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Selling User Experience

I grew up in an unusual household. As the son of politically aware scientists, by the time I was six, my greatest passions were music, baseball, antique cars, and nuclear isotopes.

What I learned at a very young age has served me well in promoting the benefits of user experience (UX) to my clients and community. Please bear with me through a long ramble. Hopefully, you’ll think it was worthwhile.

Where I’m coming from…
My parents were founding members of the St. Louis Citizen’s Committee for Nuclear Information, CNI. Back in the late 1950s, they realized that above-ground nuclear testing  was eventually going to kill people due to air-borne radioactive fallout entering the food chain. But how could they convince politicians that this was something that should be addressed? After all, increases in thyroid cancer wouldn’t appear for another 20-30 years. By that time, the powers-that-be would be retired or dead. Clearly emotional arguments were not going to work.

CNI’s tactic was one from which the user-experience professionals could learn: opinion-based projects generally fail. Fact-based projects generally succeed. In 1959, CNI started to collect deciduous teeth and measure the Strontium-90 that children had absorbed through the food chain. The results were published in 1961. No emotion. No hyperbole. Just solid scientific data.

The work of the CNI played a key role in bringing about the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. Linus Pauling ran off with the Nobel Peace Prize. But the grunt work was done in St. Louis. (I was always fascinated by Pauling’s missing incisor)

Sadly, the death projections made back in 1961 have proven to be true. The evidence from the St. Louis study is so powerful that it provided the baseline from which the Japanese government evaluated the Fukushima disaster.

For those of you who are scientifically and historically inclined here’s a link:

And what can the UX community learn from this?
Today, the user-experience community is still basing far too much of its work on opinion rather than facts. And to be frank, why should our opinion weigh more than that of a CEO who wants to put pictures of kittens on the home page? Or an eager brand manager who thinks an iPhone app will further his flagging career?

This is why books like Susan Weinschenk’s “100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People” is important. And Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational.” Or even my blogpost from 2011 about the limbic system and how dopamine production affects our ability to make rational design choices at different stages in the development process.

If our community is going to actively sell the concept of user experience, we need hard data. Yet at every conference I attend, I hear about new tools, new techniques, new processes –but almost never about unassailable scientific results that demonstrate replicability. Sadly, most of the case stories I hear are merely glorified advertising. Moreover, like touching the hot iron as a child, learning about what doesn’t work is also important.

Can we trust the source?
A few years ago, I was told by a professor at the University of Bergen (Norway) that red buttons demonstrated a 21% better conversion rate than green buttons. And if you google “submit button” and look at the images, the preponderance of red buttons suggests that there is some truth to this statement. Unfortunately, when I tried to trace this “fact” back to the source, it appears to have come from a blogpost, with virtually no supporting data whatsoever.

As was pointed out in one of the better sessions at the recent IA Summit in Baltimore, we need to show up at meetings and presentations armed with hard data. Printouts. Case stories. Anything to back up our point of view. Yet where are these reports and statistics? No, not just basic usability studies, but solid facts that establish a baseline and demonstrate concrete changes following the application of specific UX techniques.

Can we game the exceptions to the rule?
As a former smoker, I was immune to the scientific data. I knew cigarettes killed. In fact, my father died of lung cancer, yet even this wasn’t enough to keep me away from my beloved unfiltered Camels. Talk to a smoker, and you can present facts that prove that quitting will increase their longevity. But it won’t work. The trick is to show that smoking now projects a highly negative image. There’s no advantage for women to wear trendy Italian boots if their clothes stink of smoke.

Yet talk to a CEO, and you can present facts that prove that UX will improve their conversions. More importantly, if you can show that better results will improve his or her standing within the organization, you can hit two nails squarely on the head simultaneously.

The difference is one of timing (demonstrating short-term wins for a manager looking for a promotion). And killing off magical thinking (“This doesn’t apply to me,” proclaims the nicotine addict). And showing the before-and-after results based on an earlier baseline (“This is where we were. This is what we did. And look where we are now.”).

Case in point: I recently rewrote a couple of landing pages for a client (a traditional ad agency had provided the original content). My approach increased conversions dramatically. Despite my NDA, I need to find a way to document this case. Internally within the client organization, they are using the statistics to build a case for bigger budgets. And they are now giving my company thousands of dollars worth of work on almost a daily basis.

I know other companies are experiencing the same kinds of wins. But where is the data being collected? Isn’t it high time we stop talking about the tools of our trade and start demonstrating the value of our craft?

Can we circumvent the NDA?
There are lots of stories waiting to be told. Because I am discreet, many people confide in me. I mentor. I guide. And I know these data exist. But recalcitrant project managers, cagey legal departments, reluctant middle managers, and impotent brand managers team up to say: “Don’t you dare say a word about this. Our baseline is so shitty, we don’t dare admit how stupid we’ve been.” So the best stories remain behind the curtain.

Let me suggest a solution.

Let us work to create an organization that will verify the results of a project, without revealing the origin. Issuing the “trust” certificates we see on e-commerce sites. Hey, I really don’t care if Coca-Cola screwed up; what I want to know is what problem they identified and what they did to improve things. In strictly generic terms. Something I can learn and apply to my work.

There’s a business opportunity here. For the certifying organization, who will undoubtedly charge for their services. But more importantly, for all of us who are still bogged down in the Grimpin Mire where bean-counting hounds frothingly attack our methods, budgets, and raison d’etre.
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