You're enthusiastic about usability and want to make it happen within your organisation. But your manager doesn't share your enthusiasm. Perhaps your manager sees usability as a diversion from the business of product or software development, or thinks it's too fluffy to truly inform design, or sees it as a threat to his or her expertise. How do you go about changing your manager's mind?

Most people will tell you to assemble a cost-benefit argument for usability. There are many resources on the Web to help you do this, and Randolph Bias and Deborah Mayhew have written an excellent book on the topic. To assemble a cost-benefit argument, you simply take a piece of paper and draw a vertical line down the middle. On the left you list the expected benefits, such as increased sales, fewer calls to customer service, and increased loyalty. On the right you list all the costs, such as paying participant incentives and renting a usability lab. You then pencil in guesstimates of the cost of each item, trying to be as realistic as possible.

But often, this just isn't enough. I'm a great advocate of cost-benefit calculations and recommend them as a way of institutionalising usability within your company. But as a psychologist, I also realise that changing the company culture is very different from changing a specific individual's opinion. Cost-benefit arguments will work for some people, but they assume a level of engagement with data. People who are detail-averse will listen uncomfortably to your presentation and feel that some underlying concerns haven't been addressed. They might be thinking, "How will this initiative be perceived by my manager?" or "How will the developers react to having users criticising their designs?" or "How will I be able to control something I don't understand?" So I'm proposing a three-step approach that combines using these key arguments with a communication style customised to your manager. The three steps are:

  1. Assemble the benefits of usability
  2. “Type” your manager
  3. Tailor your argument

Step 1: Assemble the Benefits of Usability

The first step is to review the key benefits of focusing on usability. There are four: higher revenues, loyal customers, improved brand value, and process improvement. Use the following items as a checklist to identify two or three benefits that are most relevant to your product, company, or industry. Then we'll move on to step 2.

Higher Revenues

  • Fewer changes downstream means earlier time to market.
  • Earlier time to market brings competitive advantage.
  • Customers use all of the system's functionality, not just a subset.
  • Early and continuous customer involvement reduces lifecycle costs.
  • An easy-to-use system means fewer calls to customer service.

Loyal Customers

  • Loyal customers generate repeat business, demonstrate immunity to the competition, provide higher margins, and are less price-sensitive.
  • Value to customers is delivered in the first release of the system as well as in upgrades.
  • Loyal customers provide free word-of-mouth exposure.

Improved Brand Value

  • Customers learn how to use the system more quickly.
  • Improved usability provides a competitive edge.
  • Higher service quality leads to improved customer satisfaction.
  • Customers can focus on their goals rather than the technology. This leads to increased productivity and fewer errors.

Process Improvement

  • Less rework is required to meet customer requirements: 80 percent of software rewrites are due to the fact that important functionality was missed the first time.
  • The process keeps developers focused on important business metrics, such as conversion rates for Web sites or "fault-not-found" product returns.
  • Risks are managed and reduced by helping you prioritise features and product offerings.

Step 2: “Type” Your manager

The next step is to tailor these benefits to the needs and interests of your manager. When you sell anything — whether it's usability, MP3 players, or automobiles — you need to tailor the benefits to the needs and personality of the person to whom you're selling. People are different in the way that they prefer to be approached, get information, and make decisions; different things "ring their bell." To sell usability to your manager, you must understand your manager's personality.

One well-established personality model is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Based on the personality theories of the respected psychologist Carl Jung, the MBTI is over fifty years old and is administered to over two million people annually. It has been translated into over thirty languages and is the subject of over 9,000 articles.

MBTI starts from the premise that just as many of us have a preference for using our right hand, we also have an inborn preference in the way we behave and react to situations. This doesn't mean that we must always behave in this way, just as I can write with my left hand if my right is injured. It just indicates a natural inclination or preference for certain ways of thinking and behaving. I can behave contrary to my personality type, but it feels odd, as it feels odd if I use my left hand to sign a form.

If you feel uncomfortable being "pigeonholed" by the MBTI, just see it for what it is: simply another instrument to study human behaviour. As such, it is not all that different from usability testing itself: Both are practical tools used to gain insight that might not be otherwise available. Just as usability testing is useful for understanding human-computer interaction, the MBTI is useful for gaining insight into the behaviour of people you work with — and why this sometimes differs from what you would do in the same situation. As Steve Krug has observed about usability testing, "The point of testing is not to prove or disprove something. It's to inform your judgment." Something very similar could be said of the MBTI.

So how should you adapt your argument for usability to your manager's personality? The MBTI personality model is based on four preferences. According to Susan Brock, two of these are especially important when we are trying to persuade others.

