PT asks: “how do I convince leadership to care about UX research?”

A new mentee opened the session with (paraphrased)

How do I convince leadership to care about UX research?

It’s a broad question. A giant question. It’s highly situational; it’s hard to answer without deep knowledge of the organization’s goals, its failings, and the people involved.

After a bit of conversation it became clear that the actual question was a little smaller. Paraphrased,

Our CTO is placing a lot of emphasis on summative research activities like usability testing. I don’t want to neglect, and am more interested in, formative research. How do I convince him to let me do formative research?

Okay, that’s still a big question, of the sort that a disinterested third party (me) can’t answer directly. But it led us to talk about a few topics:

1. People have their reasons. What are they?

The CTO is favoring testing over formative research. Why? They might be right in doing so; maybe that is what the company needs right now. Or they might not understand the value of one or the other. Or they might have a different understanding than you of the proper division of labor in the company. Or…a lot of things could be in play here; people have their reasons. But it’ll be hard to influence the CTO or others unless you understand their reasons.

2. Given the organization’s goals and performance, what needs to change?

What is the company trying to accomplish, and what are their results so far? Does the gap between what they want and what they are achieving (there is almost always a gap) suggest a particular course of action? Is this gap due to poor product/market fit, poor initial quality, churn, cost of support, customer time-to-value, customer payback time, something else? Each of these would suggest different areas of the product to attach and might require different research activities or emphasis.

3. Who needs to understand the problem the way you do? Who are your allies? Who is your audience?

Once you understand the CTO’s reasons and the organizational situation you can determine if your idea about an intervention (more formative research) is sensible or not – whether or not it will contribute meaningfully to closing the results gap. But then you need to make it happen. And this requires deep knowledge of the organization: the people, the culture, and how change occurs. You may be in an organization where you can, armed with the above information, make a convincing argument to the CTO. You may be in an organization where you have to recruit like-minded people to surround the CTO. Or you may be in a place where convincing the CTO is less important than engaging the people who would be helped more directly by your intervention, the product managers.

We also talked about projects vs incrementalism, chain of command vs lateral influence, and allowing for serendipity in formative research, but those are topics for another time.

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 09 11

  • One-time mentorship conversations are fun, and they remind me how I think about issues. So far everyone has been pleased with our conversations. https://adplist.org/mentors/jon-plummer I wish I was as readily eloquent when it came to writing these posts.
  • My knee is much more stable now than it was when it was irritated recently. This is only now that I have PT and ortho referrals coming up, of course. Murphy sometimes mistakenly interferes in a way that makes things a little better.
  • If you need something done at a hospital, call the patient advocate. Changing the channel from email to phone, and changing the recipient from a barely-interested secretary to a person whose job it is to chase things down has produced enough of my chart from 31 years ago to greatly inform what’s to come next, whatever that is. As I say often to the people I support, “f you aren’t getting the engagement you want, try changing the channel.”

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 09 04

A short week, but things are getting done. People are not waiting, they are seeking. They are asking questions and getting answers. They are not giving even the appearance of waiting. There’s bias to action, and then there’s bias to learning. These people are doing the latter, and it warms my heart.

Gov.uk recommends NOT using alt text. It’s actually a good idea

[name redacted] writes:

UK Gov websites dropping support for alt text fields and giving odd advice about what screen reader users want is making the rounds on Linkedin https://insidegovuk.blog.gov.uk/2023/08/10/making-it-easier-to-add-images-on-gov-uk/

Naturally this has been met with many hot takes, including

bizarre, especially given that i have often heard the uk gov is a good example of taking accessibility seriously

[name redacted 2]

and

I wonder if they consulted any screen reader users before they went with this somewhat condescending metaphor: “Another way to make sure you are describing the image properly is to imagine that you’re reading out the content of the page on a telephone. When you get to the image, what would you say to help the listener understand the point the page is making?”

[name redacted 3]

…as well as complaints that Gov.uk is “canceling the alt tag” and other alarmist conclusions.

Gov.uk’s advice is actually pretty good, if a bit high-level.

We should provide alternate content for anything that is not text or cannot be read by a screen reader and that is important to the meaning of the page – for example, if the image were missing or broken the page’s meaning or intelligibility would be diminished – and should not provide alternate content for anything that can be safely left out without diminishing that meaning.

