Selling your design recommendations to clients and colleagues

If you’ve ever presented design findings or recommendations to clients or colleagues, then perhaps you’ve heard them say:

  • “We don’t have the budget or resources for those improvements.”
  • “The new executive project has higher priority.”
  • “Let’s postpone that to Phase 2.”

As an information architect, I‘ve presented recommendations many times. And I’ve crashed and burned more than once by doing a poor job of selling some promising ideas.  Here’s some things I’ve learned from getting it wrong.

Buyers prefer sellers they like and trust

You need to establish trust with peers, developers, executives and so on before you present your findings and recommendations . It sounds obvious, yet presentations often fail due to unfamiliarity, sloppiness or designer arrogance.

A year ago I ran an IA test on a large company website. The project schedule was typically “aggressive” and the client’s VPs were endlessly busy. So I launched the test without their feedback. Saved time, right?

Wrong. The client ignored all my IA recommendations, and their VPs ultimately rewrote my site map from scratch. I could have argued that they didn’t understand user-centered design. The truth is that I failed to establish credibility. I needed them to buy into the testing process, suggest test questions beforehand, or take the test as a control group. Anything to engage them would have helped – turning stakeholders into collaborators is a great way to establish trust.

Techniques for presenting UX recommendations

Many presentation tactics can be borrowed from salespeople, but a single blog post can’t do justice to the entire sales profession. So I’d just like to offer a few ideas for thought. No Jedi mind tricks though. Sincerity matters.

Emphasize product benefits, not product features

Beer commercials on TV don’t sell beer. They sell backyard parties and voluptuous strangers. Likewise, UX recommendations should emphasize product benefits rather than feature sets.

This may be common marketing strategy. However, the benefits should resonate with stakeholders and not just test participants. Stakeholders often don’t care about Joe End User. They care about ROI, a more flexible platform, a faster way to publish content – whatever metrics determine their job performance.

Several years ago, I researched call center data at a large corporation. To analyze the data, I eventually built a Web dashboard. The dashboard illustrated different types of customer calls by product. When I showed it to my co-workers, I presented the features and even the benefits of tracking usability issues this way.

However, I didn’t research the specific benefits to my fellow designers. Consequently it was much, much harder to sell the idea. I should have investigated how a dashboard would fit into their daily routines. I had neglected the question that they silently asked: “What’s in it for me?”

Have a go at contrast selling

When selling your recommendations, consider submitting your dream plan first. If your stakeholders balk, introduce the practical solution next. The contrast in price will make the modest recommendation more palatable.

While working on e-commerce UI, I once ran a usability test on a checkout flow. The test clearly suggested improvements to the payment page. To try slipping it into an upcoming sprint, I asked my boss if we could make a few crucial fixes. They wouldn’t take much time. He

In essence, my boss was comparing extra work to doing nothing. My mistake was compromising the proposal before even presenting it.  I should have requested an entire package first: a full redesign of the shopping cart experience on all web properties. Then the comparison would have been a huge effort vs. a small effort.

Retailers take this approach every day. Car dealerships anchor buyers to lofty sticker prices, then offer cash back. E-tailers like Amazon display strikethrough prices for similar effect. This works whenever buyers prefer justifying a purchase based on savings, not price.

Use the alternative choice close

Alternative Choice is a closing technique in which a buyer selects from two options. Cleverly, each answer implies a sale. Here are examples adapted for UX recommendations:

  • “Which website could we implement these changes on first, X or Y?”
  • “Which developer has more time available in the next sprint, Tom or Harry?”

This is better than simply asking, “Can we start on Website X?” or “Do we have any developers available?” Avoid any proposition that can be rejected with a direct “No.”

Convince with the embarrassment close

Buying decisions are emotional. When presenting recommendations to stakeholders, try appealing to their pride (remember, you’re not actually trying to embarrass someone). Again, sincerity is important. Some UX examples include:

  • “To be an industry leader, we need a best-of-breed design like Acme Co.”
  • “I know that you want your co mpany to be the best. That’s why we’re recommending a full set of    improvements instead of a quick fix.”

Techniques for answering objections once you’ve presented

Once you’ve done your best to present your design recommendations, you may still encounter resistance (surprise!).

To make it simple, I’ve classified objections using  the three points in the triangle model of project management: Time, Price and Quality. Any project can only have two. And when presenting design research, you’re advocating Quality, i.e. design usability or enhancements. Pushback on Quality generally means that people disagree with your designs (a topic for another day). Therefore,  objections will likely be based on Time or Price instead.

In a perfect world, all design recommendations yield ROI backed by quantitative data. But many don’t. When selling the intangibles of “user experience” or “usability” improvements, here are some responses to consider when you hear “We don’t have time” or “We can’t afford it”.

“We don’t have time” means your project team values Time over Quality

If possible, ask people to consider future repercussions. If your proposal isn’t implemented now, it may require even more time and money later. Product lines and features expand, and new websites and mobile apps get built. What will your design improvements cost across the board in 6 months?

Opportunity costs also matter. If your design recommendations are postponed, then perhaps you’ll miss the holiday shopping season, or the launch of your latest software release. What is the cost of not approving your recommendations?

“We can’t afford it” means your project team values Price over Quality

Many project sponsors nix user testing to reduce the design price tag. But there’s always a long-term cost. A buggy product generates customer complaints. The flawed design must then be tested, redesigned, and recoded. So, which is cheaper: paying for a single usability test now, or the aggregate cost of user dissatisfaction and future rework? Explain the difference between price and cost to your team.

Parting Thoughts

I realize that this only scratches the surface of sales, negotiation, persuasion and influence.  Entire books have been written on topics like body language alone. Uncommon books in a UX library might be “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini and “Secrets of Closing the Sale” by Zig Ziglar. Feel free to share your own ideas or references as well.

Any time we present user research, we’re selling. Stakeholder mental models are just as relevant as user mental models.

Published on May 13, 2014
Guest Writer: Jeff Tang
  • Guest Writer: Jeff Tang
  • Jeff Tang is an information architect at Perficient XD, a U.S. design agency. He works on responsive websites and intranets for a wide variety of clients. Previously, Jeff worked at Sony designing websites and consumer electronics UI. He holds a Master's degree in HCI from the University of Michigan.

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