I BELIEVE you need to bring your own seat, and pull it up the table.
LIKE MANY of you, I attended last year’s conference because I was interested in how to get UX a seat at the table within my organization.
AND ONE IDEA that really stuck with me was something that Aline Baeck from eBay said…
SHE SAID that we should start helping with strategy level problems without waiting to be asked.
TODAY I’d like to share with you 3 case studies of how trying this approach has helped my UX team bring our own seat to the table within our organization. And I hope it will spark some ideas that you can take back with you.
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SO AFTER UX STRAT 2013 I went back to New York with a ton of enthusiasm and was ready to apply what I had learned to my current project. At the time I was a UX designer embedded within a small project team, and we were tasked with reimagining the way the buy-side of our product was structured.
FOR THOSE WHO DON’T know, AppNexus is an Advertising Technology platform that helps our clients buy and sell online advertising. So there was a huge UX opportunity here, half of our business almost, but it was a terrifying opportunity because our CEO was functioning as the Product Owner within this team…
EVEN WITH ALL of the strategic and inspirational talk at UX Strat 2013, I still wasn’t sure what a proper UX Strategy document should actually look like.
SHOULD IT have Venn diagrams? Arrows? Charts going up and to the right? Who knows.
SO I DECIDED to keep it simple and just write down a few sentences that captured my ideas for a better future state. And it looked like this…
As you can see: NOT. VERY. COMPELLING. I didn’t feel like I could present it to my team, including our CEO, and say “ok team, I’m done! I’ve solved all of our UX problems, all we have to do is follow this handful of sentences that I scribbled down yesterday afternoon.” I couldn’t do that. In fact, I wasn’t even sure that I believed them. They were just ideas. I wanted a way to validate that my ideas were solid.
WELL THE PROJECT we were working on was reimagining a workflow. So I decided that using service design as a base would be a good start towards helping me organize my thoughts.
SO FIRST I CREATED this workflow document, which highlights all of the steps a buyer has to take to buy ad inventory or ad space on our platform.
TYPICAL Service Design document format, It includes external and internal dependencies, all that good stuff.
AND THEN I WENT BACK to each of the sentences I had written down before, and I started to associate them with the relevant part of the workflow.
AND I DID that. For. Each. Sentence.
AND FINALLY I thought it might be interesting if I then overlaid them all together. So I gave it a try, and it looked like this:
TO BE HONEST I was pretty surprised that they lined up so nicely, but also really thrilled because this told me something. This told me that the strategy concepts I was thinking about were addressing the whole workflow, which was really important to me and my team.
HAD THEY NOT maybe that is still ok, but at least by doing this exercise, I would have become aware of that oversight and could have dug further into any gaps. So today I wanted to share this exercise with you because I found it really helpful and thought you might too.
OK SO I HAVE THESE strategic ideas and supporting documents, but I need to share them with my team so I can use them to influence what we build…
BEOFRE SENDING IT OUT the first thing I did was to make sure to use the word “Strategy" all over the place. It sounds stupid, but terminology shapes perceptions. If you want your skillset to be considered strategic, start using those terms. Elevate the way people think about what you do.
SO THIS IS AN IMPORTANT step, and it takes 5 seconds, so why not.
THEN I POSTED ALL OF WHAT I JUST SHOWED YOU to a new page on our project wiki space, proudly named UX Strategies for Trading, and shared it with the team.
LONG STORY SHORT the project team–including our CEO–loved it. They were able to see not only what the UX ideas were, but more importantly how these strategies supported the workflow and would help us develop a better end result.
WE WROTE USER STORIES directly inspired by each strategy, resulting in features that made their way into the end product. But an equally important thing happened: I started to gain the trust and respect of some really critical stakeholders within my company.
SO THE FIRST LEARNING THAT I – and my favorite meme Sudden Clarity Clarence– would like to share with you today is this: If you can present your strategic ideas in a way that instills confidence, other stakeholders will be comfortable supporting those ideas.
DOING THE UX WORK itself isn’t enough, its only half if it. The other half of the equation is that you have to communicate it well, or the work you did won’t matter.
IF I HAD TAKEN these same 6 sentences, 6 strategies, and just mentioned them in a meeting, they wouldn’t have gained traction, even though they are the same ideas.
WE SPEND SO MUCH TIME as UX professionals understanding our users and getting in their heads, but for some reason, we treat internal stakeholders like a black box of mystery.
THE NEXT TIME you have to present an idea, I want you to try something: think about your stakeholder like a user. What are their goals and motivations? What are their fears? For example, What is an executive’s worst nightmare? I would wager that supporting an initiative that later turns out to be a huge failure is pretty high on that list. And new things, like new UX recommendations = risk. So give them as many reasons as possible for why your recommendations are based in reality and supported by research.
SO I TOOK WHAT I LEARNED and put it to use a few months later. Our Product has never been beautiful, but recently, we had been getting a lot of comments about how ugly it was. And it was ugly. The pages were lacking hierarchy, they were sterile and hard to scan. And one day, I caught myself complaining that although my whole UX team agreed that it was ugly, it would never get prioritized by Product and Engineering for us to go in and update the styling. After wallowing in self-pity a little longer, I finally had the epiphany that Product would never on their own come to us and say “hey UX, here’s a bunch of engineers, you guys should update the visual design”. No way. First of all, visual design wasn’t even on their radar. And 2ndly, they have more inbound requests competing for resourcing than they can staff, they aren’t going to go around looking for more.
