Stakeholders, who needs them? Well, me! I need them, and if you do too I have some advice for you about how to survive the more difficult relationships.
To give some context, I recently found myself having a debate with a friend over the way in which people commicate with one another.
“It’s what you say,” she said, pointedly. “That’s all that matters.”
I was disagreeing with her wholeheartedly because I’ve learned that it’s not just what you say, but also very much the way that you say it as well.
You see, in my job, I believe you not only need to communicate truthfully, but also effectively. It’s pointless making rubbish up and then 'selling' it to someone.
And my job? I’m a User Experience (UX) Consultant For those who aren’t sure what UX is, I hope this sums it up nicely:
I design various websites and the like to make them easier and more enjoyable for you to use.
My Dad, however still doesn’t get it, and tells everyone I do 'something' in IT.
Speaking of which, it’s incredibly important to me that my Stakeholders understand what I do. A Stakeholder is anyone who has a stake (usually financial) in the project I am working on. In short, my client.
I have worked with many different Stakeholders over the years, and have experience of three different kinds:
The awesome stakeholder
A dream come true! It feels like these people hang on to my every word and genuinely love what I do. (Let’s be honest, who wouldn’t love that?) They trust me whole-heartedly and it’s like we have a super-natural connection.
They re-book me for work and it’s smooth. It just works.
The challenging stakeholder
Sometimes slightly cautious, at times these folks are in need of a bit of persuading and cajoling. Perhaps they are cynical about what I do, but still remain open-minded, and happy to come on the journey.
The frustrating stakeholder
For one reason or another, these Stakeholders just don’t seem to fully buy-in to what I do or why I do it. This is difficult, because it’s fine for Dad to think I 'do something in IT' but not OK for those with a vested interest in the project I’m working on.
And here’s what I mean:
Case study: meet Mr X
I had worked with this company before, and had carried out a review of their website for the CEO, who I’ll call Mr X. It had been some years since I had been in contact with Mr X and since then, his company had grown considerably.
Out of the blue, his Marketing Manager contacted me on LinkedIn, and asked if I would be able to 'quote for another evaluation'. Since I’d last been in contact, they had changed their website considerably - twice in fact, and conversions were not the same as they once were.
Apparently, she said, they had a very high bounce rate on their task based home-page. (High bounce rate = people who landed on their home page and left within 10 seconds or so).
I met with Mr X and understood that he had again, plunged lots of money into these two re-designs. And in all in the hope of increasing conversion.
Unfortunately, it had worked the other way.
Needing to appreciate how he’d arrived where he was now, I created a road map.
I came to understand that it had largely been himself and a freelance visual designer who he had been directing. Yes, he’d had some input from his Marketing Manager, but I quickly gathered that he was very much the person who decided what went where and what it was to look like.
It’s important to note here that whilst Mr X is a highly respected businessman, he had no background in design of any kind, let alone Human-Computer interaction.
Things had changed radically since the launch of his new website and, naturally, he was desperate to get things back to how they were. I fully understood his objectives and clearly told him how we could get about meeting them.
We happened to connect well as individuals, but professionally, Mr X fought me at every turn. He was especially against the idea of anything research orientated. In fact, he called research 'fluff'.
Simply put, he had his own ideas and didn’t want any input from me or the people that mattered - his users and his team.
And yet, it was clear that this was how he’d got himself into this mess in the first place.
How I made it better
You may now be reading this and thinking: “Well, it’s clearly the way you were communicating your ideas to your client, Leah”. And you’d be partly right.
But dealing with frustrating Stakeholders like Mr X has been a learning curve for me, and I’d like to share these lessons with you. Because I did make it better.
1. I changed tack
He was paying me for my expertise, but wasn’t taking me up on any of it. Short of suggesting anything, he simply put his website back to how it was. I was running out of options. It was a frustrating place to be.
He didn’t want to move forward, unless it was his way. It was like he wanted me to paint his website whatever colour he wanted.
But I’ve always liked a challenge, and so I changed tack. Rather than continuing to tell him that he had to listen to his users and listen to the rest of the business yada yada yada, I stopped talking. It was like he was listening but wasn’t taking in anything I was saying, so I gathered it was time to zip it.
