Don’t Let Your UX Be Ruled By HiPPOs!

24 September 2015

How to be a strong UX participant, and make your voice heard!

The successful delivery of a User Experience-driven product or service depends on more than technical development. The core of UX design is the successful collaboration between designers, end-users and the business (or organisation) developing the product.

As User Experience designers working with a diverse client base (and their direct customers), we are often exposed to multiple levels of interpersonal dynamics.

Co-creation with clients is essential to deliver a meaningful UX-driven product. In workshops, interviews and meetings, we collaborate with client project teams and stakeholders. That way, our methods aren’t a mystery – clients can fully understand the way we work.

Here’s what most people don’t anticipate: working with your colleagues in a new setting is hard. The intricate hierarchies we build up with our colleagues lose their context.

While interesting things do happen on the line between deliverers of services and their target audiences, what always fascinated me more are patterns of behaviour and politics of internal relationships.

Flatten your hierarchies


HiPPOs – Highest Paid Person’s Opinions

The problem with groups is that they are often dominated by an individual, whose character or reputation causes others not to assert their opinions as strongly. These people are often the managers of others in the group, which leads to the acronym – HiPPO – the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.

The relationships between individuals in a group are easiest to observe in the collaborative design setting. It is often that we’re working with a group of stakeholders where someone not only dominates, but also tries to dictate decisions. This is a HiPPO in action. The HiPPO can negatively influence the design process by bringing biased and destructive opinions to the table.

I’ve seen situations in which excellent group thinking and the collective design input – was quickly discarded and replaced with inferior ideas originating with the HiPPO, without any objection from anyone.

Such moments are frustrating, as our role is not only to facilitate the design process, but also to encourage creation of the best possible solutions to problems that organisations might face. Therefore, we need to act quickly.

There are professional methods for making sure that everyone is heard but that no design decisions are sacrificed in the light of someone trying to take over. Our methods must exterminate the HiPPOs! Not literally, of course, but we must be able to treat each contributors’ input as valid, enabling the best design decisions, not the ones prescribed by the loudest voice.

Work with new people

However, these techniques do not always work instantly. That is why we must rely on utilising User Experience Design methodologies to ignite the spirit of collaboration and empathy amongst our customers.

This eventually bears fruit in the form of increased understanding for our work. Customers who engage with us closely within the UX process often feel valued and appreciate the hard work that their colleagues do.

To achieve this, we might give customers homework. We might ask them to run some of the processes for us. For instance, forming an understanding of business needs or initial information architecture sketches are two things that a well-guided client can certainly do.

Instead of running workshops where we directly produce output, we now sometimes educate customers to take it away and make it for us. This then goes through multiple checks, and we’re available to assist at any time. The ultimate joy of creation helps by leveling tension within the client’s teams and pacifying “difficult” stakeholders.

Another thing that works well is the field interview (at the client’s site) that turns into a little one-to-one design session or even a user testing session. When we’re working on a system or a service that’s an intranet, for example, it’s one of the best methods of analysing what’s needed. It also allows us to expose interviewees to our design methods, thus making processes more transparent and interesting.

Be transparent

The transparency of what we’re doing is key. User Experience Design is not magic, but it’s often seen as such, as it’s based on relatively abstract activities of talking, sketching, reading and observation. It’s not programming that has its explicit logic and it’s not a predictable monetary business sales process. UXD often requires customer education and serious “myth debunking”.

Upskill your stakeholders

The advantages of including stakeholders (both decision-makers and their direct workers) in what we do are manifold.

By becoming transparent we are educating our customers and showing them that they can achieve a better working environment if they collaborate rather than simply participate in design processes of their products. This switch of focus from a passive to an active model of work brings them one step closer to digital adaptation. It’s simply impossible to remain stagnant and uninterested when you have an entire team responsible for the product delivery that experiences the ups and downs of the design process.


Meet your colleagues

Additionally, when exposed to their peers and asked to design with colleagues working in different departments, workers gain a much better appreciation of issues and problems that the whole organisation is facing. This takes them away from their desks and immediate areas of responsibility and brings them closer to the bigger picture. New working bonds are made and, once again, the playing field is leveled and politics simply disappear. When there is a common goal that is understood by all, facilitation of User Experience Design processes becomes much simpler and more fruitful.

Bringing customers closer to their end-users and involving them in collaborative activities with those users can take another barrier to well-ran UXD process away.

In the old days of UXD there was a clear split between agencies, customers and end-users. I believe that narrowing this gap is one of the best things we can do to ensure that what we produce is good, sustainable and as future-proof as we could hope to be. After all, our customers have a better initial understanding of what is that they are trying to produce or optimize. UX designers often had a bad habit of ignoring this knowledge and substituting it with their own intuition. In fact, you could say that this is like substituting one HiPPO for another.

I prefer to think that that often the truth can be unveiled by employing a UX designers’ intuition and empathy to the mechanism itself, in which design can lead itself from the heart of the organisation.

It is the right mechanisms, the right approach, and the right application that can overcome the influence of the HiPPOs, driving great design, and worthwhile UX outcomes.

Want to learn more about UX and designing digital content? Come and join us for our next Storm Event on 12 April!




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