Selling UX

By Daniel Szuc, Paul J. Sherman, and John S. Rhodes

Published: October 20, 2008

“As industry’s adoption of UX broadens and more of us find ourselves in situations where we need to sell UX, we need to be prepared to do so effectively.”

At some point in your career, you’ll be called upon to sell UX to someone in your organization. You’ve probably already done it. Perhaps you’ll need to justify what you do in an organization or industry that’s just beginning to adopt UX methods or sell UX to secure your position within an organization or get future projects. So, what do you need to know to help you sell UX? What challenges might you face?

This article examines what works and what does not work well when selling UX within an organization, identifies barriers you might encounter to the adoption of UX methods in your organization, and discusses how to package and present UX to stakeholders. In this article, we’ll try to avoid just being prescriptive. Rather, we’ll pose questions along the way, regarding what has worked well for you. Please share your thoughts with us, so we can learn from your experience, too. We hope this article promotes some interesting discussion. As industry’s adoption of UX broadens and more of us find ourselves in situations where we need to sell UX, we need to be prepared to do so effectively.

Selling by Not Selling

Let’s start with a little quiz we’ve used in some of our presentations to stakeholders: What search engine do you use? Show of hands…

  • Who uses Lycos?
  • Who uses Google?
  • Who uses Ask?
  • Who uses Excite?

We bet most of you answered Google. Now ask yourself this: Why do you use Google? What do you like about using Google? What do your friends and family like about using Google? Do you remember how you first found out about Google?

Thinking… Thinking… Thinking… Got your answers? Great!

We’ve gone through this exercise many times, with many different groups, in many organizations. Your answers probably include a mix of some of those we’ve heard before:

  • It’s easy to use.
  • It’s fast.
  • It’s usable.
  • It has a nice, simple home page.
  • It gives me what I want.
  • It’s accurate and finds results quickly.
  • It’s focused and does not get too far away from its core value—and that’s search.

Well, as Figure 1 shows, on the Google Corporate Information page, under “Our Philosophy,” there’s a list of “Ten things Google has found to be true,”—and the number one thing is “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

Figure 1—The Google philosophy

Google philosophy

It’s intriguing that Google, which some would say is an engineering-centric company, has a philosophy that elevates the importance of user experience above all else. Of course, this explains why Google search is so easy to use and widely imitated. Perhaps this also says something about why Google is such a strong business performer.

Now, let’s take a step back for a moment.

The purpose of our quiz was not to focus on how much we love Google products and services or look too deeply at their approach to design and user experience. Rather this exercise was meant to do the following:

  • Entertain and connect with the audience during our presentations.
  • Get people to think about a product experience they enjoy as users—independent of their positions in their companies, whether managers, designers, usability professionals, product managers, or engineers—and explain to us why they enjoy the Google service. (Google is a well-recognized, top-of-mind example. Most people have a positive Google experience to share. However, we could just as easily use another example.)
  • Talk about some of the reasons why Google offers a positive user experience.
  • Touch on themes that are important to achieving a great UX—design, functionality, corporate culture, innovation, and simplicity—without talking about usability directly.
  • Then, finally, start talking about user experience, usability, and a user-centered design (UCD) process.

In the past, we might have gone straight to presenting a UCD process diagram that’s full of methods and tools and talked about the process we wanted stakeholders to accept—and hoped they’d come to believe in strongly. However, our experience has shown that doing this can be too overwhelming for such an audience and, if we use too much UX jargon, make our presentation difficult for our audience to comprehend. This is especially true for stakeholders who, while they may have heard terms like UX or usability, don’t really understand what they mean.

Tip—Start with people’s own product experiences, then work toward communicating UX concepts.

How Are You Selling UX Today?

Now, think about how you’re selling UX today. What tools and techniques do you use to explain what you do and how you do it? What language do you use? Think about how you can leverage the language of others. Yes, it’s true… A focus group is different from a usability test. But perhaps you might describe a usability test as a different kind of focus group to help a product manager understand its real benefits.

What Are the Barriers to the Adoption of UX?

