Are You Playing the Martyr?

I was just reading a post to a listserv I’m on.

A young information architect was just dealt a stunning blow:  politics and seniority trumped sane design and user research.

He asked for advice on how to handle this.

I remember the first time that happened to me.

I was so angry.  It felt so unfair.  Didn’t they trust me?  Why did they ask me to do the work if they were only going to ignore all of it?  I wanted to shout, “I am right!  You are wrong. LISTEN TO ME!”

I wish I had been brave enough to ask someone how to handle this failure.  I didn’t think there was anything I could do except sit back, quietly accepted the defeat and just try harder next time.  After all, life isn’t always fair.

If I had been brave enough to ask, perhaps I would have received Jared Spool’s sage advice:

“It sounds, from the way you described it, that you didn’t consider these ‘nay-sayers, holdbacks, and overzealous administrative types’ as part of your team. Yet, here they are, influencing the outcome of the work.

Team building is the biggest challenge in any project work. If you don’t build the team well, then these are the very types of obstacles you see.

For a project like this to succeed, it needs three components: A solid vision, good feedback, and a culture that accepts failure with minimized risk. (You can read more about these three components here:”

Yes, you need those three components, but I don’t think I understood that building a team with your stakeholders is not just about listening to them and validating their needs and concerns.  It’s more than that.

In my experience, the best way to ‘build team’ is to employ stakeholders as your design and research partners.

I used to write for the drawer.  That is to say, I listened to the stakeholders and felt that I understood their needs, went away and did some work, put together a report with recommendations, delivered it to the stakeholders and then nothing happened.

I played the martyr and didn’t realize it.

Everything changed when I began asking stakeholders to do research and design with me. Suddenly:

  • They ‘got it’.
  • They wanted to do more research and testing.
  • They trusted my recommendations and work.

I’m not implying you should ask your stakeholders to commit a huge portion of their time.  They don’t have it.  But if you can get them to:

  • watch a card sort (or participate in one!),
  • help you with a clustering exercise,
  • participate in a brainstorm with the end users,
  • listen to an interview or usability test, or
  • sketch wireframes besides you or on their own

Every bit of their participation will build your team.  Usually with phenomenal results:

  • You don’t have to work as hard to sell the end results because the stakeholders were there.  They take pride in knowing they were part of the effort.
  • Sometimes they admit to having fun–it’s something different in their day.
  • Occasionally they quietly acknowledge how HARD the job really is.

So the next time your research or design gets trumped by politics or seniority, don’t play the martyr.  Perhaps there are ways you can engage those same stakeholders as design and research partners next time.

  • Have you tried this approach before?
  • What did you do?
  • How did it go?

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