Undertaking usability studies often requires selling them first. What methods have you found effective for getting your plans approved?

One example: I've used short project overview plans in the past to get buy-in for various projects. Here's a 1 pager UX research plan from a Google UX researcher.

  • I think this is off topic and it should be migrated.
    – Knu
    Commented Feb 4, 2012 at 21:14
  • 3
    @Knu Why? It's a problem many of us are facing on a daily basis, I think it's very relevant to our work. (Full disclosure: the author of the referenced article is a friend of mine). Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 6:51
  • @VitalyMijiritsky the methods used are universal. It should have been posted on answers.onstartups.com
    – Knu
    Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 11:56
  • @Knu Why startups? Do you think that doing it at Microsoft or any other corporation is any different? And what do you mean by "universal" - universal to what? Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 13:03
  • @VitalyMijiritsky check the answer: it won't have anything to do with UX. It's like fun questions it interests us but it's still off topic. He will have better answers on startup for sure.
    – Knu
    Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 15:19

3 Answers 3


Thanks to @Tomer Sharon for mentioning his site and upcoming book dedicated to this topic, It's Our Research. I collected and filtered the main points from the different practitioner interview videos on the site. The ideas are extensive and excellent.

From Paul Adams - Product Manager at Facebook.

  • The most important thing is developing empathy to your stakeholders. We do that with our users, less with our stakeholders.
  • We should better understand what our stakeholders need and align our actions with those needs.
  • It’s important we understand the product roadmap, what are stakeholders’ priorities, and the reasons for deciding to building things. Understanding that will make you understand what type of things they will better respond to
  • Conduct dual studies. When you are asked to run a usability test, do it. Add extra time to the usability test session and do your own thing. In many cases, your stakeholders will be more interested in the part of the session they did not request.
  • When I had weaker relationships with my team, I used designers as proxies to my research. I try to influence the design with research.
  • I’m a big fan of physical artifacts as research deliverables. I design huge posters with many details and put them in places where my stakeholders are hanging out. The information in the posters is being consumed in nuggets over a period of 3-6 months.
  • I always provide recommendations since I have a background in design. I have however seen excellent researchers who do not provide recommendations, believing they should keep an impartial, objective position.
  • When you push too hard, people are more likely to push back and poke holes in your research.
  • There are many reasons why product managers and engineers decide not to follow research results. In many cases, it is not because they think the research is not good. There are other business reasons for making such decisions.

From Jared Spool at User Interface Engineering

  • If stakeholders are involved in research, you get their attention.
  • Tell your stakeholders that if they don’t show up and observe sessions, they can’t have a say on the outcome.
  • Use different techniques to force stakeholders to participate.
  • One of our field’s mistakes is that we acted as a service bureau. We did everything ourselves.
  • Stakeholders should be involved in selecting participants, getting information from the recruitment process, the rehearsal, actual visits/testing, discussions about what you’re seeing, and for the analysis process.
  • Ask stakeholders to be exposed to real people using real designs for at least 2 hours once every 6 weeks.
  • To identify research opportunities, follow the money. Whenever you have a user experience problem, it results in frustration on somebody’s part. This frustrations show themselves on the bottom line. There’s probably already someone assigned to fixing that. Offer your help to those people.
  • If stakeholders come to you asking for studies, you are already behind the game.
  • Because someone else has had an entire conversation about the problem and you weren’t there. That’s a problem.
  • If you are not informing the decision making process, you are suffering.
  • The KJ technique helps get team consensus about results of user research or ideas for designs, etc.
  • Teams don’t need your deliverables. They develop their own. Ask your stakeholders what do they need from you.
  • Deliverables do not make the project.
  • Stakeholders should moderate usability studies. Poor moderating is a training problem that can easily be solved.
  • There’s no point in working with unengaged stakeholders. Go find better ones.

