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User experience design in a non user-centric company

In this newsletter, I will address a question that I am commonly asked by students of HFI’s four-course Certified Usability Analyst program.

By the end of the courses, most students have mastered the concepts and understand the user-centered design process. They are excited to get back to their various organizations so that they can put into practice what they have learned. However, a fair number of students still ask one very pertinent question: “I understood the process, mastered the theory, and also practiced the steps, but how do I go about doing user-centered design in my company?” Further probing almost always reveals that the organization in question does not have a strategic user experience mandate.

Even with a growing awareness about the importance of user-centricity there are still many companies that are not quite ready to start the journey. This newsletter aims to provide a few pointers to get the UX ball rolling in those organizations.

User Experience is not the End … It is a Means to the End

Most of the students who attend our courses are very passionate about user experience design. However, they tend to overestimate the role of UX within an organization. Hence, one of the key lessons for any UX practitioner is to understand where UX fits within the larger organization.

Very few stakeholders, if any, will invest in user experience just to make users happy. Their primary goal is to meet business objectives. This is not to say that good user experience is not important. On the contrary, creating a great user experience is one of the primary ingredients for meeting business objectives, but many stakeholders may not see the relationship in the short term.

Keeping this in mind, it is essential for you as a UX practitioner to approach user experience with the correct frame and use the language of business.

Understanding the Language of Business — Money

The best ways to communicate with business stakeholders is to understand and talk their language – return on investment. An excellent start to demonstrating the return on investment is to get a good grasp of the business objectives, especially in monetary terms: “How does the company intend to make and/or save money?” Framing the benefits of user experience within this context is critical to getting your voice heard.

All design and communication should then be centered around these business objectives. For example, instead of saying how a specific design change will make it easier for the user to learn the system (user-centric communication), you should communicate how the change will reduce the learning time and hence save the company money (business metric-centric communication).

Starting Small

Many practitioners’ largest problem is finding ways to incorporate user centered design methods when it is not part of the project’s scope. In these situations, it is important to remember that user-centered design is not an all or nothing process. Even within these tight constraints, there are practical steps you may take.

A great start is by doing what you probably already do:  gather requirements. The key difference would be in the requirements you gather and how you document them. Instead of just collecting the functional requirements, find out as much as you can about the users. Most likely, you will not have access to the actual end users, and even if you did it would not be feasible to conduct traditional data gathering within the limited time and budget.

Instead, try getting this understanding from as many secondary sources as you can. Talk to the sales team – they have a good understanding about what customers are requesting. The marketing team will give you a good understanding of the customer segmentation and their buying behaviors. Customer service and help desk representatives can help you with key problem areas. Review analytics and web-logs to understand usage patterns and drop-off points. Hold meetings with subject matter experts to get a better grasp of the domain. This data is no substitute for actual data from end-users, but it is a start.

Once you have this information, it is important to document it in a manner that will directly support your project. Develop a set of user profiles, personas and scenarios. Try to identify the key needs and opportunities for your customers. If something is a best guess (most of it will be at this point), mark it as such. More importantly, identify and document what you don't know but need to know. Don't limit this documentation to your desk. Set up a central repository where others can use and contribute to the UX knowledgebase of your organization.

Even with this limited understanding of the users, it is possible to design based on best practices. Refer to online pattern libraries for examples. Don’t just look at competitors. Remember, your users live in a larger world of applications and websites that you can reference for design ideas. Peer reviews are very helpful at this stage as they help get a fresh set of eyes and a different perspective.

You probably will not end up with an amazing user experience, but it will be better than the alternative, so don’t expect (and set the expectation of) a 10-fold ROI. Remember: small steps, small gains.

Communicate and Educate

User experience is often as much about communication as it is about research and design. Developing your communication skills is very important because the way you present your design matters. Remember, good communication is about story telling. Engage your audience and take every opportunity to educate them about the ideal process.

Good communication and education is about involving your stakeholders at every step. Post your data gathering, however limited that may be, and be sure to communicate what you know and what you don’t know about the user. Make sure they understand the assumptions you are making.  One company I taught at communicated their understanding of users by distributing personas and scenarios that they had printed on index cards that the employees (including managers and developers) could put on their desks.

During the design phase, make sure the stakeholders are involved and sharing their business objectives.  (This not only helps get better buy-in, but also helps them appreciate the user-centered design process.) Conduct design workshops where they can provide their input and use that as a forum to explain your current process, its shortcomings, and the ideal process. When presenting designs make sure you are not just describing the widgets on the screen, but are talking about the end-users’ experience and how the design helps achieve the business objectives.

Measure and Demonstrate

The only way to communicate the effectiveness of the user-centered design process to business stakeholders is to showcase measurable return on investment. These measurements allow you to tie the UX efforts to the money a client earns or saves. In addition to the hard metrics around money earned (e.g. leads converted, average revenue per user, order value per user, etc.) and money saved (e.g. reduction in training time, reduced support costs, etc.) you can also measure softer metrics around user satisfaction (e.g. Net Promoter Score, USE Questionnaire, etc.) and user engagement (e.g. pages per visit, repeat visits, meaningful interactions, etc.).

It is important to identify the metrics to be measured at the onset of the project so that you can make a meaningful before and after comparison to showcase the benefits of your user-centered design activities. Showcasing project success through the lens of these business metrics will help you to make a business case for additional user-centered design activities.

Outside Resources

On a number of occasions, it is actually easier to get the ball rolling by using outside resources. For better or worse, a consultant usually holds more power, influence, and access than an employee of the organization. It is also easier and more politically prudent to hear the problems from a consultant than an insider. A good consultant not only can help evangelize user-centricity, but can also help with showcase projects and educational programs to create UX awareness.

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Comment by Atisha Deeplal on May 15, 2013 at 5:19pm
Thanks for the great post. I especially agree with 'Understanding the language of the Business' as being one of the key aspects in selling UX to the organization.

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