Creating or redesigning digital products can be dangerous, especially if you’re the one leading the effort. All the peril falls on you. Project moving too slowly? It’s your fault. Running out of budget? Your butt is on the line. Scope creeping to include too many new features? You’ll be blamed.

Stakeholder Danger

And the thing that can bring it all crashing down upon you in no time flat? Your internal stakeholders. This well-meaning group of otherwise smart and competent people often have strange and – let’s admit it – wrong opinions about how sites, apps, or software should work.

They can have you and your team rushing back to the drawing board faster than you can say standup meeting. Worse, they can demolish a site or app’s user experience in mere seconds. In a whirlwind design-by-committee session, they can tear your user-centric approach apart and leave you to pick up the pieces.

Unhappy stakeholders are project killers. But unhappy site and app users are business killers. A conundrum, to be sure. If you stay calm and proceed with caution, you and your project can survive even the worst stakeholder attack.

From The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook:
“You must stay calm and you must not panic. Remember that willpower is the most crucial survival skill of all. All these mental strengths especially come into play when someone makes a mistake – which is inevitable.”  

How to Survive Meddling Stakeholders

1. Remain calm.
Take a deep breath before responding to any suggestions, concerns, or demands. Never acquiesce in a meeting. Think, then respond.

2. Document your data.
Stakeholders will assume you’re just giving them your opinion about users unless they’re presented with evidence. Each time you conduct user observations, research exercises, and user testing sessions, write everything down. Include quantitative and qualitative data. Record video if appropriate. Then document your findings in an official report. Use this to back up your work when talking with stakeholders. It will serve you well in any attack that might come your way.

3. When you say no, make it about your findings.
You’re going to need to say no. You might need to say no a lot. When you have to push back on edits or demands from stakeholders, always rely on data to make your point. Show your numbers, user quotes, videos etc. It’s much harder for stakeholders to argue with the facts in front of them.

4. Make stakeholders part of the process.
Invite your stakeholders to see how you’re making your digital decisions. Ask them to observe your user interactions, either in-person or via a recording of your sessions. When stakeholders watch you engage with real users, it de-mystifies your process and helps them understand how people really interact with the digital product. They’ll see the same issues you see. Chances are, you won’t need to argue about it later.

5. Listen and remain flexible.
Stakeholders usually have their hearts in the right place. Many of their suggestions will come from important business goals or processes that need improving. Sometimes they legitimately want what is best for users. You are on the same team. Listen to each of their ideas carefully. Read between the lines to understand what they’re really concerned about – what they say will not always be what they mean. With some strategic thought, you will often be able to solve their problem in a way that still works for your users and your project.

Your stakeholders, while experts in their own fields, will rarely be technology or user experience professionals. They are also focused on specific internal goals. Don’t focus on their solutions, which will almost always be wrong. Focus on the problem they are clumsily attacking.

Your project’s survival depends on you assuming the role of expert and making your team feel comfortable doing the same. With patience and professionalism, you can win your stakeholders over. The best survival strategy is never having to fight in the first place.


About truematter

Our team has been doing the real work of user experience since the earliest days of the commercial web. We’re out to make your digital products a whole lot better.

We have a plan of attack ready for any sticky digital situation. It makes survival much more likely.

Author: @baileysendsword
Graphic: @ExperienceDean
Editor: @ExperienceDean