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Giving UX Advice: Getting Buy-In

When I started doing website usability testing in 2001, I was naïve. I thought the clear logic of the users’ recommendations would persuade clients to implement them. I had not yet accepted that getting things done in organizations requires a broader strategy than pure logic. No matter how strong a presentation you do, no matter how compelling the comments by your testers, you still need to help the people who will implement the changes accomplish their goals if you want them to implement yours.

Why Should They Even Do Testing?

The first battle, especially if you are an outside consultant, is simply convincing the organization that doing usability testing is worthwhile. Logic helps; there is plenty of data showing that a good user experience leads to more sales and repeat business, but, sadly, it isn’t usually enough.

Start by understanding why they are reluctant to do testing. Typically it is one or a combination of three reasons:

  • They are impatient
  • Developers and designers don’t want to admit they may have gotten it wrong
  • The company doesn’t want to spend the money


Depending on whose studies you read, between 68-90% of IT projects run behind schedule. This puts a lot of pressure on everyone internally to skip anything that could extend project length. Conducting usability testing takes time. Analyzing the results takes time. Implementing the recommendations takes even more time.

The key to lowering this barrier is to do testing as early as possible in the project and then do small, iterative tests throughout. Each test will take little time to set up, run, and analyze. That means that results can quickly be incorporated into development and it is not a huge ordeal to get the tests going.


Frequent iterative tests also help overcome the second barrier: fear of embarrassment. The more time designers or developers have put into creating something the more upsetting it will be to learn that users didn’t perceive it the way they intended it. Nobody likes to be told they’ve messed up. By having more frequent tests, not as much of their work will be proven invalid and need to be reworked.

Frequent testing also becomes simply a part of the process. Instead of being seen as a criticism of their work, the frequency means the tests becomes a natural double-check, just as one might get a proofreader to check that there are no spelling or grammatical mistakes in an article.

When I wrote my first book, Canada’s Best Employers for Women, I thanked my mother in the acknowledgements for having—much to my annoyance at the time—interrupted my childhood stories to correct my grammar. Had the book gone to press without the proofing double-check I would have been in for a huge embarrassment. Fortunately, the proofreader noticed that I had misspelled the word grammar as grammer. (Mom used to correct my spelling too, but apparently not often enough!)


This is one barrier where a business case can actually help. Compare the costs of making small changes during the process to the costs of discovering problems after the product has gone live.

If the product is already live, the costs of usability testing and rework are, of course, much higher. Then you are faced with doing a cost-benefit analysis. For instance, what would it cost to test and rework a shopping cart? How much would the fix have to increase sales conversions to recover the cost?

These numbers are not definitive because you can’t know in advance what the problems identified will be. You won’t know before the problems are discovered how much it will cost to fix them. And you cannot know for sure if increased sales will result from the fix. But as with all business forecasting you can develop scenarios, and ultimately management has to decide what level of risk they are willing to accept for a possible reward.

You can boost your case by pointing out less quantifiable, but still important, expenses. For example, bad usability can not only hurt sales directly, but it can also harm your company’s reputation, which will hurt future sales and stock prices. On the flipside, we have the wonderful example of Apple, which became the success it did largely on the basis of good design and usability. That well-known example helps senior executives understand that there can be tremendous financial impact from usability work.

Getting Recommendations Implemented

Once you have completed the usability testing for your organization, your next goal is to get your results accepted and acted upon. Getting this to happen boils down to two things:

  • Overcoming emotional barriers
  • Aligning objectives

Overcoming emotional barriers

As we noted earlier, nobody likes being told they’ve done something wrong. I worked as a freelance writer for many years and it always irritated me when an editor would suggest changes. By the time I’d submitted an article I thought it was good. I learned however, to give myself time before reacting. Almost invariably, within a few hours I could see that their suggestions made the article stronger.

Start with the positive. When you make recommendations, start by looking for positive things that came out of the user testing. That puts people in a better frame of mind to receive the negative news.

Validate the process used. Make it clear how similar the testers are to the actual audience or target market for the product or service. In our work we often find that the marketers know there is a problem but they can’t convince the developers. Or the developers know there’s a problem but they can’t persuade their superiors to release funds to fix it. One of the great advantages of a large sample size found in remote usability testing is that it is easier to convince the powers that be that the findings are truly representative of their customers or prospects. But even with small numbers of test participants, try to ensure and demonstrate that they are as similar as possible to the desired users.

Counter emotion with emotion. Since reactions are likely to be emotional at first, show staff actual testing footage and/or use verbatim quotes. This helps counter their instinctive hostility to criticism, replacing it with empathy for the users. When you watch actual users getting increasingly frustrated, it is hard not to feel their pain. The more users you witness experiencing the same issue, the harder it is to write off that one user as simply being inept. Hearing or reading their actual words brings the frustration to life in a way that statistics cannot.

