Many UX professionals have a strong desire to fully integrate user experience into their organization. However, there are many stumbling stones on the road to a perfect integration—the proverbial UX paradise that UX professionals want to achieve. These stumbling stones occur again and again in many organizations, yet always surprise UX professionals. Knowing the stumbling stones, and how to avoid and handle them, can help UX professionals to succeed with challenging organizational change. Most of our advice applies to all UX professionals: UX researchers, UX requirement engineers, UX designers, and UX management.
We are experienced UX managers who have attempted to integrate UX into organizations, and this article is based on our own experience and advice. We have also learned from the UX community at several conferences where we have presented and discussed these stumbling stones.
In this article, we share our real-life experiences with common stumbling stones:
- A design process in which design decisions are based on the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO)
- UX strategies that are derailed because they ignore organizational culture
- Little knowledge about C-level executives
- Using UX methods simply for their own sake
- Decision makers who don’t know what UX-related metrics mean
- Findings from UX research that are questioned or downplayed
About Stumbling Stones and UX Risks
A stumbling stone is an obstacle that seriously affects the execution or implementation of professional UX work; for example, marketing prohibits UX researchers from talking directly to representative end users, or developers ignore the clear results of a usability test.
Stumbling stones are related to UX risks. Much of what UX managers do is reduce various types of risks. A risk is a factor that could result in future events with negative consequences. An event with negative consequences is a stumbling stone.
HiPPOcracy—Where Opinions Rule
In some organizations, key design decisions are based on HiPPOs—Highest Paid Person’s Opinion—rather than data from research. In this article, we also refer to persons who have strong unfounded opinions as “HiPPOs.”
HiPPOs forgo user research because they think they know everything about users. In Figure 2, HiPPOs might argue: “I have worked here for 34 years. I know our customers very well, and I know what they want.”
Everyone has opinions about UX, but opinions are unimportant. Data and facts are important. You obtain data and facts from interviews, usability tests, and other research methods. A usability test shows what representative users can accomplish with the interactive system when they carry out representative tasks. Eliciting personal opinions from users, or discussing them, is not part of a usability test.
HiPPOs May Be Tamed
To counter or tame HiPPOs, run usability tests with HiPPOs and critical stakeholders as observers. This allows them to experience the important insights from usability tests firsthand. Ensure that there is sufficiently broad participation in testing; otherwise, HiPPOs tend to evaluate a single test as the absolute truth.
As a UX professional, politely insist that you don’t have opinions because opinions are often misleading. Insist on getting data from users from professional UX research, such as contextual interviews and usability testing.
UX Strategies Derailed by Organizational Culture
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” is a famous quote from legendary management consultant and writer, Peter Drucker. He says that strategy is important, but that a powerful culture may derail even the best UX strategy. For example, if the organization’s culture is that nothing matters more than keeping deadlines, UX activities such as usability testing just before an important release may be considered a nuisance, even if they are included in the product strategy.
Organizational culture is a set of shared assumptions that guide behaviors, for example, “mistakes are bad.” Elements of organizational culture that are relevant for UX professionals are shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Elements of Organizational Culture Relevant for UX Professionals
|Supportive of UX Activities||Resistant to UX Activities|
|Making work easier for customers is more important than making work easier for us.||Customers are irrelevant—they will visit our websites and buy our products regardless of whether doing so is easy or pleasant.|
|Critical questions are welcomed; mistakes are expected: “If you make no mistakes, you’re not doing your work properly.”||Critical questions are dismissed or ignored: “We don’t make mistakes.”|
|Competencies are more important than roles.||The highest paid person’s opinions rule (HiPPOs).|
|A good UX requires careful work by specialists.||UX is just common sense; anyone can do it.|
|“Let’s usability test it with customers.”||“I have worked for this organization for 34 years. I know what our customers want.”|
|“I need to report this problem to the UX team.”||“Crap happens!”|
Culture cannot be decided. People like the idea of change, but they often don’t want to change themselves, as shown in Figure 2. Culture can, however, be nudged. To nudge the UX culture of an organization that is at a low UX maturity level, get support from top management:
- Run usability tests of your organization’s offerings and ask HiPPOs, skeptical co-workers, and thought leaders to observe them.
- Show clips from usability tests at workshops where usability test results are presented and discussed.
- Communicate UX successes repeatedly in plain language using striking examples from your usability tests.
- Evangelize UX. Preach to co-workers how UX work can be beneficial to meeting their business goals. A style guide and brown bag meetings are great tools for evangelizing UX.
UX professionals should handle cultural change with care because change brings risk, and the idea of cultural change is hugely troubling to a lot of people.
Little Knowledge about C-Level Executives
Some UX professionals stumble and fall because they only have opinions about management and other key stakeholders, which is a user group that is crucial for their own success.
As a UX professional, you should learn and speak the language of your users—the C-level executives; for example, you should be fluent in terms like business goal, business strategy, KPI, ROI, NPS, MVP, and A/B test.
You can do this by interviewing members of top management to learn their language and better understand the organization’s business goals and strategies. If you’re told that these people don’t have time to talk to you, be persistent.
Explain the business value of UX work using top management’s language, for example, as related to business goals and business strategy. Also, ensure that your UX strategy is fully aligned with the business strategy.
