Why I can’t convince executives to invest in UX (and neither can you)

by Jared M. Spool

Every few weeks, a phone call or email comes out of the blue, asking me to perform magic. The inquirer always wants the same thing: to stand up in front of a room filled with their executives, delighting them with a presentation that will make them rise to their feet cheering. This audience will then burst out of the room, demanding their subordinates and invest everything in a whole-scale, no-holds-barred user experience effort that will revolutionize the company, the products, and the world.

OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a little. But I am quite frequently asked to convince executives to invest in user experience.

And it may surprise you to learn that I refuse the offer every time. As a policy here at UIE, we only take on work we can guarantee results from. I know from experience that I have no chance in hell to convince any executives of anything, so I politely decline the gig.

“But surely, because of all your success, you must know what it takes to convince an executive to invest in UX?” they always ask.

Actually, I don’t. I’ve been pitching our services for 23 years and I’ve never once successfully convinced an executive of anything.

Our success has always come from projects where the client team, including the senior management, already understood the value of great user experiences. I haven’t convinced them because they didn’t need convincing.

Have you ever met a smoker? Of course you have. Have you ever met a smoker who didn’t know the harmful effects of smoking? I bet not. Every smoker I know is well aware of what smoking does to their bodies, yet they continue to smoke. There are physical, cultural, and behavioral forces that make it hard to quit.

You can’t convince a smoker to quit smoking. They need to just decide they’ll do it. On their own. When they are ready.

It’s the same with executives. Neither I, you, nor anybody else can convince an executive to invest in user experience.

Sure, there may be a few execs that are somehow still unaware of how a delightful, useful, easy-to-use product is better than a frustrating, useless, difficult-to-work product. I haven’t met one in all my years, but they could exist. Even so, I don’t believe a presentation will change their views.

What can you do instead of a presentation?

You can find out what your executives are already convinced of. If they are any good at what they do, they likely have something they want to improve. It’s likely to be related to improving revenues, reducing costs, increasing the number of new customers, increasing the sales from existing customers, or increasing shareholder value.

Good UX can help with each of those things. The problem is that there is no generic, always-saves-the-world process or solution for any of these improvements. If you wanted me to help, I’d have to study your business in-depth to learn how to make improvements in these areas through solid UX investment.

(That’s a project we’ll accept AND guarantee by the way. We’ve done it before, many times. It’s expensive, but it produces great results.)

Once you start talking about what the executives are already convinced of, it becomes easier to get them to make investments. You’re no longer trying to get them to change their focus. You’re playing directly into their main field of attention.

A generic presentation about how Apple or some other company has a great user experience program (or worse, a presentation showing all the bad user experiences in the world), won’t convince anyone of doing anything different.

You’ll need to do something custom. Something specific to their current focus.

And if that doesn’t work, maybe it’s time for you to find someplace else to work. Someplace where the executives are already convinced and want to make the investment. Right now, there are plenty of these opportunities on the market. Why bang your head against a wall when you can be doing those things you love?

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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