UX Leader as Sales Agent?

By Jim Nieters

Published: January 18, 2010

“A crucial role for UX leaders is to sell our business partners and senior leaders on the value of user experience. We also need to sell our employees on a vision that excites them and makes them truly believe they are changing the world for the better.”

I see a dichotomy in the thinking of UX professionals: On one hand, we believe strongly in user-centered design (UCD) practices—that it is critical to understand our users and their tasks. We want to design products and services that reflect these practices and delight our users. On the other hand, it seems a large number of UX professionals are unable to understand the motivations of their business partners—that is, Product Management or Business Analysis and Engineering—and assume they should simply agree with our perspectives. Of course, that would require them to understand our perspectives in the first place.

I’ve also observed that many UX professionals feel a bit frustrated that it is necessary for them to convince their business partners that user experience is valuable—and that our core practices should be a central part of standard business practices. I hear statements like: “Well, if they don’t understand the value of great design, maybe we should make them go back to using command line interfaces for email!” The bottom line is that we absolutely need the perspectives of those other disciplines to deliver successful products—just like they need ours—so it behooves us to understand them.

A crucial role for UX leaders is to sell our business partners and senior leaders on the value of user experience. We also need to sell our employees on a vision that excites them and makes them truly believe they are changing the world for the better. I find a strong positive correlation between UX leaders’ seniority and their ability to sell executives on the value of user experience, as well as to sell their employees on a compelling vision. Senior UX leaders create a virtuous cycle that ensures their teams get the support and encouragement they need and makes their employees feel deeply empowered.

“The best salespeople follow the consultative sales model—that is, they learn about the needs of their customers, then present offers that solve their customers’ real problems. Sounds a little like user-centered design, doesn’t it?”

Let’s be clear about what selling means. It certainly does not mean making anything up or stating untruths. The best salespeople follow the consultative sales model—that is, they learn about the needs of their customers, then present offers that solve their customers’ real problems. Sounds a little like user-centered design, doesn’t it?

What I wonder is why UX leaders don’t just as naturally follow a consultative sales model with their business partners within their organizations? Why don’t UX professionals work to understand their partners’ perspectives and needs, then offer solutions to their problems, as well as for users’ problems?

As a UX leader, I tend to look at the key disciplines on a product team as our customers as well. They are consumers of our UX practices and, hopefully, good partners. Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t think User Experience should be a service organization. Rather, when User Experience has an equal voice in the decision-making process, companies usually make better products. But when our business partners have not personally experienced or perceived the value of user experience, what can we do to help them understand the value we can deliver? Should they somehow just know what we know? Of course not! No more than we could expect engineers to blindly understand users’ needs, then design and build products that delight users.

“When User Experience has an equal voice in the decision-making process, companies usually make better products.”

Taking the sales metaphor a step further: When salespeople want you to buy their products, do you buy them sight unseen? For the most part, you do not. You’d want to see a product and maybe test drive it. It’s the same with our business partners. They need to see the results User Experience can produce. Talking theoretically about what we can do or have done in the past might work for a short time, but our partners need to see what we can do in practice. We need to wow them and make them realize User Experience really is indispensable.

So, how do we wow our business partners? In a previous column on UXmatters, “Is Your Design Thinking Showing?” I pointed out that UX professionals offer a unique value proposition and that we should demonstrate our value as often as possible. We have a unique ability to help people visualize the intangible—to turn vague concepts into exciting solutions that make them exclaim, Yes, that’s it! Producing generic ROI (return on investment) arguments seldom excites business leaders the way tangible prototypes can. Stated simply, we need to capture and fulfill our business partners’ imaginations by creating prototypes that clearly delight users and inspire our partners to follow our vision.

“We have a unique ability to help people visualize the intangible—to turn vague concepts into exciting solutions that make them exclaim, Yes, that’s it!

As UX leaders, we also need to sell our employees on our vision. Our teams of individual contributors want to know we have a vision for the future that would give them the opportunity to design portfolio-worthy products and services. Of course, all of us get paid for our work. Unfortunately—or maybe fortunately—salary alone does not incent people to do their best work. Our employees want to know that their efforts matter—and that we respect them for their skills and great work. So, just as we need to understand the needs of our organizations and our business partners, we need to align our UX teams around an inspiring vision.

Let’s look at an example: At Yahoo!, we had a new advertising product coming out in six months and needed to get our customers’ support for this product. Our UX organization dedicated several resources to generating an end-to-end prototype, which demonstrated how the product supported users’ full set of use cases through an interactive user interface that seemed like a real product. The UX team showed the buyers—that is, the decision makers—at our customer companies that they understood users’ needs and helped these buyers understand the progress our team at Yahoo! had made. This prototype was a resounding success. It excited customers—and that excited our senior leaders. In fact, it created such a buzz, both within our organization and with our partners in Product Management and Engineering, that it improved our credibility. After a few months though, the buzz subsided, and we had to identify and align around the next exciting opportunity.

“It takes work to understand what our organizations need and how we can help them deliver tangible value. Even if User Experience already plays an active role in defining our organizations’ standard practices, we still need to continually deliver assets that help them invent a new future that stimulates growth.”

It takes work to understand what our organizations need and how we can help them deliver tangible value. Even if User Experience already plays an active role in defining our organizations’ standard practices, we still need to continually deliver assets that help them invent a new future that stimulates growth. If we don’t, we risk losing credibility—perhaps without realizing it until it is too late. I’ve seen UX leaders who are much smarter than I am take their positions for granted and get axed. Or maybe they were not sufficiently vigilant and did not read the signs of culture change that required them to reposition their groups’ value. We have to be consistently watchful to ensure we create and sustain the value of User Experience.

