This article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse on September 19th 2015.

It seems currently one cannot read the industry press without hearing news of yet another digital user experience agency that has been acquired by one of the big IT consulting firms.

Most recently this has come in the form of Ernst & Young’s acquisition of UK user experience agency Seren. So what does it mean for design outcomes for clients and their customers? Are we sitting on the cusp of a golden age of consumer experiences now the big boys finally ‘get’ user experience?

Ever since Accenture set up it’s interactive arm by acquiring Fjord in 2013, there has been a spate of similar acquisitions such as US-based Cynergy by KPMG and Deloitte it seems, has been buying every company in sight that looks anything like a digital agency.

Watching the big consultancies race to acquire contemporary digital design capabilities, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons with the undignified sight of a recently divorced middle-aged man suddenly acquiring a twenty-something girlfriend and a motorbike in an effort to appear youthful and ‘cool’.

There’s no doubt the likes of Deloitte and IBM have acquired themselves some talented designers – and they’re certainly talking a good game when it comes to user experience design. But are they in fact, any good?

In 2012, I wrote of B2B user experience:

“This market is dominated by traditional IT companies who do not fully understand user experience design. For them, this means little more than drawing the ‘user interface’ – usually as little more than an afterthought.”

The fact is that the self-same companies that have been largely responsible for the awful state of enterprise systems and websites hitherto now are asking us to believe that they are leaders in the field of user experience.

I’ve been employed on projects alongside many of the big IT consulting firms, and I cannot deny that many of the individuals I’ve worked with have been high quality professionals who really valued and understood the inputs that specialist user experience practitioners brought to the table.

In terms of culture and process however, in my experience none of these companies are in any way, shape or form set up to deliver best-in-class user experiences.

In all fairness IBM has a slightly better claim than it’s competitors to a genuine UX heritage – having made several meaningful historical contributions to the field of user research. Nonetheless, when IBM’s Interactive Experience brand suddenly appeared from nowhere to be ranked second in the UK’s  2015 eConsultancy Top 100 digital agencies list, cynics’ eyebrows were understandably raised over their alleged fee income of £142.5m – given that they had been set up less than a year previously.

The simple fact is that in a global company of 400,000+ employees mostly geared towards IT infrastructure projects, the acquisition of a silo of 100-odd designers is unlikely to have much impact. In terms of cultural impact it is so diluted that it practically qualifies as homeopathy.

It wasn’t so long ago that the likes of IBM, Deloitte, etc were banging the drum for ‘Big Data’ being the future of customer insight. This was understandable – if somewhat convenient – given that they had provided their clients the very platforms that would yield the data. However, so far, the lazy promise of extant data yielding fantastic customer insight has failed to materialise. IBM’s performance in recent times has been poor. With the shift towards cloud computing, the traditional world of hardware based systems is delivering diminishing returns.

While it’s understandable that the top IT firms are now looking to user experience design to deliver growth, it feels like a cynical move. Having resisted the best practices being developed in this area for so long, in 2015 we are encouraged to believe that overnight they have acquired the instinctive understanding of rich, qualitative insight necessary for experience design. It’s hard to avoid the impression currently that UX is viewed as little more than an arrowhead that can be used to open new clients to traditional consulting offerings.

So far the most compelling evidence that the leopards have not changed their spots is the continued inability of the big IT consultancies to talk about anything in real, human terms, preferring to spout buzzwords such as the ‘consumerization of IT’.

This ridiculous phrase has entered the lexicon precisely because these companies do not have an instinctive understanding of basic, human-centred design. The idea that enterprise and B2B systems exist in a parallel world of design standards that can borrow from the ‘consumer’ world is to miss the point completely.

I’ve long been a critic of enterprise systems – it’s undeniable that there has a great deal of horrible, horrible design perpetuated for years. A lot of it by the same firms now involved in a wholesale rush to ‘consumerize’ enterprise user experience, whatever that means.

Consider also this impenetrable article by eConsultancy in partnership with IBM as typical of the newcomers’ contribution. For a piece purportedly about customer experience, there is virtually no mention of the customer. It’s all about companies, and what they can do (given the right systems and data analytics, unsurprisingly). I’ve been involved in user experience for over fifteen years and I cannot fathom exactly what this article is actually about.

Not only is there is a total failure to talk about real things in real terms, this sort of management-speak is desperately damaging to genuine user experience design. Pushing people towards big systems and technology solutions entirely misses the point that good user insight can be delivered quickly and relatively cheaply by anyone who can be bothered to go and talk to a handful of real customers. But of course, this truth is an inconvenient reality for companies whose profitability relies on selling corporate clients vast amounts of technology on an annual basis.

Regardless of their motives, I firmly believe the infiltration of genuine customer-centric and design thinking into the traditional consultancy world would be a very good thing for them, their clients and ultimately everyone. However, the big boys currently have a lot more work to do to convince me that they really do ‘get’ it.


Postscript – 11th April 2017

When I first wrote this article in 2015, it was intentionally provocative. To my pleasant suprise, not only has it been of great interest to a number of people since, the comment it has stimulated has been not only generally positive but also constructive and instructive. I’d imagined perhaps I’d get a few outraged rebuttals and comments rubbishing my argument. However, despite the wide range of opinion, there seems to be broad agreement that this is an important trend and one that has longer-term implications for the field of User Experience than we have sight of, even two years later.

Some interesting areas of debate have included the question of whether the ‘new’ UX consultancies will remain siloed centres of excellence or become throughly integrated in the overall offerings of the parent company. It would seem broadly, that most companies are currently choosing to run their interactive design wing as a ‘brand-within-a-brand’. I can see the attraction – in the case of Fjord, Accenture has benefitted from retaining the brand equity of a formidable design outfit. Some cynics amongst us have pointed out that the ‘acquired’ designers may reject attempts to assimilate them it to the mainstream of the company, so maybe this is a necessary compromise! If this is the case though, it is an interesting conundrum for the consultancies, their clients and the market. A point was made there that compared to ’boutique’ design agencies, the big consultancies can leverage the power of a global strategic capability.

However in 2017, where is the evidence that this is happening? Retaining the ’boutique’ look and feel of their UX sub-brands seems to be part of most companies approach so far – rather than a joined-up UX and implementation service. If so, then aren’t these consultancies simply replicating what already existed in the marketplace, instead of delivering a new end-to-end capability? To be fair, a joined up service is going to be a horrendous thing to create. It will involve the UX leaders in these companies having a great many hard battles, winning friends and changing culture.

Thank you everyone who contributed to this debate. It’s fascinating and should continue.