When ROI Isn’t Enough: Making Persuasive Cases for User-Centered Design

May 7, 2007

Making the case for user-centered design (UCD) is a topic of recurring discussion for UX professionals. Much of the discussion has centered on strictly objective approaches such as cost-benefit or return-on-investment (ROI) analysis. However, recent commentary suggests proving ROI is not always enough. For example, Dray, Karat, Rosenberg, Siegel, and Wixon have raised concerns about significant weaknesses of the ROI argument, including their concern it ties UCD to tactical, not strategic initiatives. [1]

How can UX professionals address these weaknesses and make their case for UCD convincing? Promising sources of help are the fields of rhetoric and argumentation, specifically the range of persuasive appeals, the consideration of audience, and the structure of informal reasoning. There has been some discussion of rhetoric and UCD. For instance, Carter and Yeats explored the rhetorical function of a video showing highlights from usability testing. [2] However, until recently, there was little in depth discussion about using rhetoric and argumentation to make the case for UCD. A Special Interest Group session at CHI 2006 tackled this subject, resulting in a lively and useful discussion. [3] Additionally, during management panels at CHI 2006, executives at major corporations such as Intuit and Reed Elsevier stressed the need for UX professionals to articulate arguments and be persuasive in a range of situations on projects and in organizations. One even flatly said that the ROI argument “doesn’t work.” [4]

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UX professionals clearly need expertise in making persuasive arguments, whether to garner support for a UCD process from executives or convince developers not to resist a UCD decision for a user interface. However, this kind of expertise is usually not an explicit focus of our training or education. To help you develop such expertise, this article discusses how rhetoric and argumentation inform the strategy, content, and language of making a case for UCD. Specifically, this article

  • briefly defines rhetoric and argumentation concepts in the context of UCD issues
  • offers practical guidelines and examples

This article does not cover basic interpersonal communication, presentation, or writing skills. These skills are important, but widely covered in other publications and training.

Defining Rhetoric

Often misunderstood as meaning empty oratory, rhetoric actually is the study of using language effectively and persuasively. The study of rhetoric dates back to Aristotle.

In terms of rhetoric, the ROI argument falls under one of Aristotle’s three persuasive appeals—logos, the appeal to reason. In The Rhetoric, Aristotle also stresses the importance of two other appeals:

  • ethos—the appeal to a speaker’s or author’s credibility or authority
  • pathos—the appeal to emotion

Effective rhetoric includes the full range of appeals, Aristotle notes. Therefore, an effective case for UCD needs to include more than ROI justification.

Another important concept in classical and modern rhetoric is consideration of audience. Aristotle notes how speakers or authors must consider their audiences, because different audiences have different motives. Modern rhetoric has expanded audience analysis to include how an audience interacts and communicates and what an audience values. [5] This concept has implications for ROI justification—namely, that it may not appeal to all of members of your audience.

Applying Rhetoric: Context Is Everything

Rhetoric can be best applied as a persuasive mindset that involves constant consideration of your different audiences and their roles, how they communicate, your relationship to them, and more. With this mindset, you can develop cases for UCD that are custom tailored for specific audiences.

Understand Your Audience

UX professionals encounter a wide range of audiences:

  • executives and leadership
  • developers and IT (Information Technology) professionals—both internal and contract
  • business departments and specialties who are closely involved with UX—such as product management, marketing communications, and customer service
  • representatives of business departments and specialties who are not as closely involved with UX—such as legal
  • outside business partners
  • peers and UX professionals in other specialties

For any audience you face, consider how you can make persuasive appeals. Table 1 provides a sample of rhetorical considerations, the questions they raise, and tips on how to find helpful answers to those questions.

Table 1—Rhetorical considerations
Considerations Questions Raised How to Answer

General audience

  • Who is the audience?
  • What are their roles on the project, in the organization, and so on?
  • How do they communicate?
    • What type of language and tone do they use or expect?
    • What formats and media do they use or expect—slides, whitepapers, reports?
  • How familiar are they with the topic?
  • Research intranet sites for organizational charts.
  • Talk to people who have addressed the audience before.
  • Review presentations, reports, or artifacts from past successful projects or proposals.
  • Review presentations, reports, or artifacts the audience created.
  • Observe how the audience presents and uses language in meetings, email messages, and so on.

Appeals to reason

  • What are the audience’s goals?
  • What are the community’s or organization’s goals?
  • What are my arguments?
  • Ask audience members in advance, if possible.
  • Research internal communications for mission statements, goal statements, and so on.
  • Follow the argumentation checklist in this article.

Appeals to the speaker’s or author’s credibility

  • Do they already know you or the speaker?
  • Who typically is empowered to speak to the audience or in this community or organization?
  • What are your or the speaker’s credentials?
  • Review presentations or reports from past successful projects or proposals.
  • Observe who is invited to and participates in meetings with the audience; who is vocal in email threads, and so on, and note their credentials.
  • Reflect on and list your pertinent credentials.

