Business analysis and the politics of design

5 min read Guest Blogger

Managing Director of Ampli2de, Cornelius Rachieru, shares some insight to the relationship between business analysis and design before he hits our shores for UX New Zealand 2016. 

Whenever I have a conversation with design students or new entrants in our field about becoming a user experience designer, a couple of questions always come up. Understandably, the most common is “How do I get a job in UX?” The other one that comes up quite often is “Going back in time when you were starting out, what is the most valuable thing you wish you knew back then that you eventually learned along the way?” The answer to that first question is never simple, and is usually related to the background of the person asking the question, so I won’t get into that here. But my answer to the second question is much more succinct and is usually met with a surprised look: “I wish I understood that design is politics, and how to navigate the highly political endeavor that enterprise design is a part of.”

Designers are politicians

We’ve all been exposed to the many parallels between (UX) designers and other disciplines (architects and film directors come to mind), but there’s still very little literature out there describing designers as politicians. Knowing how to approach and how to work with our counterparts from other disciplines, especially in the enterprise space, is now a survival skill, even more so than technical or artistic skills. Mike Monteiro has often stated that he’d rather hire a good designer who can sell his work, than a great designer who can’t. This is also a fact underlined by the recent trend in companies shifting to hire entire multidisciplinary, high performing standalone teams (as illustrated below in a tweet by @Stripe), or acqui-hire entire companies that have figured out how to work well together.

Think about it. Many of the decisions we make are scrutinized by business, marketing, communications, stakeholders, users, project/product management, leadership and pretty much every other non-design discipline that happens to take a brief look at our deliverables, regardless of whether they are research, sketches, wireframes, prototypes or finished products. Everyone has their own opinion and brings their own subjectivity and bias into the conversation, or dare I say, debate. As Paul Rand puts it in his famous 1975 essay “The Politics of Design”, that reality is further distorted by the fact that “persons unqualified to make design judgments are frequently shifted into design-sensitive positions. That position of authority is then used as evidence of expertise.”

Consequently, our work becomes as much about finding out what “the right thing” to be created is, and pushing that process from concept to actual product, as finding ways to persuade others, (whether qualified or unqualified) to evaluate our work, to get on board and support our concept, process, products and ultimately, the design decisions we’ve made.

In the enterprise space, the more visible, early non-design activities are mostly related to business analysis. Whether it’s for the purpose of creating business plans, or product roadmaps, process flows, or coming up with functional requirements, business analysts (BAs) are usually the first project team members hired by leadership, product or project management. As a designer in the enterprise space, understanding the basics of business analysis and knowing how to engage and work with business analysts is nowadays a foundational skill. Unfortunately, good resources that can point designers in the right direction when it comes to this collaboration are extremely difficult to find.

Finding a harmony between UXers and BAs

In my presentation at UX New Zealand 2016, I will address this very subject, including the origins of our UX and BA disciplines, many of the similarities we share, as well as the subtle and not so subtle differences in the approaches we take to create our deliverables. And last but not least, we’ll analyze the timing and the most efficient ways to engage our BA counterparts, as well as the anatomy of a design argument with a business analyst.

However, even if you master most of the above, you may still have a hard time evaluating whether you’re joining the right (multidisciplinary) team or not. So, I decided to go back to my 15+ years of enterprise scale projects and interview some of the people I worked with (and worked for), in order to find out if there was anything about the way BAs and UX designers were hired and worked together that could predict whether those collaborations would be successful or not. Looking at the data from the 23 largest projects I’ve ever worked on (valued from $3 million to $1.2 billion USD), some very successful and some rather unsuccessful, I’ve uncovered a crucial piece of information. I’ve found that the hiring delay between the lead business analyst and the lead experience designer is the most telling variable that can predict the upcoming degree of conflict between BAs and UXers, and consequently the success of the project from our perspective.

Want to hear more? Come to UX New Zealand!

If you’d like to hear more about what Cornelius has to say about business analysis and design, plus a bunch of other cool UX-related talks, head along to UX New Zealand 2016 hosted by Optimal Workshop. The conference runs from 12-14 October, 2016, including a day of fantastic workshops, and you can get your tickets here. Got a question you’d like to ask Cornelius before the conference? You can Tweet him here: @corneliux