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Your Baby is Ugly

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
January 8, 2018

UX researchers must frequently deliver bad news to the creators of products and user interfaces. After we’ve conducted expert reviews, competitive analyses, usability testing, or user research, the end result is often telling our clients, stakeholders, designers, and other project team members about all the problems we’ve found in their product. Even though this is what they asked us to do—and what they expect—listening to a long list of their baby’s faults can be demoralizing.

Yes, we do try to balance our negative criticism by also highlighting some positive aspects, but most research findings tend to be negative. After all, the goal of research activities is not to confirm how great the user experience already is. The goal is to find problems and areas for improvement. Yet, despite the fact that we deliver bad news all the time, it often feels awkward and uncomfortable. Usually, the people in the room have created the problems your research has identified. While most people take it pretty well, some won’t like what they’re hearing and will blame the messenger.

People tend to become very attached to the fruits of their labors, so hearing criticism of their work really can feel very much like having someone say their baby is ugly.

For example, can you imagine what you’d feel like if someone said something like this to you?

“Mr. and Mrs. Smith, thank you for coming in today. We’re here to present the results of the evaluation we did of your baby. As you know, we presented him to a variety of people who are representative of those with whom he will interact during his lifetime.

“Although we found that your baby has some very good qualities, which you can be very proud of, he definitely has some areas for improvement, too. In fact, most of the participants felt strongly that your baby is extremely ugly. You see, your baby violates many common standards and best practices of baby design. So we strongly recommend that you fix the following features if you ever want him to be presentable to society. …”

So what are the best ways to deliver bad news without hurting people’s feelings? In this column, I’ll provide some tips for getting your stakeholders to face painful truths.

Get Stakeholders to Admit It’s Ugly First

It’s much easier to criticize a product after your clients and stakeholders have already done it first. That makes it natural for you to join in as well. Most clients are well aware of their product’s problems. After all, they wouldn’t be spending money on user research or usability testing if they thought everything was already perfect.

At the beginning of a project, during the kickoff meeting and stakeholder interviews, ask your clients and stakeholders to assess how they feel about the current state of their product. What are their reasons for wanting to conduct this research project? If it’s a new product, what are they trying to accomplish? If it’s a redesign of an existing product, why do they want to redesign it? What existing problems do they want to solve? What feedback have they heard from users?

By asking such questions, you’ll be able to ferret out a list of problems, customer complaints, and your clients’ and stakeholders’ own opinions about the strengths and weaknesses of the product. It will also give you a sense of which people are sensitive about certain aspects of the product, alerting you to how they’ll react to criticism.

You’ll often find that people will freely admit that their baby is ugly. Once they’ve confessed that their product has problems, they won’t feel so sensitive about receiving negative feedback, and it will be easier for you to talk to them about the problems you find during your research.

Get Everyone to Buy into Your Research Methods Up Front

Sometimes clients and stakeholders react to unpleasant findings from usability testing by getting defensive. They may dismiss your findings by discrediting your research methods. For example, you might hear things like this:

  • You used only eight participants?
  • These people don’t really represent our customers.
  • Why didn’t you ask them this?
  • The way this task is worded seems biased.

To prevent such reactions, ensure that your clients and stakeholders are involved throughout the research process. During planning, find out what they want to learn from the research. Review your discussion guide with them and get them to approve it.¬† Ask them to define the characteristics of the participants you’ll recruit. Have them review and approve the recruiting screener. Once you’ve recruited research participants, ask stakeholders to review and approve the list of participants it to ensure they fit the user profile.

Involving clients and stakeholders during the planning phase makes them feel more invested in the research. When they’ve been involved and provided their approval at every step along the way, it becomes very difficult for them to criticize your methods or dispute the findings.

Encourage Stakeholders to Observe

Always encourage your clients, stakeholders, and project team members to observe user research and usability-testing sessions. Debrief them between sessions or at the end of the day, and get them to discuss what they observed and what they think it means. They’ll be more likely to believe in the quality of the methods and findings when they’ve experienced the research firsthand. Plus, discussing and analyzing research findings causes them to feel more invested in the findings and more willing to accept unpleasant feedback.

Blame the Bad News on the Participants

It’s easier to present negative criticism when it comes from the participants rather than your own expert judgment. Expert-review findings are based on your professional expertise, design principles, and best practices that you may cite. Your audience may dispute your findings as the opinion of one expert. So they may feel equally entitled to having their own opinions.

In contrast, it is much more difficult to dispute negative findings when they’re revealed by the actions of several participants or participants offer criticism in their own words. Therefore, it’s easier to deliver criticism from user research and usability testing because it comes directly from the participants. They were the people who didn’t understand the user interface, who encountered problems, and who said the user interface was annoying and confusing. You are just the messenger, reporting on their experiences and comments and providing recommendations for solving those problems.

