The last Triangle IA/UX meeting (Tuesday 6/21, hosted by Hesketh.com) focused on the challenge of selling user experience work to colleagues and clients. Kim Ashley (Dialog) and Stephanie Perun (BlueCross BlueShield) led a lively discussion on this perennially interesting topic.
Selling UX work is much like selling any service: one has to persuade customers of the service's value. That means making the benefits of the service clear, compelling and relevant to customers. So what's the problem? The customers of UX work--particularly executives and other decision-makers in organizations--may not see things quite the way usability professionals do. As Kim put it, we often face resistance from people familiar with older media. Maria, an IA with Lenovo (formerly IBM's PC division) described the challenges of having a visually intense and somewhat user-hostile color scheme imposed by marketing, regardless of its implications for usability.
Marketing and communications (marcom) specialists are often particularly skeptical of "user-centered" design approaches and user research. Stephanie pointed out that attempting to introduce user-centered approaches can be viewed as insulting by marcom folks, who see it as their job to know and communicate with the customer. The problem is that marketing research rarely provides a good foundation for design: that's why user experience work often involves fieldwork, contextual inquiry, usability tests, and other research methods that provide different insights than focus groups and surveys. (Peter Merholz has an excellent example of the problems with trying to apply survey research to design).
How can UX folk overcome this divide? A key idea that emerged from our discussion is emphasizing collaboration and problem-solving when working with marcom (or other non-usability professionals). One can complement existing marketing research, for example, then begin to introduce the idea of using other research methods as well. Here, salesmanship becomes critical. It can be valuable to humanize usability work, by emphasizing techniques such as personas (see this excellent case study of persona use at Microsoft, which integrates market research and user research) and scenarios. Just making usability methods concrete and visible can make a huge difference--Kim reported that executives thought card sorting was "so cool," and user tests are often eye-opening experiences for executives and developers alike. Finally, Stephanie argued that UX professionals must "overeducate" others in the organization on the value of user-centered research and design. For example, one effective tactic is to regularly distribute case studies, articles from the trade press, and other readable, compelling examples of UX work in practice throughout the organization (via listservs, bulletin boards, blogs, etc.).
Perhaps the most controversial issue in selling UX work is measuring its value. Stephanie argued that "we're getting better at metrics" by emphasizing before-and-after studies of user-centered designs, and combining quantitative and qualitative data. Many authors (like Eric Schaffer of HFI) argue that we should cost-justify usability by making explicit return on investment (ROI) calculations. But at a panel at CHI'05, senior usability managers (from SAP, Microsoft, and IBM) argued forcefully that quantitative measures of ROI are misleading and harmful. Instead, they claimed, usability professionals should focus on partnering with management and selling "strategic" rather than "tactical" improvements. As one person pointed out, since when do advertising executives justify their work with ROI
To dig deeper into the challenges of selling, measuring, and justifying UX work, I recommend the following: