying the same How+Why into an action plan.

Break down the walls between Developers, Product Owners, Program Managers, and yourself…LITERALLY! I have been blessed at Farmers Insurance which encourages Pairing with developers. This is INVALUABLE. An issue affecting the user’s journey that takes 2–3 email threads in Microsoft Outlook and a week to solve can be done in an hour or less. We can quickly move to the next task, improving efficiency; while assuring our user’s needs are on the forefront.

Stakeholder meetings need to have a dedicated UX’er involved. I can’t argue this enough. Reach out to your immediate superior about getting involved sooner in the thinking rather than later; even if it is just to be a fly on the wall and take notes for your aid. Any manager worth their weight would gladly allow you do this on a million dollar initiative if it can save his/her butt and the company tons of technical debt. This is how you define value and build teams that have a shared understanding of goals that can provide solutions fast, without unneeded delay.

Yes, Radical Collaboration is a thing and damn good one, if done correctly.

Get involved in DevOps. An absolute must. In a nutshell: Developers want to make new features, improve the product; fix bugs, etc. Operations wants to get everything up and running and never change; since changes cause new errors, bugs, performance problems, etc. DevOps goal is to ease the tension between these two camps and increase an organizations ability to deliver applications at an extremely high velocity. With releases happening at such a rapid speed, a UX’er’s job is never done. Get a broad idea of how these wonderful features you’re creating are functioning on the backend. Learn the bugs coming out of tests and how they affect the user so you can plan ahead before they unravel into something bigger. A good rule of thumb is to stay 2 weeks ahead of release schedules at all times.

You’re Quant’ skills need to be as good as (if not better) than your Qual’. Qualitative data like sharing user comments from recorded usability tests of a small sample will may seem low value at first to the movers’n’shakers of your project. Once backed by quantitive data, these go from a being “nice-to-have”, to absolute necessity and will help inaugurate your UX team as the true advocates of the user. Become best friends with your Analytics team and kindly ask for to subscribe to their daily/weekly overview emails (trust me, every company has this.) and find patterns in customer experiences.

Have a UX Checklist made specifically for Corporate atmospheres. Once you solidify this, send it as far as your reach can go and share it with EVERYONE! It’s of absolute importance that everyone working there knows how things will be done going forward. It’s on you, the fancy UX specialist they threw money at, to enforce this. If you get nay pushback, immediately shine light on how this affects your core customer and following it can save thousands of dollars/hours. Don’t forget ADA Compliancy!

Companies toil at building products or services at a HUGE COST that do not deliver the expected value to customers. Something a simple as a usability test is usually the 3rd or 4th priority for a large company…but we can all agree, it may definitely not be the first. Well, let’s change that!

These techniques and practices described, although not yet mainstream, are known to work. Apply an agile mindset and strive for incremental improvements: It’s best to implement piecemeal, leading to change on a local level–direct team, immediate boss–rather than a full-blown blitzkrieg on current company methodologies that gets aggressive push-back rather than excitement).

Recommended reading:

Companies doing Omnichannel right

Linchpin by Seth Godin

Dustin Curtis’ Letter to American Airlines

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