At the UPA 2008 conference, we facilitated a workshop titled “Make Yourself Heard! Selling User Experience in Your Organization.” Here are some of the barriers people told us they encountered when attempting to sell UX:

  • lack of management support
  • developers’ seeing UX as an obstacle rather than seeing its benefits
  • enterprise solutions dictating the UX, giving little opportunity for improvements
  • being a sole UX person, or lone warrior, in an understaffed organization, in which it’s difficult to inject best practices and optimize UX activities
  • increasing demand for UX in an organization that, while it understands the value of UX in general, allocates no additional budget to match the demand
  • pressure on UX when staff alignments and budgeting occur
  • not allowing enough time to include UX, because it “slows down the process”
  • multiple UX teams with different agendas, styles, and leadership
  • walking the fine line between providing valuable feedback and not stepping on people’s toes—for example, avoiding political backlash, developer resistance, and bruising designers’ egos
  • having difficulty selling more advanced and expensive techniques when people expect usability to be fast and cheap
  • approval of UX tools or techniques too late in the development process to make a difference

How can you break through these barriers? Here are some ways we’ve found to be effective:

  • Find key supporters and advocates who can speak for UX.
  • Get involved in the requirements gathering stage of the product development process.
  • Set up interactive workshops to discuss the role of UX on projects.
  • Create a center for excellence to help spread information about UX across teams and the entire organization.
  • Show horror video clips from usability test sessions to executives.

Packaging and Presenting UX

So, how can you package and present UX in your organization? We suggest doing the following:

  1. Know your target audience.
  2. Have a UX sales plan.
  3. Understand what does and does not sell.
  4. Create UX foot soldiers and arm them with a UX sales kit.

1.  Know Your Target Audience

“It’s critical to know whether you are selling to the right person or team and when to cut your losses.”

There are organizations and people who will never understand the value of UX and the benefits it can bring—no matter how hard you try to sell UX to them. We know this from having tried and failed ourselves. So it’s critical to know whether you are selling to the right person or team and when to cut your losses. Look at criteria like the following—especially when working with organizations that might be more receptive to the UX story:

  • management structure—Is there someone in senior management who is open to hearing your story, can introduce you to others who share your passion for UX, and wants to invest in your services?
  • corporate vision—Does the company have a clear vision? Is the company strategic by nature? What words do they use in their mission statement and on their Web site? Are there any clues about how the company views UX? What is the current user experience of their products and services?
  • research and development—Does the company invest in user research to better understand future trends and their impacts on products and services?
  • UX champions—Do UX champions exist within the organization? Who are they?
  • getting on the right UX project—Is a proposed UX project a one-off project or part of a longer-term relationship? Is there organizational buy in? Is there budget to spend? Is it the right project to prove UX can work?
  • product team structure—Are product teams structured to involve and give an equal role to UX?
  • product development process—Does the development process allow time for user research? Can usability testing occur early enough in the development process to use its findings to improve the product?
  • customer care—Do the company and its management really pay attention to and care for their customers? How do they demonstrate this? Do they really care?

Ripe Organizations

Organizations have different levels of UX ripeness, as it were, and receptiveness to the UX story. You know an organization is ripe for the adoption of UX when you see some of the following:

  • Management is using UX lingo.
  • An organization has hired a Director or VP of UX.
  • Product usability testing—in all of its forms—is a given.
  • An organization has allocated budget for hiring new UX staff or consultants.
  • Usability labs are in place or under discussion. (A usability lab, on its own, does not promise UX success, so requires the right amounts of selling and nurturing.)
  • Product managers claim UX is a strategic advantage.

2.  Have a UX Sales Plan

To create a UX sales plan, you need to align UX to a business’s true needs. Answering these questions will help you to do that:

  • What is the number one business need?
  • How does UX solve business problems?
  • How does UX impact the bottom line?
  • Who is funding UX in the business right now?
  • Who’s telling UX success stories, besides you?
  • What’s the number one objection to UX?

Do you have a marketing mindset when presenting UX? To sell UX effectively, you need to do the following:

  • Capture your audience’s attention—using emotion versus logic.
  • Hold your audience’s attention and maintain their interest.
  • Understand what benefits a company wants from UX.
  • Move senior leaders to a favorable action—an offer.

You also need to know the answers to the following questions:

  • Who are your customers, and where and how can you find them?
  • What’s the first thing you’re going to sell them?
  • What do they need to give you?
  • What’s your price?
  • How are you going to convince them to buy your services?

Here are some strategies you can put in place to help sell UX within a company:

  • Work with Marketing to develop product testimonials.
  • Get on hiring committees to ensure the company pulls in the right resources.
  • Once projects conclude, explore lessons learned during a post-launch session.
  • Point to a UX home page on the intranet in your email signature.
  • Suggest new feature and product ideas to product managers.
  • Assist the help desk and customer service department.
  • Give free training sessions.
  • Organize brown bag luncheons.

3.  Understand What Does and Does Not Sell

What sells?

