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Turning Stubborn Stakeholders Into UX Allies in 3 Easy Steps

by
Sarah Doody
Sarah Doody

Great design is a collaboration. Great products are created when a team comes together, identifies and embraces a true problem or opportunity, and then allows each member to execute based on their specific expertise.

Everyone gets a chance to shine. And the most effective teams include people who understand when it’s their time to step up and when it’s time to step back.

But as the designer on the team, you might encounter someone who’s more of a roadblock than an assist. They’re stubborn and sometimes it feels like it’s either their way or the highway.

Stubborn stakeholders are a key reason why teams don’t collaborate and communicate enough. These types of people often dominate feedback meetings. They like to play devil’s advocate to the extreme. They often play politics and seem to take joy in creating speed bumps in your design process. Sometimes, they seem to shoot down every idea you have for illogical reasons.

The danger with stubborn stakeholders is that they can become a ringleader. They can get other people on the team to go along with their ideas, making it hard for you to do your job.

So what can we do to get buy-in from stubborn stakeholders? How do we turn the conversation from critique and criticism? How do we take someone who at times feels like an enemy and make them an engaged collaborator?

In this article, we’ll discuss four tactics that you can use to turn a stubborn stakeholder into an alley.

1. Understand the Context

One of the ultimate rules in communication is to know your audience. To communicate and negotiate with the stubborn stakeholder, you must see the world through their lens.

Take time to think about who this person is as a stakeholder. Ask a few questions and try to see where they are coming from:

  • What is their vested interest in the product?
  • What value does it bring to their role and department?
  • Why might the person not like the idea of the product?
  • What goals is it helping them achieve?
  • How does it impact their day to day operations?

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I myself had to ask those same questions while working on a project. I quickly realized that one of the stakeholders — a C-level exec — was going to be difficult. At every design review, this person, was quick to criticize. They were often prescriptive with their feedback. The tone of the feedback and email was negative and combative. It was infuriating to say the least.

Then one day I realized that I was missing something. I hadn’t done enough thinking to put myself in their shoes — to understand the lens through which they were looking at the product.

Their lens was seeing how the product would impact key metrics for their business unit. Their lens was seeing how business partners would love or hate key features. Their lens was not seeing the product through the eye of a user and that was the tricky part.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to win this person over. But it was a good lesson for me. I realized I need to always consider the context and perspective of each stakeholder so I can frame my presentations and communication with them.

Here’s a few tips to get a better handle on the stubborn stakeholder:

  • Define project roles early on. Everyone on a project should come to an agreement on the role he or she will fulfill. This will help prevent any misunderstanding as to who’s doing what.
  • Identify stakeholders early on. Make a list of those people with a vested interest in the project. Then talk with them. Get to know their fears and worries, and what their ultimate goal is.
  • Make them understand your role. It isn’t enough to just agree on everyone else’s role. The entire team needs to know what you as the designer bring to the table. If you don’t, you risk being treated as an implementer more than a contributor.

As the old saying goes, know thy enemy, know thyself. Seek to understand that stakeholder’s perspective and you can turn an enemy into an ally.

2. Always be educating and explaining

Half of the job of the user experience design is to be an educator. A lot of people believe that because they use the Internet, apps, and products — that must qualify them to be a designer too. As a result, I spend a lot of time educating clients and stakeholders about why their ideas might not work out, while also explaining the thinking behind my design choices.

When you encounter a stubborn stakeholder, you have to over educate while not making the person feel like you’re undermining their intelligence. It can be a fine line to walk, but a stubborn stakeholder will need more than your word of explanation as an expert. They’ll need evidence. So you need to do your homework and come prepared with research and results. Find examples of where a design solution worked well and show them the proof.

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For example, I was recently working on a project, an online magazine of sorts, and the client was really passionate about having a right column and filling that column with social icons, newsletter sign ups, links to other articles, banners, and more. I can understand why the client wanted this, but data shows that most users are ignoring traditional executions of right or left columns.

