The Summit of Innovation: Building Trust With Stakeholders

Stakeholders like results.

I can’t talk anyone into changing their mind. I may, however, get them to take a chance, but in the back of their head only actionable results will convince them. I make a promise and deliver the outcomes; that is the only way to achieve a more iterative, collaborative corporate culture – where your opinions have more weight than say “Sally CFO”, who likes red buttons with lots of borders.

There are the front-facing users ahead of me, and a team of stakeholders behind me – both impact the success of usability’s return on investment.  My UX knowledge and research, with all of the design and development team’s talent, should be flowing outward, into the organization on a regular basis. However, the information has to be presented in way that is easily absorbed by the corporate culture.

I recently had a challenging stakeholder request for a newspaper publication that was transitioning to online.  Within the big picture of design, knowing how to manage these requests can have a big impact on an evolving corporate culture moving towards better user experiences. Building trust with teams and stakeholders will curtail more significant, potentially damaging injection into the UX process. It was a simple request by the marketing director: she liked borders on ads. The marketing director wanted to add one to a right rail big box banner that was already filled to the edges with tiny text.

There is a tendency to bend the usability and design rules to satisfy advertisers and stakeholders. Why not include every line of text from an 8X10 flyer in a 300X600 pixel right rail big box banner ad. Many advertisers want to include everything and the kitchen sink in ads, and marketing departments are just as guilty – more text equals more sales. But I know that these techniques don’t work online. Web customers are brutal, bouncy and ad blindness is rampant. The marketing department had always put borders on print ads and charged for the space – bigger was better, more was money.  I requested that some of the text be edited down, but her unfamiliarity with online advertising made such a request difficult to understand. Why would we ever ask an advertiser to remove content for usability? And “usability” – what’s that anyway. Of course, she had heard of “user-friendliness” – some vague concept related to ease of use online. But an ad is an ad – or is it? It was the epitome of forcing a round peg into a square hole.

She came from print publishing where the concepts of responsiveness, pixilation, users, analytics, pageviews, and giving up what looks good for what works best, were all uncomfortably unfamiliar. I had hoped she would not ask for a border on this text laden ad. Although, not a seemingly major issue, many requests from stakeholders are surmountable. The real burn comes from the insistence on doing business as usual while remaining resistant to learning the new language and technology of the Web. If only they knew what was in my head. Ironically, in this situation, being Web savvy is the only way to survive as a company. So why not hunker down and get familiar? It’s just not going to happen. I was not going to teach UX to the marketing director or any other stakeholder – at least not instantly.  It’s the corporate culture that must change.

Empathetic compromise

Empathy goes a long way with users, but it works much the same with stakeholders. This marketing department had always put borders on ads, so why not put one on these “banners” – in her mind it’s just a border. In my mind it was banner blindness and an extra 20 pixels of

space I could use for too much text. If the marketing director had an understanding of UX and all the fun stuff in my head – she would have never asked for a border. So, what happens if I just give in to the request – I mean a border can be added? Well, I would not be doing my job. The advertisers could lose click-throughs. We could lose potential revenue because of low performing banners. Managers could step up debilitating micromanagement to control bleeding overhead; stress would increase, raising blood pressure and risking stroke. Then, team players would go into heads-down mode or bail; talent would be suppressed, voices silenced, collaboration stifled and everything would return to business as usual for a business model that was unsuccessful and unsustainable – all for a border on an ad. Okay, granted, that’s the worst case scenario. Inevitably, if the corporate culture cannot shift to facilitate collaboration, compromise and allow the UX designers to produce actionable results, then the innovation machine ceases to function. Most businesses fail because of overlooked rusty parts that are “pain points” for therm. So, I apply all the UX strategy at my disposal to what’s ahead of me “users” and what is behind me – “support” teams and managers.

Are we supposed to teach UX to stakeholders?

