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How to get UX buy-in at your company (and why it’s so difficult)
UX research and design is the foundation for building great products that users love and return to. But getting buy-in for UX can be a frustrating challenge. UX educator and mentor Ioana Teleanu shares her experience and tips for how to get buy-in for your UX projects.
Last updated7 Nov 2022
When I was just getting started as a UX designer, I discovered an entire world behind the scenes of great product design.
I was excited about diving into research to find out what users really wanted—and where they really struggled—and then moving that research into design and production. The importance of talking to customers was so obvious.
And then I found out that not everyone was as enthusiastic about UX as I was.
Most people understand that a product needs an attractive face—it has to look good and function well. They appreciate the visible stage where users interact with a product, but they fail to realize that there’s a whole process that decides what will happen on that stage.
This is just one of many reasons why it can be so hard to convince stakeholders that we need to spend more time doing UX research, testing, and interaction design. So before jumping in to how to get buy-in for your UX project, let’s look at why it’s such a challenge.
Why it’s difficult to get UX buy-in
"All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."–Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina (1878)
It turns out that UX has something in common with the families Tolstoy wrote about 150 years ago. When things go right in product design, it usually comes down to a universal reason: you’re building for your customer. But when things go wrong, the reasons are scattered.
So the challenges of UX are specific to each company. But the first step toward getting buy-in is the same: you start by understanding the reluctance.
Here are some of the most familiar problems.
1. UX research is misunderstood
Many people outside of user experience design still don’t understand what UX teams do. It’s one of the biggest challenges of UX designers. And it leads to continued buy-in reluctance.
Most stakeholders have a general sense of what research is, but few have been exposed to the different UX research methods, and reasons why UX design is so fundamental.
Some teams think they’ve done user research, but really they’ve just participated in a ‘research theater.’ Maybe they ran five customer interviews, plucked a few takeaways (often based on preconceived biases or desires), and then started building. They put on the show of talking to users and making ‘data-informed decisions’, but those conversations were superficial and lacked true UX methodology. And then—surprise!—the three things they thought they learned turned out to be wrong, so they lost faith in the process.
This lack of deep research experience, along with the multidisciplinary nature of UX generally, causes UX design and research to be misunderstood.
2. Uncertain outcomes
When you begin the research process, it’s often not clear what you’ll get out of it, or where the research will point you. Of course this is the point of doing research—to uncover user needs or desires that you might have otherwise overlooked.
But this uncertainty also causes reluctance. Someone may be open to the idea of doing research, but they’re unsure where the process will lead, so they avoid it entirely. It’s not easy to quantify or to estimate what to expect. And this makes them question the value of research.
3. Research feels expensive
In many cases, the desire to do research comes down to resources. It might mean hiring consultants or contractors to interview customers or host usability sessions. Then there’s the cost of incentivizing people to sit down for a two-hour interview. Not to mention the cost of the research tools to facilitate interviews and analyze outcomes.
And of course, all of this will take time that could instead be invested in quickly building and iterating. So this belief that UX research is expensive causes reluctance to invest in proper UX.
4. People feel threatened by research
Everyone working in product management and development says they want the best outcome for the customer. But there’s always another factor at play: ego.
People in the company might feel threatened about what the research might uncover. A product manager might worry that their priorities for product development might turn out to be wrong. A CEO might fear that their instinct for the best solution could be undermined.
So the fear of being exposed as an imposter who lacks the knowledge or insight to do their job well. And this causes some individuals to push back against doing research.
We want the best for our users. But more than that, we want to protect ourselves.
5. The leadership problem
In companies big and small, there are some CEOs or product leaders who know what they want and intend to pursue it regardless of the evidence. For them, research would be looking to solve a problem that isn't there. So any attempt to uncover what users want feels like a waste of time.
Why bother to do research if we know that the CEO or VP of product is going to do what they want anyway?
And it’s true that it’s the leader at the top who owns the risk. So it can be hard to fight the hierarchical setup in many companies.
6. The language barrier
Every discipline has their own way of speaking. For those of us who’ve been in UX design or product management for some time, we forget about the specialized product vocabulary and UX acronyms. And for people outside of our discipline, the language we use to explain the value of design simply doesn't resonate.
Many leaders think in numbers, return on investment, or the impact on revenue. For these groups, speaking in terms of ‘user needs’ or the ‘product engagement’ just doesn't translate.
So often there’s a language barrier between how designers and other stakeholders communicate the value of research. This points to the need of designers to learn how to adapt their speech and the framing of research aims and outcomes.
And this takes to the next step: what designers can do to get buy-in for UX design and research.
How to tackle UX buy-in reluctance
Now that we’ve asked the questions to uncover the reasons for reluctance, we’re ready to mount our approach for approval.
Here are a few tried-and-true ways to overcome pushback to UX research and design.
