"Speaking to 'the business'" - Alex Horstmann at Lightning UX

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 11 February 2011

Last week I was at the first Lightning UX night, and I've been blogging my notes, which so far have featured the five minute talks by Harry Brignull, Cennydd Bowles, Boon Chew, Jonathan Kahn, Lucy Spence and Tyler Tate. In this penultimate post, I'm looking at the presentation by Alex Horstmann, addressing how UX professionals should talk to the rest of "the business".

"Speaking to 'the business'" - Alex Horstmann

I thought Alex gave a great talk, but it addressed something I still find odd about the UX profession. Our entire raison d'être is to empathise with people, and put ourselves in their shoes. From an IA or content strategy point of view, we are desperate to make sure that our digital products are framed and labelled in a way that makes sense to the end user.

And yet, often within our businesses, we fail to sell in our vision precisely because we have failed to empathise with the marketing or business units we need to convince. Or indeed, as the panel session at EuroIA portrayed them last year, marketing is seen as an obstacle to "getting things done right".

At Lightning UX, Alex Horstmann's main thrust was that we need to get over the feeling that it is prostituting ourselves to use business and marketing language in order to sell our services and get buy-in at senior levels within a business. Whilst he argued that it doesn't mean you have to litter your PowerPoint slides with tons of Excel spreadsheets and dreadful stock photo images, you do need to understand that phrases like 'conversion optimisation' mean a lot more to the numbers people in a company than talking about "taking the user on a journey".

Alex identified another key problem with selling UX into a business. Very often, the first thing we say is we need to do more research, and the answer comes back: "What do you mean you need to do research? We are paying you because you know users. And if you don't, we know our users, so just ask us". That is about the last thing you want to hear.

It reminded me of something from the PublicZone event I talked at a couple of weeks back. There I heard it said that if you pitch for a £30,000 web build project, and propose doing £5,000 worth of user research as part of it, the potential client often only sees that they have £5,000 less to spend on the site, not that the remaining £25,000 will be spent more wisely. I guess business negotiating tactics are just another arrow that UXers need to add to their quiver.

Mind you, having said all that about having empathy with our colleagues, Alex described the average marketing department as the giant marshmellow end-of-level boss from the first Ghostbusters movie. And I laughed a lot...

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