How Does Your manager Prefer to Get Information? (S versus N)

  • If your manager prefers to deal with facts and practicalities, or with what he or she knows, sees, or hears, then your manager's preference is for sensing (this is denoted by the letter "S").
  • If your manager prefers to deal with ideas, to look into the unknown, to generate new possibilities, or to anticipate what isn't obvious, then your manager's preference is for intuition (or "N").

How Does Your manager Prefer to Make Decisions? (T versus F)

  • If your manager prefers to decide on the basis of objective logic, using an analytic and detached approach, then your manager's preference is for thinking (or "T").
  • If your manager prefers to make decisions based on personal beliefs or values, on the basis of how such decisions will affect people, or on what people in the team care about, then your manager's preference is for feeling (or "F").

Spend a week or so paying extra attention to the way your manager appears to gather information, ask questions, and make decisions; then try to work out his or her preference in each area. Your manager will be one of four possible pairings: ST, SF, NF, or NT. For each pairing, the strategy you use to sell usability is different:

  • ST: State the facts.
  • SF: Personalise the facts.
  • NF: Personalise the possibilities.
  • NT: State the possibilities.

Step 3: Tailor Your Argument

So we've rehearsed some generic benefits for usability, and we have "typed" your manager. Next, we're going to tailor the benefits to turn the arguments for usability from persuasive to compelling. Let's begin with the sensing-thinking manager, because this is the type who will be most persuaded by the traditional cost-benefit arguments.

ST: State the Facts

The sensing-thinking (ST) manager likes to hear about details and facts, so focus on the nitty-gritty of your plan. He or she will want you to go over your plan step by step and will expect to hear why, logically, each step is the best approach. The ST manager will expect you to give an honest appraisal of the benefits of usability and will ask you difficult questions to test your knowledge of facts and details.

To sell usability to ST managers:

Be practical.
ST managers are not impressed by new ideas for their own sake. Instead, show them the practicality of your plan. "We'll run a small usability test with six participants, since all the evidence shows this will uncover 80 percent of the main usability problems."
Show the steps.
State your plan precisely in a numbered, step-by-step sequence. Emphasise that the techniques you will be using are tried and trusted, with proven results.
State the costs.
List the costs of the initiative in specific dollar amounts. For example, if your plan is to run a usability test, draw up a detailed shopping list showing the costs of laboratory hire, the amount participants will be paid, and any consultant day rates.
State the benefits.
List the likely benefits in specific dollar amounts. For example, if the goal of the testing is call centre deflection, specifically show how much is likely to be saved. Rather than say, "I estimate we'll save about $30,000 in reduced support," say, "We have 3,000 customers and I'd expect this initiative to eliminate two calls per year from each of the 10 percent of users who experience the problem. The average call to our help desk costs us $45 to service, so this means we should save 3,000 customers x 10 percent x two calls x $45, or $27,000 per year." Be prepared to justify and defend all of your assumptions with back-up material.
Objectify your plan.
Use impersonal words (the participants, not our customers) and keep your language concise and businesslike.

SF: Personalise the Facts

Sensing-feeling (SF) managers will also want to focus on the details, but, in contrast to STs, they will be more interested in how the details will affect the people around them. SFs value personal loyalty, so they will expect your usability plan to be tailored to this value.

To sell usability to SF managers:

Get personal.
SF managers want to know how the details of your plan will affect people. So think about the people on your team who will be affected by the initiative and how you plan to manage the effects. For example, "Phil [the developer] has already said he wants to attend the test sessions to see what needs fixing," or "This is a great development opportunity for Karen since she's been asking to see the details of how customers work with our system for some time." Make sure you anticipate and deal with any potential interpersonal conflict.
Use personal words.
For example, "How do you feel about this plan?" Identify the specific people who will help by name; for example, don't talk about "the test administrator" but instead say, "Karen will run the test sessions."
Bring the experience to life.
If you have access to a highlights video, or to any kind of experience that allows your manager to see how people are involved in usability activities, then demonstrate it. If you can get your manager out of the office to experience some real usability activities, even better.
Make a strong emotional appeal.
Do you have any letters or e-mails from customers ranting about a usability-related problem? Or any phone recordings of customer complaints? Or, best of all, usability test footage of a customer complaining about the interface? The SF manager will find such examples very persuasive.
Include your manager in the picture.
Emphasise the social details. For example, "Would you like to meet our customers and talk about their experiences after the test?" And why not hold your initial discussions over coffee?

NF: Personalise the Possibilities

Intuitive-feeling (NF) managers are less interested in details. They think in terms of the big picture and will want you to focus on the implications of your plan, especially on how it will impact people. NFs are idealists who want to make a difference in the world, so show how your usability plan will do this. Of the four types, NF managers are the ones who will be least convinced by the traditional cost-benefit argument.