INSTEAD I REALIZED that it was up to our team, the UX team, to articulate why the current design was falling short, and why it deserved our attention. We needed to make clear, investible recommendations. I figured at that point, they could say no, and that’s alright, we wouldn’t be any worse off than we are today. But at least we will have tried to help them understand, and make it clear that our team was aware of this gap.
SO I DID AN ANALYSIS of our current visual design, and laid it side by side with a rough cut of how it could be improved. You can see 2 examples here, where I’m showing how visual design inconsistencies affected the usability of our buttons as well as our tables. When I shared it the head of Product, he completely got it. But he wasn’t sure which team should do the work, or how it fit into our prioritization.
SO I KEPT TALKING to people about it, and I found an internal ally, a UI engineer who was already planning on cleaning up our CSS classes. Together we can up with a plan, which was that he could do the visual design tweaks as he went along cleaning up the CSS.
I CREATED a visible backlog where anyone interested could follow along, and sent out an FAQ email to the project team explaining why we were doing this, and what they could expect, with links to the stories where they could follow our progress.
BY MAKING THE CASE for this very first UX-led project, while also coming up with a plan for execution, I was able to secure a thumbs up from all major stakeholders, and help the UX team been seen as a proactive team within the organization.
THE SECOND LEARNING IS THIS: The key to getting buy-in is to communicate not only why your proposal matters, but to also have a plan for getting things done.
IF YOU CAN MAKE clear recommendations, and have a plan, other people will want to join you. Tell people where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and how they can help.
IN JANUARY I was promoted to the Director of the UX team. I was humbled by AppNexus’s trust they were placing in me. I was really excited to lead the team.
BUT I NOTICED really quickly that I now had a new level of responsibility. for example, all of the sudden it was assumed that I personally signed off on every element in the current UI. Which was horrifying because there are a lot of areas that haven’t been touched since they were first designed and developed by engineers years ago.
SO IN A MOVE that was 1 part CYA and 2 parts hope, I decided to create what I ended up calling an “opportunity backlog”. I sorted through my notes and spent some time thinking in a thematic way, and I came up with about 15 investment opportunities that I believe are really critical to the long term success of our product as a whole. For example, creating a better alerts system, creating a contextual help center, things like that.
SOME OF THEM were ideas that were ready to be prioritized and resourced immediately. Others were what I classified “candidates for UX exploration”, which were ideas that we did not have an actionable recommendation at the moment, but if executive interest was there, we could spend more time thinking about it with the goal of making each story ready for prioritization next quarter.
I SHARED IT WITH MY TEAM and they helped shape it and annotate each ticket with supportive user research data they had, and ways their own project teams could benefit from and build upon these ideas.
SO I HAD THIS really powerful backlog, lots of supporting documentation, lots of opportunities identified, but no where to put it. Our UX team is separate from our Engineering team, so we can’t push code ourselves, so I had to find a way to get Engineering resourcing. First I shared it with my manager, who was the SVP of Product at that time. He loved it, and he agreed to start shopping it around with our CEO and Engineering executives. Both of whom got back to me directly and said it was fantastic (remember back when I made friends with the CEO via the service design project? That relationship came full circle). But even with executive support, it didn’t go anywhere right away, because as a company, we have established venues to prioritize and resource projects that aligned with a business segment, but my UX opportunities were across all segments.
IN THE MEANTIME I talked to the UI Team Manager and we came up with a plan for staffing this team as a quarterly onboarding rotation for new UI Engineering hires. So by talking to this guy and building that relationship, I learned that I could staff my project without needing to advocate for any additional headcount. A huge win.
WE ALSO TEAMED UP with Customer Enablement, which at AppNexus is our support organization, to share the usability backlog and to include some important cross-segment ideas that they had.
SO RIGHT NOW I’m in the process of presenting my investment opportunities for the UX team in 2015, and am really confident we will get the thumbs up to dedicate this small engineering team exclusively to the UX Opportunity backlog next year.
THIS WAS A LONG and meandering and sometimes frustrating and confusing path to get where I wanted to go, but I think the important thing was just not getting discouraged and giving up, but instead to take every small win I could get.
THE LEARNING FROM THAT project that I would like to share with you is this: Make your ideas and recommendations publicly available, even if they aren’t all being incorporated right now. Don’t give up right way, even if your ideas go nowhere at first. Keep it fresh. Keep referencing it in conversations and directing people towards your public documentation, which in this case, was my backlog. And share your plan with those who can help you. Over time others will +1 your ideas, and eventually it will tip the scales in your favor. Strategic work is about playing the long game.
AFTER GOING THROUGH these 3 experiences and others over the past year, I noticed a pattern that has turned into my working thesis: UX can bring our own seat to the table by starting to make investable recommendations. By using that approach, I was able to go from showing strategic UX leadership within a project, to driving my first UX-led project, tofinally creating and resourcing our own UX backlog.
MOST EXECUTIVES WANT to think of their company as a user or customer-centric organization. We need to give them the ammo so that they have the tools to advocate for us and so they can feel comfortable explaining their investment in UX to their own stakeholders.
IN MANY CASES, it isn’t UX’s job to make the ultimate decision of what’s in or what’s out. BUT it is our job to identify those opportunities for investment and explain why they are significant. And when possible, help recommend a plan for execution.
I SUSPECT that in many organizations, UX feels excluded from strategic discussions, but it isn’t not because stakeholders are cruel, but because it was never a conscious decision either way.
DON’T WAIT for executive stakeholders to come to you and ask for your input. Be proactive in bringing your recommendations to them. Because here is the secret: doing that puts the decision back on them.
YOU CAN CREATE A SITUATION in which they must consciously decide to accept UX recommendations or not. In my experience, most of the time they will.