Communicating The Business Value of User Experience
Onward Search Career Cast, Episode #24
This episode of the Onward Search Career Cast provides useful anecdotes and advice about how user experience professionals can communicate and prove the value of UX to their employers, clients and business partners.
Career Cast guest Michael Carvin, Principal Experience Designer for Red Privet and Chair at PhillyCHI, has been working in the user experience field for over 16 years, and is very familiar with the skepticism often associated with the application of UX principles in business. Michael discusses why some individuals and companies see UX as just "fluff" and not a legitimate business concern. He also shares a few stories where he successfully demonstrated the strong impact UX best practices can have on a business's bottom line.
User Experience professionals of all backgrounds will enjoy this episode that not only proposes we all fight the idea that UX is just "fluff", but also gives UXers great strategies for communicating the value of what they do and building support for their careers.
PUBLISHED ON SEPTEMBER 13, 2011
Welcome to Onward Search Career Cast, the podcast that brings you the latest insight and career advice from experts within the Internet marketing and creative space. Onward Search is a leading nationwide provider of web-based talent and offers a full range of recruitment and staffing solutions. If you’re looking for a career in search engine optimization, interactive design, or emerging technologies, you should apply online at onwardsearch.com or call 1-800-829-0072 and speak with an experienced recruiter today.
Peter Clayton: Welcome to a whole new episode of the Onward Search Career Cast. I’m with your host, Hillary O’Keefe, Onward Search’s Online Marketing Manager who has a great guest lined up to talk about strategies for proving the business value of user experience. Hillary?
Hillary O'Keefe: Hey Peter and hello everybody! Welcome to the Career Cast. You know what; it is a beautiful Friday morning here where we are recording and I want to dedicate this episode to the idea of perseverance. Whether it’s in your job search or if you’re happily settled into a career, you’re going to have to prove yourself.
Now, if you work in user experience, you might have to prove yourself just a little bit more often than others because unfortunately, not everybody, that’s company and people included are totally sold on the value of what applying good user experience to a business can do for them and this is why I have invited my guest to talk today about the, let’s call it skepticism that surrounds the business value of user experience and how you can get around it in your career or your job search for that matter. His name is Michael Carvin. He is the Principal Experience Designer for Red Privet and he’s a Chair at PhillyCHI.
Michael, thank you so much for joining me today. How’s it going?
Michael Carvin: It’s going great Hillary. Thanks for having me.
Hillary O'Keefe: Very good to have you. I understand you’ve been working in user experience for quite a long time.
Michael Carvin: Yeah, about 16 years-ish by now.
Hillary O'Keefe: So you’ve probably encountered more than a couple of people who, let’s say, would call user experience fluff maybe?
Michael Carvin: I encounter that several times a year; best case scenario is you hear it at the outset and then by the end of the project or end of the client relationship, you’ve got a few converts. So yeah, it’s almost like we do research strategy and design to support fluff in the business. That’s really not what we’re going after here, but it’s unfortunate because it’s still considered in the design profession that we are just set out to fluff up an interface.
Hillary O'Keefe: Ridiculous. So that means that user experience professionals, they need to be able to communicate the legitimate business value of what they do, whether they are looking to land jobs or advance their careers or even keep clients coming back. Why is it that you think that UX professionals have to justify the value of the work that they do? Is it a broader reflection of how UX is perceived or do you think it’s more just a company-to-company and person-to-person basis?
Michael Carvin: I think it’s a little from column A, a little from column B. User experience as a discipline has been around for 15, 20 years now in the way it’s currently presented and it traces back to human factors’ works from the 40s, 50s and 60s where… think about the user experience of a fighter pilot who’s in the middle of a dog fight and needs to eject because his plane got shot. Well, some people were pulling the blow-up-my- plane lever (the autodestruct lever) and some hit the eject lever. Things like that, we improve the user experience of flying a plane in a dog fight by clearly identifying where the eject lever was and basically saving a life.
Hillary O'Keefe: Because that’s a very big difference between ‘get me out my plane’ and ‘just blow up my plane.’
Michael Carvin: It’s a huge difference.
