This edition of Ask UXmatters discusses how to communicate and sell the UX message across all levels of an organization. Our experts share what strategies and tactics for evangelizing UX have worked for them.
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Q: Executive buy-in is important, but communicating and selling the UX message across the organization, at all levels, is just as important. I would be most interested in learning more about the corporate cultures that embrace UX or customer-centered thinking and understanding more about why they have and what makes them ripe. What worked in the 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.—from a UXmatters reader.
These are the experts who have provided answers to this question:
John Ferrara—Information Architect at Vanguard
Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Principal User Experience Architect at Spirit Softworks; Emeritus Member of Board of Directors, Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
Michael Hawley—VP Experience Design at Mad*Pow Media Solutions; UXmatters columnist
David Kozatch—Principal at DIG
Traci Lepore—Principal Interaction Designer at InContext Enterprises; UXmatters columnist
David Malouf—Professor of Interaction Design at Savannah College of Art & Design; Founder and former Vice President, IxDA
Greg Nudelman—User Interface Designer at Ketera
Daniel Szuc—Principal Usability Consultant at Apogee Usability Asia and founding member and President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch
Communicating the UX Message
“One of the primary skills a UX professional must have is the power of persuasion,” Pabini Gabriel-Petit tells us. “You need to understand where your peers in other disciplines are coming from and communicate the message of UX to them in terms they can understand. I outlined many salient business arguments for UX in my UXmatters article ‘Why UX Should Matter to Software Companies.’ Evangelizing UX is a never-ending process and requires perseverance. Knowing what’s good for UX is good for your organization provides a great incentive for driving the UX message home every opportunity you get.”
“90% of the work of being a UX designer is evangelism,” David Malouf says.
As Greg Nudelman discusses in his UXmatters article “Experience Partners: Giving Center Stage to Customer Delight,” “Any company that has not yet realized making the customer successful is the key to profit and survival is either delusional or on its way out of business. So the good news is that the entire situation is completely in your hands. You, the UX professional, hold all the cards and have all the power. If you can prove to the business people, on their terms, that usability improvements will help them meet their monetary goals, those improvements will get implemented every single time. Organizational challenges are there simply so you can prove how much you want to implement improvements.”
Greg shares this from his personal experience: “Not one company I have ever worked for was truly customer-centric. While some companies might say they are in their mission statement and even hire lots of designers and UX people, companies are only truly committed to one single thing: making money for their shareholders. However, the one clear finding that has come out of the entire UX movement is that focusing on your customers is the surest, most direct way for any company to make money.”
Going Beyond the C-Level to the Entire Organization
“While the goal of having everyone at all levels of the organization work to improve the user experience is a great idea, first they need to know that it is something they should be paying attention to,” says David Kozatch. “A team leader needs to first change the frame, as I described in a blog post I wrote last year on this subject, ‘It’s Not That You’re Painting the Wrong Picture, It’s the Frame.’ Here’s an excerpt:
“Practitioners should reframe the issue by asking managers to support and enhance the ongoing satisfaction of the customer experience. If a product developer asked a manager in one of big three car companies for money to improve the stabilization system in their best selling car in order to improve the driving experience, wouldn’t she get the funds? When film directors ask producers for more money to blow stuff up in their movies to improve the viewing experience don’t they usually get it?
“Those involved in creating online customer experiences have to start talking about the funding of their goals in broader terms. They have to emphasize the importance of creating a satisfying customer experience across all touch points with their customers, with the online experience as an essential piece that helps drive a stronger relationship with the brand. And, as with successes seen in the political realm, this reframing has to be consistent and persistent. That means using this new language in every piece of written communication and every interaction with stakeholders.”
According to Pabini, “We need to get everyone on our product teams invested in UX. As I described in my UXmatters article ‘Sharing Ownership of UX,’ ‘An entire product team must consciously share responsibility for UX—or ownership of UX—because the members of a multidisciplinary product team impact the success of a product’s user experience in different ways.’ Our product teams need to ensure we build the right products—the products our customers want and need—the right way—usable products that are reliable, responsive, and offer a positive user experience. Developing products is a highly collaborative process and requires some give and take among team members, but we should remain aware of our role as user advocates. Always keep the lines of communication with your peers in other disciplines open. Make sure the product you design gets built.
