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How to Sell Design and Influence People

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If you think 'manipulation' is a dirty word, you're wrong. Robert Hoekman, Jr., author of Designing the Obvious: A Common Sense Approach to Web and Mobile Application Design, Second Edition, explains how your ability to influence, persuade, or manipulate people (call it what you like) is crucial to moving your organization from design chaos to lauded success.

Rule #1: Don't do what I'm about to do.

As I'll soon explain, I recommend against using yourself as evidence for an argument. Without the "I" in this particular story, however, the following would be passionless rhetoric. The reason I can speak to how to make design a priority in an organization that has failed to understand its value is that I spent a year inside one such company with the sole mission of accomplishing exactly that.

When I was hired by the scrappy web company, I was the first and only interaction designer ever given the power of influence over a suite of applications whose every design decision had been made on the fly by people whose expertise was not in human behavior or design, but in software engineering. In a room full of geeked-out PHP and .NET developers, I was the snarky, pretentious, artsy guy with the black turtleneck and black-rimmed glasses evangelizing the Tao of Apple. And my job, as defined by the forward-thinking manager who hired me, was to prove the value of interaction design, build a team, and convert the company from one whose best work was entirely accidental to one whose every design decision was deliberate, purposeful, and, hopefully, right.

It took a year, and it was a bumpy ride. But I did it.

If you're reading this, there's a good chance that you're one of the many people working for or with an organization whose project stakeholders think that design is about making things look pretty, that "usability" can be handled later on after the "real" work is done, or even that design simply has no value. If so, I sympathize. I am frequently asked during conference presentations how to convince Management (with a capital M) to allocate time, money, and resources to design when they don't even understand how it can affect a project's outcome. Sadly, it's not as simple as talking your boss into paying for a usability study. Not even close. Real change comes from a combination of opportunism, work, measurement, research, politicking, and good old-fashioned manipulation.

I have been to the mountain. This is what I learned.

The strategy has four parts:

  1. Set a goal.
  2. Fix things.
  3. Manipulate people.
  4. Become an influencer.

Let me explain.

Step 1: Set a Goal

Unless you want to drive yourself into a deep depression, set a goal for what you want to achieve. Ambiguity never designed anything. And ambiguity will never inspire a team with an established process and mindset to weave itself into a cocoon and emerge a winged wonder, unless the person leading the charge knows the why behind the mission and has a theory on how to pull it off.

Be exact. Make your goal specific:

  • "I want all of our projects to be preceded by a research and design phase, and I want to become the lead designer for our products. Because I care that much."
  • "I want to fix the seven things about this particular application that annoy me, because if they annoy me, they probably annoy other people."
  • "I want our product to be at least as good as our competitors', and to find the 'x factor' that will make us stand out in the market."

Knowing your mission enables you to keep the journey in sight and in perspective. It's far too easy to get upset when your goal is to "make things better," and no one is on board because they don't really know what you want them to do. Having a goal frees you to get creative about how to achieve that goal.

Regardless of your goal, however, you'll have to start with quick wins and work your way out. Trains don't start at 200 mph. Momentum takes time to build.

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