Hillary O'Keefe: Well, so it has been around for such a long time. There are situations where you can approach a business case and say, ‘you know what, here’s how user experience applying it to your circumstances is going to help you.’ Let’s first talk about how the application of proper user experience practices can help a company save money, which is a big part of the bottom line really and this is also something that UXers can use to impress both future and current managers. I understand that you did a little bit of research for a company that deals with small businesses and you essentially kept them from spending an absurd amount of money on something that was ultimately totally unnecessary to their customers, is that correct?
Michael Carvin: Yeah, that’s really fair to say. Our client was a small business formations client. So when Peter, for example, goes to form TotalPicture.inc or LLC, they will walk him through what the structure would be, the right entity, the right state to form in… and this is for small businesses, your 1-2-3 person companies. And what we were doing was providing them a portal that after they’ve formed their business through our client, they could go back into and check on the state of their what’s called compliance. Compliance is have you filed the right paperwork at the right time, have you paid the right fees to the right government agency at the right time… if you’re a hairdresser, is your license up to date… things like that.
One of the features our client wanted to put into this portal was a file locker where your articles of incorporation would be stored, your annual minutes which are required by law would be stored, your electronic business licenses would be stored there, if you had to pay a renewal fee, you could do it through this portal. We wanted to get this in front of customers of theirs, small business owners. We had a series of focus groups of three or four focus groups – maybe 30-40 people total – and almost unanimously across the board; this is not a service that they really wanted. They wouldn’t use it, they were varying degrees of ‘we keep all that stuff in the drawer in our desk, in a file in a file cabinet.’
Hillary O'Keefe: Nobody really needed it at all.
Michael Carvin: But this wasn’t identified as a big need. Our client had scoped it out preliminarily at about $100,000 to take things that they already had and repurpose them for this file locker service. What we came out with from these focus groups and by the way, our clients participated in these – the focus group was facilitated in room and our clients were in another room observing the session. That’s a huge, huge point. They got to hear it first hand and we help them, we help facilitate that. What we brought back was this is not something you want to pursue; at least not right now, but we can take $100,000 and it could be top line savings. You just don’t spend it on this project. We’ve saved you money or you can reallocate it because it’s already budgeted and there are other features which would benefit from having that extra budget applied.
So when you talk about what we provide versus what we save, what we can save or keep from happening is just as important, if not more so, than what we can provide.
Hillary O'Keefe: And that really is where the “fluff” of user experience becomes something concrete and legitimate that saves companies a ton of money.
Michael Carvin: Oh yeah. This is hard dollars, definitely. The user experience practice won also because it did nothing but give us credibility. We have a lot more influence with this client and their parent company.
Hillary O'Keefe: That’s really saving money which is one of them but on the other side of things, on producing value, not just saving, I understand you have a story about that as well, about keeping customers as opposed to replacing which I think everybody knows that’s an interesting equation. It’s always cheaper to keep a customer than it is to replace them, right?
Michael Carvin: It absolutely is, and this is where we sort of start seeing the top line and bottom line goals of the business really come together and its user experience is helping bring that together.
As I mentioned, our small business formation client was a subsidiary of a much larger company and this larger company dealt in the almost purely in the enterprise market. For this enterprise customer, the parent company, we were tasked with redesigning domain and IP management suite offered to their customers, and the challenge that they had was attrition. Customers were leaving because our clients’ tools were out of date. There were other challenges but that was by far the biggest one. It wasn’t the pricing model. It wasn’t the business model. As a matter of fact, that was enormously attractive. Your enterprise became a customer and there wasn’t any per-seat licenses, you could just keep adding people. Beautiful from that perspective but once they got in and they started seeing how dated and difficult these tools were, well vendor lock in sort of became ‘how do we get out of this?’
And what we did is we worked with their sales and marketing teams to come up with an idea of how much it costs to keep a customer, how much it costs to acquire a new one. We ran what we wanted to do in the project from a strategy perspective against those numbers. So if it costs $5,000 or $10,000 to acquire a new client and it varied depending on the vertical and the size of business, etc., but it wasn’t like your small business metrics of, it costs $150, $200, $500 to acquire a client. It was a much deeper sales cycle, so as we get into these really high acquisition costs, we say okay, this company is worth this much. They pay our client this much money per year for the suite of tools to replace them. How does that work? We have to market to them, we have to get sales people in front of them, we have to on-board them, we have to carry them for this process or we can build these features and provide these services which will help keep them and if the cost of doing the features and accommodating their needs, came out less than the cost of acquisition from an aggregate perspective, then it was pursued.