  • positive emotion—Communicate with passion, personality, and enthusiasm.
  • working with like-minded people—Get people who are influential and powerful enough in their organizations to sell for you.
  • getting on the right projects—A project that lets you have a positive impact is one that gives you a good story to tell when selling UX to other projects.
  • simple UX tools your audience can understand—For example, a usability test might not be the ideal UX method to sell to a company right now, but it may be enough to get UX in the door.
  • domain knowledge—Understand the industry domain in which you’re working.
  • clear communication—Present results, research plans, and designs.
  • listening—Use what people tell you about their business and their issues.
  • practical experience—Tell about how you’ve managed similar situations before.
  • case studies—Demonstrate how your work has improved a product’s design and impacted positively on a business.
  • business knowledge—Understand what a business does.

What does not help you to sell effectively?

  • representing usability as the only answer—Don’t say: It’s my way or the highway.
  • trying to sell UX to a company that isn’t ready for it—Avoid flogging a dead horse by trying to sell to a company that is not yet ready for UX and isn’t receptive to the UX story. Instead, sell UX to those ripe organizations we described earlier.
  • relying too much on ROI arguments—Some organizations are not ready to hear the ROI (Return on Investment) story for UX. And you may be selling ROI to the wrong person. For some, ROI arguments are too dry, boring, and academic.
  • using UX jargon—Use terminology people understand—not jargon like UCD, IxD, human factors, and IA.

4.  Create UX Foot Soldiers and Arm Them with a UX Sales Kit

“You achieve the best sales and marketing when other people, who believe strongly in what you have to offer, sell UX for you.”

You achieve the best sales and marketing when other people, who believe strongly in what you have to offer, sell UX for you. Suggest guidelines those who are evangelizing UX should follow when speaking to others about UX:

  • Tell a story. This can be a case study or a delightful product experience to share with our audience. Connect through a common experience to explain what we do. (Remember our earlier Google example?)
  • Devise a simple definition of UX. Remember, avoid jargon.
  • Sell yourself and your team’s services. How can you help a product team to identify and fix their product’s problems, making them look good to both their peers and their management?
  • Talk about your tools. Describe the tools you have in your bag—for example, The Usability Kit.

What Is Your Goal?

“We’re seeing some industry trends outside our UX world … that are having a positive impact on what we do and helping sell our UX story.”

Here’s the good news: We’re seeing some industry trends outside our UX world—like the buzz about innovation, design thinking, mobility, gaming, and terms like customer experience—that are having a positive impact on what we do and helping sell our UX story.

  • So what is your goal?
  • Where do you want to be in a few years’ time?
  • How can your approach to selling UX help you get there?

We hope this article has given you some food for thought about how to better understand organizational cultures, existing barriers to industry acceptance of UX, and how you can package and present UX within your organizations. We look forward to an ongoing discussion with you and hope to learn from your stories.

11 Comments

I agree that the best method of selling UX is to not sell it. It’s one of those few fields where you can be straight up and show the evidence. It’s basically, listening and observing and then solving a problem. No sales pitch needed.

Saying that, I think the biggest barrier now is quite different. Companies now all have UX teams or a UX lead in place, but now the problem is in properly utilizing UX. Sometimes they think that a UX professional should just organize information or create wireframes and functional specs. They cut the problem solving out or even the user experience out. Yet they think they have UX, and the lack of it shows in their products.

This is such a rich topic and a recurring theme for a lot of discussion within the UX discipline. I would first of all express my general agreement with the ideas and tactics your article presents. There are a lot of directly actionable ideas here that readers should consider taking on board.

The main additions I would like to make to your ideas can be categorized into two groups:

  1. Be as practical as possible in your efforts to sell UX into an organization. Address real rather than hypothetical situations. Discuss real issues, real customer complaints, and actual tasks and deliverables. This helps you to draw a very direct line between the issues facing this organization and the value UX can deliver.
  2. Apply your efforts to multiple levels of the organization, from talking directly to development engineers about how you could address their current issues, through to senior management people about the strategic advantage they can gain through the use of UX practices.

Steve

Wow! This is an excellent article and an eye opener for all organizations who are just trying to sell UX to stakeholders and within the organization.

Well said folks. Appreciate your time spent on this article.

Regards, Deepakd

Thanks for the article. Some useful tips, particularly around shifting mode when communicating user experience design, as opposed to practicing in that area. For the patient, a semi-brief word about my own experience in this regard, by way of contribution, below.

From my experience in large organizations at the early stages of adopting user-centered design approaches, I have found it useful to emphasize the behavioral dimensions of service or product design with regard to what a sponsor, product manager, or similar expects by way of response in their target users, or audience. They expect and very much require a shift in behavior of their target users for their product to be successful. I’ve found it remarkable how infrequently this has been considered, yet these shifts represent the measurable aspects of their projects’ objectives.

