Practicing Great UX Consulting: Part 1

By Baruch Sachs

Published: June 3, 2013

“When we start educating our stakeholders, we run the very real risk of alienating them.”

My last two columns focused on how to become a great UX consultant. Both columns received a tremendous amount of positive feedback, which I truly find wonderful. A common theme in this feedback was a request that I provide practical knowledge about how to implement some of the advice—particularly regarding my point that UX professionals need to stop educating people:

You are not there to educate people. You are there to advise your client and guide the creation of an amazing user experience. You are the expert; that’s why they brought you in. Collaboration and openness are key here. People need to feel invested, not put upon.

In this column, I’ll address this topic, as well as how to deal with well-intentioned UX design suggestions that come from people who are uneducated about user experience.

Collaboration Instead of Education

“We want to bring people closer together and get them invested in the success of the product or application we’re working on. One way in which we can do that is to educate by showing rather than lecturing.”

My last column stressed that, when we start educating our stakeholders, we run the very real risk of alienating them. We may start talking at people, instead of talking with them. This runs counter to everything we should do as UX consultants. We want to bring people closer together and get them invested in the success of the product or application we’re working on. One way in which we can do that is to educate by showing rather than lecturing.

Most business people are show-me types. When I work with clients, I spend a lot of time with them. I wireframe with them. I put ideas on a whiteboard with them. I talk about every element of the user interface with them, from the architecture down to the look and feel. I end up sharing my design process with them—and while there are certainly folks who don’t want that level of detail, the majority of the people I work with ultimately embrace the knowledge. When consulting, consider yourself a shepherd of sorts. You are there to guide and provide direction, but in general, you have to move with the herd. You can’t stop your client’s progress completely by taking time out to lecture. You can slow them down and speed them up as appropriate, but at all times, you need to be in a guidance mode.

This is what differentiates a great UX consultant from a good one. A great UX consultant knows that true leadership is not always about standing in front. It’s also about standing side by side with your clients—and sometimes even stepping back to let them find their way, while never letting them stray too far into unproductive territory.

Clients see a great UX consultant as a trusted adviser and thought leader. People look to us to provide design direction, best practices, world-class design, and to be the UX expert. However, within each client organization, we earn rather than assume this type of role just because we’re UX consultants. As with any type of consultant, giving sound advice and knowing when to speak and when to remain silent are prized abilities.

When we encounter bad design ideas or people fail to take our advice, we naturally want to slip into educator mode and prove to people that we know best. But, at these times, it is essential that we maintain our trusted-advisor status through engaging in collaboration, showing people design ideas, and continually offering to show our designs to users to get their feedback. By collaborating with our clients whenever possible—rather than lecturing them—we allow them to evolve and grow along with us. They’ll develop a better design sense rather than shutting us down and continuing down an unproductive path.

Dealing with Ideas That Are Not Based on UX Knowledge

“Let your client know that you hear what they’re saying, but also that you will incorporate their suggestions only where they make sense.”

How many times have you experienced this scenario: You work your tail off coming up with an appropriate visual user interface design for a client, focusing on good layout, typography, spacing, and the use of color. Your design solution looks contemporary and is actually useful. You show it to your client and all you hear is: “It needs to be sexier, eye popping, intuitive, modern, or whatever.” Your client is completely unable to tell you what about the design needs to change to accommodate their request, but expects some pretty radical changes.

This scenario and others like it happen quite a bit. People fancy themselves user interface designers and want to tell you their design ideas. While I would never tell a Database Administrator or Technical Architect how to do his job, people hardly ever afford UX folks the same level of respect and trust. It’s a reality of our profession. Great UX consultants never take this personally, nor do they take it as an opportunity to preach. If you experience this situation, here are a few tactics that I have found work particularly well in dealing with it:

  • Continue discussing the UI design with your client. Don’t walk away from the meeting shaking your head—wondering how you are going to make your UI sexy. Continue talking with your client about the various elements of the user interface, and get the team to commit to an approach. Talking through their objections often helps people to understand whether they are truly valid.
  • Recognize that, while a client’s viewpoint is not based on their being educated in user experience, that does not make their concerns any less valid. In the end, you need to address your client’s concerns, no matter how uneducated your clients are. Let your client know that you hear what they’re saying, but also that you will incorporate their suggestions only where they make sense. Let them know if their suggestions might cause issues with the current design. Be open and up front about that when discussing their feedback, so they won’t expect to see what they’ve suggested in the user interface.
  • Save their suggestions for later. Deferring ideas that might cause issues with your design is not a cop-out or an act of cowardice. Tell your client that you would like to get some user feedback on the designs as they stand now, then focus your attention on the areas where your client had some good ideas. If user feedback is positive, you’ll be in a stronger position to advocate for your original approach and resist the inclusion of ideas that would degrade the user experience. On the other hand, if user feedback seems to suggest that your client’s ideas may have merit, you’ll have found out that their ideas are worth considering.
Collaboration is key to developing long-term, positive working relationships with your clients.

Collaboration is key to developing long-term, positive working relationships with your clients. Your ability to collaborate with your clients and be open about your design process strengthens your value as a UX consultant. It helps you to build trust with your clients that you are enabling them to succeed, while also providing thought leadership in user experience.

2 Comments

Or, instead of faffing around with gravitas, you could get on with a proper user-centered design approach based on agreed goals and success criteria. Then you have the advantage of actual testable performance to demonstrate that you are on track to achieve what the client needs. Steve Krug covered this well in Don’t Make Me Think.

David, thank you for taking the time to read my column. Certainly, a proper approach with success criteria and goals is part of what makes a comprehensive user experience engagement with a customer.

There are plenty of articles on UXmatters and elsewhere that cover this well. That is not what this column is about.

Without gravitas, as you put it, you may never get to that “proper approach” stage. And you may never be able to radiate with a client to be able to get a second or third engagement. Your comment represents exactly part of the attitude that I am trying to point out to this audience: that we are UX professionals, but we also need to focus on the consulting aspect as well.

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