The Man Behind the Curtain

Helping Stakeholders Understand the Value of the UX Process


Myths Are Made To Be Broken

If it hadn’t been for that pesky dog, Toto, maybe the Wizard would have gotten away with it. Maybe he would have been able to continue fooling Dorothy and the Ozians had Toto not pulled back that darn curtain. But alas, his myth was busted. The truth was outed. The Wizard was not some mysterious, supernatural, omnipotent being. No, he was just your average, everyday, run-o-the-mill, hard working engineer.

UX design is certainly in vogue these days. There are plenty of companies looking for talented designers and even more new folks looking to enter the field. The increased popularity has lead to an almost rock star like hysteria around the profession. The more popular it becomes, the fewer folks it seems actually understand it. Much of the world views UX design like the Ozians viewed the Wizard of Oz. They only see the end results. The giant heads. The smoke and mirrors. The finely crafted, polished end products. To them, the end result IS user experience design.

As UX practitioners, however, we know the truth. We know that behind the curtain is a pile of discarded assumptions and flawed prototypes. That our work is more than just the shiny, pretty UIs. The truth is that all of the scraps on the cutting room floor…the stuff we discard and throw away…those are the really important bits.

Earlier in my career, I worked at one organization where we would literally spend a whole day preparing high fidelity presentations just to share our progress updates with the executives. It still frustrates me to think about all the time we spent making things pretty, when we should have been focusing on communicating what we’d learned and how we arrived at our decisions.

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.
— Michelangelo

Explain the Process

So often stakeholders expect the UX design process to follow the same practice as marketing design. The tried and true process of three mock up explorations which are often reviewed subjectively. But UX design is not marketing or visual design. It’s not just about making things look pretty and pixel perfect. It’s about aiding users in accomplishing their goals, be it completing a task, finding information or any number of other things. To do this, we need to understand what those goals are and how people go about trying to accomplish them.

Quantitative and qualitative research methods are tools we use to gain those insights. By walking stakeholders through the data and sharing the results of research we conduct, we can paint a clearer picture of how our design decisions were guided. Doing so will both inform executives about what really goes on in the design process and instill confidence that we have done our due diligence.

Define the problem

It’s easy to fall into the trap of jumping right into designing solutions. Too often organizations look at products that are already out there and just incorporate those designs into their own products. While this seems reasonable, it’s not a guaranteed strategy for success. Looking at competitors or similar products is a good way to understand how they are solving certain problems, but it is presumptuous to think that their solutions are the the right solutions for our own products. Is our audience the same? Are our technologies or product capabilities different in any way? Even close-knit competitors have inherently proprietary aspects that differentiate the experience and create unique problems.

It’s important that we clearly communicate the problem(s) we are trying to solve and why to stakeholders. We need to help them understand that getting this right is crucial. It can mean the difference between delivering a product that provides value to customers or wasting time and valuable resources on something that doesn’t address their needs.

Knowing the primary problem not only allows us to find the right solution, but it also helps us choose the right metrics so that we can measure the results. Most stakeholders are results oriented so you’ll be speaking their language when you present to them.

Show research

As discussed in the previous section, identifying the key problem (or problems) is a critical first step in the process. Often, that means looking at existing research/data or conducting our own research. There are plenty of third-party resources (both paid and free) at our disposal that can provide analysis on things relevant to our products and customers. Think with Google for example, is free and often has interesting insights. We should also use our own in-house data to help us understand how customers use our products and friction points within them.

Data is only half of the equation when it comes to research. Really understanding our customers means going beyond the numbers. Nothing can ever replace talking to the people that use our products. Ethnographic research, usability tests and surveys are fantastic tools for developing empathy and seeing things through the eyes of our customers.

Sharing video clips of usability tests or ethnographic research is a great way to show stakeholders how users actually interact with our products. A delight-filled smile, a quizzical stare or a furrowed brow can tell a more compelling story than a few bullet points on a presentation.

Highlight key findings

The worst thing you could ever do in a presentation to stakeholders is just show screenshots or mock ups of the current design. While it’s ok to make this a part of the presentation, doing this alone is most likely a recipe for disaster. You are sure to open yourself up for criticism and second guessing if it is the only thing you present. If you’re doing it right, the work you are presenting is a result of the qualitative and quantitative research discussed in the previous paragraphs.

Take them on the Journey

Storytelling is important in our profession, but not just to create compelling experiences. We can also use storytelling to take stakeholders on our journey of research, discovery and exploration. But we shouldn’t just show them the good stuff. Every story has a protagonist and an antagonist. The good, the bad and the ugly. If you really want them to feel confident in the work you are presenting, showing what didn’t work and explaining why is just as important as showing what did work.

If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.
— Michelangelo