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How and When to Involve Stakeholders

Ask UXmatters

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A column by Janet M. Six
April 20, 2015

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts discusses several ways of involving stakeholders at different stages of a project.

What are the best ways to involve stakeholders in the research and design for a project—especially when you have a large number of them? Do you bring all of them into an initial design meeting? Or wait until you have a solid first design? Or should you wait to involve stakeholders until you have a very strong, well-iterated design? How should you best handle the different types of stakeholders—for example, those who will actually use the product versus those who would decide to buy the product?

Every month in Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Dana Chisnell—Principal Consultant at UsabilityWorks; Co-author of Handbook of Usability Testing
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Gavin Lew—Executive Vice President of User Experience at GfK
  • Ritch Macefield—CEO of Ax-Stream
  • Baruch Sachs—Senior Director, User Experience at Pegasystems; UXmatters columnist

Q: When a project has a massive number of legitimate stakeholders, how early or late should you bring them in to review potential designs? How do you involve them in the research and design for the project?—from a UXmatters reader

“You should bring in stakeholders as soon as you know who they are,” answers Dana. “You don’t have to involve them in everything all the time—you have to gauge their level of involvement carefully. There are two goals for including stakeholders from the earliest possible point. First, you want to get buy-in for what you’re working on. If your design solution doesn’t work for stakeholders, they’re likely to give you paralyzing feedback at the most inconvenient point in the project. It will make extra work for you, and it will be embarrassing to a whole lot of people. Second, they’re stakeholders, so they have subject-matter expertise that you probably should be tapping. That knowledge should feed into designing the research, as well as the product itself. Finally, by involving stakeholders as soon as you know who they are, you’ll have less work conveying to them the experiences that your users are having, because they’ll have been close to that from the beginning.”

Work Collaboratively Throughout All Development Cycles

“I have approached this in a few different ways. There is no magic answer,” replies Baruch. “A lot of the success you have with stakeholders will depend on the culture and maturity of your organization. Here is the method I have found works best across multiple organizations, but remember that you will need to be flexible. During the research phase, I involve everyone, but for only short periods of time. This could be a one-to-one or a one-to-many conversation, a quick working meeting, or an observation. By laying the groundwork for everyone’s investing time up front, it becomes easier to accomplish the next phase: whittling down the number of stakeholders by designating group representatives. I ask the stakeholders to determine one or two people from their respective groups to act as representative subject-matter experts, who will be involved daily in UX activities and report back to their larger group as they wish. This allows more productive design sessions.

“As designs get created, these are the people who see them first and provide feedback. We also have larger, quick, 30-minute design reviews periodically, so everyone gets a chance to see the designs. I also try to share the designs—in Axure or on a cloud-based system if the designs are actually getting built—so people can see them in action and give feedback. As a designer of user experiences, your job is not to babysit every single one of the stakeholders. Legitimate stakeholders share some responsibility for participating actively. Provide them with enough opportunities to see the designs, give feedback, and help shape the designs, while still allowing you to meet your own project goals and timetable.”

“As UX designers and researchers, our primary goal is to effect positive change in the experience,” says Gavin. “We do that by understanding and capturing experiences to create a design that shapes the desired behaviors. Because of the sheer size of the audience, there is a tendency to want to make the fit and finish really good. But early on, we shouldn’t do that. Good design involves iteration. In Sketching User Experiences, Bill Buxton emphasized that early-stage designs should look sketchy. They should not have the fit and finish of late-stage designs. This is because people have a tendency not to want to change something that looks perfect. So, when you have a large group of people, you want them to feel free to comment, give feedback, and start a dialogue, enabling you to iterate the design early and often. I truly believe in this quotation from Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel: ‘Make mistakes faster.’ We need more iteration as we find mistakes—via design reviews—and conduct good user research. We need to find mistakes faster, so the design can evolve and get better.”

Keep the User in Mind

“Start by focusing on who will be using the product you’re designing,” suggests Jordan. “The people you identify as users are all that should matter. Keep business stakeholders out of the design process until you’re ready to make recommendations based on user research. Business stakeholders may also be users of some parts of the product you’re developing—for instance, business stakeholders may use an administration portal for a Web site, but not be the primary audience for which you’re creating the Web site itself. Although it’s important to understand who your users are, it’s more important to understand what your users need to accomplish the jobs they want to get done in real life. Once you understand their needs, you can design a product that better meets those needs. Business stakeholders are generally better at refinements and optimizing edge-cases.”

“The simple answer is: as  soon as possible,” recommends Ritch. “I am a believer in the concept of user-centered design (UCD). While many so-called UX professionals claim that they do UCD, in my experience, many don’t even understand what this term really means! A mandatory element of UCD is early, iterative usability testing. By testing, I mean obtaining any form of feedback on the proposed user interface design, not just that which you can gain from formal usability studies. So this includes feedback from focus groups, agile reveals, informal meetings, and online discussions of prototypes. This idea should extend to all stakeholders. Why is early feedback important? For two reasons:

  1. To ensure that you minimize the time—and money—spent going down blind allies with designs that simply won’t fly with stakeholders.
  2. This is just as important, but often overlooked: the earlier you involve stakeholders, the more likely you are to get buy-in to your design concepts. In general, people don’t like being presented with a fait accompli, even if it is a pretty good one! This issue relates to my UXmatters article “Acceptability Engineering: The Forgotten Part of Intracorporate UX Design,” in which I explained that the earlier you present design concepts to stakeholders, the easier it is to avoid acceptability problems in intra-corporate systems.

“It’s also worth mentioning that true UCD mandates that a wide variety of representative stakeholders should be actively involved in the design process—a feature of UCD known as participatory design—not just be there to provide feedback on what UX professionals produce.

“I suspect that many UX professionals understand the benefits of involving as many stakeholders as possible, as early as possible. So the real question here is: how can you achieve this goal? It is challenging to involve lots of stakeholders at any stage in the design process, let alone during the early stages. In practice, many approaches such as the ETHICS method do not easily scale to handle large numbers of stakeholders.

“Because a full discussion of how to do this is beyond the scope of what we can cover here, I’ll point those who are interested in further investigation to meta-frameworks such as ORDIT and ISO 9241-210—formerly ISO 13407—which grew out of UCD thinking. At a more practical level, involving large groups of stakeholders at an early stage requires UX leads to have excellent facilitation skills, UX-related project-management skills—such as those that the new UX Certification designed for project managers covers—and proficiency in the use of collaborative prototyping technologies such as Axure/Axshare.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. 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

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