UX and OKRs

Posted on December 20, 2021.
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(Author’s note: Edited to clarify that while Agile as an idea and approach is a sound and proven philosophy for doing good work, its implementation does not always embody its core tenets nor its intended results.)

I started out as a web designer in 1999. Shortly thereafter I transitioned to doing information architecture work. By the mid 2000’s I was a full-fledged UX designer and then a design manager. Throughout my career, then and now, UX designers have struggled to get accessible, equitable, user-friendly designs implemented and shipped. There is an infinite number of articles about why this is and how to try and get that, seemingly unattainable, seat at the table. 

Agile Didn’t Help

The nearly universal transition to Agile, noble in its goals and conception but overwhelmingly poorly implemented, made doing good user experience design work harder. Short sprints, an early vocabulary reflective of its roots in software engineering and a misapplication of the process to laser focus on increased velocity didn’t provide the time nor the desire to ensure designs were achieving their goal. We’ve worked for a long time to integrate UX and Design with modern software development practices and now have a set of proven best practices to serve as starting points for teams across industries. However each organization is unique with varied levels of support for good UX work. Best practices without constant evangelism and iteration result in compromised implementations that fail to deliver on their promised value.  

Objectives and Key Results Offer a New Opportunity

When implemented correctly, OKRs explicitly demand that good user experience and design work take place. How do they do this? By removing any indication of a feature or solution from the goal. A good OKR statement doesn’t say, “We’re going to increase average order value per customer visit by 5% by creating a 1-step checkout process.” It stops short of dictating the solution. This is because the solution is a hypothesis. It’s a guess. The team doesn’t know whether the average order value will increase by 5%, 10% or at all simply by making a change to the checkout process. In fact, “a 1-step checkout process” is one of many combinations of code, copy and design the team could choose to drive the desired behavior change (key result). 

Without a predetermined solution, UX design brings its true value to bear on the product. To determine the best way to achieve the goal, teams need to:

  • Understand the users they’re targeting and their current behavior patterns
  • Get a sense of the motivations behind that behavior
  • Learn what solutions the target audience is currently using and how well it meets the need
  • Come up with creative ways to improve on the incumbent solutions
  • Design and prototype promising options
  • Write compelling and helpful copy
  • Test the prototypes and, eventually, working code

(Author’s note: I know UX and Design work encompasses more than just these bullet points. I’m trying to keep this post under 1000 words.) 

This is UX work. Without it, teams take significantly higher risk of choosing the wrong solution. It’s a literal stab in the dark. 

Teams Hit Their OKRs More Quickly if UX is Involved

OKRs are inherently customer centered. The measure of success is a change in human behavior. How can we assume to know exactly what will impact that behavior in our desired direction without rounds of research, design, prototyping and iteration? We can’t. Including UX in the process has often been perceived as an obstacle to increasing velocity. Without the explicit design work, teams are perceived able to ship more code. However, there’s no indication that any of this code is driving the right behavior or any behavior for that matter. Instead of blindly shipping features, teams that employ user experience design in a collaborative way weed out the bad ideas more quickly. This enables them to focus sooner on the ideas more likely to succeed. 

Objectives and key results are, in and of themselves, UX Design’s seat at the table. By engaging in the goal-setting process, designers can set the foundation for a fruitful collaboration with their colleagues across disciplines once the work begins. The conversation is focused on the customer from the outset flowing naturally into the execution phase where design, discovery and delivery work in concert to make customers successful and achieve the team’s goals. 

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