Four Steps for Selling UX to Management and IT Teams

An increasing part of my role as the company’s User Experience Designer is to educate coworkers and managers on what exactly is and is not User Experience, what is good User Experience, how do you know if you’ve got it, and how do you get it.  At least my take on these issues.  I recently had the opportunity to present some of these ideas at an all-day conference for senior management, technology leaders, and project managers within the company that are likely to retain the services of our internal UX/website team.  This was my first major audience and wide-exposure within the company, and as a new hire in a relatively high visibility position it was important that I make a good first impression.  I also knew that ‘User Experience’ meant a lot of different things to different people in the organization…some people think it is just graphic design, others think it is usability testing, fewer think it is about user- or customer- centered design.  I also got the feeling that people expected me to ‘own user experience,’ in that I would come in, do my UX design thing, and allow IT to focus on coding and delivering ‘the real system.’  So it was also an opportunity to level set, and get some feedback on what their expectations were for me.

I’m happy to report that the presentation was a ‘success,’ which I measured by 1) me giving a fluid, polished presentation, and 2) people seeking me out afterwards to say ‘good presentation,’ or looking for follow up information.  I can think of a few reasons why this went as well as it did.  Let’s discuss them in terms of steps to help you sell UX in an IT organization:

1) Know your audience

What does the audience want or need to hear?  I asked a lot of questions about who was going to be attending the meeting (various senior IT managers, senior business analysts, project leads), and their reasons for attending (mandatory for many).  I even went to some of those people and asked them what they wanted to know and hear about user experience.  The better you can tailor your talk to address the needs, questions, and concerns of those that were there, the more you increase your chances of success.

2) Don’t bury the lead

I received the audiobook Made to Stick for my birthday this year.  This book is about generating and presenting compelling and memorable messages that the audience can take with them and easily share with others.  In other words, ideas that stick.  One of their recommendation is to make sure you lead off with the main or most important point.  You want to communicate the main point up front, and follow with supporting materials.  They draw the analogy with how journalists write newspaper articles:  the lead sentence/paragraph gives the key who-what-when-where-how information, and the rest adds detail and context.

I spent an hour creating my lead — the one sentence version of my talk.  The key idea that I thought would be most important to the audience.

I was in the middle of a long day of speakers, I think it was especially important to put the key ideas up front, because you probably don’t have peoples’ attention for very long.  Which brings me to the next point.

3) Help them pay attention

John Medina, a molecular biologist at U of Washington, wrote a fascinating and easily readable book describing what science knows about how the brain works.  He distilled that knowledge into 12 Brain Rules which can be applied to how we work, learn, and live, Brain Rules #4, “We don’t pay attention to boring things.”  He points to research that shows that humans can maintain attention on boring things (things that don’t move, things that don’t generate an emotional response, things we can’t mate with) for about 10 minutes, after which our attention drops precipitously.  This can be combatted by presenting some type of dynamic (and relevant) elements, inserting some type of funny or emotionally appealing (and relevant) story or other element.  About 10 minutes into my talk, I had a picture of my face photoshopped  onto the body of Abby Cadabby, to make the point that There Is No Magic UX Fairy.  Just as I was about to lose them, I did a little something to bring them back on task for a bit.  I also helped people pay attention by using a wireless microphone and walking around the room.  I was the only speaker that did this, so this by itself was novel and interesting.  But I could walk around and engage directly with people, which helped encourage people to look back at me (and stop texting for a couple seconds).  

4) Practice, refine, practice, cut, practice

I cleared my schedule the day before  to generate and refine the presentation content and graphics, and practice the talk.  After my hour creating the lead, I created an outline for the talk, and ran the early outline by a few coworkers.  Only then did I start working on the presentation slides: finding good images, writing text, revising text, cutting text.  Once I finished the first draft of the slides, I found an empty practice room and went through the talk out loud, with transitions.  The important point here, I think, is that you go through the entire talk one time, nonstop.  Even if you stumble, or the words on the screen aren’t quite right, wait to make changes until you’re done.  I think it is valuable at this point to evaluate how well you are communicating your thoughts.  Where do you stumble?  Where do you ramble on?  Where do you read directly from the slides instead of engaging the audience?  Go through it once, then go back and revise.

Then I put it away for an hour or so.  I had lunch, and did something completely unrelated.  I came back to it, and  practiced the talk in the room in which I would be giving the presentation.  I invited my team to come watch me practice and give feedback (which, to my surprise, they all came and gave excellent feedback).  I revised my slides again.  By this time, I had given the talk to myself or others roughly 5-7 times.  I had a good command of the key ideas I wanted to communicate, and the pacing and phrasing I wanted.  

When it came time to give the talk, I was confident in the material and the ideas I wanted to communicate.  Had there been technical difficulties and the presentation system failed, I think I still would have given a compelling presentation.

I’ve been asked to lead the discussion on User Experience for an upcoming meeting with yet another set of company vice presidents.  I’m following the same general guidelines for shaping my thoughts (yes, I spent another hour on a one sentence lead).  I’ll let you know how it goes.