How to manage stakeholder feedback

One of the hardest parts of a UE person’s job is to reconcile the needs and priorities of users with the differing needs and priorities of internal departments. Inevitably, you’ll get great feedback that either doesn’t work because it conflicts with someone else’s, or because it doesn’t take all factors into account. Inevitably, you’re going to have to tell someone “Thanks but no thanks.”

Realistically, this is why we’re paid what we are.  It’s not because we have design school degrees or can write three languages by hand.  It’s because we take the pressures from all concerned parties and turn them into the best realistic solution.  It’s like being the rope in a multi-dimensional game of tug-of-war.

Sometimes, that means choosing the lesser of two evils.   Every designer has at least one story of where they had to throw band-aids all over a terrible situation with no time, no user testing, and without the buy in of half the stakeholders.

Today, I heard a stakeholder say, “Why are you asking for my input if you’re not going to listen to it?”

His frustration is universal.  It’s the same way I feel when my daughter asks “blue or purple?” and then chooses the opposite of what I answer.  Why waste my time?

There’s a good answer to this question, though, and it’s worth your time to explain.

Good user experience can’t happen in a vacuum.  It also can’t happen by committee.  If you’re worth your salt as a UE person, you absolutely must take the time to gather every viewpoint and perspective you possibly can.  However, if you implemented every suggestion that was made to you, not only would NO ONE be happy with the result, your product would be an unusable hodge-podge.  (Believe me, I’m tempted to make a mockup with everyone’s suggestions someday, just to let them see what the alternative is!)  Someone has to mediate.  And at the end of the day, that Someone who has to weigh all the information and make a choice, is you.

So if a stakeholder ever expresses this frustration, here’s what you need to do:

  • Tell them you understand how they feel.
  • Tell them you ask for their feedback because it’s both good and important.
  • Remind them of times in the past when you’ve acted on their feedback.
  • Explain that you have to weigh everyone’s feedback, and this time you had to make a tradeoff that they didn’t win, but next time they might.

This is the worst part of our job; thanking people for feedback we can’t act on.  But it’s also the best, because it builds a relationship of honesty and trust between you and your stakeholders.  Remember that they’re as invested in your product as you are, and you’ll all get through, just fine.

Today’s Glossary Term:
Ubicomp – Ubiquitous computing.  This term describes the phenomenon that we and our users experience every day – every aspect of our lives is becoming computerized.  There are computers in our watches, our cars, our refrigerators.  We are living at the birth of the Era of Ubicomp.

Today’s Interesting Link: – This site is a prime example of a great idea with a suboptimal UI.  The main purpose of the site is lost in all of the clutter.  It’s attractive, it’s modular, it’s organized – but there’s no hierarchy at all.  I suspect that no one told the designer what was highest priority on this page.

Today’s Usability Quote:
“You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not please all of the people all of the time.” – Krys Taylor, revising Abraham Lincoln

Today’s Music To Design To:
Sparky’s Flaw is a relative newcomer to the music scene, but they’ve got charm and talent in spades.  Their music is a fresh style of rock, and their lyrics are both endearing and thought-provoking.  Their tunes are catchy enough that you’ll find yourself tapping your foot even if you’re only listening in the background.
Download the MP3s

Evolution vs. Revolution: How to effect change

There’s a term that people use for a job that is everything you could ever want, right off the bat: a pony.  For a designer, the pony job is one in which you come in to a well thought out, well researched product that has no pre-existing interface and will be built using the best technology for the job, after you’ve had ample time to do  your user research and design.

But that NEVER happens.

More often than not, the case is that you hire on to a company that either has an existing product with established design conventions (good or bad), or an emerging product whose original design was done by engineers and the CEO while they tried to find and hire you.  Don’t get me wrong – great products can and have come out of these situations.  But frequently a designer joins a team or a company and in addition to designing the ever-flowing panoply of new features required to stay competitive and build brand, they also have a mess to clean up.

So how do you do this, without losing ground a competitive marketplace?  Design takes resources – Product, Marketing, Engineering, QA, sometimes even executive.  While those people are working on requirements, testing, coding and verifying all these fancy fixes you want, they’re not doing the things necessary to whoop your competitors into forlorn lumps of also-ran.

Yes, we all know that having a usable website or application is an integral part of remaining competitive.  I take great pleasure in reciting a story about a director of E-commerce at a Fortune 500 company that hired me as a consultant.  When I was giving him the standard ROI speech on usability, he actually said to me “We got this far without doing any usability.  Why should we start now?”
That director no longer works for that company.

Joking aside, though, it is a tricky balancing act – how do we update our past code while still driving forward with new?

The answer is evolution.
Evolution is a multi-general process in which an organism changes to adapt to its environment.  Your website or application SHOULD be a living organism of sorts, growing and shedding and hopefully healthy.  There’s no reason your website can’t evolve.

If you think about it, stopping everything to have a revolution – major relaunches, complete identity changes – is an enormous and painful act.  It costs unimaginable amounts in money and time, not to mention your users’ pain as they relearn everything they were comfortable with.  It sets you back in brand identity, because you have to rebuild everything you’ve built.  And the potential for things to go wrong, the risk of failure, is enormous.
It’s not that there’s never a time for revolution.  We can all think of one or two incredibly successful relaunches, or prominent redesigns.  But honestly, it’s a drastic measure that should be left to the giant behemoth corporations, or used as a last resort.

Because you can always evolve.
Start with a plan, a vision for your end goal.  I like to draw pictures and make spreadsheets, but other people might work differently.  This becomes your strategy, and is much more powerful than any buzzword-filled strategy statement will ever be.
Then take the most heinous wrongs and right them first.  What are the usability holes your users are complaining about?  Will converting static pages to AJAX enable ten other improvements later?  Can you revamp the golden path all in one fell swoop?  Start one at a time and break out all the tiny tasks that make up the grand vision.  Let your site mutate.

Your users will complain.  Unless you have the most complacent user community on the interwebs, SOMEONE is going to complain about every single thing you change.  I have actually had users complain when I reduced clicks.  Listen, but don’t be discouraged.  Most of the time, if you did your research well enough, those same users will fall in love with the new stuff after a few uses.  They’re habit driven.  And if you were wrong, and what you did actually DID make things worse, well, you only have a small mutation to roll back, rather than a huge redesign.

It’s not ideal.  Who wants to change one page at a time and have potential inconsistencies with their names attached?  Who wants to wait a year or two for pages to be tiled?  But in the big scheme of things, it’s worth the wait, and it’s a great way for a design team to empower the corporate strategy, rather than slowing it down.

Today’s Glossary Term:
Golden Path -The primary task flow or navigation flow of a website or application.  If you can’t instantly identify the golden path for your app, you should immediately sit down and figure it out.  What is the one thing that everyone should or wants to do when they come to you?  And how do they do it?

Today’s Interesting Link:– Both beautiful and brilliant.  Imagine a web interface in which you don’t click.  Then follow that link and go experience it.

Today’s Usability Quote:
“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” Elbert Hubbard

Today’s Music To Design To:
Dead Can Dance have been around for too many years and have too many albums for me to recommend just one.  Honestly, almost anything you find from them is great, and it’s all got a mellow, exotic groove that lends itself amazingly well to creative work.
Check them out at