How an MBA meets the silos challenge of UX

When I was applying to one particular job at a UX form in Stockholm the issue of my MBA came up in the interview. “How is your MBA useful in the UX area ?” they asked.

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Now, I had never given this much thought and had seriously considered removing the MBA from my CV but my pride (and all the hours I put into to it) forced me to leave it on. Usually I just didn’t mention it much.

I don’t remember what I answered exactly, but it centered around strategy and analysis…..or something. As I remember it could have been a better answer.

I think partially I was a bit embarrassed of the degree. This is especially true in Sweden, where it isn’t so very well known outside from the top schools in Europe and the US and thus hard to relate to. Since it wasn’t a ‘design’ degree it somehow didn’t go over as relevant.

Advantages of an MBA in the UX area

Having worked a few years now in a number of UX agencies in Stockholm I have definitely seen the value of my MBA.

1. Ability to conduct analysis – this is probably the most valuable area that I learned from my MBA. The ability to structure, analyze, then communicate the results to an audience has been invaluable in my UX.

2. Real Cases – We were always exposed to the basic theories in various areas, but there were ALWAYS coupled with real case studies. Very little purely theoretical examples.

3. Education based on frameworks and mastery in applying them. No absolute right and wrong. – Now I have read some criticism of MBAs recently in light of the value of design thinking in business. Basically the argument goes – MBA education encourages one answer to the case while design thinking embraces multiple possible outcomes. In my experience this can’t be farther from the truth. For most cases we could propose many solutions as long as they could be justified. Believe me, if you have studied enough theories and frameworks you can justify anything. The best case studies that I did were ones that I combined frameworks from multiple areas to justify a innovation solution. Sounds a bit like design thinking doesn’t it?

4. Consider things in their entirety. By the end of your program you are encouraged to think holistically and apply your knowledge across many operational areas.

This last point bares some further explanation, since I think it is particularly relevant.

The Challenges of Silos

I have just finished following the UXLX event in Lisbon on twitter and noted the continuing discussion around ‘silos’ in organizations and how they limit effective UX thinking. I have been involved in the UX area for a few years now and attended a handful of conference. In all of these conferences, this issue of ‘silo crossing’ always comes up in varying degrees. Clearly this is an area of frustration.

The discussions seems to follow a similar patterns with a good dose of hand wringing.

‘The managers in department ________ just don’t understand the value of what we are doing… ‘

We need to ‘cross the silos’ or ‘ get a seat in the C-suite’ or something similar…

My true belief is that to integrate UX thinking into organizations will require people to meet somewhere in the middle between the silos. I agree with Peter Merholz that UX should be seen as a strategic effort as well embody tactical solutions (methods and tools). Until this is achieved we all will need to understand the other side.

To effectively eliminate silos (or at least minimize the effects), UX practitioners need to understand the other silos. To understand persons working in other silos we need to understand their motivations and how they define success. One way to do this is through business education.

When you look the core of a typical general MBA curriculum, you see a couple core areas:

  1. Strategy;
  2. Finance;
  3. Marketing;
  4. Human Motivation – extremely valuable;
  5. Some sort of Quantitative Analysis.

All of these areas of knowledge have been beneficial, but what they have given me in my UX work is understanding.

Understanding of other departments and what their function is in an organisation and how they measure success. What makes them tick if you will.

Crossing Silos.

“Understanding other silos can make yours better.” – @kimgoodwin

Now I am not suggesting that all UX practitioners drop their wireframing tools and head off to business school. This is overkill.

But I do think that UXers should take the time to educate themselves in the basics of how businesses operate and organize themselves. Maybe shift the spotlight of their view point a bit more over to the other silo.

And UX consultancies and other organisations; the next time someone shows up at your door step with an MBA under their belt, give them a chance, they may just surprise you.

Christopher McCann

Christopher has been developing user friendly information systems, websites and applications since 1996. Presently, he works as an Interaction Designer and Strategist located in Stockholm, Sweden. You can follow him on his blog and Twitter at @letterpress_se.

4 comments on this article

  1. Sven on

    Business schools do not prepare you for creating products or services, and unless you’re going to become a McKinsey consultant I have no idea why anyone would want an MBA. If you are any good as a designer then it’s in spite of your MBA and definitely not because of it. :-)

  2. Peta on

    Completely disagree Sven. I am about to complete my MBA and have just started a role as a Digital Architect. I was hired due to my broad background and ability to wear the different hats of all stakeholders to create the best kinds of products and services – relevant ones.

  3. Kaycee A. Collins on

    I agree with this entire article. I have an MBA (pursuing an M.S in HCI). I am a UX Researcher & Designer in the financial industry.

    As UX researcher/designers we need to understand our audience and their goals…well our audience is the business we are consulting for or working for. Those people are our end users and whatever it is we are delivering to them. The lessons I learned in my MBA program give me a better hand when speaking with different parts of the business. I fully understand their needs and reasoning because of my education. An MBA helps you understand the business at a deeper level.

  4. Katy on

    Good article, Christopher. To get UX to the C-level, that person must understand all aspects of business. As you stated in your article, being able to cross silos does requires empathy and a holistic approach to implement UX strategies that can benefit the stakeholders and customers. At least at the large, global companies I’ve worked at, no one makes it to the C-level without cross-functional knowledge that an MBA provides.