Why I can’t convince executives to invest in UX (and neither can you)

Jared Spool

June 8th, 2011

Every few weeks, a phone call or email comes out of the blue, asking me to perform magic. The inquirer always wants the same thing: to stand up in front of a room filled with their executives, delighting them with a presentation that will make them rise to their feet cheering. This audience will then burst out of the room, demanding their subordinates and invest everything in a whole-scale, no-holds-barred user experience effort that will revolutionize the company, the products, and the world.

OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a little. But I am quite frequently asked to convince executives to invest in user experience.

And it may surprise you to learn that I refuse the offer every time. As a policy here at UIE, we only take on work we can guarantee results from. I know from experience that I have no chance in hell to convince any executives of anything, so I politely decline the gig.

“But surely, because of all your success, you must know what it takes to convince an executive to invest in UX?” they always ask.

Actually, I don’t. I’ve been pitching our services for 23 years and I’ve never once successfully convinced an executive of anything.

Our success has always come from projects where the client team, including the senior management, already understood the value of great user experiences. I haven’t convinced them because they didn’t need convincing.

Have you ever met a smoker? Of course you have. Have you ever met a smoker who didn’t know the harmful effects of smoking? I bet not. Every smoker I know is well aware of what smoking does to their bodies, yet they continue to smoke. There are physical, cultural, and behavioral forces that make it hard to quit.

You can’t convince a smoker to quit smoking. They need to just decide they’ll do it. On their own. When they are ready.

It’s the same with executives. Neither I, you, nor anybody else can convince an executive to invest in user experience.

Sure, there may be a few execs that are somehow still unaware of how a delightful, useful, easy-to-use product is better than a frustrating, useless, difficult-to-work product. I haven’t met one in all my years, but they could exist. Even so, I don’t believe a presentation will change their views.

What can you do instead of a presentation?

You can find out what your executives are already convinced of. If they are any good at what they do, they likely have something they want to improve. It’s likely to be related to improving revenues, reducing costs, increasing the number of new customers, increasing the sales from existing customers, or increasing shareholder value.

Good UX can help with each of those things. The problem is that there is no generic, always-saves-the-world process or solution for any of these improvements. If you wanted me to help, I’d have to study your business in-depth to learn how to make improvements in these areas through solid UX investment.

(That’s a project we’ll accept AND guarantee by the way. We’ve done it before, many times. It’s expensive, but it produces great results.)

Once you start talking about what the executives are already convinced of, it becomes easier to get them to make investments. You’re no longer trying to get them to change their focus. You’re playing directly into their main field of attention.

A generic presentation about how Apple or some other company has a great user experience program (or worse, a presentation showing all the bad user experiences in the world), won’t convince anyone of doing anything different.

You’ll need to do something custom. Something specific to their current focus.

And if that doesn’t work, maybe it’s time for you to find someplace else to work. Someplace where the executives are already convinced and want to make the investment. Right now, there are plenty of these opportunities on the market. Why bang your head against a wall when you can be doing those things you love?

27 Responses to “Why I can’t convince executives to invest in UX (and neither can you)”

  1. Robert Stackhouse Says:

    This hits very close to home for me.

    The “find someplace else to work” recommendation is not very humane, but it may be the most humane one available. It rolls easily off the tongue for someone who already works for a great company. In an economic slump, with a family, with real expenses, and not much in assets, this is an oversimplification. If you’ve only ever done mediocre work because that was all that was ever asked of you and you didn’t have time to build something on your own because of other obligations (i.e. child care, house work, or even enjoying life), this suggestion may not reach the ears of those who it is intended for. “[F]ind someplace else to work,” really needs to be interpreted literally, especially if you’ve been miserable for years. Find someplace better. Even a little better will go a long way. Interview the interviewer. Figure out if your prospective employer will let you push the envelope, even if just a little.

    In the book The Passionate Programmer (yes you should read this), the author talks about never being the most talented person in the room. I couldn’t agree more. He even talks about creating a room (contributing to open source) so that you can be around more talented people than yourself.

    I know there is a stigma against “giving work away” or “doing spec work” in the design community, but I really wish more UX professionals would contribute to open source software. Rather than seeing it as “doing unpaid work” you could choose to see it as a teaching moment or a chance to make a difference (Code for America recruits UX professionals as well). You could retort that a lot of ivory tower coder geeks don’t see the value of UX (suggest you read article above). FLOSS geeks are a different breed. They don’t necessarily care if their open-source baby makes them any money (though it would be nice). What they care about is being useful (guilty). If they are shackled to a desk 8-5 where no one seems to listen to them or care what they are thinking, how useful do you think they really feel? So, if they don’t get UX, simply explain to them how a certain program modification would increase it’s usage. Case in point: the hotkeys for Inkscape really suck (function keys—talk about unnatural mapping). If you can get a FLOSS geek’s software to the wider world, you have made a friend for life; I guarantee it.

    UX, for me at least, is akin to programming in that you can learn from online and offline resources, but you learn much more quickly and deeply when you can converse with and work alongside experienced professionals.

