Even as UX design and user research are becoming a more prominent focus in today’s leading companies, it can still be tough to get executive leadership onboard with user research-related initiatives. We know the struggle.
So if you are a UX professional or product manager, and it feels that your projects are constantly getting sidelined, what are you to do? How can you make sure that you get what you want and are well supported?
You need executive buy-in. But of course, that’s easier said than done. Sadly, we have not found a magic bullet that will help the role of UX become instantly heard and properly funded. However, we do have some ideas about how UX professionals can sell themselves to their executive teams and ultimately earn buy-in for their work.
Why is executive buy-in so important?
You may be thinking to yourself, I have the support of my direct manager, isn’t that enough? Sure, that helps, but it will only get you so far. When we talk about executive buy-in, we’re referring not only to support from your senior leadership but also from department heads besides your own.
Executive buy-in is important because it means that your initiatives are more likely to be incorporated into the larger strategic plans for your organization. In turn, this will mean that the money and resources you need to see your projects through will be accounted for.
Without executive buy-in, UX projects might as well be on a deserted island. Think about it: in the mind of a CEO or c-level leaders, the success of a company comes down to the money it makes (and its ability to operate sustainably). Obviously, UX work creates value, but the ways in which it impacts a company’s bottom line isn’t as instantly clear as, say, a salesperson closing a large deal.
This doesn’t mean that all hope is lost for UX professionals, it just means that they have to work that much harder to prove their case. In practice, that comes down to being able to clearly illustrate the value that they create for the company. If today, you can’t draw a clear line between your work as a UX department and how you’re making or saving your company money, you certainly have your work cut out for you.
Things to Keep in Mind.
Don’t feel guilty!
Sometimes, as professionals, we can assume that we’re not getting the resources or time or attention we want because other departments or projects just need it more. Maybe this is true, or maybe they’re just better at advocating for their needs. With this mindset, you may feel guilty for asking for more. But you shouldn’t let this worry stop you from asking for what your department or project needs.
For one, UX professionals are researchers and designers, but they are also advocates for users. This is a crucial function of businesses and it should be staffed and funded properly.
UX professionals are researchers and designers, but they are also advocates for users.
There are also interdepartmental benefits to user research. You shouldn’t feel guilty for pushing for more focus on UX and user research because it doesn’t just benefit your department, and with the rise of automation, it’s easier and cheaper to do well than ever before.
Having said that, we don’t advise demanding more attention and budget – you should be persuasive but respectful and open to feedback. Every organization has needs and goals that have to be balanced properly.
Be prepared to customize your approach.
If we knew a way to get everybody on your side in one-fell-swoop that didn’t involve hypnosis, we would definitely share it. But unfortunately, we haven’t found that solution just yet.
In the meantime, all you need to do is keep in mind that every department and individual contributor has different goals and metrics they’re assessed on. This means that different evidence and messaging will resonate with them. Make sure you understand your audience, then frame your argument accordingly. Talk to your marketer friends, this is basically their job.
This advice still applies even if you aren’t advocating for a specific project.
So what if you don’t have a specific project you’re trying to get resources or funding for? That’s okay, too. Realistically, trying to get buy-in from an executive team that doesn’t already have knowledge of your projects when you need thousands of dollars by next month is probably a lost cause. You need to consistently work towards laying the foundation for executive buy-in.
However, if you are working toward getting executive buy-in for a specific project or initiative, you should be able to find specific, compelling metrics and figures to present that will clearly demonstrate the return on investment from your projects. This will almost always help your case.
It may take time.
The most time-consuming part of getting buy-in is educating the organization about what UX is and the role it has. This process is often an uphill battle as many people think UX is just about building landing pages. If other departments in your workplace match this description, you may need to put in the time to socialize an understanding of UX.
This is especially true if you are part of a large organization. Don’t be surprised if when you think it’s all said and done, you suddenly find out someone in another department has last-minute questions or suddenly wants a closer look at your proposal.
Sometimes, it can help to make the decision process as smooth as possible. For example, if you’re only missing a signature below your user research tool contract, don’t ask for a physical signature. Instead, use a handy e-signature tool like Signturely.
Manage your own expectations about how long this process will take, as it will require some patience and time invested. But it’ll be worth the investment!
Building Your Case.
Prime Your Team on UX/User Research
While this may be less of an issue than it used to be, we still recommend making sure everyone in your organization is on the same page about what UX is and how it creates value. One suggestion from the R. Donnelly blog is hosting UX meetups or lunch and learns.
This practice keeps the benefits of UX top of mind and increases familiarity with the UX department and its goals/projects.
Connect UX to larger business goals.
First off, we recommend understanding the larger goals of your business. Second, you need to figure out how your UX initiatives can not only contribute to these goals but advance them. Once you connect those dots, demonstrate that connection to your executive team. And of course, assigning a dollar value to that difference doesn’t hurt.
What does that look like in practice? Let’s say that a larger goal for the company is to increase the number of transactional purchases (purchases that happen without the help of the sales team). One way to do that is to make it as easy as possible for web visitors to purchase your product. User research can help with that!
The trick is to figure out how to connect your goals with things that are a priority and focus for your company this quarter/year. And if you can’t figure out how to connect what you want to do to what the business is working towards, you may need to reassess.
Show them the numbers.
Apart from catching your team up on what UX is and why it’s important, you also have to be able to quantify its benefits. Common excuses companies cite for not conducting user research include difficulty quantifying benefits or systematically gleaning any takeaways from qualitative feedback.
But that’s a defeatist attitude! There are lots of ways to measure aspects of the user experience.
For example, you can use single usability metric (SUM) to keep track of how usable your product or service is. This metric is a summarization of a few different usability measurements: task completion rates, task time, satisfaction and error count.
