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5 Ways to Be Persuasive in Your UX Work

Research That Works

Innovative approaches to research that informs design

A column by Michael Hawley
November 1, 2011

In your work as a UX professional, do you ever find that you need to convince people that the team should follow a user-centered design process? Do you need to convince stakeholders they should do user research? Do you try to get user experience thinking inserted earlier in the project lifecycle? Perhaps you need to sell yourself or your company? I certainly do. In fact, I find that there are many of these persuasive moments in the practice of user experience design. To be successful as a UX professional, you need to know how to be persuasive.

Being good at persuading people is particularly important in our profession, for a variety of reasons. First, many business stakeholders and partners do not understand what UX design is all about. They don’t understand the basis for many UX design principles or how a user-centered design process leads to intuitive design solutions. Second, because they all interact with an increasing number of user interfaces, they develop their own opinions about what works and what doesn’t. It is the UX professional’s job to persuade stakeholders and decision makers that their personal biases and opinions might not always suggest the best design solutions.

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Recognizing the importance of persuasive skills, I was very intrigued when a speaker at a recent conference recommended the book 27 Powers of Persuasion by Chris St. Hilaire. I immediately read the book and several others on the psychology of persuasion and have since tried to apply the lessons I learned in my work. While the psychology of persuasion is universal—people use it to sell things, get their way at home, and in so many other ways—I have found that there are certain persuasive skills that are particularly applicable to the practice of UX design. While they may seem like common sense, if you take the time to review them, practice them, and remind yourself to use them, they’ll come more naturally in the heat of an argument or when you’re in an important meeting.

1. Be Likable

In the literature, this is a common theme: persuading others is much easier if they like you. If you can develop a personal connection with the folks on your team, they will be less defensive and more likely to work with you. How do you make yourself likable?

First, start with the basics of etiquette. Smile. Make eye contact and offer a firm handshake. If someone asks you how you are, answer, but make sure to ask about how he or she is doing, too. Complement people, thank them for taking time out of their day to meet with you, and find something you may share in common outside of work. These are little things, but if you remind yourself to do them, you will be in a better position to persuade people when you need to.

Second, find something that you like about the people you work with. Under the stress of deadlines and in a fast-paced work environment, it is easy to focus on annoying habits or personal styles that you dislike. But, if you focus on those things, it will affect your demeanor in a negative way. Find something positive about other people you work with and your interactions with them will organically become more positive—and you will be in a better position to persuade them.

I had this experience with a CEO I was working with on a project. The CEO was very direct, dismissed some of the finer details that we were considering on a project, and used obscure metaphors to try to make his points about design. When I was younger, I might have thought that CEO was crazy and didn’t know what he was talking about in relation to design. But, instead, I focused on the positive aspects of his behavior. I appreciated that he was trying to challenge us to think outside the box and innovate rather than getting caught up in the details. I chose to like that aspect of his approach and leveraged it to develop a successful, long-term business relationship with him.

Finally, don’t be afraid to be different. I used to believe in the old mantra that you should dress to match the people you’re trying to persuade. Lessons in the books on persuasion, though, suggested that if you present yourself as being the same as the people you’re trying to persuade, you’ll give them the impression that you’re not offering anything new. Be yourself, and you are likely to be more comfortable, more likable, and in a better position put others at ease.

2. Be the User Experience Geek

Another key aspect of successful persuasion cited in the literature is establishing your credibility. In the profession of user experience, this means you have to show people that you understand the science of human factors, cognitive psychology, and design. Having the ability to explain and rationalize design decisions helps establish your credibility and separates you from others who bring their own personal biases and opinions to an argument.

Language is important in this regard. You should be able to make reference to the actual design principles that are guiding your viewpoint. Refer to decision architecture and the power of social influence. Talk about specific research protocols such as the repertory grid, lotus blossom technique, or design studio rather than research, brainstorming, or workshops. Anything that has a principle associated with it is good—for example, Gestalt principles, the Scarcity Principle, or the Four Plus or Minus Two Principle. Developing a vocabulary around the foundations of our profession will position you as someone who knows what they are talking about.

That being said, your tone and delivery of these principles is critical. You don’t want to sound demeaning or confrontational. Many of the books on persuasion suggest that the best way to deliver this type of expertise is in a helpful, educational way. Position your message in a way that helps to educate a group so they can make good decisions—not to show yourself off as a know-it-all.

3. Bring Your Empathy with You

By their nature, UX professionals are empathetic toward users. To be persuasive, you need to apply this same empathy to team members who you are working with. Recognize that everyone is motivated by something different. If you don’t and instead try to argue directly against other people’s perspective or agenda, they will perceive you as not working toward the good of the group, and you will have a difficult time generating consensus. There are a couple of tricks in the books on persuasive psychology that can help with this.

