The whiteboard

XII.1 January + February 2005
Page: 12
Digital Citation

Ease your design anguish

Deborah Gill-Hesselgrave, Mark Hall

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You entered the design field because you had an "eye." You demonstrated a special talent for defining context, composition and color. You studied and interned, then landed that coveted design job.

You learned about user-centered design (UCD) and usability testing. Maybe your company paid for you to attend UCD seminars, or you had the opportunity to work closely with an experienced design or human-factors professional. You matured as a designer to the point that you'd become proud of your design-skills toolbox and unique design process.

But despite becoming smarter about your work, you realized that you were spending less and less time actually designing. Too often you find yourself stuck doing nothing but running usability tests and conducting heuristic reviews. When you work with graphic designers it's only to tweak wording or button locations. You know all too well, though, that these end-game efforts to optimize a design usually have little overall impact.

Bummed-out, you go to your ever-supportive boss, to propose that you enter the process earlier. But she has bad news: Many of the things you're proposing just don't fit into your company's development process, and she's had a hard time getting the company to devote time, money, or resources to up-front design work.

A pretty bleak picture, eh? So now what do you do?

First, recognize that your boss and other managers at your company don't owe you anything. You must convince product stakeholders that your work has value. You must add the "businessperson" hat to your skills wardrobe.

"Sacrilege!" you cry. "I do design because of my special sense of space—I don't care about business things like the bottom line and return on investment." Well, you'd sure as heck better care about it—unless you want to risk ending up on the "endangered employee" list.

To contribute to your organization at a higher level, you will first need to overcome your own "false truths." Only then can you move on to overcoming the obstacles imposed by others that stand between you and UCD nirvana.

back to top  Overcome Your Own False Truths

bullet.gif False truth #1: If the boss says so, it must be true.

Most decision-makers often just parrot objections they've heard from others; protecting their own best interests comes first. Their reputations and fortunes rise and fall with how well they meet their business objectives. You must figure out what constitutes a "win" for them—what will make them look good to their bosses. Remember: Every one of your decision-makers silently wonders, "What's in it for me?"

So how do you make the decision-maker look good to her boss?

Save her some money. Ask the customer-support manager about her group's costs. If she says they exceed her boss's budget, ask her to describe the situation surrounding the overruns. Perhaps the symptoms that surface here will point to a design-related cause you can address.

Help her increase sales. Ask sales and marketing about how referral sales are going and what key objections arise during sales meetings. (Sales people know a lot about overcoming objections; their commissions hinge on it! So they're usually a great resource for you.)

Help her help herself. Review all of the data—both qualitative and quantitative—that you can get your hands on. Look for factors that prevent the decision-maker from reaching her goals. Whatever she needs for success, spend some time sleuthing around to find it.

You may find that no business drivers have been defined for your product's design. If so, don't be surprised! Despite this era of supposedly open-book, objective-driven management, many companies have missed the boat. If you receive vague answers to your questions about the organization's business goals or critical success factors, and if your probing does not uncover them, consider cutting your losses and bowing out. In such situations be honest with yourself: You will never achieve design success or excellence if your organization doesn't know the meaning of those words.

bullet.gif False truth #2: Your process is the process.

You don't own the process, they do. Put your "process pride" aside. Most organizations and managers that have been around for a while don't want a new process; they simply want to "optimize" their current one (no matter how "bad" it might be now). So don't waste your breath talking about how great your process is. Focus instead on finding ways to squeeze appropriate methods into their process. If necessary, sneak them in.

People don't resist change per se, just imposed change. Most people seek out and embrace change when things are not working the way they want or expect. If you fit your work into the organization's process and culture and always associate your work with a business goal, you'll drive more incremental—and thus palatable—change.

bullet.gif False truth #3: You need approval for everything you do.

Baloney! If you have not yet adopted an entrepreneurial mentality, do so now. Internalize the following sayings:

"It's easier to beg forgiveness than to ask for permission."

"I will use other people's resources whenever possible." (Borrow rather than buy.)

"I will treat my organization's money as if it were actually mine."

Be proactive. Schedule some "covert" conversations with customers or end users, and use their feedback to hone your designs. Find people with a little spare time; even in these hectic times, you can almost always find someone who has a few idle moments, and whom you can motivate to help you. Don that "businessman" hat and act like a cash-tight entrepreneur, and you'll find ways to improve your designs with little or no additional budget. And by keeping these activities "under the budget radar," you won't adversely affect your cost center.

