Designing culture

One company is known for its fabulous design. The other is known for its frustrating products. Both have terrific design teams, so how can this be? The answer pretty much always comes down to culture.

By culture, I mean a set of invisible, shared assumptions that drive behaviour and decision-making. For example, a statement that we ‘just don’t have time’ for user research is not a fact; it’s an assumption that this activity is less valuable than something else. We have to design our methods and project management practices to fit the environment. I find it helpful to start with an organisational culture model such as the Competing Values Framework (CVF). Real cultures are a blend of all four archetypes, but tend to be dominated by one or two of them.

Adhocracy culture

Often found in startups, this kind of culture is constantly looking outside itself to learn. Processes and roles are flexible. There’s usually a lot of room for creativity, experimentation and risk-taking. The weak point of adhocracies is usually a lack of focus or clear ownership, which means it’s hard to get a decision and make it stick.

Adhocracies love nothing better than a whiteboard ninja who can listen to users and internal stakeholders, then turn vague ideas into quick-but-concrete sketches. They’ll value your process skills for bringing order to the chaos, but only if it’s not called a ‘process’.

Clan culture

A clan culture is more focused on employee happiness and involvement than on the marketplace. Overt conflict is frowned upon. The design is pushed and pulled by multiple opinions before it eventually goes out the door. Frustrated designers often respond by keeping everyone out of the process, which only results in more explosions later on. Success in a clan means emphasising your role as a facilitator and coach. The fastest route to a decision that will stick really involves that huge group of people. This isn’t to say you should design by committee! Your best bet is to bring everyone out on field research to shake up the inward-facing perspective and build a shared understanding. If you don’t want ten-person design meetings, be sure to build in explicit checkpoints so everyone feels heard.

Hierarchy culture

Hierarchies value technical expertise, efficiency, consistency and compliance. A decisive leader in a hierarchy can move projects along quickly. Organisational silos and a focus on individual department efficiency tend to foster fragmented user experiences. Hierarchies like stability, so they may be slow to accept new ideas.

Specs and process documents really do work. This is the only sort of culture where being an expert carries any weight. The key to success here is to be a good stakeholder stalker: learn how they make decisions; how and when they prefer to communicate; and what their big concerns are. Don’t accept organisational silos; use tools like scenarios to encourage a broader perspective.

Market culture

Market cultures are like adhocracies in that they focus on learning from the outside, but they’re much less likely to take a leap of faith. Markets like proof, preferably in the form of numbers, though they’ll sometimes believe it’s a good idea if competitors are doing it. The trickiest thing about design here is that you can’t prove you’re right before you at least test something.

UX pros in market cultures need to be scientists and business people. Emphasise analytics and numbers where you can. A/B tests are your best friend. Sell people on qualitative data where you need to, though. Encourage face-to-face time with users, lest everyone forget that each ‘unique visitor’ is a real human with goals and emotions.

No model provides all the answers, and if you find you’re hitting a wall, don’t just blame the culture. Ask yourself if you’ve really designed your design process for the culture you’re in.

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