Hillary O'Keefe: Success!
Michael Carvin: Success! It seemed like everybody was going to win.
Hillary O'Keefe: That is a much better bottom line. It just seems cheaper and it seems less complicated and it seems like fewer resources that have to be applied to the whole process.
Michael Carvin: It is and we saw the second benefit, which was great for people who are very bottom-line focused is that the sales cycle kind of guide easier because it was an easier sell to potential clients. When they saw a competitor going out there promoting ‘we’ve designed this for you’ and they show screenshots of what their new thing is going to look like, we can turn around and say, “Here’s what ours is and this is what ours is going to be and we can walk you through this thing that actually is a work in progress and it’s real and it’s not fluff. It’s what you guys are screaming for in the marketplace.”
Hillary O'Keefe: Tell me about some of the resources that practitioners can use to find those appropriate business metrics that they want to be able to show their clients and align these business metrics to the practice of user experience, because that sounds like that is central to really communicating business value of what you do.
Michael Carvin: That’s so true. Another thing that really helps is having a solid – I mean before we even get into the resources, just having a good team around you, having a good account executive who understands business, having solid marketing and sales folks on the client side who you can work with and have very candid discussions with.
Hillary O'Keefe: I’m sure that’s an entire other topic in terms of support…
Michael Carvin: Oh it is.
Hillary O'Keefe: And getting people to back you up and everything and speak for you and all that.
Michael Carvin: It absolutely is, but it’s something to touch on here and just all these resources are awesome but you need to have that team. We were blessed and lucky to have that team. With the resources what really got me into the business aspects of user experience is a designer out of Copenhagen who runs an international design consultancy, his name Eric Reiss. A couple of years ago, I saw Eric put on a presentation [ROI and the Business Value of Information Architecture] at the IA Summit and it was eye-opening and I’ll be happy to provide a link to this for the description.
Hillary O'Keefe: Sure.
Michael Carvin: He got me thinking about it. Livia Labate formerly of Comcast and now with Marriott is another designer I really, truly look up to and she has a fantastic presentation on key performance metrics which again I’ll share with you for the description. I found a library online called KPIlibrary.com and this site… really it almost doesn’t matter what vertical I’m working in or what the particular need is, whether it is sales or human resources, this is the user-generated library of various KPIs used across verticals and horizontals. I’ll share some links out for a couple of Eric Reiss’ presentations and a couple of Livia’s presentations and some others. I encourage everybody to go and visit KPI library, read some of Bernd Schmitt's work on customer experience as there’s a lot of great metrics in the customer experience space which apply to user experience.
You’ll find that once you start speaking the language of business through the business people, you show that you’re really realizing what user experience brings to the table. We are here to accommodate you. We’re here to be the Rosetta Stone between what you’re saying and what the user is saying. We understand your language. You don’t need to necessarily understand our language. We’ll translate it to your language and we will help you succeed.
Hillary O'Keefe: So that leads to an excellent two-part question I have for you to wrap things up. First, what advice do you have for UXers who are interviewing as far as what the best way to communicate their talents of in terms of how are going to affect the business’s bottom line.
And then second part, for working UX professionals, what’s the best way to get the support and the budgeting that they need to be as successful and as entrepreneurial as they want to be.
Michael Carvin: Let me tackle the first one. The first part, the advice for UXers who are interviewing; my advice to the folks who are interviewing is be honest and don’t try to oversell. Work within your comfort zone, but try to incorporate the outcomes of a project. A lot of designers would say “we did this project and it was really well received by management and it launched on time and we got a lot of traffic out of it. Okay, that’s great. Help me understand what traffic means.” For one client, I quantify it through we saw a 30% increase in traffic over 180 days for this inquiry form and local centers reported I think 22% was the number – I don’t have it in front of me but I’m pretty sure it was 22% increase in foot traffic – as a result of the website.
Hillary O'Keefe: It is all about the numbers when you’re interviewing. I’m telling you, everybody is interviewing no matter what the job is, if you can convey your success in measurable quantifiable numbers, you are good to go.