Additionally, there are a number of other metrics you can consult as well. Because UX is contextual, relevant data will depend on what changes or insights are relevant to your work. You’ll want to think about metrics like conversion rate, web traffic, A/B testing results, and more.
Other tools to consider for metrics are eye-tracking and heat maps. We particularly recommend keeping tabs on these tools before and after you make notable UX changes. One tip from author Joel Marsh is reviewing search logs. What users don’t understand or can’t find, they will search for. Keeping track of these trends can be very revealing.
But also go beyond numbers.
Numbers are crucial and it seems very few business decisions are made without them anymore, but they’re not everything. Numbers are important because they prove to your organization that the decision to invest in user research was not just a whim but a well thought out move. But when you’re dealing with people, it’s important to keep in mind the information they’ll find most compelling, as well as the format in which they’re most likely to retain it.
Take into account their information-processing style. Do they like numbers? Do they easily identify patterns and rules in the set of numbers? If so, prioritize graphics and statistics.
Or maybe they prefer stories? Do they use words to describe and interpret events? Storytelling will work miracles with people like this – give them examples of how users may feel and behave now, vs. what this will be like after changes are introduced based on user research.
Or maybe they efficiently process both numerical and verbal information and can easily connect the dots between both? Yes, these people do exist – they have a versatile information processing style. There are also people who like to use both types of information to make a decision, but they take time to connect the dots.
On the other hand, it is also important to know the decision- making style of a person you are trying to persuade. Are they focusing on minimizing their losses or maximize their gains? More conservative people in the first category respond to information about how the company will avoid users’ disappointment in using the product or minimize the churn, while the latter wants to know how user research can contribute to increased usage or new sign-ons.
Then, ask yourself if your audience is tactical or strategic. Some people center factors like current costs, implementation, and crisis management. Others will focus on things like generating new possibilities and the big picture.
And last but not least, you will also notice some people have the tendency to make intuitive decisions while others will need processing time to make themselves comfortable with a decision. Some decision-makers will collect a lot of information, require multiple meetings, review past decisions, and consult with others.
Whatever the case may be, try to be flexible and adjust to the information processing and decision-making style of people you’re trying to get buy-in from. Of course, this is much easier when you can anticipate your audience’s tendencies and plan accordingly.
Return on Investment (ROI)
Your ability to demonstrate ROI from a project or initiative is likely going to be the biggest determining factor in whether or not you’re going to be able to gain buy-in from your executive team.
As JustInMind puts it, “a global enterprise isn’t going to invest in UX just because it’s on trend or on the CEO’s mind. A global enterprise is only going to invest in UX if the figures add up.” So you’ll need to be able to demonstrate how much you stand to lose if you make a poor decision or save/make if you make a good decision.
To calculate an actual figure, you’ll need to have a grasp on operational costs like labor and the opportunity cost associated with focusing on one area over another. For example, if you’re making UX improvements to an E-commerce site, you’ll want to think about something like abandonment rates and shopping cart completions. Moreover, you’ll want to have a sense of how much you stand to gain by, for example, redirecting a developer’s time to focus on making usability improvements as opposed to deploying a new feature.
One study found that every dollar invested in usability can return between $10 and $100. It pays to invest in your user experience!
Of course, it’s possible that extracting these types of numbers can be very complicated and they are likely inexact. So while a lot of this information should be tailored to your specific metrics and use case, there are also some general metrics that can be helpful to keep in mind.
For example, most companies want to avoid having to fix issues that could have been identified early on in the development cycle. Research conducted by Susan Weinschenk showed that developers often spend 50% of their time on “avoidable rework.” This refers to the cost of fixing mistakes that were found after a tool was already deployed.
Beyond the amount of time this wastes, “the cost of fixing errors after development can be 100x more than before development, and internal training for unintuitive software can raise costs.”
At the same time, usability research can have a significant ROI. One study found that every dollar invested in usability can return between $10 and $100. It pays to invest in your user experience! There’s evidence that spending time on the right features can also cut development time overall.
Stumped on what areas to focus on in order to demonstrate ROI? Here are some examples of KPIs from a Human Factors International study on the value of UX.
Make it visual and digestible.
Once you’ve put together your arguments and associated metrics, it’s time to get organized. Think about the most compelling way to present and summarize this information and tailor it based on your audience segments.
UX researcher Tomer Sharon recommends putting together a 1-page of summary of the goals you’re working toward and present customized versions to the executives you’re specifically trying to get buy-in from.
Moreover, you’ll want to help the executives visualize the goals and the changes you want to make. As possible, we recommend creating lo-fi prototypes or mockups of the improvements you’re pitching. But beware, the people you speak with may not understand what the function of the wireframe is so you may need to contextualize.
Be sure to first explain what you are going to present, how it is used and what they can expect. This will help you avoid irrelevant questions about lack of colours and images in your design.
Without executive buy-in, it’s very difficult for any team or department to advance their agenda. UX departments and professionals experience this difficulty in a few compounding ways. A unique challenge is that UX has an impact on the bottom line, but this line isn’t quite as clear as, say, sales or customer success activity. As a relatively new discipline, UX departments also face the challenge of sometimes being misunderstood.
Therefore, gaining executive buy-in is a combination of a few things. Understanding your audience and being able to tailor your arguments is key. Another important tactic is being able to clearly draw the line between UX activities and ROI. Finally, packaging your key points in a digestible way (like a 1-page handout) will help your executive team actually retain your arguments and ultimately solidify your impact.
Gaining executive buy-in for UX projects is crucial and takes some legwork, but it’s not impossible. Have any ideas we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments section!
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