If you’re familiar with user experience (UX) design, then you understand the benefit of user research. It helps you empathize with users, evaluate usability, and determine the user requirements of a project (Baxter, Courage, & Caine, 2015). But what if I told you user research can have another application that can be just as vital to the outcome of a project as user empathy?
Products are about people. The people UX designers have their primary focus on are users, but in the periphery are always stakeholders. While technically stakeholders can be anyone with an interest in or impacted by a product – including users (McDonald, 2018) – the term stakeholders, in this case, is referring specifically to the internal people in a business or organization who are involved in a project. These people often are the decision-makers upon whom the turning points of your projects depend. They provide approval, finances, legitimacy, and even sometimes run defense for your work. You want and need them on your side.
However, this doesn’t always come naturally to them. Their roles as decision-makers also endow them with a great deal of responsibility and accountability – to the business, leadership, employees, customers, etc. This can make them doubtful and risk-averse on one hand and overly confident of their own biased knowledge on the other, both of which can cause trust issues that become your obstacle to overcome in pursuit of good, useable design. This is where user research comes in.
User research can be used to help bridge the trust gap between UX designers and stakeholders in 2 ways: through the engagement of stakeholders in the research process and through the socialization with stakeholders of empirical data gained from user research.
UX instinct might dictate that you start a project by interviewing users but taking the time to start with stakeholder interviews can have a big impact on the type of relationship you’ll have with them during a project. Just like the insight you gain from user interviews; stakeholder insights can orient you with their goals and needs which you’ll need to accommodate throughout the process (Anand, 2019). The more you can learn and plan for stakeholder needs and expectations, the better the experience stakeholders will have during the project and the easier you’ll be able to get the support you need.
Another reason to do stakeholder interviews is to make stakeholders feel heard and like they have some ownership over a project beyond just being the boss. Only being included when someone needs official buy-in can feel cold and leave some stakeholders with a more adversarial relationship with designers, either because the stakeholders fear looking like they are unknowledgeable about a project or they perceive a level of disrespect in the exclusion.
Finally, stakeholder interviews are an educational opportunity. As the video above explains, sometimes stakeholders can be a detrimental hurdle because they simply don’t understand what you do. Seeing and experiencing the user research process and techniques firsthand can be a big problem-solver.
Besides interviews, you can educate stakeholders on UX through other activities, including brainstorming sessions, the viewing of usability session recordings – if you’ve secured user consent and can ensure the continued confidentiality of the user – and even offering stakeholders the option to experience and participate in the development process of UX documents (Baxter, Courage, & Caine, 2015). For example, Jeff Gothelf (2012) suggested in an article in UX Magazine that creating proto-personas with executives not only offers a starting point for a design process but gets executives conditioned to using design thinking. These behaviors can potentially carry over to the executives’ regular work, benefiting all areas of a business.
If stakeholders feel engaged and educated in the user research process, they are more likely to trust designers, and even see them as gifted collaborators who the stakeholders can brag about being smart enough to hire.
Socializing Empirical Data
But what about those stakeholders who just want guarantees or black and white answers, you may be asking? Unfortunately, their trust can be harder to gain. However, user research techniques generate something these types of stakeholders love: data. Data-driven has become a buzzword of late in business but in UX it’s just regular practice to make decisions and extrapolate ideas from data. Whether it be qualitative or quantitative, you can use data to win over some of the toughest stakeholders (Gupta, 2020).
First, it’s important when presenting design proposals to not just share what you want to do, but why. Explain how you came to these decisions based on user research and share the numbers or quotes to back it up. Being transparent about your decision-making process and your effort to avoid bias lessens stakeholders’ feelings of distrust. They won’t be as nervous because you‘re not just asking them to simply take your word on something. If you can add to this data empirical information on how your research and recommendations can benefit business requirements in addition to user requirements that’s even better (Baxter, Courage, & Caine, 2015).
Building transparency can also happen when you create a strategic stakeholder communication plan in which you decide on multiple points throughout the user research process where you will share results with selected stakeholders and in what format (Foreman & Discenza, 2012). Data is useful, but UX research can collect a lot of it, and dumping it all on stakeholders at the end and expecting them to process it all can kill its effectiveness. Instead, you should socialize small amounts of strategically chosen results at various points over the course of the process.
If you’re redesigning a website, for example, you could begin with pulling usage data from Google Analytics to start hypothesizing where problems may be. You can then briefly go over this data and your analysis with stakeholders. They can learn a little about users and hear about how you plan to explore the validity of this analysis with various user research techniques – surveys, interviews, usability tests, etc.
Then when results from these activities are available you can share that data and discuss both the revelations about previously unthought-of problems as well as how the new data expands upon the previously identified product problems. Through this communication, you can also more clearly help stakeholders understand how UX documents, despite sometimes being fictional on the surface like personas, should be built based on data so they’re grounded in reality.
This approach helps stakeholders feel in the loop throughout the process and see repeated examples of how data-driven your work is at every step. Through this, trust is built between designer and stakeholder, but also between stakeholder and the work being done. Thus buy-in time becomes less of an intimidating hurdle and more like an exciting check-in for all parties.
If trust is the hoped-for goal when using user research to gain stakeholder buy-in, then excitement is a homerun. But even with the most inclusive, transparent, educational, and data-driven stakeholder management plan there still might be people hesitant or resistant to trust your design choices.
The hope is that all this work will have at least won you some friends in the room. Sometimes the key to attaining stakeholder buy-in is using other stakeholders to get it. If someone trusts you and your work enough, they’ll defend you and it and work to counteract the naysayers so you can get what you need and move forward with the project.
All of this may seem like a wholly unnecessary waste of energy. A political or bureaucratic distraction from the focus of product design. But it’s a real problem and since UX designers are in the business of helping solving problems they should care about this particular problem since it holds as much potential to derail a product as any design problem does.
Anand, S. (2019, January 9). UX process starts at stakeholder interviews not user interviews. UX Collective. Retrieved from https://uxdesign.cc/ux-process-starts-at-stakeholder-interviews-not-user-interviews-4b464368d7d3
Baxter, K., Courage, C., & Caine, K. (2015). Understanding your users: A practical guide to user research methods, tools, and techniques. Elsevier: Waltham, MA.
Forman, J. B. & Discenza, R. (2012). Got stake?: (Holder) management in your project. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2012—North America, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
Gothelf, J. (2012, May 1). Using proto-personas for executive alignment. UX Magazine. Retrieved from https://uxmag.com/articles/using-proto-personas-for-executive-alignment
Gupta, P. (2020, February 7). 8 tips for UX designers to get stakeholder buy-in. UX Planet. Retrieved from https://uxplanet.org/tips-for-ux-designers-to-gain-stakeholder-buy-in-1c1d9c052853
McDonald, K. (2018, January 17). What is the difference between customers, users, and stakeholders? KBP Media. Retrieved from https://www.kbp.media/customers-users-stakeholders/