1-on-1: Interview with a Human Factors Expert – Randy Sieffert

Each month, we interview a human factors expert to get their take on the Human Factors and User Experience industry. In this month’s installment, Russ sat down with Randy Sieffert. Randy is the Director of UX Research at ServiceNow and former Head of Global UX Design at HP.

Russ: Let’s jump right in…in your career you have started and built several User Experience (UX)  groups, how do you make sure you can deliver value quickly to your organization, yet still be rigorous in your UX research?


Randy: This is a great question and something I’m dealing with now. I don’t have a great answer or a perfect formula for this, but I can tell you that priority-one should always be delivering value to the business. I tend to adopt a ‘build as we go’ philosophy where the team should build out its tools and methodologies by doing and delivering not BEFORE doing. Quick delivery without solid tools and methodologies will invariably lead to cutting corners to get quick value added to the business and that’s the rub. If you err on expediency over quality then that sets the expectation that, “Can’t you run a usability test in a week?”. It makes it hard to back out of that in the future. I try and manage these expectations by clearly articulating any assumptions and constraints and that we will aim to constantly improve with every iteration. Basically, I try and take a teaser approach, something I learned working with a Hollywood start-up; build an appetite for more.

Russ: User Experience is a big tent with designers, behavioral scientists, technical communicators and others contributing. How do you mentor colleagues that are not classically trained behavioral scientists to conduct UX research?

Randy: I have not met a UX practitioner that has a linear path to their career. We are engineers, artists, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists. Our careers tend to have a lot of turns. It’s this diversity that I think actually gives us our strength as one of the most employable disciplines in technology. If you find yourself a manager or mentor of one of these folks entering or making a career change, what do you do? Where do you start? I look for the seed which can serve as a bridge in their new career. I was chatting recently with an Instructional Designer who had been assigned to a UX team (no choice of hers). She was worried because she “knows nothing about UX”. I explained to her, “in instructional design you define your audience, their goals and objectives, understand their work and tasks, and develop solutions based on their needs, right? Well, that’s the core of user-centered design!”. From there we can always build on tools and methodologies specific to UX research.

Russ: Some people think that there’s nothing wrong with design that great designers cannot fix. Is having a team of great designers enough?

Randy: Right, you do need great designers if you want great products but having top talent won’t be enough. To have sustainable, great design and repeated success you need strong design processes. In mentoring junior designers, I often tell them that design is 10% innovation and 90% managing constraints. Constraints are in the form of technology limitations, team bandwidth, schedule, or budget. To have sustainable, high-quality delivery you will need to have optics and the processes in place to manage these constraints.

Russ: Recently, we’ve heard a lot about User Experience maturity models. Can you describe them and why they’re important?

Randy: I’m a process guy, so I love maturity models and have built a couple myself over the years! Maturity models give a framework for assessing your current processes from staffing strategy and product quality to alignment with business priorities, etc. From these assessments, you can develop a plan to improve your maturity over time. It’s important to understand in using these models, that increasing maturity is a several year journey, so it’s important to focus on incremental improvements over time and focus on some key areas instead of trying to do everything at once.

What’s great is that there are maturity benchmarks you can use in discussion with your business partners of the importance to improve, and therefore invest in the operation of design. There’s enough history and analyses now showing the tie between design maturity level and business metrics like stock performance or revenue. Definitely take a look at some of the material you can find from the  Design Management Institute.

Russ: Generally, there are 3 ways to add User Experience expertise: (1) you build it internally, (2) you partner with an outside group, or (3) you purchase an outside group. When would you recommend doing each of these?

Randy: When building out a more mature design organization, it makes sense to start to specialize your staff as it gives you efficiencies at scale. Likewise, I think it is also important to have a plan of how much of this you should build in-house versus partner. In building a more mature design organization, here are a few things I think about:

    1. Keep a contractor base. Even as I’m building a team of direct hires, I also try to build out 10-20% of my capacity of contractors. It’s a great way to assess incoming talent and, if it works out, convert them to direct hires. I’ve managed through famine more than I have feast, and in my experience, I have found that when budget cuts come, and they always do, they tend to come in 5 or 10% increments. This will then help you maintain your direct staff.
    2. Even if you are able to build a high performing team there will be the need for burst capacity. This is where partnering with agencies comes in, it gives you great scale with expert partners (like Research Collective!!). A couple of things to keep in mind for any partnership are a) get your direct staff involved, they should not feel that an agency gets to do the “cool work” while they may be busy on tactical delivery, and b) invest in a very few number of strategic partners. You form a relationship over time and they learn your business so any new engagement has little to no ramp time on their part.
    3. If your bandwidth needs are growing faster than your ability to hire direct staff, you may have the rare opportunity to invest in an “acqui-hire” (acquisition hire) of another company. It seems to be a trend of late where larger agencies are buying smaller agencies and even product companies are buying agencies. In 2013, I was starting an engagement with Hot Studio out of New York and they had to back out because Facebook bought them! If you can do it, it’s a great way to grow your team where organic hiring might not be rapid enough, but like every acquisition, it requires serious planning. Combining two teams will take a lot of work to integrate cultures, org structure, tools, methods, and processes. It’s not easy.

Randy Sieffert HeadshotRandy Sieffert, Director UX Research at ServiceNow

Randy started his career focused on the physical aspects of human-centered design working as an Ergonomist in the automotive industry. After completing his Master’s in Aviation Human Factors from ASU, he began to focus more on the cognitive aspects of human-machine interactions. He spent 10 years at Intel Corp designing enterprise applications, then moved into designing consumer products for the connected home, e-commerce, home entertainment, and mobile.

Recently, Randy has come full-circle, returning to designing enterprise solutions for ServiceNow. In his role as Director of UX Research he is helping bring design-driven innovation into one of the fastest growing enterprise software companies. Currently, Randy is working on designing experiences and researching the benefits of bringing Machine Learning into the workplace, helping automate everyday productivity tasks.

Team Russ headshotDr. Russell Branaghan, President, Research Collective

Dr. Russell J. Branaghan is Associate Professor of Human Systems Engineering at Arizona State University. Russ also serves as Visiting Professor of Human Factors in the Master of Product Design and Development Program at Northwestern. Before joining ASU, Russ spent 15 years in industry leading human factors research teams at Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Fitch, Big Red Rooster and Lextant. Currently, Russ serves as Founder/Chief Scientist at Research Collective, a Human Factors research firm.

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