Appeals to emotion

  • What does the audience, community, or organization value?
  • Internally, research strategic initiatives, mission statements, codes of ethics, and so on.
  • Be aware of relevant controversies, recent “fire drills,” recent successes, and so on.

Include a Mix of Evidence Types

UX professionals often are fortunate to have a wealth of evidence at our disposal. Including a mix of evidence ensures a case for UCD addresses the full range of persuasive appeals. Moreover, the better you understand your audience, the better you can anticipate what proportion of different types of evidence will be most effective. Below is a table of evidence types that relate to specific types of appeals.

Table 2—Types of evidence supporting persuasive appeals
Appeals Sample Types of Evidence

Appeal to reason

  • quantitative data such as
    • survey results—other than free-form responses
    • usability testing or ethnographic research metrics—task success and so on
    • usage tracking or performance monitoring—for example, Web analytics
    • cost-benefit or return on investment analysis

Appeals to speaker’s or author’s credibility

  • personal experience or credentials
  • heuristic evaluations by one or more experts
  • evidence from outside parties such as
    • industry-wide surveys, research, and so on—such as that from J.D. Powers
    • best practices based on systematic reviews of research and expert recommendations
  • competitive or comparative analysis

Appeals to emotion

  • qualitative data such as
    • video highlights of usability testing or ethnographic research
    • quotations or verbatim remarks from usability testing, interviews, or surveys
    • case studies
  • competitive analysis—of competitors that evoke emotion

Example Case: Support for UX Professional Development at Cingular Wireless

When I worked for Cingular™ Wireless as a Senior Information Architect and Manager, I collaborated with a colleague to win support for our team to engage in professional development activities such as publishing, presenting at conferences, sponsoring local UX events, and more. This simple example illustrates some basic rhetorical principles at work. I have described the situation and summarized the persuasive appeals we employed. In this case, we had the good fortune of knowing our audiences well, including their roles, concerns, and communication styles.

  • purpose or goal—to secure approval and support for an internal UX team’s pursuing and participating in UX professional development activities—such as conferences, publishing, and so on—at a large telecommunications corporation
  • audiences:
    • primary—a Senior Director concerned with strategy
    • secondary—a Vice President focused on strategy and innovation
  • known concerns:
    • risk of revealing intellectual property
    • no precedent—emphasis on training in technical skills
  • presenters and authors—two team managers
  • case format and forum—PowerPoint presentation during a series of meetings
Table 3—Appeals addressed in the Cingular case
Appeals How Addressed

Appeals to reason

  • multiple arguments, including quantitative evidence, such as
    • UX team-level survey about professional development
    • Cingular survey about professional development

Appeals to speaker’s or author’s credibility

  • our personal credentials—managers for the team for more than a year with multiple successful projects
  • evidence from outside parties such as the Great Place to Work Institute
  • competitive analysis of other companies in the wireless industry and other large companies that have UX teams

Appeals to emotion

  • qualitative data such as quotations and verbatim remarks from UX team surveys and informal inquiries regarding professional development
  • language that tied professional development to specific Cingular and audience values such as innovation, reputation, and efficiency and initiatives—Good to Great. Example language:

“Professional development activities are uniquely critical to our work and reputation as knowledge experts in user-centered design (UCD). To remain knowledge experts, we must keep up with the knowledge. The knowledge is more than training; it’s staying aware of the latest innovations and best practices…”

Defining Argumentation

Just as rhetoric is often misunderstood, argumentation frequently is misunderstood as quarreling. Argumentation actually is the study of effective reasoning. The emphasis of argumentation is on informal reasoning, or inducing conclusions from evidence, rather than formal logic such as that used in mathematics and computer programming.

In terms of argumentation, the ROI justification is an argument comprised of claims that empirical evidence supports. The ROI argument alone does not make a case, which by definition comprises multiple arguments. According to argumentation expert David Zarefsky, the elements of effective argumentation include

  • resolution—the ultimate statement an arguer seeks to prove or disprove
  • case—the arguments and evidence an arguer has assembled to support or oppose a resolution
  • claim—the statement of fact, definition, value, or policy that an arguer asks an audience to accept
  • evidence—the statements supporting a claim
  • inference—a mental move from evidence to a claim, so the audience accepts the claim. Patterns of inference include example, cause, sign, analogy, and form.
  • warrant—an authorization or license to make the inference from evidence supporting the claim [1]

Therefore, a convincing case for UCD requires more arguments and evidence than just ROI. Within a case, there are different ways of arranging arguments. Two common approaches include: 