Of course, I’m not saying our teams can always work on the cool and exciting projects. Most of the time, UX professionals engage in fairly mundane efforts. But I don’t find the coolness of the work to be a key factor in whether we can excite our employees. As leaders, we can—and need to—engage our employees’ imaginations and emotions and make sure they’re invested in their teams’ success. Emotional engagement is what makes people do their best work. It’s what makes them stick around and support their teams even in tough times. It almost doesn’t matter what people are excited about, as long as they feel in their gut that they are making a difference.

As UX leaders, we should help our people understand the importance of the work they’re doing, how it ties into our organizations’ larger vision, and how it can potentially improve both our companies’ fortunes and people’s lives. If the work doesn’t tie into a larger vision and does not improve our companies’ value, we need to reconsider the value of the effort.

At one point in my career, I made a conscious decision to help move a team to a higher level of impact and visibility. But I also realized that, in raising themselves above the radar, my people would, in fact, be making themselves potential targets as well. I remember pointing out that I believed this team had the ability to transform our company, and if we put our minds and talents to work, we could accomplish anything. Of course, I believed this deeply. A good leader always means what he or she says. I wanted my team to understand the risks and the rewards and buy into the decision themselves. I wanted to make sure I had the hearts and minds of every employee dedicated to our mutual vision of turning our company into a UX-driven organization. After conveying my belief in the team and expressing my dedication to our vision, I asked the entire team to share their perspectives. In the end, each of us wanted to take the chance and believed we could execute on our vision. The result? We did successfully transform our organization, and I believe our company as well. Was it easy? Not a chance. After a few years, I still feel the bruises. Was this risk worthwhile? Yes. Should UX leaders always take such risks? Absolutely not. In our case, though, while we knew it would be very, very difficult, we were confident we would succeed.

“UX leaders need to continually reassess whether following our vision continues to make sense when our cultures, leaders, or rules change.”

UX leaders need to continually reassess whether following our vision continues to make sense when our cultures, leaders, or rules change. Organizational lifecycles have a beginning and an end, just like human relationships do. Organizations and markets are always in flux. They grow, change, and are never static! I’ve seen experienced UX leaders falter by making the mistake of relying on what they’ve done in the past—long after that chapter has closed and an organization has moved beyond the phase during which their vision held value. For example, leaders who once supported our UX organizations might leave. Market conditions might change. Company priorities might change. When any of these events takes place, as leaders, we need to ask ourselves whether our vision for User Experience is still sufficient to instill excitement in both our business leaders and our UX personnel. If not, we need to start the process of envisioning a brighter future all over again.

I mentioned earlier that I don’t believe in using generic ROI arguments. (I think we should go out and show our great work, not just talk about it.) However, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to produce financial arguments. When we do, I like to sell my partners in the Finance and Operations groups on the veracity of my team’s ideas, so they’ll want to become engaged in producing our financial arguments for us. When we try to produce financial arguments ourselves—even those of us who have MBAs—it’s doubtful we can fully understand all the financial and organization-specific jargon and the cultural factors within which finance folks maneuver daily. UX professionals often argue that other disciplines without UX design expertise, such as Engineering, should not try to design products. We like to complain that everyone seems to think they can design great products—the sweet spot for UX professionals. Why, then, should we try to play a role outside our own expertise and attempt to create our financial arguments ourselves? Get the experts to do it! I’m not saying we can’t conduct any financial analysis ourselves, but when the Finance organization produces our numbers, executives find them more convincing than when we produce them on our own.

“We need to sell to persuade our organizations to pursue our visions.”

If you still don’t believe UX researchers and designers are or should become salespeople, think about the selling we have to do just about every day. As researchers, we must convince our organizations that our analysis is correct and persuade them to act on it. As designers, we’re continually selling our designs. When we present our designs in design review sessions, we’re not trying to put anything over on anyone. We’re simply conveying how our designs solve user challenges and, hopefully, can delight users. This seems like such a natural activity, we don’t even realize we’re selling. Although we do sell our designs, hopefully, we also have the humility to accept our teams’ feedback and use it to improve our solutions. Is selling our research findings and designs a bad thing? Of course not. We need to sell to persuade our organizations to pursue our visions. And when we go on job interviews, we sell ourselves.

Selling should never entail exaggeration or deception. Instead, it should align the true value of a person, product, or service with a need. Consultative sales and user-centered design follow similar patterns. If we can understand the needs of both our organizations and the other disciplines on our product teams and envision solutions that help them succeed, we’ll create a virtuous cycle that excites both our business leaders and our employees. Give it a shot! And please let me know your thoughts.

3 Comments

Thanks, Jim, and spot on.

Enjoyable reading and also pleased to see there are some like themes here as in an article I cowrote with Paul Sherman and John Rhodes, “Selling UX.”

Regards, Dan

Dan—Thanks! Though we approached the issue from different angles, I think you, Paul, and John did a better job in discussing some of the specifics. I really liked the parts in your article about knowing your audience and knowing what does and does not sell. The thing I liked most was your focus on demonstrating results rather than using generic arguments. I think you guys nailed it!

Thank you for the great point of view, Jim! I’ve been a huge proponent of UX designers using their skills in ways other than product design. Our facilitation skills—and our ability to focus on the audience’s motivations and language—put us in an excellent position to communicate with a wide variety of stakeholders—on the project team or outside of it.

Chapter 9 of A Project Guide to UX Design is focused on this concept as well—in particular, on our role in helping facilitate conversations between business stakeholders and technology teams.

Your article is a great description of the sales agent aspect of that—something that many UX designers are hesitant to take on, but where we’re well qualified to succeed.

Carolyn Chandler

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