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July 15, 2012

It’s Always a People Problem

by Marina

They don’t teach you this in school, but the ability to influence people is probably the most important ability that you’ll need in business.

You can be the best designer, usability expert or technical architect, but if you don’t know who and how to influence, most of your ideas and recommendations will be thrown away.

In a way, creating great designs and writing solutions documents is the easiest task of all. It’s the whole different thing  going from presenting designs to implementing those designs. A lot happens in between.

“No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem.”

~ Gerald M. Weinburg,
“The Secrets of Consulting”

I am not writing this post because I am going to offer you some secrets of how to influence people. I am not an expert on that and I am sure there are many books written on this topic already. I am writing this because I think we rarely consider people or Influencers that we’ll have to Influence when we start working on a new project. However, it’s one of those important and often unknown variables that can affect the outcome of whole project.

They Don’t really Want your Recommendations

There were a few times in the past when I was asked to do a site review to make sure that there are no critical usability issues before the site goes live. And I would be asked to do it just a couple of weeks before the site goes live. I know if usability hasn’t been the top of mind for the dev team while the site was developing, there definitely will be usability issues for me to report on.

However, at this point, people who are hiring a consultant don’t really want to hear the bad news that everything they’ve done for the past 6 months or a year is not that great. This news could potentially put someone’s job at risk. So no matter what you say at that point, you can’t change their mind. One guy even asked me once not to forward my report to anyone else in the organization, paid me off very quickly and never called me back.

You Don’t have Access to Influencers

Some organizations have really deep hierarchy, which means you have to sell your ideas to a few levels of approvers, before you get to present them to their boss. Or sometimes someone in the organization perceives you as a threat and will try to block you from getting close to the real influencers.

They Can’t Reach a Consensus

And sometimes you have to influenece not one person, but the whole Committee of Influencers. As Jessica Hagy from Forbes writes about Committees in The Six Enemies of Greatness (and Happiness) “Nothing destroys a good idea faster than a mandatory consensus. The lowest common denominator is never a high standard.”

Desire for change vs comfort from

They Don’t Accept you as an Expert

Usability and User Experience is often mistaken with Market Research, Public Consultations and Surveys. And when you present your findings, someone will always question them. One of the things that I frequently have to defend is that doing Usability Testing with just 5 users is enough.  If people don’t accept you as an expert in your field, it will take time to change that. And it’s really unfortunate if those people who question your expertise or your methodology are the same people who make the decisions on the way you’ll have to proceed with your project.

At the end, if there is no-one at the top who understands and supports what you do (UX, Design & Usability in my case), it’s sometimes better to leave, than to fight the losing battle. You just can’t win all the battles.

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