  2. Imran Riaz Says:

    This so true and I could not agree more. In short what you can show in terms of what is important to executives is what will convince them to invest in it regardless of what you call it.

  3. Rick Says:

    I have to admit, I did something similar when beginning my own company’s recent move toward a more user-centered / UX-focused development process – asked for help from a consultant convincing the other C-level officers. Eventually I realized that it’s not practical – each organization has its own culture and requires a different sell-in, like you write here. Bringing the entire team to SxSW this past spring was the eventual tipping point – immersing the core leadership team in that environment enough to spark the fire that became our current effort. We have a long way to go, but getting the ball rolling and having people start to speak the language of the discipline were indicators that it was moving in the right direction. That, and having the wealth of the UX material on the web to share with my group – the support of the community around this work is a huge help!

  4. Ali Carmichael Says:

    This is a recurring theme. My contact is all up for some UX, but needs to convince the powers that be to part with the cash. I have to warn my contact that unless the executives are already bought into the ‘theory’ behind UX, then the resolve is a distant one. In my experience, if you can get an executive in to observe a usability test the penny will drop. Most of the time.

    This is a chicken and egg situation, but I often recommend a smal UX project is undertaken to use as an education tool to the holder of the purse strings. How can you argue with a customer struggling to complete an online purchase process on your website? Then explain that there is a wealth of UX tools that can help ensure an optimum user experience.

    Fortunately, this is happening less frequently as more people are at least aware of the benefits of UX even if they haven’t been invovled in it yet!

  5. Michael Dubakov Says:

    You convinced me 2 years ago actually.

    I’ve attended Agile Conference 2009 in Chicago and your keynote was the last one. It was totally amazing and changes everything. 2 years later we have refreshed company with 4 UX experts, usability tests, etc. We combined our agile development process and UX process. I’ve read about 30 books about UX, usability and design since then. I’m injecting UX into our culture.

    So you can convince CEOs, since I’m a living example of a CEO who was convinced by just a single keynote.

  6. Eric Reiss Says:

    Napoleon said, “There are two levers with which to set a man in motion: fear and self-interest”. When executives see UX as a way to further their careers or even just save their jobs, they usually take the message to heart. At any rate, I’ve been pretty successful at selling UX to clients using Napoleon’s advice (which he probably stole from Machiavelli, who borrowed a lot of his stuff from Sun Tsu…)

    On a related note, a friend of mine, Bogo Vatovec, says (and I paraphrase a rant on usability) there are three stages to this process: 1. Nobody talks about UX. 2. Everybody talks about UX. 3. Nobody talks about UX.

    Our job is to start the second phase – and this is where our manipulation of the clueless, but self-absorbed executives comes into play.

    The third phase seems odd, but in reality, it just means that everyone takes UX for granted as it has been built into the system. Just as today we take car safety for granted – which was not the case back when Ralph Nader wrote his seminal book.

    I am convinced I will live to see the day when the third phase becomes the norm rather than the exception.

  7. Kim Krause Berg Says:

    This has been the one constant in my career and the one nut I haven’t been able to crack. Even when I can clearly show what’s wrong with a design, with data to back it up, or provide gobs of research and case studies, it’s the largest corporations who turn a blind eye to user centered, persuasive design. They seem to believe they have magical powers or have been blessed by the gods of wealth. It’s not the folks who build or test the sites. Those folks get it. They know they’re being paid huge salaries to make web sites that suck. There’s no pride in that work.

  8. Adnan Says:

    Awesome piece.

    Working in an environment where the management is more desperate for newer features than UX which usually make them to suffer.

  9. Mark Pappalardo Says:

    How does an executive convince you that they understand the importance of great user experiences?

  10. Sunet Says:

    Usability professionals are constantly frustrated by lack of management buy-in, except for the lucky few. One reason is the way we perceive usability, the silo nature; even though usability should play a role from product inception to aftermarket. Products are designed to be used by many, especially consumer applications. If it not easy to use consequences are evident. General statements like ‘Good usability is essential for user satisfaction’ does not have legs to stand on, unless quantifiable comparative evidence can be presented.

    Challenge is in how we find tangible added value of usability to convince decision makers. Erick’s comment about Napoleon, or in general playing into greed and fear, is how business work. So what do we need to do? One approach is to find ways to present comparative usability results and position the ease of use of a design against that of competing products. E.g. if you can demonstrate quantifiably that a commonly used function in a HTC Android phone design is more difficult to use than that of a competitor, say Motorola Android product, connecting the dots to customer satisfaction, impact on revenue will become the next discussion. If the evidence is convincing, HTC management and marketing folks have a hard time ignoring it.

    The next obvious question is how can we present such quantifiable evidence, say of the ease-of-use of a product, that management will be compelled to make the leap? Any thoughts?

