There are many types of UX projects, as many as digital products. Each has its own challenges and problems, but there is one project type that is the UX designer’s worst nightmare. In no other project will the UX designer come across so many challenges and be guaranteed to be set up for failure.

Welcome to Digital Transformation — the tech version of Change Management, every manager’s nightmare.

So, what is digital transformation? Imagine a large corporation that has grown over the years without a strong tech leadership. In an attempt to keep everything running, diverse software and hardware packages have been stuck together with duct tape and spit to try and keep the business going. This happens everywhere, especially in non-tech industries.

I’ve had projects where a not insignificant dependency for the entire company was one dusty old desktop running software written in Dolphin(?), whose programmer had died two years ago — from old age. Think the millennium bug, but then spread out across hundreds of corporations.

I’m going to describe a fictitious project, but this is based on real experience over several projects.

ABCD is a large corporation with 120000 employees. Their internal enterprise software is used every day to keep the business running, but it is failing constantly, with employees often having to use paper and pencil to capture data. A quick review of the technology reveals that the software used is from 30 different suppliers. Some of the suppliers no longer do business. Ten of the suppliers have since upgraded to software and no longer support the installed software. One machine still runs on Windows 3.x. The sun is setting on their tech, and nobody knows what will break first.

Senior management decides that there should be a propriety software package that does everything, maintained by their in-house tech team. Bespoke to their business. It’s called a portal. With a dashboard. Not a bad idea if done properly.

However, such software is expensive to create, and as each business is fairly unique, an out-of-the-box solution is often too limited. Tech is often outsourced to reduce costs, but language and time-zone issues complicate an already daunting process.

As a threat, senior management will also talk to large software companies like Infosys and EJ, who, like 600lb gorillas, will pounce in and swipe away any fiefdoms and egos in one swoop. The heat is on.
The CTO of ABCD tells his Tech teams to start the process. However, the tech teams are split up into fiefdoms, and each manager of the fiefdom doesn’t want to lose his job and also wants to be the boss of the future portal. Business owners and Product managers see the Tech department getting too much say about how things are done. There are budget constraints, bonuses are linked to deadlines, and personal careers and egos are thrown into this change management nightmare. So the stress levels are high.

And so the innocent UX designer walks into the kick-off meeting, ready to design a wonderful experience for the user. He is full of enthusiasm and excited to do his job. His job is to be disruptive.

If a corporation has had its tech run by 30 different dependencies, and it took an audit to discover that, then you can bet that no one person understands the business in its entirety. Not even senior management. So, when the UX designer wants to create a holistic overview of the workflow, he is perceived as an intruding outsider, making abundantly clear that the management has not been keeping an eye on the ball. It is not his intention, but they will not like it. They will want to kill the messenger.

The poor UX designer will have to confront all types of managers with esoteric names like BAs, PMs, POs, and PLs. All consider themselves better UX designers. They know their product and, therefore, their users better. All are uncertain of their role; all go outside their lanes for whatever reason. Some don’t turn up to meetings because they think their granular work at that moment is more important than any big picture. That is why the company got into its situation in the first place.

The UX designer will try to do research, sketch, show designs, and brainstorm. But this outsider has no chance against the jaded, siloed, self-important managers. The UX designer will make something that one BA asked for, but the PM, in a different meeting, will request other changes that the BA will later ask to be changed back. Confusion will reign. The UX designer will become a pawn in office politics. The business will also complain to the UX designer’s manager if anything is going wrong with the project, even if it has nothing to do with him.

After the project has gone over budget and is delivered late, the users will complain because it is too new. Users don’t like new. Or buggy because it is still in Beta. Especially complicated enterprise software that needs the users to be re-trained. Nobody wants to train or be trained. And guess who gets the blame?

The UX designer.