There are a few ways to provide alternate content; the alt attribute is one of them. It appears that gov.uk is expressing in part that the alt attribute is a less accessible way of presenting that alternate content than simply putting that alternate content right into the page, and that’s true: a person who needs the content in the alt attribute but doesn’t use a screen reader (such as a person using a magnifier) will have to do some extra work to dig that content out of the alt attribute that a screen reader user would not need to do. That person would be helped if the alternate content were in the page, and no one else would be inconvenienced by this change.

Key points of my recent performance review

(Quotations are my words, all else are the words of my manager.)

Revision to goals for the quarter

Step into responsiveness via the design system – propose to R&D why and a way forward to get us to accommodate actual user viewport sizes better, and get a resulting project onto the roadmap

I don’t have the strongest opinion on this one and bucket it similarly to chipping away at general UX improvements. I don’t want to dig the hole deeper – anything net new we develop would ideally have a higher bar of usability prior to general release – but would need to see specific examples with LOE of more general improvement candidates to weigh in.

Improve the quality of UX delivery – establish Figma delivery conventions specifically intended to reduce the cognitive load on developers, with developer input and feedback, and pilot these new conventions

Strongly agree with this one and I appreciate how Jon scoped the specific action item this quarter.

Advocate for an appropriate level of UX/UI polish to survive engineering delivery by spreading the UX review cycle currently piloted via Smart Alerts and Call Review projects to other teams/crews

Also in strong agreement here but with the most Q3 emphasis being on Call Review & Coaching-related projects if we had to prioritize where Jon spends his time.

Advocate for and begin a project to do POC IAs for various user types to explore the sensibility and difficulty of separating [product A] and [product B]

We talked about modifying this one a bit as some of the groundwork on [product B] is in place. I let Jon know that I have a Q3 goal with [PM] to revamp the [product A] product vision/strategy which will surely need UX input as stakeholders and that ideally better defines where UX output can be helpful for [product A] future IA and candidates for usability improvement.​

Values

  • Light The Customer’s Way: [evident in] the improvements we’ve made to UX quality in recent releases and stronger focus on customer adoption and usability.
  • Continuous Improvement: Jon’s involvement in many of the organizational & process improvements we’ve rolled out in recent months, ensuring UX had a seat at the table ahead of making these changes and providing his perspective that influenced the solutions we implemented.​

Past Quarter’s Results

Jon has done a fantastic job improving both the quality of UX output at Invoca and building buy-in for user/customer-centric activities. He receives positive feedback from cross-department stakeholders and I am grateful to have him leading UX efforts. Key examples of Jon’s leveling up of UX in recent months:

  • His participation at Dallas and May offsites, particularly the lead up to our leadership offsite and his help with material preparation and follow through.
  • His very well-received Connect talk that summarized/connected the dots on many of the changes we had been looking to drive following our offsite discussions – trios, experimentation, shipping value/quality vs. speed, etc.
  • Leveling up members on the UX team and helping define new shaping frameworks to set them up for success. Also, pushing the team to have more direct customer/user feedback sessions.I hope Jon recognizes how far we’ve come in a short time (no longer prioritizing by service area vs. customer needs) and I’m excited to continue the journey with him.

​2 – Right On Track

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 08 28

  • Driving lessons with the girl seem to be going well, especially since we’ve borrowed an automatic so we can learn to drive before we learn to drive stick. It has opened things up considerably.
  • I had my review and it went well. I’ll share some of the results in a subsequent post.
  • Football season has begun and there is optimism for both Seattle teams. Hooray.

I wrote a screed. Here’s the interesting part

This article is worth a read as-is. But once you’ve done that, consider that our users are also suffering a form of the paper cut tax since they need to (and due to the tax are told to) see their CSMs about every little thing they want to change on the platform. Poor usability is a brake on their productivity and, in turn, a brake on their esteem for our company.

The story I am told regularly is that usability in existing interfaces hasn’t been addressed because it is hard to relate to ROI. That’s true. That also does not make it less important. As we do with other types of issues, I think we should devote a percentage of our collective effort to chipping away at the large experience debt we have in the platform.

