Convince your organisation about the value of usability

Sarah Winters, , Usability

Warning: this is not a complete solution to turn your organisation from being a navel-gazing, vanity-publishing behemoth to a user-centred haven of creativity.

It’s just a collection of things I have found useful over the years.

We’re all in this together

I’m very lucky to be able to travel around a lot chatting to all sorts of people in the web industry. The one thing I hear the most is: “how can I get my company to listen to me? I am trying to do all that you are doing but they don’t get it.”

I have massive sympathy. I was in exactly that position a few years ago. Let me tell you a tale….

The beginning

I ran a small team taking 185 sites into one site.

The team had content people and two designer/dev types. My little team and I wrote a content, design and dev style guide that was to be used on millions of pounds’ worth of transactions the organisation was churning out.

I asked my director for money to put it into user research. The answer was no. I explained the impact of getting this wrong. The answer was no. Apparently, there was no money for such frivolity. If I knew what I was doing, it would be fine. The implication there, of course, is: if you need to test it Sarah, you are crap at your job.

So it went live. Just like that. It was our best guess. My little team were a talented bunch and it didn’t do badly. The transactions were put into the new style and then into user research and each time an error was found in the style guide. But we could change it, right?


We could change it if it was little but anything fundamental and we were told to stop mucking about and that we didn’t know what we were doing.

It wasn’t an environment for learning. It wasn’t a place where you could get things wrong. If you did, it was because you were quite clearly rubbish at your job.

Turning point

This was where I stopped. I felt a massive responsibility. I was influencing millions of pounds’ worth of project money. I was putting millions of users through our ‘best guess’.

That’s just not good enough.

I couldn’t persuade my boss but I started to find ways to influence the people who owned the products.

Number 1 rule: respect

The first, most important, and sometimes hardest, rule is to respect the person you are talking to.

It’s difficult at times. Especially when someone is talking down to you (I am a woman in tech, I get that a lot.) But it is so important to show it – and try to feel it.

I do this by trying to question a lot and listen a lot. The thing with humans is, quite often, we think other people know what we know. Or everyone remembers the way we remember. It’s simply not the case.

Sometimes, people genuinely come to daft conclusions because they don’t know something or they remember a meeting in an entirely different way to us. That’s because they have different baggage they bring with them.

There’s a line from the agile methodology I love. It says:
“Everyone did the best job possible with the information they had at the time.”

By remembering this, you start to get an idea that someone isn’t ‘blocking’ you; they are just in a different space with different information.

To get your idea across really well, you need to bridge that gap between what you think you both know and what you actually know.

I use the techniques below to bridge that gap.

If you are challenging the way an organisation thinks, some may see it as a direct challenge to the organisation’s intelligence. No matter what you say, they’ll hear ‘you are doing it wrong. I am right. Stop being dumb.’ It’s not what you are saying at all. It’s just what they hear. There’s ways around that. These are a couple that have worked for me:

Show, don’t tell

When you are talking to someone about a new idea, have something to show.

It can be bits of paper with line drawings on, little prototypes, someone else’s data that supports your idea – anything.

When talking in the abstract, you are allowing people to fill in gaps in their head – they may not tell you what they are thinking but still say no. Have something tangible to look at, point at, and work out.

Get out of the room

When putting across a different point of view – let your audience do that for you. I’ve blogged loads about using data to help you do that, so let me tell you a story instead:

Years ago, I walked into a room full of older, white, middle class, middle-management males who hated me before they knew me. A new process had been introduced: my team had to review transactions and give a report on usability.

The guys in this room didn’t care.

They knew people went in the first page and they had vague stats some people came out from the last page and they were happy with that. I walked in and every single one of them looked me up and down. Then several sat back, put their hands behind their heads and grinned.

I’m fairly certain they thought ‘awww, little girl. Let’s make sure you know how inferior you are’ (or similar). I smiled and gave them a sheet of paper with some URLs listed. I introduced myself and said: “Research shows people only read 20 to 28% of a page – that sheet of paper has all the research I am going to talk about today, so you can see what I am saying is correct.”

A couple of grins started to slide off a couple of faces.

“This is research showing the f-shaped pattern…” (I pointed to URLs and research and showed slides of user behaviour).

Couple more smiles slid off pasty-white faces.

“This is what may happen to your pages when your audience only read 20 to 28% of the page.” (Showed them their page with f-shaped pattern overlaid.)

“Cognitive load is increased 11%….” I warbled on and on with stats and research.

By the time I got to the end of the presentation, I hadn’t given a single opinion. My tone was neutral and informative. There was no emotion. It wasn’t me telling them they were crap. Research was telling them there was a better way of doing it.

The grins were long gone.

There wasn’t even a smattering of smiles. Several had blood draining from their faces. All the ‘sitting back with their hands on their heads’ had turned into gripping onto the sheet of research I had given them.

It’s a lot harder to fight with someone who is not in the room. I regularly trot out Jakob Neilson to do my fights for me. Of course, sometimes people will argue with anything but mostly, people realise it’s not you they are actually arguing with and then they stop.

Use the silence

Carrying on from the example above – this is where I use silence too. At the end of that presentation, I simply stared at all the men and said ‘so, shall we talk about your service?’ I smiled and then I stayed quiet. For a long time.

Often, if you are quiet, people just keep talking to fill the void. When they do that, they can, quite literally, talk themselves around. Don’t feel the need to speak in natural pauses. Let them do it.

Sometimes, if you are bringing a new idea out of the blue, people need to think about it. Some people do that while talking.

What I am saying is, give them a chance and stay quiet. This is also the time when they tell you about all the stuff they thought you knew, or thought you didn’t need to know – like they had a serious budget constraint or they had an incompetent leader, running the show for years.

Remember the snacks

If you are going into a difficult conversation, don’t do it just before lunch. It’s a silly little thing but do you get a bit terse when you are hungry? (I get down-right cross.) Other people do that too.

If you have to have that meeting at that time, take food. Not sugary snacks, that can make people worse. Protein, some carbs, even fruit would help (not high-sugar fruit like cherries). Don’t get me wrong, it is not going to turn the tide of the conversation but at least you are not going to make it worse.

Your turn

I’d really like to hear your experience in this. You probably all have some ideas to help all of us get over these hurdles. Share it with us @ContentDesignLN and help your fellow internet colleagues. 🙂

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