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Winning a User Experience Debate

by Cennydd Bowles
on July 12, 2011

The following article is an excerpt from Cennydd Bowles and James Box’s new book,
Undercover User Experience Design.

Although critique should be constructive and impartial, it’s inevitable that at
times you’ll disagree with the feedback you receive. Critique is a crunch moment
for the undercover designer—you’re sticking your neck out and taking the lead of
the design process. However, stakeholders sometimes see design as a complex,
unpredictable subject that can cause havoc in the wrong hands. Who wants to let
a bull loose in their china shop?

To bring UX to the heart of the business, you must persuade colleagues to trust
your opinion and expertise. Handling critique well is an important way to earn
trust. It’s easy to undo your hard work with rash disagreement. Never dismiss
stakeholder feedback out of hand. Every designer makes mistakes, and there will
always be approaches to a problem that you’ve not considered. The worst UX
designers are those who succumb to the arrogant conceit that stakeholders are
design-illiterate fools. It’s true that your business colleagues may not be able
to express ideas in the same visual way you do, but smart stakeholders are
always an advantage for a UX designer.

If you’re skeptical about your stakeholders’ requests, try them out anyway, then
do it your way too. It takes longer, but you’ll gain trust by showing you can
listen to feedback. You may be able to persuade your stakeholder why your design
is stronger, or you may even find that his suggestion was better all along.

Nevertheless, sometimes you’ll disagree with stakeholder feedback so strongly
that you have to take a stand. To defend your case to a stakeholder, we
recommend a systematic method of proof we call the Validation Stack.

The Validation Stack provides a three-tiered approach to design validation.

The Validation Stack shows tiers of evidence in order of their relative power.
The top tier shows your most powerful ally: data gleaned directly from users,
such as usability testing or usage metrics. When you want to win a debate, see
if user evidence supports your argument. Did the design test well? Do the
figures show that people are using the site in the way you’d expect? If you ran
usability tests before the design review, this extra information will give a
good design a stronger chance to survive critique.

If you don’t yet have direct user evidence, refer back to your research and any
design principles that resulted. If you shared this work with stakeholders
earlier, they should already have agreed to support its recommendations. If you
kept this work undercover, now’s the time to pull out the details to support
your case.

If your recommendation isn’t supported by user evidence or research, you can
still support your case with theoretical principles. Businesspeople are often
surprised to learn of the scientific foundations that underpin good design.
Perhaps your design demonstrates clear information hierarchy, follows the
recommendations of Fitts’ Law, or uses the psychology of social proof to
encourage user behavior; learn about these and other principles, and you’ll have
a final trump card to play. However, remember that theory is the bottom tier in
the Validation Stack. Always choose a theoretically inferior design that tests
well over a “properly designed” alternative, and only lean on theory for support
when you have no other data.

Finally, if your recommendation isn’t supported by user evidence, research, or
theoretical principles, throw it away. You’ve lost this one.

“Prove It!”

The Validation Stack is often enough to convince a reluctant stakeholder, but
one counterargument is especially hard to defeat: “Prove it!” Colleagues often
wheel out this defense to counter your objection to something detrimental to
user experience: an unnecessary field in a signup form, or more advertising on a
cluttered page. “Prove it!” challenges you to demonstrate that the harm to UX
will outweigh the business benefit of adding these elements.

Although the cumulative damage of a hundred bad decisions is obvious,
quantifying the effect of a single user-hostile change is much trickier.
One approach is to view the challenge as a welcome opportunity to conduct further
user testing, or to put both versions live and compare the metrics. However, you
can also make a theoretical case for why even a single bad UX decision harms the
business, using a concept we call the FY Threshold.

The FY Threshold is an entirely unscientific model of how much hassle users will
take before giving up on the site (an event often accompanied by a profane
remark). Let’s say your site currently annoys 10 percent of your users so much
that they give up—in other words, it pushes 10 percent of your users beyond
their FY Threshold. Your job as a UX designer is of course to reduce this
percentage by eliminating frustrations.

However, decisions that harm the site experience will counteract your work,
pushing more users beyond their FY Thresholds. People who would otherwise
tolerate the site’s issues will give up in frustration, costing you revenue. One
apparently minor change can be the last straw for some users.


Supporting design is not without its struggles. Introducing the Validation Stack
and the FY Threshold to our debate repertoire can help us pave the cow paths and
ease overall team anxiety.

Throughout their incredibly insightful book, Cennydd and James go even deeper,
providing readers with real advice gleaned from their work with real companies.
Readers will learn how to fit research, generating ideas, prototyping and
testing into their daily workflow, and how to design good user experiences under
the all-too-common constraints of time, budget and culture. An exciting
prospect, indeed. Learn more on their book’s own website.

Get more from Cennydd Bowles

It just so happens that Cennydd is conducting our next virtual seminar: UX Design when Time, Money, and Support is Limited.
At the end of this seminar, you’ll be able to put UX principles into
practice in any organization, and learn how to make the case for
user experience design with results, not theory. Learn more about
this virtual seminar

Share your thoughts

How do you make your case in organizations that don’t prioritize
design? What techniques do you use to get useful design feedback
from project stakeholders? Share your thoughts with us on the UIE
Brain Sparks blog