To sell usability to NF managers:

Describe the “big idea”.
Usability may not cure world hunger, but it is still a field of human endeavour that can make the world a better place. A well-designed, engaging interface can make people's lives easier, less stressful, and more fulfilled. Relate this appeal back to your specific customers and describe how your usability initiative will help them work better and smarter.
Get prepared for a nonlinear discussion.
NF managers will appear to flit from idea to idea, and it may be hard for you to divine the connection behind their thoughts. Don't insist on their following the logic of your plan. Instead, do your best to support their way of thinking by discussing each new idea as it comes up.
Paint a picture.
Describe the future state of the world once the work has been completed. For example: "Once we've completed the work, we will become the centre of excellence for usability in the company. This will allow us to have much greater impact on product development and help get the senior management team engaged in our work."
Avoid conflict.
Identify the people who are likely to be affected by your plan and demonstrate how you will get them on your side. Even better, bring along a coworker who supports the plan to demonstrate how your plan has consensus. Better still, show how carrying out usability work actually avoids conflict: "By doing this work now, we'll head off criticism and complaints later."
Emphasise the team.
Talk about the team you will use, and how people will be involved. Use personalised language, such as "our team," "our customers," "our initiative."

NT: State the Possibilities

Like NFs, intuitive-thinking (NT) managers will want you to focus on the big picture. But in contrast to NFs, NTs are less interested on the impact on people and more interested in the logical options that flow from these big-picture possibilities. NTs will demand that your plan be well thought through and cogently presented; you will need to demonstrate competence and credibility.

To sell usability to NT managers:

Present a customised solution.
NT managers think of themselves and their teams as unique. So show how the usability plan takes advantage of this uniqueness to create the best possible solution. For example: "The team is uniquely placed to carry out this work. The office location gives us easy access to customers, there's no one as good as Sam for quickly developing prototypes, and Jenny is perfect when dealing with people."
Describe the process.
Unlike ST managers, who want you to step through the details, NT managers want to hear about the big picture. So discuss user-centred design in the abstract and show where your usability activity fits in with other user-centred activities you could carry out.
Project into the future.
Talk about the big-picture benefits: higher revenues, loyal customers, improved brand value, and process improvement. "By identifying the top three usability issues with the checkout process, we will massively reduce the number of abandoned shopping carts."
Talk about the pros and cons.
NT managers have more than a passing resemblance to Spock from Star Trek, so logic rules. "On the downside, we'll probably end up identifying far more problems than we can solve before the next release."
Involve your manager in the solution.
NT managers love solving a problem, so invite them to provide a solution. For example, as a follow-up to the previous statement, you could ask, "How do you think we should prioritise the problems?"
Hear “tests” as interest.
NT managers will pepper their conversation with direct questions about your plan. For example, when they ask seemingly rhetorical questions like, "How can you get valid data from just six customers?" or say, "Users don't know what they want!" they are really just asking to hear what you think. So don't take tough questions as criticism, but as interest.

Conclusions

I asked a few colleagues to review an early draft of this article, and one of them commented, “Won't this article just teach readers how to manipulate their manager and give them an unfair advantage?” It's certainly true that using an MBTI approach will help you find a spin for your usability initiative that will appeal to your manager. But this is not manipulation. It's simply helping you see the world through your manager's eyes. In fact, it's just like usability: You're not communicating effectively unless you're speaking the right language. Use the steps outlined in this article to craft your message to fit the user — your manager.

About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus on Twitter) holds a BSc and a PhD in Psychology and he is a Chartered Psychologist. He has worked in the fields of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989 and has published two books on usability. David helps both large firms and start ups connect with their customers and bring business ideas to market. If you like his articles, you'll love his online user experience training course.


Love it? Hate it? Join the discussion

comments powered by Disqus

Contextual inquiry: how to plan, execute and analyse a site visit

Oct 20, London: Learn how to get the most from a field visit to a customer location. More details

Download the best of Userfocus. For free.

100s of pages of practical advice on user experience, in handy portable form. 'Bright Ideas' eBooks.

UX newsletter

Every month, we share an in-depth article on user experience with over 10,000 newsletter readers. Want in? Sign up now and download a free guide to usability test moderation.

If you liked this, try…

Until usability gets embedded in the processes of your company, you'll probably find you need to justify the investment. Fortunately, usability initiatives deliver a major return on investment: it's not unusual for usability projects to return benefits of 5-10 times their cost in the first year alone. A Business Case for Usability.

Related articles & resources

This article is tagged benefits, careers, strategy, roi, selling usability

Search for articles by keyword


Our services

Let us help you create great customer experiences.

Upcoming courses

We run regular training courses in usability and user experience.

Get free email updates

Join the thousands of other people who get their monthly fix of user experience insights from Userfocus and get a free guide to usability test moderation.