Be patient. Try to give people time to reflect on the critiques before they have to react. As much as we all hate meetings, sometimes it helps to have one meeting for the presentation of results followed by a separate meeting to discuss how to deal with them.

Aligning Objectives

To get changes made, consider who within the organization will need to be involved. This may be direct involvement, such as modifying software or a process, or it can be indirect involvement. This might include providing funding or time for the changes to be made, or arguing in support of the changes at the senior executive level.

Align with the organization’s publicly stated goals. There’s a principle in psychology called “cognitive dissonance.” It happens when what we experience is different from what we believe to be true. Humans naturally want to reduce cognitive dissonance. If their child is doing poorly at school, they will want to blame the teacher or a learning disability or a bad classroom environment rather than accept the possibility that their child might not be putting in the necessary effort. This is natural.

Reminding people of their overriding goals can help overcome the barriers thrown up by cognitive dissonance. No matter why my child is getting bad marks, I want to find a way to help him do better, not just now but in the future. If I think it through, part of his long-term success will depend on learning how to cope with bad teachers, bullies, and even learning disabilities. Blame or denial doesn’t solve the problem.

Likewise, reminding organizations of their publicly-stated goals and values helps them overcome resistance to change. A few years ago, my family was moving to France for a year. We had been good, long-term customers of a particular cell phone provider and were even among its first clients to buy smartphones (before the iPhone existed)! In those days, it was common to lock users into a three-year contract and charge huge penalties if they wanted to cancel early. We didn’t want to cancel, but asked the company to put a hold on our accounts for the year we’d be away since we wouldn’t be able to use the phones in France. They refused. Our choice was to either pay an outrageous fee on the remaining contract time, or to pay huge international roaming costs for the whole year. Neither was an acceptable option. I was getting nowhere with customer service.

I went online and found a video of their CEO talking about how important it was for their company to listen to and care about its customers. I sent him an email telling him how delighted I was to see his comments in that video. Then I told him about how the message didn’t seem to be getting down to the lower levels of his organization and described our situation.

By positioning it as I did, cognitive dissonance was such that he had little choice. He didn’t want to look like a liar or a hypocrite. His executive assistant called the next day and offered us a reasonable deal.

You can do the same thing with your company or clients. Study the organization’s publicly stated goals. You can learn a lot just from reading their website and their annual and quarterly reports. Also, look for speeches by their CEO or other senior leaders. It can help to quote their comments back to them, showing how your recommendations can help them meet these goals.

Align with political goals. Get to know the internal politics. If you work inside the company, network widely within it. If you are a consultant, ask your client contacts about the internal politics and how you can help your contacts sway others within the organization.

Understanding the internal power structure will help you work more effectively within it; you will know who is most important to persuade. Learn what motivates them and try to find ways that you—by implementing your recommendations—can help them shine.

The more people you know across the organization, the more likely it is that you will develop insights necessary to understanding the political drivers of change. People within the organization can become allies who help push your agenda in other parts of the organization.

Align with departmental goals. Think about the departments that will be affected by your recommendations. What will have to change within those departments to implement what you’ve recommended? What agenda do people in those departments have that your suggestions could further? Often furthering their agendas will also make things better for users.

Every type of usability improvement will help some department within the organization. For each area within your organization, find out the metrics used to evaluate their success. What targets do they have to hit? What expenses do they want to reduce? Then think about how improving the user experience fits in with that. How can you leverage your knowledge of the user’s goals and frustrations to solve problems for both users and for individual departments?

For example, the production department may get penalized for a high rate of product defects. Learning what usability problems are causing those defects can help them make process improvements that will:

  • Make the production manager happier because their defect rate has gone down
  • Make customers happier because they don’t have to hassle with returns
  • Make senior executives happier because profits increase.

You can even take it a step further. Because of your user testing, you know which product defects are the most frustrating to users. You can use that knowledge to help the production department set priorities. They may not have the bandwidth to fix everything at once, but if they focus on fixing the areas of greatest concern to users, it will also have the greatest impact on their departmental and corporate results. People are less likely to bother returning a product for a defect that is a minor inconvenience.

To implement this approach, start by meeting with team leads and managers in as many departments as you can. Find out what is important to them and the metrics that matter. Then connect the dots between what you can learn from usability testing and how that knowledge can help your colleagues accomplish their goals.

Put People First

Usability is all about people. It is easy to forget that meeting the needs of the people who will use the products or services ultimately depends on winning support and cooperation from a wide range of other people: those inside your organization or that of your client. You need to understand both sides of that “people equation” to succeed in the field of usability.