If you want to, be my guest, but put on your head-banging helmet and prepare to waste a lot of time and resources. I have found that most people are not receptive to new ideas unless they see them producing results. Essentially, that’s what I do as UX designer:  accommodate inflexibility and fulfill a promise – I am asking for trust and delivering results that reward behavior. If I can’t manage the stakeholder’s expectations and sway the narrative, then how can I persuade users to trust a design flow?

Sure, all stakeholders should know how to collaborate and defer to the experts, but they don’t. They are managing a company’s financial health and they are naturally conservative and results oriented.  When it comes to making money, avoiding blind trust and not taking risks makes more sense; when it comes to innovation and usability, that’s crippling. We collaborate to innovate, we create to test our conclusions and stop mistakes before they cost too much to reverse. As a “whole company”, we learn together to reduce costly mistakes with actionable results. An open collaborative process allows for error, but egos and fear of failure does not. Stakeholders on the brink of failure can’t afford mistakes, but success requires it – and therein lies the conundrum. The basketball player is not a star shooter because he hits every basket, he simply shoots more often. This warm-fuzzy philosophy does not work in the money world. I share my outcomes and include others in the process to make the pain points bearable. I seek to build trust along the way and lead with proof, not theories.

Mitigating fear of failure and building trust

Fear of failure drives most people’s decisions – a topic for an entire book. My job is to mitigate fear and build confidence in the user – and in the company’s  UX process.  The proof is in the pudding.

A threshold of trust

In my example that I mentioned earlier, I got this email requesting borders on a right rail banner that was wordy. I had pushed the text right to the edge of the image to maximize the space for content. I conceded to the first request, “can you include all of the text?” Sure, make the ad longer, even risk putting the call to action (CTA) below the fold, although this ad did not have a button, but yes, I can. As these concessions are made I am jeopardizing my results one small concession at a time, slowly eroding my ability to prove, produce and build trust – so each one, even small ones, should be weighed based on how much you can sacrifice without compromising the integrity of performance.

At some point we had crossed a threshold of trust. I think it happened when the website got over 35,000 pageviews in a month. So, I eventually won the battle of borders.  The only reason I was given this victory is because I had proven my worth with increased vanity metrics (pageviews) and multiple subscription sign-ups (real metrics). You have no sway without proof and results. Don’t bother trying to convince people – show them.

Never refuse requests. State the facts, give the recommendation and hold your breath.

There is one final technique when responding to stakeholders: never refuse their requests out right, always recommend something that will work better. Most requests, even when posed as a question, are directives. I assume they are simply collaborating and avoid capitulation. This may baffle them at first, but it gives them the opportunity to participate in the life sustaining force of innovation. I must remain independent, free from the influence of others – and my own bias – to achieve the best possible results for users and ultimately the company’s bottom line.

I share my data and expertise when relevant.

Regular updates and input from teams outside of the UX group is an important part of inclusion and collaboration. I did send the marketing director a brief explanation of the UX behind my “no borders” request. A few short sentences about banner blindness and text size. Some will be gung ho, others will be resistant. I just deliver the data, the revenue and the metrics. I care enough about our success to apply the UX trade to the teams and stakeholders driving the project.  Often, people just want to feel a part of the process, to mitigate their fear of the unknown, without having to understand it completely – that’s my job.

Here are my emails about boarders:

Director:   Will you please put a border around the Snow Company ad in the eNews editions and on our website.

Me: I think a border for the eNews could work, but for the website – I would not add a border because there is so much text it would be busy and further shrink the text size.

Director: That is fine.  Please include the border in our eNews editions.  Thanks.

(Proof sent)

Director: Thanks.  It looks so much better with a border around it.  It is a shame we can’t do the same on our website.  Thanks again.

Me:  Yes, the border helps to separate the eNews version from the other information. I can add a border to it on the website if you prefer.  However, if you resize your browser you can see how the web page ad changes size, meaning our site adjusts to different screen sizes on different devices. Readability becomes an issue with too much small text in an ad, so I have maximized as much space as possible for text, pushing it right up to the edge of the image.  And, ads that look more like content tend to be read more. I think the ad looks more like an article – which is good.  See ad blindness here: