As a UX designer and director, I’m a fan of a certain amount of centralization of design & research for these reasons. The drawbacks, however, can be seen at a meta level — ‘the designers’ have different priorities than ‘the developers’ and ’the PMs.’ Where this centralized team approach tends to break down is in the overall end-to-end lifecycle of concept-to-launch of a product or feature.
When design and research put themselves into a centralized team, they can find themselves left out of the business strategy at concept and planning phases, and struggle to insert customer experience needs into the development & launch. Design teams that physically remove themselves from the rest of their product or dev teams also risk being seen as putting themselves in an ivory tower. The team’s focus is seen to be more about design than the business’s larger strategic goals. Sometimes that’s even true. How effective can a design team be if it's self involved and preaches only to the choir?
Integrating design into product development
With an integrated cross-functional team it’s easier to agree on overall priorities, though maybe differing approaches to reaching those goals, which is healthy, even if sometimes contentious. Greater integration across functions will lead to a better product, and it’s a key component of popular strategies like Lean and Agile.
Jeff Bezos’ idea of the ‘2 pizza team’ was on the right track — not just about keeping a team small, but making a single, integrated, cross-functional team. Unfortunately a "2PT” of 3-12 people is limiting in other ways, like siloing product development, re-creating the wheel, and loosing sight of the larger vision for multiple teams.
A mix of the centralized and cross-functional teams can happen, and is the best solution I’ve seen to keep designers motivated and learning, as well as adding value to the entire product life-cycle. UX professionals should have the benefits of being part of a larger design and UX team, where they can learn from and teach other designers. but they should also own specific products or parts of products and then spend about half their time with their product and dev teams. (Which is hard to do if the design team is physically removed from product teams, another problem with the ivory tower model.)
We all take part in user-centered design
The idea of Lean UX makes a lot of designers and researchers nervous. "If people think anyone (untrained in usability) can do research and design, that will devalue our profession.” What I’ve actually seen is that non-UXers who try to do it on their own realize the value of the professionals even more, and by getting up close to users they often become champions for better UX process. And, they begin incorporating that user-centered design thinking into their business and dev deliverables.
For great design in the end product, design thinking and user centered principles have to be in every part of product strategy and development, and the designers and researchers are in a great position to lead and teach throughout an organization.
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