#UX101: Stakeholders and you!

In any design project, you are going to have one or more stakeholders. These are the people who sponsored the project, and/or are the product managers responsible for the product being design, and/or are VPs responsible for a particular division… No matter what their role in the organization, they are the people you are going to need to make happy.

And that can be a challenge.

Because everyone is different, you are going to encounter a lot of different ways stakeholders approach design projects. Some are going to be hands-off, confident in you and your team’s abilities to execute and produce a quality design… and others are going to want daily updates on process. You are going to have to deal with both extremes, and smile while doing so.

Here’s some hints on the “care and feeding” of the people who may be writing your paycheck:

Follow “The Platinum Rule”

A favorite book of mine, long out of print, was titled the Platinum Rule. The premise of the book took the Golden Rule and turned it on its head… “Do onto others as they would like to be done to.” Working with stakeholders will require that you adjust your style and messaging to align with what they want and need. Don’t be dishonest or “phony”… just provide the information they want/need in the way they request/desire.

“Research” your stakeholder

Use some of your interview and analytical skills to get a sense of what the stakeholder’s work personality is like. Are they detail oriented? Are they emotional or analytical? A good way to think about this is to research the different personality types that are detailed in the DISC personality tests, and figure out what personality the stakeholder best aligns with. It’s also a good idea to take a DISC personality assessment yourself.

If you can’t guess, ask

A lot of people aren’t comfortable with the simple act of asking what is expected of them, because they are afraid they will “lose face” and appear to be unprofessional. Nonsense. If you can’t identify how the stakeholder wants to be kept informed as to progress, ask them what they expect or need. It’s smart, and it works.

Understand the business goals (and speak the stakeholder’s language)

Design and UX activities don’t exist just because companies want to spend money on them; they exist because of one or more business needs. Identify what business needs the design is servicing to understand what is important to the stakeholder. One of my early experiences was on a project where the acronym “NPS” was bandied about constantly. I learned it stood for Net Promoter Score, which was a huge priority for the company sponsoring our efforts.  Armed with that insight I was able to “speak the same language” as my stakeholders, which improved communication and allowed for deeper conversations.

Educate (a little or a lot)

Some stakeholders will come to the table with grounding in user experience, either from a previous experience or some casual research – sometimes the stakeholder is a UX professional themselves. Others will not even know how to spell “UX.” Again, use the engagements as an opportunity to share and “cross-train” the stakeholder. You’ve made the effort to understand business goals, so hopefully they can make the effort to get a better sense of UX.

Don’t compromise research results

You may need to change your communication style and approach for some stakeholders, but the one thing you should never NEVER do is compromise any user research results. Don’t change the outputs to align with a stakeholder’s worldview, to try and make them “happier” with the outcome. The results are the results, and they should not be slanted… they should speak for themselves, good or bad. Just be ready to explain negative results to stakeholders, supporting evidence in hand.

It’s not a competition

Don’t get into “fights” with stakeholders. You can disagree and debate some points, but fights… that will end badly. Probably for you. Will you get mad at a stakeholder at some point in your professional career? Absolutely. But mind your words, and bite your tongue, before what you say comes back to bite YOU.

Understand their goals

You and your stakeholder(s) should have the same goal, and if you don’t… well, you need to work through that. The simple way to that is to talk about it with the stakeholder, listen to what their goals are, and make sure that your perspective has a proper hearing. They may not understand and/or disagree… but at least you’ve had your say.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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