John Ferrara agrees, “The best way to get people invested in UX is to get them involved in it. Wireframe reviews are a great place to start. Since a wireframe is a fundamentally visual document, it serves as a great basis for generating group discussion. Invite people from across the organization—engineering, editorial, marketing, legal—to meetings where you’ll walk them through an early wireframe page by page and solicit their feedback. You’ll find they can bring perspectives to the design that you hadn’t considered yourself.
“Usability testing is another great opportunity to get other departments involved. Before bringing in representative users, invite internal people in to participate in a dry run. This is a great opportunity to find flaws in the test script, while putting people from other disciplines, quite literally, in the user’s seat. As we all know, seeing the world through a user’s eyes can transform your thinking very suddenly. When full testing gets underway, invite them to observe and debrief with them afterward.”
“Make sure, from the beginning, the business and technical needs are shared and understood,” says Traci Lepore. “If people feel like they are being listened to in turn, you will get much better buy-in. In that same vein, don’t keep things in a black box. Get the stakeholders from other key areas involved early on, so they understand what’s happening and feel like they can have input.”
Michael Hawley offers this wisdom: “For different groups to embrace user-centered design and customer-centric thinking, those groups need to see the value in the process—not only for the organization as a whole, but for their particular role and discipline. For example, from a development perspective, managers are motivated by the ability to deliver solutions on time and on budget. Specifications that change because of poor visualization of user interface screens or late-stage feedback from customers cause delays and increase costs. If the application of a UX process can aid the creation of thorough, user-validated specifications, the result is reduced risk of delays and increased expense. Development managers who recognize how UX benefits their role are much more inclined to embrace UX principles than those who don’t.”
“As you proceed with the UX process, be sure you are always including as many disparate stakeholders as possible. Always clearly report findings and share the ownership of the work being done,” David Malouf concludes.
Communicating the Value of UX Effectively
“For our organization, mostly the challenges in communicating the value of UX lie in getting the clients we work with to understand what they will get from working with a user-driven process,” says Traci, who works for a design agency. “One thing that has always worked for us is having true passion and dedication to the philosophy of UX. Passion is catching and engaging and gets others to at least listen to you.”
Traci admits, “It is always a tough thing to think of evangelizing something that is good for you, but may take more effort to do than not—especially when many people in organizations feel they can successfully achieve their results without UX.”
“Just as the use of specific language is important in communicating with your customers—as you pointed out in the Ask UXmatters column ‘Choosing the Language for a User Interface’—it is also important when communicating within your organization,” says David Kozatch. “UX practitioners have to find out what’s going to motivate their colleagues in other parts of the organization and speak in language that is targeted directly at their needs, desires, fears, and goals.”
Assessing a Company’s Readiness to Embrace UX
Daniel Szuc says, “We often try selling the importance of usability, design, information architecture, user experience, or <add your new buzz word of the day here> to companies who are not open to the sell in the first place. They may have different levels of understanding of UX or may not embrace the idea of UX or may not know how to create a culture of making delightful products their customers love. Also, some are simply not open to receiving the sell on UX, because of other factors like market pressures, lack of a corporate or product vision, no management buy in, no budgets allocated to UX, or being a monopoly that will make money even if their products don’t always deliver the best UX—to name a few.
“So, we need to come up with a list of questions to help assess an organization’s readiness to accept the UX story.” Paul Sherman, Daniel Szuc, and John Rhodes presented their workshop “Make Yourself Heard! Selling User Experience in Your Organization” at UPA 2008 and will present it again at UPA 2009. Their workshop initiated a dialogue with the UX community about how to assess an organization’s readiness for UX, and they’ve compiled this list of questions:
How are products designed and developed today? Where can UX integrate?
What is the company vision? Does it use the right words that make it receptive to a UX sell?
Who is working on design today? Where does it sit in the organization and who owns it?
Is there anyone at the strategic level championing UX currently? This is important.
Is there anyone at the product or project level championing UX currently? This is just as important as #4.
What are their high profile products and services? What are they doing well? How could UX help? What UX learnings are there? How could you use these as stories that tell why UX is a good thing?
How can you help teams work better toward meeting a UX vision?
