Selling UX

October 20, 2008

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.

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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

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. 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?

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. 

Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Daniel SzucOriginally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia.  Read More

Founder and Principal Consultant at ShermanUX

Assistant Professor and Coordinator for the Masters of Science in User Experience Design Program at Kent State University

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Paul J. ShermanShermanUX provides a range of services, including research, design, evaluation, UX strategy, training, and rapid contextual innovation. Paul has worked in the field of usability and user-centered design for the past 13 years. He was most recently Senior Director of User-Centered Design at Sage Software in Atlanta, Georgia, where he led efforts to redesign the user interface and improve the overall customer experience of Peachtree Accounting and several other business management applications. While at Sage, Paul designed and implemented a customer-centric contextual innovation program that sought to identify new product and service opportunities by observing small businesses in the wild. Paul also led his team’s effort to modernize and bring consistency to Sage North America product user interfaces on both the desktop and the Web. In the 1990s, Paul was a Member of Technical Staff at Lucent Technologies in New Jersey, where he led the development of cross-product user interface standards for telecommunications management applications. As a consultant, Paul has conducted usability testing and user interface design for banking, accounting, and tax preparation applications, Web applications for financial planning and portfolio management, and ecommerce Web sites. In 1997, Paul received his PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. His research focused on how pilots’ use of computers and automated systems on the flight deck affects their individual and team performance. Paul is Past President of the Usability Professionals’ Association, was the founding President of the UPA Dallas/Fort Worth chapter, and currently serves on the UPA Board of Directors and Executive Committee. Paul was Editor and contributed several chapters for the book Usability Success Stories: How Organizations Improve by Making Easier-to-Use Software and Web Sites, which Gower published in October 2006. He has presented at conferences in North America, Asia, Europe, and South America.  Read More

Owner & Software Engineer at WebWord LLC

Ithaca, New York, USA

John S. RhodesBased in Owego, NY, John has helped such organizations as IBM,, Cabelas, US WEST, Universal Instruments, Binghamton University, and Broome Community College. He earned a B.S. in Management Science, an M.A. in Philosophy, and an M.A. in Experimental and Cognitive Psychology at Binghamton University.  Read More

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