One of the most useful frameworks for communicating this concern of product design is Donald Norman’s exposition on three key areas of consideration—in his book Emotional Design—relating to visceral response, activities, and behaviors, and the reflective appeal of products.

By exposing a line of thought in meetings, for example, that calls into consideration the changes in people’s behavior that will be required for a product to succeed, it has been possible to get people to focus on untested assumptions about user response, on the one hand, and on the other, to delve into more detailed discussion of the layered elements of a product and how each layer needs to be designed and delivered to succeed. A vocabulary enabling one to name, analyze, and communicate these components with others is fairly indispensable.

These sorts of discussions expose points of risk otherwise not considered on many projects. They help to get down to essential matters concerning the basic value proposition of a service, gaps in knowledge concerning users, and design-generating and bolstering activities that can close such gaps and ensure products embody the needs, expectations, desired behaviors, values, and concerns of users.

From such a point, it is possible to consider options including, but not only, UCD approaches, their history, required competencies, and demonstrable value in the risk space identified—at which stage, dialogue concerning plans and proposed activities and resources can be sensibly brooked.

I have found this all requires a lot of hard work to be honest and is helped greatly by parallel activities aimed at bolstering UCD capability and design thinking and efforts such as interlinking finance, design, and engineering processes in an organization.

My one key tip though, is, I guess, that one has to demonstrate design strength in one’s thinking and in other ways allow people to see you as credible and as a desirable player to have on one’s team. In my experience, the greater one’s abilities in considering the design and business implications of delivering a service end-to-end, the more likely one will be to succeed.

Great article, Daniel. Selling UX can be really difficult and take a lot of time. I’ve found that baby steps and measurement work really well in an organization where you have conflicting priorities or interests. If sales people are throwing ROI numbers around, it can be difficult to argue against throwing over the page advertising on your home page. While you might hear a dozen Google examples or comparisons every day, I really like your example. Convincing people that everything else will take care of itself if you concentrate on the use is a leap of faith for some people.

Money talks when engaging with execs. What’s the ROI for investing in User Experience?

So a quick question: Has anyone used any concrete examples of how, say, a usability problem was identified through research, solved by a UX entity, and the resulting design was measured in terms of conversions, signups, time on page values, number of visitors, which in turn led to sales, ad values, increased readership, which then led to hard cash for shareholders or investors?

If UX can be measured, the figures and thus the money should do the talking.

Thanks for the great article. Lots of great ideas and tactics here. I, too, agree that the best method of selling UX is not to sell it, but let practical examples and solutions—the real evidence—speak for it. However, I think, before people can fully understand how to read the evidence, they need to understand what process and resources are needed to produce that evidence. That is the sales pitch people do need.

Thank you for the quality and positive nature of the responses to the article.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll respond to them, and we hope this leads to further discussion. It’s a great topic!

Regarding ROI: It can be useful, but I suggest you be careful what you measure. You need to be properly positioned within an organization to have the figures you need to measure improvements. Some organizations don’t have that data—believe it or not. I also suggest you should not try to measure too much. Rather, take a few metrics to help prove a case, then move on from there. Improving the UX of a specific function may be only one reason for improved business, so it’s important to recognize other factors as well.

I’m opening up the discussion to Paul and John to offer their insights, and remember, we also cover similar discussions in our workshop , which we plan to run again in 2009.

Just a quick thought in support of this, repeated from something I heard this week: Maybe the best way to sell usability is to avoid calling it usability. Instead, speak the language of the business directly. The example I heard was of a consultant working on Web site usability: He simply called it conversion marketing/em> and otherwise carried on with doing Web site usability. By framing the activity using the point of usability rather than the process, the business was much more accepting.

You touch on the topic of evaluating a client’s “readiness” for UX. Part and parcel of this is selling the client completely, so they understand the investment beyond just the design, all the way through implementation.

All too often I find clients are ready for a new design, but they typically imagine it as a distinct function that hands off work product to the development team.

Even those who do a little planning and brief the development team to collaborate and let design lead the process, still don’t factor in the extent to which design changes their typical development procedures.

Any advice on how to get that point across in the sale? Any advice on how to save a project that hasn’t fully grasped or prepared for design-oriented implementation?

“Apply your efforts to multiple levels of the organization”—great point, Steve.

Executive buy-in is important, but selling and communicating the UX message across the organization at all levels is just as important. I would be most interested to learn more about the corporate cultures that embrace UX or customer-centered thinking and understand more about why they have and what makes them ripe. Feel free to share your stories! What worked in organizations you’ve worked for? What caused frustrations? It seems when everyone is trying to improve the user experience, it can help empower a usability / UX / design team to work on more strategic initiatives instead of facing roadblocks along the way.

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