When Stakeholders Say “NO” During Design Review

Monish SubherwalDesign Leadership1 Comment

getting stepped on during design review

Does this sound familiar?

Business stakeholder:  “I think it looks good, but we need to make sure the design is not too edgy.  It may scare off our users.”

The design gets rejected and you have to stick to the old design or design something less than ideal for your users.

Good grief.

Design Reviews Gone Bad

When we do a design reviews – oftentimes, it’s a stressful occasion.  You have worked hard, you have to present your solution, and you want your designs to be approved and sent off to development.  That’s the dream come true!

YET, sometimes when we present to stakeholders – the feedback becomes nit picky and can be sometimes outright resistant.  The other person doesn’t “get” your design or doesn’t see the value in your direction.

So what is REALLY going on?  What I’ve observed and also got validated at UX Advantage (a conference I attended a few weeks ago) – was that stakeholder alignment was REALLY important in having your design ideas accepted during design review.

But what is alignment?  How do we get OUT of alignment with stakeholders?  And what can we do to get back INTO alignment?  

Read on and I’ll share what I’ve learned about design reviews where stakeholders don’t play along.

Why Stakeholders May Not be Aligned with You

There a lot of reasons why stakeholders are resistant to your suggestions – and a lot of them has nothing to do with you per se.  A lot of it has to do with the organizational climate, their own priorities, and not understanding what you do.

Here’s what I’ve discovered are some reasons why stakeholders are so resistant:

  1. They don’t understand UX Design
  2. They are scared of taking risks
  3. They are overburdened with work and don’t have the time to “innovate”
  4. They don’t see the value of your work and team
  5. They feel like their opinion is not valued – AKA, they don’t like you or your team very much
  6. They have their own agenda (politics)

What do each of these have in common?  They all are scenarios where you and the stakeholder are NOT on the same page.  In other words, you are out of alignment about design direction.  They don’t trust you and don’t agree with you. The result:  a nit picky design review with constant resistance.

So how do we get alignment?  Read on.

Getting Agreement from Stakeholders

The only way we can truly get design alignment, is if we STOP trying to get design agreement.  There is a night and day difference between design agreement and design alignment.

The reality is – you are looking for agreement.  You are looking for them to just give you the green light, praise your design genius, and agree to a job well done.

When we do a design presentation with “agreement” as our intention, we start being:

  • Broadcasters – we broadcast our designs rather create dialog.
  • Dogmatic – we get attached to the “right” design.  Our design.
  • Closed off to feedback – we stop listening.
  • Not open to discussion – we stop listening.
  • Argumentative – we get defensive.
  • Convincing – we get creative with how to convince them (using data)
  • Emotionally attached – our designs become sacred cows.

In sum:  trying to get agreement is trying to control the other person.  And you can never control another person.

When a stakeholder says “NO” – we can get angry and our ego’s can get hurt.  It’s easy to get into the the blame game and eventually feel like a victim to these stakeholders.

But the real culprit is NOT the stakeholders – but really us.  We’re in the “agreement” frame of mind (I wrote an article on frames here), where we really need to be is in the alignment frame of mind.

Alignment is the art of getting someone to say “hey, we’re all on the same page.  Let’s do it!”

But how can we do that?

How to Get Design Alignment

Sun Tzu, the author of the Art of War, once said “Every battle is won before it is fought.” And this statement is true of design alignment.

If you are encountering REPEAT resistance – it’s a sign a few things gone wrong, FAR BEFORE your design review.

Here’s what I’ve learned to counter this sort of repeat resistance:

We need to build SOLID healthy partnerships FAR before work gets done.  

Here’s a few ways I’ve learned that help do just that:

  1. Make friends.
    As simple as that.  Take your stakeholders out for lunch.  Get to know them as human beings beyond work.
  2. Don’t sit in an ivory tower.
    Be inclusive.  If you want their investment and involvement – get them involved in the beginning!
  3. Make others successful.
    If you make your stakeholders more successful – you’ll never have any issues.   If your UX team is not solving problems for other groups to make them better – you won’t be successful.
  4. Stop policing others.
    If you are a policeman – stakeholders will run away from you.  No one wants to be hunted by the design police.
  5. Earn the right to have skin in the game.
    Whether it is providing a design language that helps the company ship faster or designing posters for your work environment – find a way to create value for others and earn their respect and trust.
  6. Talk to your stakeholders like they are customers.
    If they think you have an agenda other than helping them out – they’ll stop listening to you.
  7. Create proofs of concept.
    Demonstrate that you can do what you said you could do.  Understand your stakeholder’s risk tolerance and work towards calming them down by proving your value.

Final Thoughts

While you may be 100% right about your designs, unless you do the right relationships building – the foundations of team work – you won’t be successful.  I have met many people who get combative against stakeholders.  But, they don’t get it.  They think THEY are right.  And THEIR ideas may just be.  But the reality is, they are a part of a team and stakeholders are the final approvers since they are accountable at the end of the day.

Yes, you can try any of the 7 ways to build design alignment AND still get resistance from stakeholders.  Some stakeholders literally put a stake in the ground and don’t want to accept you or your design.  It can happen.  But focus on what you can do.  The 7 ideas given are guidelines, not rules.

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