People have simply become blind to columns. And further, they distract people from reading the actual article they came to the site to read. To educate the client, I came with the actual data. In addition, I highlighted examples of other sites that were well designed and did not have a traditional left or right column. The client responded really well — because I had educated them about best practices, while at the same time giving them a new way of looking at things. On the other hand, if a stubborn stakeholder is trying to push through a terrible design idea, then find some research, articles, or examples that says that idea or feature doesn’t perform. Don’t be a jerk about it — but sometimes all that’s needed is an outside perspective or voice other than yours.

3. Collaborate With Them On-on-One

Sometimes a group setting actually creates an environment that feeds a stubborn stakeholder. They could be trying to impress colleagues or engage in politics that you’re not privy to. Unfortunately that’s just the way the world works.

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One technique I’ve found quite effective is to find a way to talk to the person one on one. Get them away from the group. This will completely change the tone. It will show them that you’re serious about understanding their perspective, while building trust between both of you.

Here’s a few tips to follow when you do a work session:

  • Don’t do all the talking. The goal here is to do about 20 percent of the talking. You want to give them a forum for airing out their concerns as well as their ideas. More often than not, someone is stubborn because they feel they aren’t being heard. Give them the floor. And listen.
  • Set an agenda. Have a goal for the meeting. It can’t just be a soapbox for the other person. What are you both trying to accomplish by working together? This is about getting on the same page and you can’t do that if the work session is a free for all.
  • Ask follow up questions. Listen for pain points and get them to elaborate. And remember that when someone says “because”, everything after that word should be treated like gold. It’s like peeling a layer back on an onion.

Once you have spent some time letting the person process their frustrations and pain points with the product or proposed designs, shift the conversation to solutions. In this phase of the session, you want to try and come up with a variety of solutions. Of course, these solutions should first solve the problems and needs of the user — but you want to be able to show the stubborn stakeholder that you’re working hard to make sure their needs are met as well.

A great example of this would be when it comes to a content site. Many times, the person who in charge of content creation will be stubborn — mainly because they know just how much work it takes to create and upload the content. So this person is always aware of how a design or feature will impact how long it takes someone on their team to post an article or other piece of content. They can easily come across as stubborn, but they are just looking out for their team.

In reality, this person is a great ally. If you were developing a new feature — such as a new slideshow format or something like that — you should try to involve the content owner early in the design process. The earlier you involve them in the design process, the less stubborn they will be because they’ll feel like they were part of the design process and that it was their idea too.

Turning Stakeholders Into Collaborators

It’s not worth the energy to fight stakeholders. Don’t let them fill your design process with friction. Instead work hard to turn them into collaborators. By understanding their perspective, you’ll be able to see the product through their lens and understand why they are pushing back on things.

  • Take great care to find every opportunity to educate. You spent hours developing a design or user-flow. So you can’t expect people to understand it in a 30-minute meeting. Be overly communicative about why you made certain decisions and how you arrived at the solution.
  • When pushing back on ideas from stakeholders, don’t just say “no”. Instead, educate them about why you’re staying no, use data and examples to help them see a better solutions.
  • Involve them at every step — the earlier the better. Make people feel like they are a part of the process. Help people be a part of idea generation so they feel invested in some of the ideas and features. Make every effort to engage stubborn stakeholders alone.

Great products are created as a result of close, smart collaboration. By applying these three techniques, you’ll be more equipped to effectively involve and engage the stubborn stakeholders and turn them into partners in the design process.

If you found this article helpful, check out my guide for an easy to use guide for collaborating with stubborn stakeholders. You’ll find more tips and tricks that will help you tackle those challenging stakeholders.

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Sarah Doody

by Sarah Doody

Sarah Doody is a user experience designer and product strategist in New York City. She publishes a popular weekly UX newsletter, The UX Notebook. Follow her on Twitter @sarahdoody.

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