From Dana Chisnell at UsabilityWorks

  • Engagement and buy-in for UX research highly depend on the culture and values of the company.
  • When the bottom line changes for the worst, stakeholders become more open to UX research.
  • Ways to deal with people who do not respect UX research: telling stories, observing sessions, and role playing.
  • Reports objectify users. Observing them really helps getting to a-ha moments.
  • Make yourself known in the organizations with skills that can help people do their job better.
  • Make sure the person paying for the project gets what they need. In the same time, communicate what you found that they did not ask for.
  • Do whatever you can do to make your team take better design decisions.
  • I don’t believe in reports. They are not useful. They come along way too late. Teams want to act immediately.
  • Develop research insights with stakeholders. This has worked well for me even with resistant stakeholders.
  • I use the KJ techniques to create team priorities for fixing issues.
  • I don’t do highlight videos because they are manipulative.
  • Stakeholders as moderators works great for creating empathy toward users and their needs. Everybody in the organization should do it.

From Chris St. Hilaire, Author of Jury Impact and 27 Powers of Persuasion

  • Understanding your audience is fundamental to any persuasion situation.
  • Understand the group you are presenting to because they are the decision makers.
  • People take pieces of information and use it to support what they want to believe.
  • Before you can persuade you have to get people to listen.
  • Recognize your stakeholders’ predispositions.
  • It’s always easier to persuade someone in something they already believe.
  • Take the “buts” out of your sentences.
  • Everyone hates “let me tell you how it is”.
  • Silence is powerful. It establishes you as a leader and gets you to the truth.
  • Get over your ego issues.

From Donna Spencer, Freelance Info Architect, Interaction Designer, and Writer

  • To prevent clients from cutting off the research part of a project, I make sure I understand clients well enough in the beginning.
  • Scope research well.
  • Figure out whatever you can about users without users - analytics, existing market research, search terms, etc. Then you’ll know what you don’t know and have something to talk about with your stakeholders.
  • As long as the client understands the risk of not conducting research, that’s okay.
  • I keep reminding no-research clients that we are making things up, that we are making mistakes, and that we don’t know which of the things we do is wrong.
  • Listen well to identify research opportunities.
  • My primary deliverable is a whiteboard and a marker which I use to tell a story to my stakeholders.
  • People love stories, not findings.
  • Signs of client engagement with research - calling personas by name, excitement about findings, and visits to my desk by key stakeholders.

From Ben Shneiderman, founding director of U-Maryland HCI Lab

  • The most important thing to affect acceptance is the quality of HCI work being done. Doors will open in return.
  • Not every usability related document is perfect, so not all efforts will always be successful among stakeholders.
  • ROI is powerful in gaining acceptance.
  • Today, smart phones and tablets are helping in getting acceptance for usability (note from Adam - Everyone 'gets' that tasks on mobiles can be harder than on a laptop)
  • Work on short time frames and produce results. Rapid testing in the context of agile and lean development has proven itself.

From Donna Tedesco, Staff Usability Specialist at a Boston Company

  • Demonstrate value of user research and return on investment.
  • In my organization, user research is already established. My challenge is with stakeholders who feel they are entitled to determine the right research methods to be used in different cases.
  • Understand what present and past research is going on in your organization, maybe by other departments such as Marketing. Take a look at that research and triangulate.
  • Identify gaps and what’s missing to identify research opportunities.
  • Develop your own processes and methodologies for gathering recurring research (baseline studies, benchmarking).
  • When struggling between research you are asked to do and one you think you should do, go back to building relationships with your stakeholders. The key is the rapport you have with them.
  • I never say no to stakeholders about what they want to do. I am always respectful of their needs.
  • If your key stakeholders can’t make it to important research planning meetings, meet them individually and loop them in to get their input and buy-in.
  • Use video clips to demonstrate the good and bad things you saw because it highly engages stakeholders.
  • Take little screenshots of study participants’ faces at moments when they are having problems and integrate them into your findings.
  • Tell a story with quotes. Stakeholders respond to that. The reason is that it comes from users’ mouths, not my own.
  • Always have recommendations or put yourself in a position where you participate or lead a workshop with stakeholders with a goal to develop actionable results.
  • Acknowledge the tradeoff of specificity of your recommendations: don’t be too vague and in the same time, not too specific. Find the road in between by giving specific recommendations while providing considerations and examples.
  • Researchers can tell if their stakeholders are bought into research only when it’s too late. When they do not attend debriefs, study sessions, etc. Pull them out in advance and make sure you are aware of their input and concerns.