First, acknowledge others’ point of view, take the emotion out of your side of the argument, and present the usability or user experience perspective. In 27 Powers of Persuasion, Chris St. Hilaire suggests that just using the word perspective is important. By referring to the user experience perspective, you are implicitly acknowledging that there are other perspectives—all of which should be considered equally. Again, tone is important. You should not suggest that the user experience perspective is the most important perspective. Rather, it should be one of many important perspectives that it’s necessary to consider during a discussion to achieve the best group decision.

Second, ask questions to make sure you understand what is motivating a different opinion. If you jump to a quick judgment about a design idea or a process someone else proposes, you might miss the rationale behind that idea and an opportunity to build on something for the good of the group. This is hard to do in the heat of an argument, but asking questions should come naturally to UX researchers.

Third, if you are considering a specific decision, try presenting a user experience rationale for both sides of an argument. By doing this, not only are you acknowledging the different perspectives, you are empowering others to weigh the pros and cons and giving them a choice.

4. There Is No I in User-Centered Design Team—Okay, Maybe Just One I

While the principles of persuasion I’ve discussed so far may appear to be techniques to get your way, your real goal should be getting your perspective heard, then generating consensus and making smart decisions that take all perspectives into account. Literature on the psychology of persuasion offers the idea that people naturally want to be united. If there is disagreement in a room about particular issues, people generally gravitate toward those who unite the group, not those who steadfastly try to push their own agenda. If a group can perceive you as a uniting person, who is most interested in the success of the group as a whole, you will be more likely to influence the group to hear your side of the story.

One way to play a uniting role is to remind people of the ultimate goal. For example, in a meeting, if you restate the goals of the meeting, or in an email, if you reiterate the top-level goals of a project, others will see you as someone who is interested in the best interests of the group.

Language is also important in this regard. As much as possible, try to say we rather than I. Even for outside consultants or agencies, referring to a project team collectively can help you define your unifying role and position you to be more likely to persuade.

5. When All Else Fails, Go Subconscious

The most interesting aspects of my reading on persuasiveness were the tips and tricks that you can leverage to persuade subconsciously. A few of those most relevant to UX design include the following:

  • Yes, and…. Even if you disagree with a point someone else has made, acknowledge their point with Yes, then follow that up by stating your rationale and idea. The act of saying Yes makes others less defensive and more apt to hear your side.
  • Copy physiological and verbal cues. If another person has certain mannerisms or patterns of speech, copying them will make them subconsciously feel more connected to you, and you will seem more likable and persuasive to them. Of course, you should not do this mockingly or jokingly. But done subtly, it can be effective.
  • Don’t say No, say Let’s try this. If you don’t agree with an idea that someone has proposed, don’t argue directly against it. Instead, offer another idea. By adding more ideas to the mix, you are giving people an opportunity to compare their idea to yours, without actually saying no to them and alienating them.

Books on persuasive skills present a variety of other techniques. Find the ones that are most natural and work best for you.

Conclusion

To be successful in your work as a UX professional, you have to be good at persuasion. This does not mean being manipulative or demeaning. If you understand the basics of persuasion and constantly monitor and refine your persuasive skills, you can improve your overall effectiveness and increase the impact you have in your work. 

Further Reading

Boothman, Nicholas. How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less. New York: Workman Publishing Company, 2000.

Cialdini, Robert. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1993.

Lieberman, David J. Get Anyone to Do Anything: Never Feel Powerless Again—With Psychological Secrets to Control and Influence Every Situation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Mortensen, Kurt W. Maximum Influence: The 12 Universal Laws of Power Persuasion. New York: ANACOM, 2004.

St. Hilaire, Chris. 27 Powers of Persuasion: Simple Strategies to Seduce Audiences & Win Allies. New York: Prentice Hall Press, 2010.

Chief Design Officer at Mad*Pow Media Solutions LLC

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Michael HawleyAs Chief Design Officer at Mad*Pow, Mike brings deep expertise in user experience research, usability, and design to Mad*Pow clients, providing tremendous customer value. Prior to joining Mad*Pow, Mike served as Usability Project Manager for Staples, Inc., in Framingham, Massachusetts. He led their design projects for customer-facing materials, including e-commerce and Web sites, marketing communications, and print materials. Previously, Mike worked at the Bentley College Design and Usability Center as a Usability Research Consultant. He was responsible for planning, executing, and analyzing the user experience for corporate clients. At Avitage, he served as the lead designer and developer for an online Webcast application. Mike received an M.S. in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley College McCallum Graduate School of Business in Waltham, Massachusetts, and has more than 13 years of usability experience.  Read More

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