Back Up Your Findings with Metrics

When clients and stakeholders hear that a participant experienced a problem or expressed a negative opinion, it’s natural to think: How many people actually did that or said that? Was that just one person? It’s easy to dismiss something that only one or two people did or said. So, whenever possible, back up your findings with numbers. With usability testing, that usually means providing task-completion rates, error rates, the time to complete tasks, and ratings from a questionnaire. Even when findings are more qualitative, as is common in user research, you can provide numbers for how many people did or said something.

Present Recordings and Quotations

Far more convincing than hearing a summary of the problems you discovered during your research is letting clients and stakeholders see and hear the participants experiencing those problems in video or audio recordings. Seeing several participants struggle through the same tasks, then talking about their frustration can be very impactful. When you don’t have any recordings to show or you want to supplement them, text quotations can be also useful. Video clips and quotations are ways of allowing participants to deliver the bad news themselves, easing your burden of always being the bearer of bad news.

Don’t Beat Your Audience Over the Head

Use your judgment and your knowledge of your audience to determine how much persuasion will be necessary. Sometimes you’ll come across a problem that is so annoying to participants that it’s tempting to create a long video clip, showing multiple participants failing to complete a task and becoming frustrated, then closing with some devastating quotations. That can be an extremely effective way to make a point, and it may be necessary when your audience is resistant or needs to understand the severity of the problem. But, at other times, this can be overkill. Going too far can actually be counterproductive, making people feel angry and defensive. If you feel that your audience will be able to accept a problem and understand its severity, you may want to hold back and put together a less harsh video.

Emphasize Your Expertise

Negative findings from an expert review are the most difficult to present because they are based on your expert judgment. Your audience first has to accept your qualifications as an expert. Unlike user research and usability testing, you can’t back up your findings by showing them participant actions and quotations. So be sure to establish your experience at the beginning of a project. Demonstrating that you’re basing your expert review on established usability, accessibility, and design guidelines emphasizes that your expert review is not based on just your own opinion.

Back Up Your Findings with Examples of Best Practices

You can back up your findings and recommendations with examples of best practices for similar products. This is especially helpful for expert reviews, where your findings rely mostly on your expertise. Showing that similar products—especially those of direct competitors—don’t have the same problems or have better design solutions is a powerful way of communicating that it’s not just your expert opinion. It’s best practice.

Show Your Stakeholders They’re Not Alone

It’s easier for clients and stakeholders to accept that a problem exists when they realize it’s a common problem, and your product is not the only one with that problem. So, whenever this is true, emphasize that many similar products have had the same problems. There’s no shame in it. Those other companies have also taken steps to fix the problems and improve their products. When you explain that many companies continually improve their designs through user research and usability testing, you demonstrate that finding and fixing problems is just a natural part of continual improvement.

Position Your Reports as Providing Recommendations, Not Pointing Out Problems

Instead of framing what you’re reporting as pointing out problems, frame it as providing recommendations for improvements that will make the product even better. Your purpose is to help, not to criticize. Focus more on the good that can come from fixing the problems.

Mention the Positive Aspects, Too

Although the main goal of usability testing and expert reviews is finding and solving problems, be sure to point out the positive aspects of the product as well. That makes the criticism go down more easily—and it makes your findings more believable. In addition to providing video clips and quotations about problems, include some videos and quotations about positive aspects of the product, if you have them. ¬†Hearing only a long list of problems that need to be fixed can feel depressing and seem daunting. When you also highlight the positive aspects of the product, you allow your audience to see that there is value in fixing its problems.

Deliver Your Findings in Person

Because people can misinterpret written reports, and they don’t provide stakeholders the opportunity to ask the researcher questions to confirm their understanding, always try to present your findings in person. This lets you deliver your findings with the right tone, assess whether people understand them correctly, and discuss possible solutions. Presenting your findings remotely, through a conference call and screen sharing, is an acceptable alternative when you can’t travel and present to your audience in person.

Prioritize the Problems They Should Solve

Receiving a long list of problems and recommendations can seem daunting. No team can fix everything immediately. So give stakeholders a sense of which problems are most serious and which are less important. Are there some quick fixes that will give your clients and stakeholders a sense of accomplishment and encourage them to fix more? Are there major problems they must fix right away? What problems can they live with for a while, until they can take on a bigger effort?

Provide a Plan for Addressing the Problems

Don’t just dump a long list of prioritized problems and recommendations on your clients and stakeholders. Help them to understand where they might begin to address them. This may involve having a separate meeting to review your recommendations and prioritize which ones to work on first. It may mean assigning particular problems to specific people to fix. Having a plan makes the problems seem more manageable and improves the chances that they will get fixed.

Acknowledge That Most Babies Are Ugly

So maybe your baby is ugly. Big deal! Most babies are ugly. (By the way, I’m still speaking metaphorically about user interfaces when I say this.) By showing some empathy for your audience, being tactful, and following the advice I’ve given in this column, you can provide criticism and your recommendations without offending your audience. 

Principal User Experience Architect at Infragistics

Cranbury, New Jersey, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

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