Your organization expects you to be a creative professional, to produce the best designs possible with the time and budget you have. So find ways to fit a little user research or storyboarding into your design timeline. If you don't have time to interview ten to 15 prospective users, talk to just three or four, making sure that they closely fit your product's target user profile. Rather than spending days developing a prototype, prepare some storyboard sketches, then test them with these same users before you move ahead. Your boss will appreciate your commitment to staying within his budget and timeline.

Once you've dumped your own false truths, you're ready to move on to dealing with the real resistance to your efforts.

back to top  Overcoming Organizational Obstacles

bullet.gif Obstacle #1: "Doing usability stuff" takes too long.

Dump False Truth #3, and time is no longer your enemy. You have honed your methods so that you can choose the most suitable tool for any situation, at the appropriate level of fidelity. You've knocked down this obstacle before it has even appeared.

If this obstacle surfaces anyhow, let your results do the talking. Find out how your method improved user satisfaction, reduced costs, or supported the achievement of a business goal. As the old saying goes, "results have a way of speaking for themselves." And good buzz from others will always sell your participation better than your personal pleadings will.

bullet.gif Obstacle #2: Our customers seem to like the site/product the way it is now.

This objection makes our teeth hurt! This obstacle just falls away when you point out to decision-makers that unless and until they've performed user studies, they simply don't have the evidence to back up this statement. Remind the person making this assertion that products may be purchased and used, but that alone doesn't mean they are "liked."

If this objection arises, simply ask, "How do you know?" Ask what methods they used to come up with that "fact." Which specific protocol did they use and what results did they obtain? Get a sense of whether someone has actually measured key user experience metrics. Chances are you'll find that they either have failed to do the math or have neglected to show their work.

bullet.gif Obstacle #3: Aesthetics is more important to our users than usability.

We'd both be rich if we had a dollar for every time someone has asked us just to "go and make it look pretty." Although pure visual appeal is important, UCD does not focus primarily on aesthetics. Decision makers who offer this objection to implementing UCD fundamentally misunderstand its scope and impact. In these cases, the best course may be to bow out graciously and refer the organization to a talented visual designer who can give the product a professional-looking face lift.

If, on the other hand, you sense that the decision-maker has an open mind and sufficiently deep pockets, remind her that about 80 percent of a product's usability depends on its structure, and that aesthetics comes after functionality as a measure of design excellence. So, unless the designers are using UCD to verify that the design's features and interactions actually make sense to the intended users, this assertion just does not hold water.

bullet.gif Obstacle #4: Our [designer, developer, graphic artist, etc.] already does usability as part of his job.

We'll admit that this obstacle looms larger than the others, since it may involve bruising some egos. Assertively, yet diplomatically, inquire into the background of each person contributing to the design. Ask the developers about their design background. Find out which UCD methods and skills the graphic designer possesses. If you find that these and other people lack key UCD background or skills, don't put them down! Just mention your education and experience as a way of indicating what else they might need to know. Focus on exposing the missing skill set; don't get into a bare-knuckle brawl about who should be doing the work.

back to top  Operate like an Entrepreneur

Often, UCD fails because we try to implement it piecemeal. To call yourself a true champion of good design, you must work with real decision-makers and change agents within organizations. Usability cannot be an add-on any more. Usability specialists must become business partners with the people whose mortgage payments rely on meeting business-performance objectives and incentives.

Overcome your UCD process righteousness and start acting like an entrepreneur. Always focus on adding the highest design value to your products, for the time and budget you have. This'll get the attention of managers who control your destiny.

And who knows? You may actually get to do some more enjoyable design work.

back to top  Authors

Deborah Gill-Hesselgrave ( has been an information design professional far longer than she will admit publicly. With a career that has spanned education, publishing, multimedia design, usability, writing, and management, Deborah has remained true to her first passion: helping people succeed. Although she prefers life as an entrepreneur, since founding dgh enterprises in 1994, Deborah has twice taken leave of her senses to labor exclusively for exceptional companies. In her spare time, Deborah hikes lesser-known trails of San Diego and serves as the behind-the-plate target at weekly softball games.

Mark Hall ( recently joined Human Factors International (HFI) as a project director, after leading his own consulting firm. Before that, he contributed as a product design and usability specialist in a wide variety of industries for over ten years. Mark enjoys playing saxophone in a community concert band and being cleverly manipulated by his two young children.

Elizabeth Buie
Computer Sciences Corporation
15245 Shady Grove Road
Rockville, MD 20850, USA
Fax: 301-921-2069

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©2005 ACM  1072-5220/05/0100  $5.00

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