  11. Wyrwane z kontekstu – Why I can’t convince executives to invest in UX « UX Labs - codzienne źródło wiedzy o user experience Says:

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  12. Sunet Says:

    I am not convinced that we have not influenced the smokers. What percentage of people smoke today compared to ten or twenty years ago? Answer is very few. Success has beed directly proportional to the effort and the tactics used in convincing smokers about its ill effects or benefits of not smoking. I remember the days that you become a social outcast if you did not smoke and now smoking is a social stigma. So it is possible. What we need are the right tools to do the convincing. I think Usability can come out of its silo and spread the wings to all stages of product creation; the trick is in comparative ease-of-use performance matrices that senior management can relate to the competitive position of a product. I am trying this idea but in early stages to share any tangible results.

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  14. Management Improvement Carnival #133 » Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog Says:

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  15. Navid Sadikali Says:

    You are a smart man Jared.

    The execs are usually savy political operators. If a key customer complains about something and they happen to utter a designers name, your UX phone will be ringing. They will match a problem with a solution.

    But investing in UX means paradigm shift. It means to let intuitive designers do observational research to find the opportunities, and means to stop listening to the voice of the customer product management tracks in microsoft excel. It means to let people with design skill visualize a solution of what the product needs to do, and means to stop listening to the product manager careful analysis of ill conceived features. The executive is more in tune with the product manager, and more in tune with analysis. The idea of letting the intuitive oriented, talented person make the strategic decisions is a laugher. Why would they invest their money like that and sign up for a process like that?
    It is like faith.

    Unless there is an obvious problem to be solved (customer complains of ux, call ux), you will not be called and you will not be invested in. They don’t understand you or UX.

  16. Jill Hart Says:

    Good insight. It’s often not until the bottom line of the company is impacted and feedback reaches the C-level that the root cause of revenue decline or lack of growth is due to reluctance of customers to interact with the company’s technology that the user experience becomes tangible enough to take action.

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  18. Keith Instone Says:

    Sometimes when this comes up, I tell people to think of “convincing executives” as a “design problem”. Use your user-centered design techniques like understanding people’s goals and task and then taking action to satisfy those goals. Instead of the users being “customers who want to buy products” it is “executives who want to move up the corporate ladder”. Know what motivates them and design a solution that helps them accomplish their goals.

  19. Simon White Says:

    Smokers are above all addicted to nicotine (and possibly psychologically addicted to the act of smoking as something to do with their hands, a learned repeated gesture that comforts them).

    Execs are similar : addicted or habituated with processes and reports they understand. A presentation can’t help a smoker or an exec. Quantifiable results that fit with current processes can work, but in many industries UX is hard to quantify. It’s easy in small changes in checkout processes to show an uptick in sales. Many companies however have a multi-channel on/offline operation with things that may slip to a competitor or perhaps just to another channel (usually the telephone sales team, who are often only too happy to gain volume in a general downward trend). In the first place you have to have decent analytics in place, and I don’t mean the tool but the exploitation of data, of which there is usually too much and it’s used with too much detail and not enough “high level” analysis.

    UX is moving ahead though – posts like CXO, VP of Product (where the product is an online tool or service) etc didn’t exist when I first started on the web back in the last millenium.

  20. Roger Belveal Says:

    Along the lines of your recommendation, I have had the best luck by tuning in to the top management strategic initiatives and packaging UX with emphasis on the practices necessary to bring about the company’s stated goals. If one is practicing UX intelligently for real purpose and not just going through motions, that is not be all that hard to do.

    Even so, that is not a guarantee that the message will be heard or that the leadership even understands or genuinely cares about the goals they themselves have put forth. Who knows what really goes on in those smoke-filled-rooms.

  21. Mike Finch Says:

    I’d go one step further and suggest that if an executive team needs convincing of the benefits of UX, the company culture itself won’t be ready to support a new user experience initiative. I agree with Jared that it’s impossible to change someone’s internal values and perceptions with a Keynote presentation, but even if you could, you’d be given the permission to build a team that would most likely fail over time because of its incompatibility with the company’s general direction. Until the company itself realizes that user experience should come first, a UX professional would waste their time trying to convince people otherwise.

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  24. John Kruse Says:

    In one of his books, Don Norman describes how exec’s make decisions through a process akin to story-telling, rather than through numbers and spreadsheets. I’ve heard Larry Keeley of the Doblin Group say something similar. Many execs have never actually experience using the software they’re responsible for developing, purchasing, etc.

    I’ve done a little bit of usability testing involving managers and directors at my work (a large corporation). It’s a double-edged sword. It can bring to light various usability problems in a hurry, illustrate a good UI, and make UX a very concrete entity. However, one has to avoid making people look or feel bad — the participant, the development team, etc. Also, a person in authority may start making design and functionality suggestions, which is typically not a good thing. Under some circumstances this tactic can be useful.

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  27. Vasilis Says:

    I think saying that you have never been able to convince an executive and neither could we is a bit extreme! You just have to speak their own language (as you mention). if you just go in guns blazing to do a university type lecture on UX then you will fail, as you should. I think people are smarter than that. Enterprise UX is a very heavy battle more so than customer experience and it is there that a lot of learnings could be drawn.

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