Part of the 5 Minutes a Day blog series
I ask you this. Why is it that every time I’m on a project that runs into a road block during the visual design phase… why is it at this point that people start to question and pay attention to my IA work? Is it because my work is flawed (always a potential)? Is it because they “favor” the visual designer (highly unlikely since we are both teammates on the project)? Or is it because client simply cannot grasp that information architecture of a system?
And… can they not grasp the IA of the system because I am not explaining it clearly? Or is it that the idea is too abstract? Is it that IA is simply too complex?
I don’t have any answers to these questions, but today I am in a sea of deep client frustration. I spent months pouring over a concept model and IA that is one of the best I’ve ever produced, and now, at the point of design, it not only comes into question (which is natural), but it is deemed as flawed. Further the client has spent a great amount of time with it, and now wants me to address the flaw that she is convinced is there (as if I spent a few hours with it, and don’t already have answers to each concern and question she has).
So, I ask you all this…. am I the only one that faces these woes? If not, how do you usually handle them to help the client understand your point of view and your work, while also addressing their feedback and concerns.
~ Yours “Sad in NYC”
Lis, I find this extremely common. I am speculating, but there are several things that appear to be happening at once. Someone disagree and tell me I am observing trends wrongly, as this is just anecdotal on my part, but here’s what I see.
1. Client-side UX is improving. I know we don’t see this, but I think we ARE seeing it, as shadows on the wall of our cave. I think client-side, established UX hires and UX departments are making their influence felt, even if it is an uphill battle in many instances.
Why we don’t see it? Those people aren’t hiring consultants, because their internal processes are improving.
2. UX Consulting clients are getting dumber. This is a rude thing to say, so let me explain my reasoning. A lot of companies that may have previously been our clients are building in-house depts and making improvements. That leaves us with the flotsam and jetsam that haven’t figured out this need yet. And a lot of them aren’t just a little hopeless. They are A LOT hopeless. Inane, even. Severely dysfunctional. They need a lot of help, but they will fight every step of the way, because their dysfunctions speak louder than the help we have to give.
I’m looking forward to your upcoming talk, as I think the discussion that comes out of it will be very helpful. This is just my theory, reflecting on the field as it is maturing. Gaps appear. Sometimes big gaps. Grand canyons.
We’ve evangelized most of the places most open to evangelizing. They are going on to spread the word about the value of UX, without having to rely on outside consultants so much. Sometimes they do OK on their own, sometimes things devolve there too. But they’re trying.
Meanwhile, those other dysfunctional entities that have been left in the dust are trying to find their way out of it. They are now hunting down UX consultants. But it is sort of like we are dealing with the dunces who were goofing off in the back row of class as we were developing our field and discipline.
Workplaces that are patronage systems, run by Napoleons. Places where the power principle and its misuse trumps value, quality, and serving customers. Office politics and interdepartmental internecine wars that are about everything EXCEPT quality UX.
This isn’t evangelism. This is yeoman’s work, a hard slog. And it morphs. This is the most disheartening thing. User-centered design morphs in such settings into what can only be called “Dysfunctional Client-Centered Design.” We can fight it, but since 2008, in many settings, it is carrying the day.
The alternative is to walk away from the work, to fire the client, turn down the money. And those dysfunctional clients throw around more money than smarter clients, you know? It’s a great temptation, the smell of that money.
In workplaces centered on power and patronage and influence-driven design, every dysfunctional manager thinks she or he is a brilliant Steve Jobs, and no design feedback is too backward-thinking or inane in such settings. They issue directives. They kill projects by micromanaging them into ego-monuments that can barely limp out the door at launch. All the well-meaning UX warnings were for naught. When the traffic numbers or usage patterns come back as problematic or non-existent, there’s always a UX person to blame, no matter how well-documented our warnings and compromises were. Because we were “ineffective.” Because we could not persuade or change a power-drunk stakeholder’s mind, no matter how strong our examples or reasoning may be.
Because all the “soft skills” in the world can’t stop stupid clients from doing stupid things in dysfunctional environments.
Politics may be the “art of the possible,” but UX is more often the art of false flattery, “collaborative design” client indulgences, and purely, the enablement of bad design calls by stakeholders as we play the role someone who always takes care of a sloppy drunk so efficiently, the drunk has no reason to ever stop drinking.
I don’t know. How does UX stop “enabling” bad design decisions by stakeholders who hire us because they don’t understand their own customers, but who really have NO INTENTION of changing their minds about their business models or interactions with their alienated customers, no matter what anyone says?
One might say such clients deserve to fail, and do. But we keep trying to save them from themselves.
I love this response! Me, personally, I have started trying to let them fail. Like you mention this isn’t, but my assumption is that they won’t learn until they fail so what is the benefit of me helping them to succeed? Thanks for sharing this!
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Are you building a system that your clients can use?
In the same way that clients don’t understand printed documents (which abstract whatever interactive system they represent), wireframes, user flows and other IA documents are similarly abstracted enough that clients can purport to ‘understand’ them (and happily and confidently sign them off), but not experience them. Until your clients start actually interacting with the end result (as a website or app, for example), they will continue to questioning earlier decisions, like IA, UX and design. So, I’m resolving to promote building cheap, iterative prototypes to sell our clients IA and UX solutions. As long as these can be experienced on the end-platform (a browser, a device, etc), your client has a better understanding of what it feels like to use.
Changing the entire UX process is incredibly difficult when an entire company and their clients are firmly in the deliverables business (wireframes, func specs, etc). However, getting a small team of UX, design and front-end/back-end developers together on every project to help solve and show the UX/IA solutions that I would normally attack myself seems like a huge win. So I’m aiming for that.
I love this point. Thanks for sharing David!!
I’ve run into this too, so it’s definitely not just you! I think it’s partly that no matter how many times a client sees your deliverables and walk-throughs or hears your explanations, often they don’t fully grasp the structure until they see it with the visual design in place. It’s a kind of block in their comprehension. I think it’s usually less a question of the IA being too complex and more that many people don’t deal very well with abstraction. And I’m not really sure what the solution is, or rather, there doesn’t seem to be one single solution. It’s all just part of the process, I guess.
Thanks! Comforting words indeed 🙂