Examples of what we learned by following this advice:
- Never mention a problem without proposing a specific solution or, at least, the next step to finding a solution.
- Always present facts before opinions and separate them clearly.
- C-level executives want to get to the point quickly because they are busy.
- C-level executives are interested in getting metrics about their competitors, which can help them compare their business to their competitors’ business.
- Show that measurable changes, for example, an increase in productivity or lower error rates, happened because of your work.
Of course, you should not only talk to management but also conduct field studies to better understand the context of use for your end users.
Using New UX Methods Just Because They Are Cool
As UX professionals, we want to do good work. As part of our training and through exchanges with colleagues, we often learn about exciting and promising methods. And once we have a method that works well, we like to use it because we know how to get good results with it. Yet, we should question regularly how UX methods help our organization in user-oriented product development and if they are cost efficient.
For example, an organization might invest a lot of time in the development of personas but not use them afterwards or only use them superficially. Another example: At a conference, you learn about eye tracking, which sounds exciting. Before you introduce eye tracking as standard, consider if other methods, such as traditional usability testing, would lead more efficiently to the same or better insights.
As a UX professional, you should ask yourself the following questions before using a new method:
- What does the method change for us?
- How do we prove the added value of the method particularly to management?
- How is this method better than other methods we already know?
After using a new method, we should self-critically reflect on the following:
- Has our knowledge improved through the method?
- Was this method worth it?
- Should we use the method again?
We must ask ourselves these questions every time we try out a new method. We recommend documenting the answers to the questions as an integral part of your way of working.
Decision Makers Don’t Know What UX-Related Metrics Mean
An organization with a high UX maturity needs the ability to make the right design decisions. To make the right decisions, aggregated metrics from thorough user research are needed. Unfortunately, decision makers often do not know what the numbers from the metrics mean and therefore cannot use them successfully for decision making.
For example, a misunderstanding we often see arises with Daily Active Users (DAU). Which users are counted for this metric? Does DAU indicate users who visited, logged in, or performed only an essential function on the website?
To make the right decisions, everyone involved in design decisions must know what the metrics and their concrete values mean, which aspects they represent, and what the metrics do not stand for. For example, when using the Net Promoter Score (NPS), different values are considered positive depending on the industry and cultural area. It is also important to understand that the NPS does not represent satisfaction but rather customer experience.
While metrics are an effective tool, they must be communicated repeatedly. We recommend the following tips for communicating metrics:
- Whenever metrics are used, they must be explained in plain language.
- To check the decision makers’ understanding of the metrics, listen carefully for signs of misunderstandings when you discuss the metrics with them.
- Distribute cheat sheets, short videos, or texts with explanations of metrics. Cheat sheets can, for example, briefly show how the metric is calculated and which values are considered good or bad.
- For known problem metrics such as NPS or DAU, clarify how they are to be interpreted in your company.
- Explain key metrics and distribute aids such as cheat sheets as early as possible, for example, during the onboarding of new employees. These aids can be easily taken into meetings as handouts.
Findings from UX Research Are Questioned or Downplayed
Mature organizations carry out user research to collect and test ideas. However, sometimes the results from user research are questioned by designers or decision makers if the results contradict their own ideas or opinions. User research may be questioned with statements like, “The usability test participants are not representative,” or, “You interviewed the wrong people and asked the wrong questions,” or even, “Where did you find those stupid users?”
It is understandable that stakeholders want to hold on to their own ideas, but there is a danger here of making important decisions based on opinions rather than user research.
As UX professionals, we need to stay alert and respond to such critical statements immediately. However, at the end of the research may be too late. Our experience shows that it helps to be transparent and define rough decision alternatives at the beginning of the research. We need to ensure, even before the research, that potentially critical and opinionated stakeholders (for example, HiPPOs) also want the research project.
The following tips will help:
- Agree together on clear goals and key questions the UX research should answer.
- Decide before conducting the UX research which results should lead to which specific actions.
- Make the approach of your UX research transparent and explain what is done, when, and where.
Encourage all stakeholders—especially critical ones—to participate in all phases of the research. Especially in activities where user feedback is collected, it helps if stakeholders experience the research live, for example, in a usability test.
Take care that you do not stumble on the reporting. There are a lot of poor communicators out there, and some great findings are lost because UX professionals have trouble communicating them verbally. The actual reports must be usable—at the right detail level, actionable, and concise. This can be tricky.
Insurmountable Stumbling Stones
Some stumbling stones may seem insurmountable, for example, a herd of HiPPOs who praise and confirm each other’s unfounded opinions, shown in Figure 4, or stubborn HiPPOs who are not influenced by clear data and facts.
If you encounter seemingly insurmountable stumbling stones, quietly set a time limit for yourself, for example, two or three years, not less. Wait patiently for things to improve significantly. In the meantime, work hard to nudge the organization’s culture and continue to try to win supporters for your mission. You can also use this time to learn about organizations and organizational anti-patterns, for example, managers whose actions are guided by their desire for rapid promotion, or what happens if there is only one person who knows important project details.
If things have not improved significantly when your time limit expires, start filling out job applications because you may be wasting your precious work.
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