Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Becoming a Change Agent: When UX Is Perceived as Threatening

If you are the first of your kind at your company, you’re likely in for a bumpy ride! I’ve consistently been the first person at organizations with the title UX researcher. Whether you are a UX designer, UX developer, or UX researcher like me, I promise you that your company is expecting something unique and magical from you… but they can’t really articulate what those expectations are. User experience has become the new golden ticket—which means that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, even if they don’t know what the bandwagon is or how to ride it.

Congrats, you are a change agent!

Adoption of new methodologies is never easy. UX research methodologies are new and therefore inherently threatening to some people within an organization. That means we are subject to all the challenges of change management. Focusing on users after years of focusing on shareholders, the bottom line, or the opinions of the highest paid person in the room means that someone is going to have their feathers ruffled. That makes UXers agents of change.

Why Are UXers Change Agents?

Let’s back up. What the heck is a change agent?  According to Business Enterprise Mapping, it’s business speak for someone that has “the drive, vision, and skill to facilitate the adoption of major strategic initiatives that can upset routines and business processes.” Sometimes these people are called champions, evangelists, or advocates.

UX researchers are motivated to bring design thinking and user focus to their company’s culture. We know that creating and providing top-notch customer experiences will create repeat business and word of mouth, which in turn will have a major impact on company profitability. The money, time, and effort put into early research ensures that whatever gets built is in line with what customers want, saving the company big money by preventing it from investing in products that will fail. Increased revenue, cost savings, and making the world a better place for users are huge motivators that keep UX researchers focused on the hard task of changing how companies create products.

I’m preaching to the choir about all the awesomeness UX can bring to the table. What’s the rub? says a change agent is a person who voluntarily takes extraordinary interest in the adoption, implementation, and success of a cause. He or she will “typically try to force the idea through entrenched internal resistance to change and will evangelize it throughout the organization.” Each time I’ve been that first person in the company with the UX research title, I’ve felt overjoyed that an organization valued what I could provide, even though I always assumed there would be resistance. Each time I felt prepared for what I was taking on. Unfortunately, that optimism often led me astray. I needed more than a “rally the troops” or “let’s do this” attitude to run through the mud of internal politics. I needed to develop and stretch all my soft skills if I was going to survive.

What Qualities Make a Good Change Agent?

All the soft skills that inherently make for good UX research are the same ones needed to serve as excellent change agents—caring about people, listening, empathy, and a strategic mindset. These words are not part of the UX vernacular yet, but they should be.

I conducted a wide literature review of the qualities a good change agent displays. Here’s my assessment of the top qualities, how UX researchers encompass each, and some pitfalls from the field.

Commit to Improvement

UX professionals are determined to improve products for users. It defines us. Improvement drives us. Each of us is deeply committed to serving our user base and making their lives better by creating products that address real needs. Yet, early in my career, my commitment to improve a company’s offerings got me in hot water. The company clearly knew they needed to make major improvements because they hired me to measure usability problems and make recommendations for change. A few months into my new role, my boss asked me if I was unhappy and maybe not a good fit because “I had so many things that I kept trying to change”! I had no idea how to respond.

I realized that the problem wasn’t that I was trying to change things; it was that I wasn’t using the right finesse. I was essentially delivering bad news, and I assumed they were ready to hear it. I needed to understand the company—my client—better.

Lesson: Learn how to deliver what others will perceive as “bad news” with optimism and grace. Use your awesome communication and interpersonal skills to decipher how your recipient can best receive the bad news.

Build Trust

Data rarely speaks for itself. Stakeholders usually interpret the validity and worth of results through a lens of who is reporting to them. I’m sure they try not to; but as author Simon Sinek teaches, it’s human nature to be more trusting of information from people we already trust.

Most of the time, UX researchers are brought in by a design lead that understands what we can bring to the table. Yet, to influence change we need the trust of people in many other departments.

One UX colleague explains, “On my team we educate our colleagues by sharing video clips of our research and validation so that the team isn’t so removed from the people actually using the product. When I know that there’s confusion surrounding an already complex feature, I’ll take the time to create a flow so that we have a group understanding of the ecosystem.”

Lesson: Meet regularly with colleagues from all departments and build social capital. Teach them what you do because they likely don’t get it. Building trust between colleagues is just as important as building trust with a test subject. To do this, we often need to educate people about what we can offer.

Find Common Ground

When designing a usability interview or contextual inquiry, UX professionals know that we need to ease into topics by giving enough background information, but not so much that we bias the user. We are also keenly aware to remind the user that we are testing the product and not their abilities. Both of these skills build trust; the first in the data we collect, the second between the subject and researcher.

I was in a hybrid UX/product manager position developing a new client engagement workflow. On a Friday, I was told that we finally hired a director of marketing and that on Monday I would need to get her on board with my plans ASAP. It felt wrong to be asked to pounce like that! Don’t get “forced” or talked into doing something that feels wrong.

When I was told to “convince” the newly hired director of marketing about the value of my engagement plan, I was already in a losing situation. She and I had no relationship. My need to rush and insist on my way essentially communicated that I didn’t respect her own expertise. I would never just “do as I’m told” at the expense of a relationship like that again. That first meeting set us up for awkward communication going forward and made collaboration (and results) harder. If I had stood my ground and let her get a little context about the company, the product, the problems we faced, and what her own options were, we could have become friends much faster than we did.

Lesson: Look for small things you can deliver to anyone and everyone you meet. Don’t necessarily promise it, but find a problem and deliver a solution. Building common ground helps people feel safe.

