15 Tips to Help Designers Gain Stakeholder Buy-In

15 Tips to Help Designers Gain Stakeholder Buy-In

Internal buy-in often has to come from multiple groups within an organization: designers, developers, project managers, product managers, business managers, marketing, and executives. Getting everyone to agree on a design direction can be difficult as conflicting opinions and goals often get in the way of reaching consensus.  Without gaining buy-in, however, even a great design can be doomed to failure.

There are several techniques that you can employ as a member of the Design team to reduce the amount of resistance involved in getting buy-in.

Involving Stakeholders Throughout the Process

1.  Involve internal stakeholders as early and as frequently as possible

The more involved someone feels, the more they’re invested in the idea, and the more likely they’ll be to agree with the direction.  Additionally, the earlier you involve your stakeholders, the earlier you can address their needs and concerns as opposed to discovering them late into the process. Intermediate check-points during the design process can help reduce surprises and maintain stakeholder involvement throughout the project.

2.  Set proper expectations before your work begins

At the start of a project, meet with your stakeholders to engender trust that lasts throughout the process.  Without team trust, personal feelings and differences can often derail the chances of gaining buy-in.  Kevin Hoffman of Happy Cog has put together an excellent guide to how to use kickoff meetings to set the tone for your project and to get everyone on the same page at the beginning stages.

3.  Identify key stakeholders but don’t ignore the rest

In order to best present ideas and relate to your stakeholders, it’s critical to recognize everyone’s agendas, goals, and expectations.  There’s always going to be a hierarchy of people you need to please, and it’s important to identify those who will pose the most risk of becoming roadblocks.  However, make sure to include all stakeholders at all levels.  Addressing needs at all levels will help gain momentum from the bottom up and will ensure that you address potential concerns from all directions.

Effectively Presenting Design Solutions

4.  Tell stories and walk through scenarios when presenting designs

Stories help to bring meaning and value to designs beyond how they appear on the surface.  By walking through personas and scenarios and telling stories to explain how your product will be used, stakeholders will be better able to see how your design choices will affect the end user.  Stories help to establish a connection with your audience on both an analytical and emotional level, and can be a very effective way of gaining buy-in to an idea.  Read more about storytelling in Whitney Quesenbery and Kevin Brook’s article “Juicy Stories Sell Ideas.”

5.  Express tradeoffs that occur if design compromises are made

Whenever someone questions your approach or suggests an alternative way of doing things, be ready to explain the tradeoffs that will occur if those changes are made.  For example, while something may be cheaper and easier to build, an increase in usability issues may ultimately effect conversions.  By being able to explain why something might not be as effective as your recommended approach, you will have a higher chance of influencing stakeholder opinions.  However, don’t always think of feedback as being a negative compromise.  Many times stakeholder feedback can result in beneficial gains to the user experience and product success.

6.  Relate your ideas and designs back to the needs of your stakeholders

When presenting designs, keep in mind the perspective of your stakeholders.  Developers will be thinking about how they’re going to build your design, so make sure to point out any areas that may pose technical challenges but have significant benefits.  Business and marketing stakeholders will be thinking about how the product will make them money and relate back to business strategy, so make sure to speak in terms of conversion rates and brand values.  While it’s important to present the user’s point of view, be sure to balance this with the needs of your stakeholders in order to increase the likelihood of achieving buy-in.

7.  Support designs with data whenever possible to reduce subjectivity

Designs should be influenced (not necessarily “driven”) by data.  Information hierarchy, labeling, interaction patterns, image choice, and even color choice can all be influenced by research and testing.  While not everything can be influenced by data, being able to refer to both qualitative and quantitative research that helped influence your approach can be very helpful in reducing subjective opinions during design reviews.  Read my earlier article “Using Multiple Data Sources and Insights to Aid Design” to learn about all of the various data sources you can use.