What does the company know about their customers today? How do they know it? How can you help them learn more? How can you compliment their current understanding?
What type of culture exists now? Is the organization engineering-centric, design-centric, sales-and-marketing-centric, or something else?
“I’d be interested in learning more questions from our readers. Before you create your PowerPoint, decide what language you want to use to sell your UX story? What other questions would you add to my list to help you better understand how well UX is baked into your organization?”
Starting with a Small Success
Michael tells us, “Unfortunately, in my experience, simply presenting the benefits of UX and customer-centered thinking to a stakeholder may not be enough to convince them that it is worth the effort—even if the benefits are specifically aligned with their values. It is only human nature for people to react to prior successes on related projects. This is why I have seen the most success with organic growth of UX efforts within an organization. When UX practitioners start small, show success on a project, and deliver value to the stakeholders, the UX team can use that project as a case study to demonstrate the potential to others in the organization. In this scenario, growth of UX-centered thinking happens organically as other stakeholders want to gain the same value their colleagues did.
“Of course, people are generally most open to these ideas after they’ve had difficulties with a project that didn’t involve UX. UX teams should seek out these scenarios as opportunities to promote their value. By demonstrating success on successive projects, an organizational culture can shift to embrace UX and customer-centric thinking.”
David Malouf agrees, “Let’s say you have a product you’re working on. Hopefully, it can be segmented into pretty small units, right? Well, take a very small unit and create a new vision for it. Shop it around as support is gained, validate it internally, and maybe even, covertly, externally. Keep a record of your successes—and then slowly expand on your successes until you reach the decision makers or the people the decision makers need to have consensus with.”
Both Pabini and Greg recommend your reading Eric Schaffer’s Institutionalization of Usability: A Step-by-Step Guide, in which the HFI founder discusses some good approaches to overcoming organizational challenges and fostering the adoption of a UX culture. Pabini says, “Chapter 10, ‘Showcase Projects,’ describes an approach that resonated with my personal experience. Schaffer wrote, ‘A showcase project is a high-profile interface design project to which you apply your usability best practices. … The showcase project must be a success, because this is your first opportunity to demonstrate the value of the process. … The showcase project can demonstrate the feasibility and value of usability work in the actual business environment.’ By demonstrating the success of your UX team with a high-profile, strategically important project of limited scope, you can gain the confidence of those in your company who have not previously experienced the value UX brings to an organization.”
Some Practical Advice for UX Professionals
“Here is what I have done with various levels of success and failure along the way,” says David Malouf. “Not everything works everywhere, because of differences in corporate cultures.
Find allies. Who do you see responding positively to you, who is just as disempowered as you to proceed. You will always do better with a partner than by yourself. An ally needs to be someone outside the UX realm.
Evangelize! Just do it! This is one of the most painful realities of evangelism, but it often means putting in extra hours beyond what is expected from you or being creative with your project managers. The latter has some interesting issues. For example, if the project manager sees you have time for the extra work, he or she may be suspicious over time—so act quickly. It also means you have to start early, so you don’t have a history of doing a lot in a short period of time. They can only judge you by what you’ve done already.
Reach out to customer- or user-facing groups or communities. For example:
user group managers
Prototype! Prototype your ideas into something that clearly communicates a vision. Prototyping lets you express that vision as something that’s partially validated, but obviously needs more work.
Don’t ask to do research and usability. Explain your vision. Show how you’ve come up with it from informal observations and validated it internally with your allies and through the new relationships you made in step 1.
Be open to changing your vision. If, upon reaching out to user-facing groups in step 3, you get interesting feedback, use it to your advantage as a way to show that you are a team player. Here’s where it gets good: If you disagree with the feedback, instantly suggest validating both directions out in the field. Keep your first effort small—keep all first efforts small. Use remote or near communities—if relevant and possible—and be sure that at least the person with the idea is included in any validation efforts.”
David Malouf adds, “Another thing I do is collect and present case studies—stay away from Apple. For example, when MS Office 2007 was ramping up, I followed the blog of the UX Team intensely and demonstrated not just the scope of what they did, but how it had an effect on the total user experience. They were turned off, because Microsoft is perceived as having unlimited scope—which they don’t—but were engaged by listening to how an organization they usually look up to succeeds. It is also good to look to sources that are not UX sources. For example, it is much better to share material from Fast Company, Business Week, and Harvard Business Review than from Boxes and Arrows or UXmatters.”