Seek Opportunities to Take Action

Oftentimes, the leap between current and ideal state is too big. I had one supervisor who thought UX analysis was mostly about using Google Analytics to confirm that the development team released useful features. It took me nearly a year, but I gradually worked my way into having a voice earlier in the development pipeline. Similar to building trust and social capital, I created the reports that were asked of me and I investigated just one more thing beyond what was required. It got my supervisor and our team curious about more and more. Within a few months, I could answer design questions and run tests about stories in the current sprint. In about a year, I was doing research on features that the product team was planning for future sprints.

Coming to a shared understanding of what research meant was even more complicated because it was so difficult to reach out to customers at this firm. While it is important to find a way to interact with customers, progress can be made without traditional interview methods. The marketing department was in control of all customer contact, and most of my requests for customer recruitment (such as surveys and interviews) “interfered” with their marketing efforts. Customer fatigue was often the reason given as to why they were unable to provide me with test subjects. So, I had to find another way. By leveraging relationships with the customer service department and the people who created surveys for the marketing team, I built a database of call center issues that justified slipping extra questions into the marketing surveys. These tidbits of data solidified the need for actual UX research studies down the road.

Lesson: You do not need to be customer facing to do user experience research. Get creative and take small steps if necessary.

Be Resilient

UXers have been taught that if we tell business leaders and management about the data we collected and the insights we found that they will change course like a hummingbird. We read blogs that tell us if we present an argument that says better experiences will make us more competitive, management will swoon for the changes. This is rarely the case, in academia or in business. The data never actually speak for themselves.

We all have stories about being asked to do research that the business team then ignored. Maybe they didn’t like the outcome the data pointed to, or they didn’t know how to incorporate the new information. Tomer Sharon succinctly shares a typical story in an “It’s Our Research” lecture: An executive or product manager has asked for research, but doesn’t really know what they are looking for, and they certainly haven’t made plans about how to react to findings. So, the research stays hidden in a report somewhere. In my personal experience, I was actually told NOT to share certain data with my design and development teams. The only reason I was given was that they would likely feel depressed about the data and needed to focus on the work at hand instead.

Your methods may be attacked. A UX research colleague shared with me that “when [demo attendees] didn’t like the results of a video interview, they either questioned my methods or said small sample sizes were useless.” Sometimes they’d even say the interviewee was not representative of our customer base—even when they were an actual customer. Another friend shared that it was easy to recruit or meet for mobile tests at bars and restaurants for one product they worked on. More than three times it was insinuated that the interviewee “must have been drinking” for them to get results like that. My friend started audio or video recording everything after that.

Lesson: Always be prepared to explain your methods and results non-defensively. If you must, apologize for anything you did wrong. Apply empathy to your coworkers and be the one to build bridges and be brave first.

Resistance to Change Is Common

UXers are often brought to an organization by visionaries, innovators, or early adopters, but we can suddenly be made responsible for convincing people comfortable in their routines why changes are needed. This is not an easy place to be.

Once I admitted that my situation couldn’t possibly be that unique, it became easier to find a known pattern to learn from. Much of the reason for individual resistance to change in an organization is due to fear: fear of losing status, losing your job because you don’t have the skills to do it the new way (failure), fear that your social network will be harmed, or just plain old fear of the unknown. Just like people, as most companies mature, their processes and structures become more solid and harder to change. You’ll hear things like, “This is the way we’ve always done it,” and “It’s gotten us this far.” They will be worried that any adjustment in their products or processes will scare away current customers, even if the number of customers they have won’t sustain them or they’ve proclaimed they want a new customer base.

If the organization already has a culture of mistrust, change is certainly an uphill battle. In Politics and the Resistance to Change, Bennet Leintz reminds us that civilization has always had problems getting new methods and technology into widespread use—even after the new has been proven and demonstrated to be more effective than the old. In our case, a UX researcher has been hired, so it is understood that what we do can help the organization. However, when brought in by only one department without all stakeholders communicating, we’re destined to be up against extra resistance. If we walk in prepared, we’re more likely to succeed.

When You’re Looking for a Job

Understand the maturity of the organization. If the company is small, they are highly innovative but may not ready for a dedicated research role. If the company is large, established, and mature, that research role might not exist because they haven’t been innovative enough to hop on the design thinking bandwagon.

Dare to push during your interviews. Ask about company structure and buy-in for this position. Know yourself, what you are like, and what you want. Do you want to do just design or just research? Are you interested in product delivery and more CX type of work? What culture do you think you’ll thrive in? Do you actually love the product they make…or at least like it enough to brag about it at a party?

Translate the work that you do into company outcomes, for instance,  “I can deliver insight that will improve overall development output because they won’t be building things over and over again.” Your spoken words should be like a mini portfolio entry.

When You Have a Job

Meet everyone! Have an elevator pitch about who you are and what you do. Expect them to not understand your work and still want a quick answer. One of the true challenges of UX research is to empathize with our product managers and C-suite executives so that we can communicate how the end result will be better for everyone.



  • If you are the first UXer in your role, be prepared to constantly communicate your work and your worth.
  • Moving from a department-focus to an organization-focus can be very hard. During your interview, ask which other departments were consulted about the position and are on board with it. Try to meet them.
  • During your interview, ask about the tools the company is currently using, the level to which they are committed to those tools, how much they are using them, and the budget for others.
  • Try to get something in your offer or contract that makes you hard to fire…because you are going to annoy or anger some people no matter how nice you are.
  • When you begin a new UX research role, you actually have two jobs: researching the product and researching the organizational culture. Without knowledge of the latter, you won’t know how to effectively execute product improvements.
  • If you are hiring a UXer, be prepared to help them advocate for UX improvements throughout the company.



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.