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Influencing UX Stakeholder Values

By experience research manager, Sofya Savkina. and the user experience (UX) Community of Practice recently hosted the virtual 2021 Government UX Summit, bringing together UX experts working in the federal space to share their experiences with the community.

During the Day 3 summit activities, I was invited as a UX subject matter expert to speak on a live networking panel that included about a dozen or so other UX practitioners also working in the public sector. During the session, we shared our collective experiences in solving common challenges on the topic of operationalizing UX design and research at scale within the federal government.

As part of this discussion, I was able to share several examples and anecdotal stories about my teams’ experiences helping federal partners and agencies build empathy with their customers and design digital services that are easy to use and understand. As the Lead UX Researcher at Bixal, I have worked on projects for various federal clients, most recently supporting the General Services Administration (GSA) in developing the U.S. Web Design System (USWDS), a tool that helps design teams build accessible, mobile-friendly, and intuitive government websites at scale.

Leading design and user-research activities for this project, my objective is to help stakeholders better understand who is using their digital services—gaining insights around user needs, goals, and behaviors. This knowledge directly informs the development of components’ visual design and implementation guidance and helps the team make evidence-based decisions.

Since the USWDS is an open-source product, it has a large community of designers, developers, and content creators behind it. Through our research activities, we frequently discover that government teams struggle with certain challenges, such as having to educate their leadership on the value of adopting the design system, and resource shortages that often lead to roadblocks and limitations on internal UX response teams.

During the conversation at the panel, I realized that other UX practitioners in the government space experience similar challenges. The most common pain points brought up revolved around having to communicate and prove the value of UX and user research to leadership.

Because UX as a practice is a relatively new concept in the federal space, stakeholders often don’t understand what it means to develop user-friendly offerings and, thus, are apprehensive about investing resources into ensuring good UX from the beginning of a project. As a result, many UX experts on the panel shared that they struggled to get “a seat at the table” where development decisions were made, let alone gain stakeholder buy-in.

The panel came to the consensus that solving these challenges requires a strategic approach that takes time—there is no overnight fix for these issues. We discussed several ideas regarding how to convey the value of user research and UX to stakeholders. Here are some of the ideas I shared that I incorporate into my work:

Understand the “why” behind the push-back

Conducting one-on-one stakeholder interviews or a kick-off workshop is a great way to create space for a conversation filled with empathy and understanding. Asking questions such as, “Tell me what happened the last time you did user research?” or “What is your ideal timeline and approach for this project?” can help you gain a deeper understanding of stakeholders’ most important business goals and key performance indicators (KPIs). These insights will inform a research plan that mitigates stakeholders’ concerns, involve them in the most relevant activities, and tailor your delivery of user insights to their business needs.

Speak your stakeholders’ language

Great UXers are great communicators, and they know that different stakeholders might care about different outcomes. Building empathy with stakeholders by discovering and understanding their motivations and making them a part of the co-creation process is one way to show them that user research is valuable. To be able to effectively advocate for your projects, you need to make sure you are using the right language when communicating with stakeholders. For instance, one way to show stakeholders the value in UX is to calculate and share with them what the return on investment (ROI) is predicted to be.

Don’t fight the battle alone

In the federal space, there are people who know and believe in the power of UX. Those pioneers, evangelists, and champions have most likely been trying to do the right thing for years but haven’t yet been heard. Often, they lack the support needed to implement UX at scale. Finding such champions and building partnerships with them is your strategy here.

Another strategy that works well is connecting with other roles on the team and making allies everywhere you can. Creating a design system can be an entry point to building collaboration and alignment between different functions on the team. Business analysts have complementary skills to UX designers and researchers; they are basically service designers who don’t know about service design yet.

Additionally, having a UX advocate on the development side is a great asset, as developers ultimately are affected the most by your research findings and recommendations. Including them in your research and design process, when possible, helps them build empathy with users and understand the reasoning behind proposed improvements.

Find and use tools made by the government, for the government

There are various mechanisms in the government that enable agencies to adopt user-centered practices with greater ease. UX and human-centered design communities of practice, products, playbooks, and toolkits developed by GSA, U.S. Digital Service (USDS), Veterans Affairs (VA) and others are open-source and free for anyone to use. Finding and incorporating these already available tools that enable the practice to grow in the government space is crucial.

Identify quick wins to show the value of UX faster

Start small and iterate. Identifying the high-impact and low-effort changes up front will help deliver value quicker. For example, starting with an expert review or a heuristic evaluation of an existing website to identify usability problems quickly can help focus a website redesign strategy and identify starting points for improvements.

Get better value for stakeholders out of the user research

The reality of government projects is that teams change frequently. Documenting, storing, and sharing user research well means new teams won’t have to start from scratch every time. Minimizing waste, creating accessible research repositories, and documenting and standardizing research and design processes increases a design team’s continuity, shortens their onboarding time, and increases stakeholders’ trust in the value of UX research.

UX experts are positioned uniquely in the federal space. We are the connective tissue between different functions of government organizations and often siloed teams. If we are methodical in our efforts to prove the value of UX to stakeholders, connect team members, and establish a common understanding and alignment, we will overcome these challenges and ultimately build a government that better serves its people.


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