From Bill Gribbons, Director of Human Factors and Info Design Program at Bentley University

  • In the past, usability testing was all we got buy-in for, so we used it as a tool to discover product issues that should have been found earlier in the process.
  • Many stakeholders need to see the problems before they agree to fix them.
  • The value of research is predicting a problem before it occurs and avoiding it in the first place.
  • Whenever there’s a change and shift from one thing (technology) differentiating to another (user experience), someone (stakeholders) is going to be threatened.
  • Design should get out of the development world. UX should change its focus to the business by working with Marketing departments as equals.
  • The perfect position for a UX person is a product manager.
  • I learned to move slowly and quietly, build on small successes and reputation. It’s far more effective and productive than fighting your way in.
  • To get buy-in in industry, as well as in academia, you have to find your advocates.
  • In the past, CS people were cautious about us. Now we see that Marketing is feeling threatened by us.
  • Understand what’s important to your colleagues. Find out what they value, what are their challenges. Try to partner with them very openly.
  • Avoid giant egos.

From Johanna Kollmann at Sidekick Studios

  • Move away from reporting research results in documents and PowerPoints.
  • Schedule research every week with five users.
  • Involve stakeholders in research.
  • Meet your stakeholders where they are, not where you are. What are their concerns and questions.
  • Develop empathy to your stakeholders as you do for users.
  • Arm your stakeholders with stories to tell about users.
  • Our terminology as researchers is hard for stakeholders to grasp.
  • Building relationships with stakeholders, being friendly, and showing interest in people will get you more research projects.
  • Be the go-to person that can help.
  • You know that stakeholders are bought into research when they use the stories you tell them, when they tell other people stories based on what they learned from research.
  • Also, if things that were learned in research find their way into products, that a very good signal for buy-in.

From Guy Winch psychologist, speaker, occasional stand-up comic, and author of The Squeaky Wheel

  • UX researchers complain to one another about their stakeholders because they are frustrated and not sure what they can do when stakeholders do not act upon or buy into research.
  • UX researchers should complain to people who can actually do something about the situation. Otherwise, they will become more frustrated.
  • Figure out why previous complaints did not work. Address those reasons in your next complaint.
  • A complaint sandwich is a technique to come up with effective complaints. Basically, it means you sandwich your complaint (the meaty part of the sandwich) between two positive statements (the bread).
  • The sandwich prevents the other person from becoming defensive.
  • Fantastic answer, thanks for compiling this
    – G.Mart
    Commented Feb 27, 2020 at 21:41

If practical/possible, grab some potential users and record their interaction with the software carrying out representative tasks related to your intended research area. Produce a video montage with highlights of the successes and failures of the interaction. Show it to the stakeholders, get their reactions, ask them questions along the lines of "Did you know [users hate this about your software]?" and "Did you know this thing here is a favourite feature?".

Video footage of people using software works really well. Talking in meetings and giving presentations is great, but many people will not be swayed and will remain convinced that their product is great / doesn't need your input. Showing footage of people using their software can blow away illusions.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Time and effort to do this is required, so you'll need to gauge the right level of investment as to whether this is worthwhile
  • This approach is also essentially a pilot trial, and could be used as such (which can offset some of the investment in time).
  • Be honest in your approach and communication with the stakeholders. You won't have had many users for your 'demo case'. Their problems may not be generalisable. Their successes and views may not be generalisable. The whole thing is likely fairly rough and ready and was done to prove a (your) point.

It depends who the stakeholders are.

You might need to pitch it in the terms which are understood by the key stakeholder (the person who has to sign off the spend).

If you are dealing with the money people in the company, it might be useful to pitch it in terms of 'Return on Investment' (ROI). ROI has been asked before on here if you use the search.

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