1. Create a stakeholder map & start interviewing
Before I get started on any new project, one of the first things I do is create a stakeholder map—the ecosystem of interested parties. Then I reach out to these people to set up one-on-one meetings.
I think of it like customer research, but with internal teams. I even prepare an interview guide, so I know what I hope to achieve through the conversations. The aim is to get to know the different people, along with their expectations, needs, frustrations, relationship to the product, and the goals we're trying to achieve together.
There’s a positive byproduct of this effort: you're building trust with stakeholders from the start.
By reaching out and talking to people, you show that you're genuinely interested in the project needs, concerns, and expectations from their perspective. It makes them feel valued and listened to. And they appreciate that.
It also helps them to see that UX isn’t just about designing screens and transitions. You’re there intently focused on both the needs or the user, and the needs of the other teams working on the project. It’s a partnership.
And sometimes the questions you ask during this process add unexpected value. You might ask a question that stimulates thoughts that they hadn’t considered, or helps them better articulate their design needs. So they learn through you as well, which adds additional value to the relationship.
2. Look for allies around the company
No matter how many UX detractors may be out there, there will always be allies around the company who already get it. Finding these allies and assembling these voices can be one of the most effective ways to secure buy-in for UX design.
Product managers and developers are likely allies. Although some feel they understand user needs without the input of experience designers, I’ve worked with plenty of PMs and engineers who are passionate about design research and ready to get involved.
It’s hard for one voice to convince ten people to invest in UX. But when you assemble a team of voices to champion user research, the message becomes much more powerful.
3. Involve others in research sessions
Many stakeholders suspect their product has problems, or know that things can be improved. But they’ve never felt the first-hand pain of seeing this struggle directly. The solution: let them watch.
You don’t need fancy equipment or a large number of participants to do this. Set up a small usability session, and invite UX-reluctant stakeholders. Let them watch users work through a set of menus and screens to accomplish some task. This can lead to an epiphany for people. There’s nothing more convincing than showing others how real users struggle. I've found this especially successfully with developers, who become more excited to build solutions for the problems that they see with their own eyes.
A couple of words of warning:
Don't let your stakeholders interfere. Founders, PMs, and developers might feel awkward, even guilty, watching bright users struggle with (presumably) simple tasks. They want to jump in to help. They want to yell “Just click that button right there!” But you must prevent this.
Educate on the limits of research. Make sure that observers know that not every comment or suggestion made by participants should be implemented. And beware of confirmation bias that can point enthusiastic observers down the wrong road.
So it takes some education to get others in tune with UX research best practices. But it might be the eye-opener you need to convince a reluctant stakeholder
4. ‘Flip and reframe’: turn fears into value
Many times, UX research is the best anecdote for buy-in reluctance. In these cases, you can use the ‘flip and reframe’ method: find out their fear, and then tie the value of research to that particular fear. Here are a few examples.
Fear 1: funding pressure
One thing that keeps startup founders up at night is getting that next round of investment. This can lead to speed being the most valuable metric in the founder’s eyes. This means the best way to prove customer value is to produce more features faster.
And here’s where you flip and reframe. Remind them that customers don’t pay for ‘more features’. Customers pay for features and functions that ease their pains, so they can accomplish their jobs to be done as easily as possible.
A better user experience solving a real customer problem will lead to better adoption, higher retention, and a more valuable product. And that’s more appealing to investors.
Fear 2: the competition
Another favorite sport of founders, product managers, and marketing teams: obsession for the competition.
Our competitors have this new feature or functionality, and their new campaign seems so slick. So the urge might be to imitate them as quickly as possible. But this mindset will always keep you trailing your competition.
Instead, flip and reframe. Shift the focus to creating better experiences that your customers actually need and want. The solution isn’t more features, it’s better features
The best way to stay ahead of the competition is to build a better product. And this experience is built on an understanding of your users’ needs, pains, and desires.
Fear 3: the cost
And then there’s the lack-of-resources argument. Spending time and money on research takes away from resources that we need to build and market products.
To this, I can think of no better flip-and-reframe response than the wise words of Ralf Speth, "If you think good design is expensive, you should look at the cost of bad design." Poorly designed products lead to more complaints on social media, more time spent on support tickets, more churn, and a product’s worst enemy: people telling their friends and colleagues to avoid your product. The benefits of good UX research far outweigh the costs.
What’s not to love?
UX is an exciting and multifaceted field. And this can have its downsides, like stakeholders not understanding the scope and value of UX, which leads to reluctance to invest in user experience design and research.
The good news is that, as a UX researcher, you already have the most important tool needed to push back against buy-in reluctance: the ability to ask the right questions to understand stakeholders’ needs, desires, and concerns.
And that’s where you start. Discover the reasons people pushback against UX in your organization.
Then map out your stakeholder’s goals and fears. Find your allies. And show them what’s needed behind the scenes to create a stage that your users love.
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