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A UX Professional's 5-Step Guide to Selling Your Design

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If you can’t effectively convince stakeholders to use your designs, you can’t succeed. In this article, Robert Hoekman, Jr. walks you through five steps to follow in order to successfully sell your designs.
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A very big part of being a UX professional — possibly bigger than design itself — is convincing people of your recommendations. It should be taught in D. school. Designers should be evaluated, at least in part, by their ability to do this well. A UX team’s success depends on it. Every UX professional’s success depends on it.

If you can’t convince, you can’t succeed.

In this article, I’ll walk you through five steps to follow in order to successfully sell your designs.

No Matter What You Do, You’re In Sales

About ten years ago or so, I went to work for a well-known, mid-sized web company (1,000+ employees) who had somehow managed to gain all of its success without the help of even a single UX professional. (They did this on price alone. Their product designs were quite bad, and customers generally hated using them.) My job was to find my way into this very engineering-centric culture, prove out the value of UX work, develop a process, hire and lead a team, and move the company from programmer-driven to UX-driven.

I started there in February. By the following February, I’d made enough progress that at least one member of my team was involved in every concept meeting for new products and was an active part of every product team. During that year, I learned a very useful lesson:

No matter what you do, you’re in Sales.

For all the time I spent designing and revising things, I spent much more of my time convincing people of the merits of my recommendations.

A designer requires trust. And you don’t gain trust by telling people to trust you. You get it by taking trustworthy actions. They’re outlined below.

1. Do Your Research

Never tell a client you’re an expert; show them you are by doing the work that will make you one. Come up with evidence to back up your hypotheses. Dig through the archives of the reputable web magazines and white papers and psychology studies. Look over relevant usability test results, like ones performed on the very product you’re working on, or on relevant design patterns. Think through your old projects and see if anything you noticed there applies to this one.

Sometimes a designer’s best option is to make a good guess. But a good designer’s guess will always be based on something. Experience. Firsthand observation. Some crazy study you read two years ago. Under the worst circumstances, your idea still should be driven by an educated hunch. Under the best, you’ll be able to point directly at a reputable source.

There is no better sign that you’re on the right path than evidence that supports your recommendation.

2. Explain It

Once you have your evidence, show it. If you have a belief, explain it. If you make a recommendation, rationalize it. Out loud.

This has a number of fantastic effects.

1. Supporting your hypothesis shows people they can trust you. Because it means you’re not positing opinions; you’re applying insights. You’re not resting on some supposed laurels; you’re chasing the good truth.

2. It teaches the people around you that there’s a lot more to UX work than picking colors and layouts. For people to see you as a reputable source on the subject, they have to first know that the subject is complex enough to require a reputable source. “User experience” may be a household term at this point, but many people still have no idea just how involved a subject it can be.

3. Evidence helps you think through your recommendations in the first place. If you can’t explain to yourself why a decision is good, you won’t be able to explain it to others.

4. Best of all, your explanation of evidence helps your client and bosses and coworkers feel good about what you’re doing.

Over time, being right more often than not will help you demonstrate your chops. It’s much easier to get people to agree with you in the future when you’ve been generally right in the past. But don’t stop doing this once you get some credit going. Earning trust now is good; earning trust every time is better. When you teach a client that you do your research, foregoing that research later on can make it look like you’re slacking off. Don’t let up. This stuff stacks up over time, good and bad.

There’s one final advantage to having research to cite: you will have real confidence in your decisions. When you come up with something that enables you to actually believe you’re doing the right thing and not just guessing, then all you have to do to appear confident is explain it. You’re never more comfortable and confident than when simply telling the truth.

3. Ask, Remind, Address

When you go to stakeholders during the discovery phase of your project — something you have to do anyway for research purposes — ask if you can come back to them later to get their thoughts on any designs you come up with. Stakeholders almost invariably agree to this request because they want their opinions considered. Because you’re considering them, when you do come back around, they’ll be more receptive to your ideas.

But there’s still a trick to selling your ideas back to them later. You have to connect the dots.

When you present your plan, remind them of what they said previously, then point out how your design (or strategy doc, or whatever) addresses those exact points. Everything else in your plan will seem wondrous and delightful as long as you first address their specific needs first.

Doing this also has the great benefit of turning stakeholders into advocates. When people feel respected, they’re more likely to be on your side. Rather than resist your ideas later, they’ll preach your ideas every step of the way. They’ll become your megaphone. They’ll convince everyone else for you.

4. Track

As a designer, you make a lot of recommendations. If you work in-house, expect that it will take a little while for people to get to know you and to trust your level of knowledge and skill. Over time, it should become easier for people to believe you.

That is, as long as they can see you being successful.

No matter how trivial the change, no matter how tedious it might be to implement tracking mechanisms and review the statistics afterwards, track your work.

You should be doing this anyway, because it helps you sort out how to improve the design later on, and because data helps you develop your sense of what does and doesn’t work. But there’s another benefit here: it helps other people see your success. It helps you build credibility so that the convincing does indeed get easier.

When you get proof, talk about it. Use it to help your team build credibility. Point to these outcomes as evidence for future recommendations.

Just don’t boast. Because:

5. Keep Chasing the Better Outcome

Success on the web is all relative, and very subjective. A 10% conversion rate, for example, is pretty solid for a typical signup-driven site, but is it as good as it can be? Are those signups all good customers? Do they stick around? Could you get more long-term customers by revising the conversion funnel to get fewer registrants who are more likely to be loyal over time?

It’s never really possible to answer these questions definitively. No matter how good your outcome, there might be a better one you haven’t found yet. A website is never done, and you can never be absolutely sure it’s as good as it can be.

Which brings me to this last point. The only point that matters. The one that underlies all the others.

Keep chasing the better outcome.It will earn you all the credibility you need.

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