A small but potentially high-signal example: yesterday a few UXers including me attended “Mastering the Basics,” a webinar meant to introduce new customers to a handful of typical operations on the platform. It was lengthy and dense, intelligibility issues were apparent (nay, obvious) at every turn, and two common refrains punctuated the talk: “see your CSM for help with this” and “remember, ‘campaign’ has nothing to do with your actual marketing campaign but refers to call treatment” (paraphrased). The latter was mentioned seven times in a short period; clearly it is a response to a problem.

I see “see your CSM for help with this” as an admission; “we know there’s a problem.” This is a sensible thing to say in our current state, and a bad look. “I’m sorry it is broken” is said. “We’re working on it” is not. “Remember, ‘campaigns’ has nothing to do with your actual marketing campaign but refers to call treatment” is also an unwitting admission: “this system wasn’t made for you and it is your problem to remember the odd words it uses.”

What would it take to, say, change “campaigns” to “call treatments?” Would the customers that actually use the term “campaigns” in this way be put out by such a change? Have we asked? Just a thought.

Incoming employees recognize the problem. When I sought feedback for M— recently, D— mentioned “…for the UX team a great emphasis can be made on owning the UX of the platform not just for the new initiatives but for the existing features.” We’d love to, and to do so we need your help and participation.

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 08 22

  • Quarterly coaching is done! Yay. There were no surprises, as expected. People offered and acknowledged their areas of grown, which is a good sign.
  • I wrote a screed in the R&D leadership Slack channel and it was well-received. Now I have to help put my complaint into operation; I feel renewed energy for that.
  • I figured out how to avoid the “vapor lock” many reveal people experience when discussing a vast problem space. It’s probably nothing new technique-wise, but already the discussions I’m having are more operationally useful than they were before because we’re getting around the temptation to zoom out and hand-wave.

Nice has no place in business

Merlin Mann is fond of saying “you don’t have to be nice, but you should be kind.” In this statement “nice” refers to being agreeable, and “kind” to being friendly. These are not the same.

Men who prey on women depend on a woman’s social conditioning to be nice, to be agreeable, AND to be kind, to be friendly, and in doing so put their target’s desire for self-protection in conflict with their desire, often unconscious, to satisfy that conditioning. This is an extreme example but it illustrates the problem well; nice all-too-often becomes self-negation.

There’s plenty of opportunity for self-negation in a business context; a classic example is making a request of a peer, and when that request is not fulfilled, not following up out of fear that you will be disliked.

In business, we are interdependent. We need things of others: of our superiors, of our subordinates, and of our peers. Without role power in play it is especially easy for our conditioning to be “nice” to trip up our interoperation with our peers. Not following up on an unmet expectation trains your peers that your requests don’t matter. In effect you train others to ignore your needs if you do not consistently assert them. That’s no way to be effective in your role. What’s worse, it doesn’t help your likability one whit.

So, start with a well-formed request: this is what I need, this is when I need it, this is why I need it. Thank the person for meeting that request. Follow up right away if it is unmet and negotiate a new deadline. Give the person context. Escalate as needed.

(You can skimp on the well-formed-ness of your requests once you’ve established trust that your wishes will regularly be met by this peer, in a timely manner, and that they will raise objections quickly and in good faith. Not before.)

Your kindness appears in these interactions when you do not interpret your peer’s noncompliance as a personal attack. Your kindness is visible when every interaction, though your need has not been met, is pleasant and factual. Your kindness is made clear when you first escalate to your peer, then only if necessary escalate to a superior. Your kindness is exemplified when that escalation focuses on the unmet need first, and not the peer or your disappointment.

You don’t have to be nice, but you should be kind. This means taking a charitable view of your peer’s motivations and behavior, but nonetheless standing up for what you need, when, and why, and not letting things slide. You deserve to be effective in your job. And if you are kind, you are likely to be well-liked. Nice is not necessary.

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 08 18

  • Quarterly coaching was straightforward and is nearly done. Only one person has not yet submitted their self-eval, and they have a good excuse.
  • UX is on the critical path of a key project, but not as badly as suspected, and solid progress is being made.
  • We can chalk some recent process difficulties up to leadership issues, not crew issues. This is fab, because responsibility is squarely placed.
  • One new mentee relationship and one old one have reminded me of good things to write about; watch this space.