Beyond Design: The Utilitarian Art Of Selling Design
Most User Experience (UX) designers know the scenario all too well. A web designer is put on the spot to justify a user centered design (UCD) element that is too complicated or too costly for the project manager to incorporate without a good rationale. Every project is different, but even today most still don’t have room in their budgets for UX research. This means designers frequently have to rely on information coming from other sources in order to form a professional opinion, which itself leaves their advice vulnerable to review.
Defending the need for good design is, in fact, a good chunk of the workload for any professional UX designer. This holds true no matter if you are an employee of a company that has hired you to implement solutions or you’re a freelancer selling the idea to your clients. All UX designers eventually discover the need to demonstrate their own value and the economic impact of their UCD recommendations. That is why one of the best skills you can have as a designer isn’t about the design; it’s about communicating the value of good design work and, ultimately, the utilitarian art of selling design.
Selling good design is a career field unto itself, and most designers are not inclined to specialize in sales. If you’re self-employed, however, selling yourself and the benefits of good design are essential to your success, and those who work in a traditional employer-employee relationship still need basic skills when it comes to selling their design ideas, lest much of their work end up on the proverbial cutting room floor.
There are myriad variables that go into designing a web application or smart phone app. Designers are constantly synthesizing ideas and forming judgments based on the specific needs of the project while simultaneously incorporating knowledge about good user centered design. When we offer well-researched and carefully considered recommendations only to see them met with skepticism and suspicion, our first response is often to take the feedback personally or get defensive about our work. And it’s very hard to prove a point – any point – when you’re on the defense. Most experienced UX designers know that they can expect resistance, though, so they don’t flinch when they encounter it.
To justify your individual design elements, be sure you understand the business value of UX in concrete terms.
- Return on Investment (ROI) – Increased usability and return customer rates are only part of the picture here. Be prepared to discuss all the ways good UX affects the bottom line for your particular project. Common factors include reduced development costs, fewer problems requiring redesign, higher sales, better referral rates, increased productivity, higher customer trust and satisfaction levels, and decreased support costs. Since each project is unique, consider all the factors that are impacted by good UX, then consider the results of poor UX to complete your list. Use comparative data and user stories wherever possible to elucidate the facts.
- Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) – Establishing these magical metrics early on in the project timeline is essential for communicating the value of design throughout the remainder of development. Will the app be measured by the number of unique visitors or the length of time an individual stays on a page? There are literally hundreds of standard KPIs and new ones coming into common usage every day. Make sure you know which KPIs are important to your project, and refer to them often when discussing design options. Relating your work back to concrete results can help others see the value of good design.
- Competitive Advantage – Analyzing the opposition can be an effective tool for any design team, but noting and analyzing problems in their UX can be critical to achieving a competitive advantage. Be sure to set your product or service apart from all of your top competitors, but also keep current on the experiences of other UX designers. Their stories can not only help you make better design decisions, but they often reveal good tips about good versus bad design that can help you better market your own concepts.
Web and app designers aren’t usually short on personality, but many find it hard to be themselves when confronted with stereotypically cold project managers or developers. Learning how to market yourself and your skillset can be important before, during, and after a project.
- Make yourself and your contacts comfortable with what you do. This may sound harder than it is. Making others comfortable with your design philosophy, integrating UX, and tying it all back to KPIs and other metrics – it all starts with being comfortable and confident yourself. When people are venturing into new territory they tend to over explain or over justify everything, or just come on too strong and seem rigid in their philosophies. This puts others on the defense and can set you up to fail. If you are calm and confident in what your design priorities are (as well as where you can afford to make room for other people’s ideas) it will breed respect from others and build their confidence in you. Be willing to change your plan to adjust to your team on some issues, and know which design elements you are willing to fight for. To use an old familiar motto, choose your battles wisely.
- Know all the jargon but use it sparingly. When talking with other UX professionals, it may be alright to use acronyms and terminology that reduce ambiguity and increase your credibility. When talking with other team members, however, overuse of jargon can be off-putting. Be aware of when you’re speaking another language, one your teammates may not understand and which may feel threatening to them. No matter to whom you are talking, speak their language, focus on deliverables and KPIs, and look for common ground.</h5>
- Develop an elevator pitch that succinctly describes what you do in 100-150 words. Whether you’re looking for work or just making conversation, being able to concisely describe what you do and why that’s important will draw others to you. Start by writing down some key words, taking special care to avoid jargon. Instead of saying you leverage user research to design interactions, for example, tell people you make mobile apps easier to use. Replace industry terms and acronyms with their meaningful everyday counterparts, and then practice your speech in a mirror until it feels natural. Ask friends and family members to ask you what you do, then get their reactions to refine your pitch. It may seem silly, but this one task can make your work seem much less complicated to others, and people will naturally want to ask questions to learn more.
- Anticipate resistance to some of your ideas. Most designers find it works best if they learn to “kill their babies,” so to speak. In other words, don’t grow too attached to any aspect of your design, but keep in mind the reason you believe it works. If you end up having to make a case for a design element, you’ll know why you went that direction in the first place and you can offer a number of alternatives that achieve the same goal. When you prove yourself to be not only competent but flexible, people will help your marketing efforts by referring others to you.
- Let yourself be wrong. Every marketing expert knows it’s more important to be yourself than to be right. This may sound counterintuitive, but being right all the time has a nasty aftertaste that folks just can’t quite get over. On the other hand, letting people see your foibles and not making a big deal of them yourself is very endearing. Let go of any needs you still have to be perfect, and just be yourself. You could be amazed at the results.
- Analyze the results of your work. Include not only the end design and whether you got what you wanted, but also how your interactions with teammates went.
- Are there better ways to promote your ideas, or do you need more data about a particular feature and why it works best for a particular scenario?
- Were the KPIs clearly established up front?
- Were you able to articulate the potential ROI? What additional information do you need to improve your ability to discuss the financial benefits of UX?
- Don’t be afraid to ask others how you did. This may take different forms depending on your work relationship and ongoing contact.
- If you are an employee, casually asking your boss and other stakeholders what they thought about the UX elements of the project can often elicit an enormous amount of information. Engage them in conversation and see what develops. Take special care not to get defensive here, and don’t rehash any old conflicts. Instead, take the time to just listen. People are often wary at first when asked for feedback, but if they see you are truly interested in improving your performance, just a handful of conversations might tell you all you need to know.
- If you’re a freelancer, you should have an evaluation form to submit to every client after a job. This can not only help you improve your performance, but can be an excellent source of testimonials and quotes for your own website and printed materials. Be sure to get permission before using their words and especially before naming them publicly.
- Integrate your lessons learned into any future efforts. Be sure to talk about your professional growth when marketing yourself to new projects and customers. Sharing stories of what went wrong and how you worked through the problems makes you (and your work) more accessible to new contacts, and is sure to make you more relatable from the get-go. This is often the key to the sale: humanizing yourself and building a personal rapport with a client can go a long way toward gaining the trust and confidence you need to land that next project.
Putting It All Together
Understanding your role as both a designer and a cheerleader for good design is essential for not only successful projects, but also job satisfaction. When you know to expect push-back for just about any reason or none at all, you won’t be caught off guard and you can defend your design elements without feeling attacked. Knowledge of the project’s Key Performance Indicators and how your design improves Return on Investment gives you a way to communicate with others in concrete terms and stay on the same page. Being your (imperfect) self at all times and speaking the language of your audience will make you more approachable and can help your work. The boost in rapport and your teammates’ increased comprehension of UX can help you earn their trust and get referrals for more work in the future.