Michael Carvin: And that’s where fluff really works against this because when we put an error message in or we require this extra bit of assistive copy or we say, “No, we don’t need five steps for somebody to do this; we just need three,” that’s all stuff you can quantify. Do we get a lot more phone calls for people who forgot their passwords after we launch or did we see a lot more self-service side and reduce our call center costs?
Hillary O'Keefe: That’s not fluff.
Michael Carvin: That’s not fluff, that’s hard dollars and that’s real jobs.
Hillary O'Keefe: So once you’re already in a UX job, how do you get people behind you? How do you get the support and the budgeting when someone may look at this and say it’s fluff, we don’t need it.
Michael Carvin: Well, hopefully the person in that in house role has some champions around him or her. I can’t overstate this enough – make friends. Marketing is your friend, sales is your friend, business development is your friend. You might not think so, and believe me, we’ve all run into the people from those business areas who are a little dodgy, but by and large, they’re better than that and they are your friends, because you’re going to help them succeed and they have metrics that they need to report on monthly and quarterly. How many convergence did we get, are sales up or down… things of that nature. They will help you understand their concerns and you have to be clever enough to apply their needs to the work you do and if you can turn around to that and say, “Hey, I think this will work to satisfy this one metric you were weak on last quarter, and it’s not even going to cost a lot of money to do, we just need to get this done. Help me help you get this through.”
Hillary O'Keefe: It is. It’s a ‘scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,’ and it legitimizes the processes that don’t always get the budget right off the bat.
Michael Carvin: And as soon as you keep getting points on the board like that, it should be easier to go out and do real primary research, user research in the field like contextual inquiry, getting folks in for focus groups when appropriate, doing baseline usability testing to divine unmet needs and the current state of affairs. It’s a process and it starts with interpersonal relationships. It has nothing to do with the screen. It’s people to people.
Hillary O'Keefe: Thank you so much Michael. This has been so fun chatting about this topic because clearly user experience is not fluff. It’s, I think, just a matter of speaking to it in certain ways that everybody can appreciate and I’d like to think that someday real soon, it’s going to be just as acceptable to devote – or quickly and easily devote budget to user experience as it is to graphic design or mobile development, anything else that is accepted across the board.
Michael Carvin: That’s what we’re looking for.
Hillary O'Keefe: Does PhillyCHI have anything coming up that you’d like to share with our listeners?
Michael Carvin: Absolutely, I’ll just give a quick rundown of the end of our year.
In Thursday, September 22nd, we have Debra Levin Gelman from Comcast speaking to our members on designing ‘Fun’ which will be a real treat. If anybody here’s knows Deb, she’s absolutely a wonderful woman and she will make this incredibly entertaining on incorporating fun into your design products.
In October, we have to nail down our speaker and it looks like it’s going to be a product demonstration for a research application, and we’ll send details out on that around the end of the month.
Lastly, we have World Usability Day coming up in conjunction with the UPA of Delaware Valley. This year’s program is going to be super exciting and I can’t wait to say it and announced some time in the next three weeks.
Hillary O'Keefe: Very good. Alright well, real quick before we go, I do want to give a super fast rundown of the hot jobs that Onward Search has. If you go to OnwardSearch.com, you will find a multimedia designer/developer job opening in Atlanta, and our Boston team is looking for an information architect. In Chicago, they are looking for a user experience/digital planner. There is a senior web developer opening, Ruby on Rails experience please in Dallas. The Los Angeles team is looking for a front-end developer. The New York team is looking for a digital copyrighter. There is an interactive designer opening with our Philadelphia team. The San Francisco team is looking for a digital media planner, and last but not least, the Washington, D.C. team is looking for a UX art director.
There’s a ton of really cool stuff going on this month and into the fall. Michael, thank you so much again for joining us. This was a fantastic episode and I’m sure I’ll be in touch with you very soon.
Michael Carvin: Thank you so much Hillary. It was a pleasure to be here.
Hillary O'Keefe: Great and everybody out there listening, thank you very much for joining us and I’ll see you right back here again for another wonderful episode of the Onward Search Career Cast.
Thank you for tuning in to Onward Search Career Cast. For more information on the career opportunities available through Onward Search, you should visit us online at onwardsearch.com or call 1-800-829-0072 and speak with an experienced recruiter. And you should also follow Onward Search on Twitter at twitter.com/onwardsearch.