8.  Speak their language

Try to avoid saying UX or design terminology that doesn’t resonate with your stakeholders.  Instead of talking about “task efficiency”, talk about conversion rates. Instead of talking about “mental models” talk about how your customers think about a product or concept.  Instead of talking about “ambient findability”, talk about how people will effectively find information that’s important to them.  This will help you connect with your stakeholder audience and will help stakeholders focus on what’s really important.

9.  Don’t be overly defensive or let your pride get in the way

Stakeholders offer a very important perspective and their insights are critical to the success of your product.  While they may not be designers, their feedback about your design needs to be carefully considered and addressed.  Design is only part of what makes a successful product, and so it’s important to not become overly defensive if stakeholders offer constructive criticism.  If feedback comes off as critical without being constructive, generally it’s because it’s difficult to articulate what doesn’t feel right about a design.  Listen actively to all feedback, and try to focus on what the real issues are as opposed to always jumping to defend your position.

10.  Present the proper level of fidelity for the type of buy-in you’re trying to get

If you’re trying to get feedback and buy-in regarding your high-level design strategy, it may be best to present diagrams and storyboards to help visualize your ideas.  If you’re trying to get buy-in on initial concepts for how functionality will be incorporated into the product, present sketches or other low-fidelity prototypes.  If you’re trying to get buy-in about interactive functionality, a fully-functional prototype may be the best way to visualize your approach.  It’s important to try to focus the feedback you receive on the type of feedback you need to get at each stage of the process.  By presenting the right type of deliverable, you can reduce the likelihood that you’ll get comments like “I don’t like blue” when all you were looking for was feedback on information hierarchy.

11.  Offer methods of testing various approaches when consensus cannot be reached

There are times when stakeholder feedback may seem perfectly valid, but there’s no clear way of determining whether one idea or approach is better than another.  In these cases, suggest either user testing or A/B experimentation testing to try out multiple approaches.  This can help reduce circular arguments within design review sessions.

General Tips

12.  Recognize cost benefit tradeoffs

One of the, if not the, hardest design constraints is cost.  Almost all of your internal stakeholders will have cost on their mind, and will hesitate the moment a design is proposed that is going to cost more than expected.  Therefore, be mindful of the cost of your designs and be able to articulate the specific benefits that will be realized if a higher cost investment is necessary.  While it’s important to not compromise an optimal user experience, whenever possible, try to craft designs and experiences that are as effective as possible given your budget in order to most effectively gain stakeholder buy-in.

13.  Pick your battles carefully

Part of achieving stakeholder buy-in is compromising on some aspects in the design in order to get buy-in on an overall approach or on more important aspects of a design.  If you’re seen as someone who fights against everyone in order to “win,” you’re less likely to succeed.  While it’s important to defend your position, there can be a diminishing returns effect if you continue to fight for things that ultimately aren’t as important as other factors.

14.  Solidify a strong design strategy and relate back to it often

Getting buy-in at the strategic level is very important.  Once you have buy-in for a strategy, you can relate future design concepts back to it and support your approach by pointing back to what was already agreed upon.  An effective design strategy can set the tone for the rest of the project, and can be a great way of getting everyone to focus on the same goals and objectives.  It’s an easy way of reducing the “us vs. them” mentality when you’re all focused on following through with the agreed upon strategy.

15.  Foresee and address technical concerns

Technical concerns and constraints can be one of the most difficult challenges in getting design approval.  As designers it’s important for us to involve the development and tech teams early and often.  We need to respect technical feasibility and design solutions appropriately.  By involving the tech team in the design process, you will be able to respond to stakeholder concerns around feasibility.

Are there any other tips you’ve found that help increase the chances of obtaining stakeholder buy-in? If so, share them in the comments!

Catriona Cornett

I am a User Experience Designer with a passion for making people’s lives better through design. I have helped over a dozen organizations obtain a competitive advantage by delivering great user experiences across desktop, mobile, tablet and other channels.

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