Wednesday, May 3, 2017

It’s not your job to guarantee a happy ending. (Philip Hodgson)

I like being a critic. It’s kind of fun pointing out everyone else’s foibles. And let me tell you, being a usability engineer is a great way to do that. Other people’s errors are on parade before you in test after test after test. Great fun!

Seriously, though, I’m actually not really a sadist. In fact, I’m known in particular for making a special effort to be positive when reporting results. I figure I’m just accounting for basic human nature here – nobody wants to hear their baby is ugly. And if you do need to broach the subject of some possible unsightliness, well, it’s generally a good idea to have some sugar to go along with that medicine. In general, I’d much rather be, not the scold who everyone hates and ignores, but the nice guy who actually has some valuable advice that might be worth listening to every once in awhile.

Now, it is pretty rare that I get ugly babies with absolutely no redeeming qualities. Almost everything has something good to be said for it. So, that part of it isn't really that hard.

That said, there are times when you do have communicate that, yes, we do indeed have a problem here, Houston. But even in those situations, there are still some things you can do to soften the blow.

One of these is to make sure that your client is aware that there might be a problem as testing progresses. In other words, don’t wait until the report out to bring attention to serious issues. No one likes surprises like that.

So, one thing you’ll want to do is make sure you debrief after every test. You can also send out topline reports – not full reports, but quick summaries – at the end of each day. Finally, you can also get your team to see if they can come up with a solution to any serious issues, say, midway through the test. (In fact, overcoming a problem can feel like an even more positive experience than simply having no issues pop up.)

Another thing I’ve found helpful is to allow the client to vent a little. I just try to put myself in their shoes (I know I’m a venter myself), and try not to take it too personally. Easy to say, but it really does take a little practice to get comfortable with.

Along similar lines, you’re going to have to also make sure that your data is pretty well buttoned-up. They say the best defense is a good offense, and I’ve seen plenty of clients who really go on the offensive when they hear something they don’t want to. In those situations, once again, I counsel remaining cool and calm as you fend off attacks on your methodology, users, prototype, personal integrity, whatever.

A final thing you can do is to do a good job of picking your battles. It’s pretty rare for me to fall on my sword for an issue. And that probably is something that just comes with experience. After doing this for 30 years, I know that it’s rare for something to be a real show-stopper. But there definitely have been some cases, over the years, where data from tests I ran caused products to be pulled, releases to be moved out, or projects to be shut down. 

Just be a little mindful about how to communicate results like those.

Philip is the owner of Blueprint Usability

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