2. I listened to myself, in the hope I’d be heard
I listened to myself and what I was saying to him. I considered how he may be interpreting our conversations.
I wondered if he’d heard what I was saying to him elsewhere, and if he had a misconception of what user experience was.
I realised that I preached about websites communicating to their users in 'system speak' and in a language users couldn’t understand, but was I speaking to him in exactly that manner, too?
3. I got underneath his words
I applied the analytical skills that I usually reserve for end-users and did the following:
- Observed his body language, in particular when talking about 'fluff'.
- Evaluated his attitudes and opinions, and queried these in detail with him.
- Dropped my defences and looked past how I felt. Of course I felt defensive, but could he see that?
- I accepted that he wasn’t just ignorant or stubborn and that other things might be going on.
4. I put myself in his shoes
I drew up a list of concerns that he had, and we went through them, one by one.
- He was actually very worried about deviating from a design that he had put so much time, effort and money into. And more importantly, one that he personally believed in himself.
- He didn’t understand the concept of User-Centred design - and why would he? It’s not like he worked in online or offline design.
- He didn’t understand that trends changed, that needs and limitations of users changed and that he must not only adapt, but most importantly, understand who he is adapting for.
Whilst I had suspected some of these things from the start, I hadn’t realised how much they were impacting his decision-making.
5. I compromised
Once I better understood his concerns, the dynamics changed slightly between us. Because he wasn’t willing to spend money on in-depth research - let alone a full blown investigation - I gathered he’d be more inclined to take very small steps forward. If I’m honest, I’d taken it for granted that he’d just agree with my way of thinking.
By taking this approach, it not only strengthened our working relationship as he was more within his comfort zone, but I began to realise that it was indeed possible to make an impact with small learnings, and so I learnt something myself.
And so it was agreed that I would firstly carry out a review of the website, on the basis that I could then recruit five users who met his target audience in order to get some feedback on the existing design.
He was present for the small study, and this was when we seemed to turn a corner. Hearing real feedback and taking on board the users’ concerns really helped him to understand where I was coming from, and, more importantly, how to deal with those concerns.
6. I involved his team
Encouraging Mr X to involve every team in his company meant that he was able to get a full picture of the problems his business faced.
Some of the best recommendations on this project actually came from the most unlikely of sources. It transpired that there were discrepancies between how one team communicated to a customer and the experience that same customer had when they went online.
As a side note, I really think it’s important that User Experience professionals are not territorial over their problem solving. The more people looking at a problem (regardless of job role) the more likely a solution will be found.
Happy ever after?
And so, I’d love to tell you that Mr X has since implemented a full user-centred design approach throughout his business, but that would be telling porkies.
But what he did do, though, was make some of the changes he needed to and engage with his team a bit more.
The biggest lesson
I learnt a lot from working with Mr X and it was great experience for me, though I admit, it didn’t feel like this at the time.
The biggest lesson I took away from this experience, was that occasionally, I needed to observe and analyse my stakeholders in the same way I do participants in a study. For example, there is a definite difference between what users say they’ll do … and what they actually do.
It’s very common for human beings to say one thing but mean another, or behave in a contradictory manner - albeit subconsciously. It’s important to note that I am not insinuating that Mr X didn’t know his own mind, but rather that it’s perfectly normal to be detached from the understanding of why you feel so strongly about something. It’s just a feeling, and sometimes feelings are hard to explain.
My meetings with him were not psychoanalytical. I’m no therapist and so it wasn’t appropriate for me to sit him down and ask him to listen to his own objections and analyse them for me in the way I’ve just outlined.
Instead, I did this for him discreetly through my questioning, and worked us through a way of progressing the project at a pace he felt more comfortable with.
The alternative would have been to just walk away.
So, if you find yourself fighting a losing battle with your very own Mr X, I really hope that some, if not all of what I’ve shared, will help you in some way.
But if not, take assurance in the fact that I’ve been in the same boat as you, and it really doesn’t have to end in tears … as long as you remember that it’s not just what you say to your Stakeholder – it’s the way that you say it, too.