Greg offers the following strategies for overcoming organizational challenges:
“Demonstrate the relationship between UX and making money. Use industry cases like Staples making 20 million a year by removing ads and extra links from their ZIP code page—example courtesy of HFI, Inc. This will introduce the topic of UX and its possibilities into the minds of decision makers.
Find out which goals are important to people who can say yes. Present your design ideas to true decision makers. Hint: This may not be your direct manager. Demonstrate how these ideas will help them meet their goals, how much they will cost to implement, and what the projected ROI will be.
Get approval for a pilot project. Find one—preferably C-level—executive who will be your UX champion and get approval for a pilot UX project. Build an alliance of like-minded UX people around you as your team. Make sure to use the best UCD and UX methodologies and document everything. Measure key metrics before and after you make changes to demonstrate how you’ve blown away even the loftiest of expectations.
Quit whining! The power is in your hands. As the company’s UX expert, you are the one who makes things usable and allows everyone in the company to make some money, survive a tough economy, and emerge stronger. If you feel you absolutely can’t succeed in your company, you won’t. In this case, it’s worthwhile to look for other employment at a company where you feel you can succeed.”
“First, let’s be honest with ourselves,” says David Malouf. There are definitely organizations that are not going to get it and are not interested in getting it. In such cases, your best move—hard to say in this economy—is to get out. Be aware that there are battles worth fighting and battles you should retreat from. Some organizations—way too many—have an entrenched culture, so unless there is something else keeping you there that makes your job rewarding to you, you may want to think about moving on.”
Traci shares her experience working within a design agency: “I have had the benefit of working for a number of years in a consulting company whose whole philosophy is one of customer-centered design. The interesting challenge we have had is that, when it comes to doing internal work of our own, we fall victim to deadlines and, at times, don’t follow our own advice.”
Arguing Return on Investment
“There is a healthy debate in the UX community regarding selling UX and usability efforts in an organization by showing a good return on investment (ROI),” Michael asserts. “In my experience, ROI arguments relating to overall organization success resonate most with executives who are focused on the strategic direction for an organization. However, while executive buy-in is important in integrating user-centered design into an organizational culture, it is difficult to dictate the use of particular processes or develop a different mindset in an organization by executive mandate. I have seen well-intentioned UX professionals make strong ROI arguments to executives for a greater strategic role in the organization, only to find themselves frustrated making the same arguments to tactical teams.”
“Some UX organizations endeavor to isolate the ROI for UX, which I think, in most cases, is misguided,” says Pabini. “At best, it’s difficult to calculate. Products succeed or fail in the marketplace, and it takes a product team to develop a product. The success of a product demonstrates the success of the entire team, and we should celebrate that. On the other hand, if a product manager defines a product customers don’t want or a development team produces a product that is buggy and continually crashes, it won’t matter that the UX team has designed an innovative, highly usable user interface. How do you judge the ROI of UX in such a case? That’s why it’s so important that a product team be conscious of the shared ownership of UX. A product manager needs to be receptive to the user research a UX team provides and use it to validate product concepts. A development team needs to be mindful of the importance of the quality of their code to the user experience. As UX professionals, we need to ensure they are.”
Some Final Words of Advice
“In the end,” David Malouf says, “it is up to you and your ability to virally spread knowledge and create new evangelists for your cause. Good luck! It is always a rough road, but every little success is just amazing!”
John warns, “UX suffers when we wall ourselves off from the rest of the organization. Getting people from other disciplines involved gives them the opportunity to feel that you’re all working toward a common goal. At the same time, it gives you the opportunity to advocate user-centered thinking and gain that critical buy-in.”
In conclusion, Pabini offers this advice, “In endeavoring to foster a UX culture, take advantage of every opportunity to evangelize UX. Take the case for UX to the highest echelons of your organization and get buy-in and support from C-level executives and other leaders. And educate your peers in other disciplines about the process and value of UX. Help them to understand how their work impacts the user experience and how they can help you to create great user experiences for your customers.
As Principal of Lone Star Interaction Design in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters. Read More