Influence at scale, part 3: Investigate, Articulate, Engage

This is part 3 of my review of Samantha Soma’s workshop at the June 2016 Enterprise UX (no affiliation) conference in San Antonio, TX. See part 1 and part 2, respectively.

Design is a plan for arranging elements in a such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose.

-Charles Eames

Expanding design’s influence within an organization.

As Samantha Soma reminded us in her workshop, influence is a long play. It depends on having secure, competent people who can subsume their ego when necessary to embed themselves with other products experts in order to learn and absorb company and product knowledge. Once we have a solid internal structure (as mentioned in part 2 of this article series), then our next step is to look outwards and learn more about the context in which we’re operating.

Investigate – understand your stakeholders, products and customers

We need to understand our company, our organization structure, the people that make up the organization, the products and the processes. A lack of understanding about the organization and the products will lead to the following problems

  • Lack of credibility with other groups in the organization
  • Lack of understanding of the basics of the customer
  • Poor execution on problem-solving

You can’t help people if you don’t understand their problems.

– Samantha Soma

A good first step is knowing who in the company can help us learn. Your first few weeks in a new role or company should be dedicated to finding product experts who can help you get up to speed. Also, talk to customers. Some companies even make sure that their designers ship on the first day. This is critical to integrating a designer into the workstream of the company. Especially in large companies, it can be easy to be disconnected from the real work that teams do to add value to customer’s lives.

Articulate – don’t let design be a black box

To many people, ‘design’ can appear to be a black box. They only see the output – or they only see the mystery.

There are a lot of mysteries around designers. Even though every activity and organization is suffused with design (or ‘intentionality’), not everyone thinks of their work this way. Designers are skilled not just in creating deliverables to help product teams deliver, but also in working with intention towards well-defined outcomes. If Six Sigma started out with a fine arts degree, you might get come close to approximating the current discipline of user experience design.

To that point – use words that you know other people will understand. Many product managers, sales reps and others in the organization are familiar with business concepts and training programs (like Six Sigma). Understand and speak their language, and it will be easier for them to understand your training and your value.

There certainly an order of operations here, and it deserves to be called out. Before we can influence, before we can evangelize, we must first listen and understand. First we must see customers, see the company, see the products and see the designers through the eyes of support, through the eyes of engineers and product mangers. We need to understand their priorities.

One great trick – ask people how they get measured. What are their OKRs? If you know about how an individual’s performance is gauged, then you’ve come close to knowing a lot about their priorities. The first thing they think of will be how to improve their metrics – that’s a great ‘in’ to quickly understand the motivations of different parts of the business.

Get quick wins

This is a huge part of winning credibility so that you can build trust. Trust is the foundation of influence. If people don’t trust you, then there’s virtually no way that you can influence their behavior. Every team has immediate, pressing needs. If you can deliver even a small win against those needs, then you can start to build up your trust account. This trust and credibility will come in handy later as you look to influence the decisions the team makes.

Understand the business value of UX

Financial metrics drive decisions. There’s no way around it. We as user experience people are not used to having to quantify our work. The discipline as a whole isn’t used to competing at the level of financial results. Much of UX is not easily quantifiable.

It’s too bad, because so much of the business around us revolves around financial forecasting and metrics. It makes sense. If not for the money the business makes from customers, designers would not have jobs. Our livelihood depends on the profit motive. Yet many design departments are divorced from the sources of revenue, profits and losses within a company.

Let’s not fall into this trap. The more hard metrics we can give our partners in development and product management, the better they can make the case for including user experience design in project budgets. It also helps them make the case for doing the work at all – no small feat in large enterprise organizations.


Agile teams require full commitment. They can’t have a designer for just part of the project lifecycle. The fast sprints and feedback loops, the translation of a design into web technologies such as javascript and HTML, the performance testing carried out by QE – these all require the attention and focus of a dedicated designer.

Often the best way to change a system is from within. This is especially true in business. Just be careful you don’t develop too many bad habits in the process.

An invitation can be a powerful method of influence. Invite developers to field research. I’ve seen research change even the most skeptical developer into a design evangelist. Developers almost always want to do the best thing for the customer. And it’s hard to refute words coming directly from a customer. The ‘hostile territory’ that permeates companies is a shared story, not simply one carried on by designers about hostility towards them in the rest of the company. If we start inviting people in, hostile territory becomes much, much more welcoming.

Samantha Soma closed her workshop by reminding us that change is incremental. Like losing weight, the faster it happens, the more risk of reverting to the mean. We actually want slow change, because slow change means that it’s taking place at a grassroots level. We also need to set our own expectations. We’re asking a lot of people to change their attitudes and behaviors. We’re asking to be invited to the table. It’s difficult to build and easy to destroy. If we’re going to attempt any kind of real change, then we need to commit for the long-term, full stop.



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