  • series—linking each argument to another. The first argument is the basis for the second and so on.
  • convergent—linking the group of arguments as a whole to the resolution

Applying Argumentation: Building the Case

Argumentation brings form to a case for UCD and ensures its reasoning is sound. Here is a checklist of considerations that is based, in part, on The Uses of Argument by Stephen Toulmin:

  • What is my claim, the thing I’m trying to prove?
    • Is there a qualifier?
    • Are there any exceptions?
  • What are my arguments?
    • What makes each argument relevant to the audience and context?
    • What makes each argument effective?
    • What arrangement of arguments is most effective?
  • What evidence supports these arguments?
    • Is the evidence sufficient?
    • Is the evidence credible and accurate?
    • Does the evidence address the range of rhetorical appeals?
  • What objections might the audiences have?
    • What are my rebuttals and counterarguments?

The final arrangement of your case could depend on rhetorical considerations such as your organization’s values. For instance, if you know your organization highly values quality and one of your arguments relates to quality, you would structure your case to emphasize that argument. Likewise, how explicit you make the structure of your case in its final form might depend on rhetorical considerations such as your audience and organizational culture. For instance, a formal report that very explicitly presents the structure of your case might work very well in a research or academic environment, but not in a corporate environment. For example, in my own experience, formal structure was effective at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but not in most business environments.

Example Case: Support for UX Professional Development at Cingular Wireless, continued

Continuing with the example I discussed previously, Figure 1 shows a high-level diagram of this case. We used a convergent arrangement, because we had several arguments that independently might have seemed weak, but together were compelling. Also, our arguments were, for the most part, independent of one another, unlike those that would be most effective in a series structure.

Figure 1—Diagram of the Cingular Wireless case
Cingular case diagram

Breaking the case down further, Figure 2 shows a diagram of the argument for one of the claims. The argument employed a range of credible evidence and solid inferences—such as example and analogy.

Figure 2—Diagram of an argument in the Cingular Wireless case

I have included diagrams to help visually convey the structure, but you do not need to diagram your arguments unless that is useful.

Rhetoric and Argumentation: An Influential Combination

Basic concepts from the fields of rhetoric and argumentation are useful tools for UX professionals who realize that the ROI argument does not fit all situations. These tools apply to a wide range of circumstances, whether arguing for organizational support of a UCD process or defending a specific UCD decision for a product user interface. Rhetoric offers a persuasive mindset, raising awareness of our audiences and the range of persuasive appeals. This awareness informs the strategy and language we use in our cases for UCD. Argumentation emphasizes structure, ensuring the content of the case—its reasoning—is thorough and rational. Equipped with these tools, UX professionals can become powerful influencers for UCD. 


[1] Dray, Susan, Clare-Marie Karat, Daniel Rosenberg, David Siegel, and Dennis Wixon. “Is ROI an Effective Approach for Persuading Decision-Makers of the Value of User-Centered Design? in CHI ’05 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Paper presented at CHI ’05, Portland, Oregon, USA, April 2–7, 2005. New York: ACM Press, 2005.

[2] Yeats, David, and Locke Carter. “The Role of the Highlights Video in Usability Testing: Rhetorical and Generic Expectations.” Technical Communication, Vol. 52, No. 2 (May 2005).

[3] Jones, Colleen Pettit, Susan J. Robinson, Nick Sabadosh, David Bishop, and Sanjay Koyani. “How Can Rhetoric and Argumentation Help Us Make the Case for UCD? in CHI ’06 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Paper presented at CHI ’06, Montréal, Québec, Canada, April 22–27, 2006. New York: ACM Press, 2006.

[4] Henderson, Austin, and James A. Euchner. “The CHI Management Community,” in CHI ’06 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Paper presented at CHI ’06, Montréal, Québec, Canada, April 22–27, 2006. New York: ACM Press, 2006.

[5] Porter, James E. Audience and Rhetoric. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1992.

[6] Zarefsky, David. Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2001.

President at Content Science

Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Colleen JonesA pioneer of content strategy, Colleen is author of The Content Advantage: The Science of Succeeding at Digital Business Through Effective Content and founder of Content Science, an end-to-end content company that turns content insights into impact. She has advised and trained hundreds of leading brands and organizations to help them close the content gap in achieving their digital transformation. A passionate entrepreneur, Colleen has led Content Science in developiing the content-intelligence software ContentWRX, publishing the online magazine Content Science Review, and offering certifications through their online Content Science Academy. She has earned recognition as a top instructor on LinkedIn Learning and as a Content Change Agent by Society of Technical Communication’s Intercom Magazine. She is also one of the Top 50 Most Influential Women in Content Marketing and one of the Top 50 Most Influential Content Strategists. Colleen holds a B.A. in English and Technical Writing and an M.A. in Technical Communication from James Madison University.  Read More

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