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Sensitize. Synthesize. Sell.

It’s happened a few times. I’ll sit down with a business representative for a round of stakeholder interviews, and then one of them quietly comments to me with a snarky-looking grin, “Well, it looks like I’ve been put on Schindler’s list.”

True, my team identified a list of key stakeholders from the organization, put individual meetings on each of their calendars for a comprehensive and candid interview about business objectives, and my last name just happens to be… wait for it… Schindler.

Having heard more than a few people connect the first and last dots during the course of my career as a User Experience practitioner, I simply remind them about the detail people always seem to forget about that movie.

“The list is life.”

Occasionally, and in certain measure, this list can bring new life to projects too. Because it’s sometimes only during a pre-arranged private interview that business stakeholders reach a cathartic moment. Up until then, they may have not been able to discuss what’s truly important to them in the setting of a large meeting, which may have been dominanated by a vocal few. Worse yet, they may not truly feel like anybody has listened to them. That’s a problem that can destroy group morale and ruin large projects that have real costs on the line. So, I take it as a measure of just how dark perception can get when a business stakeholder non-chalantly pulls out a reference to a black-and-white movie about the worst human tragedy of the twentieth century.

Not to get you down, or anything.

In my experience, established organizations tend to look at UX practitioners with a curious eye. They don’t always know how to map to us, or how we relate to a solution, especially if we’re doing our jobs correctly and listening during the early phases of problem definition. Are we strategic? Are we tactical? Why do we ask so many questions about operations and business process?

The answer’s simple. We fit right in the middle of everybody and everything. This position can be awkward for us. We’re selling solutions to stakeholders that technical people need to build — on time. We’re struggling with new and unknown complexities across systems, operations, and sometimes even policy components. We can never know enough about what we already don’t know.

And without a baseline understanding of these constraints from the people who understand them best, it’s difficult to know what may or may not be appropriate for a design solution. That’s why it’s so important to do the first step right. It greases the wheels for everything that follows.

Not every project needs a formal key stakeholder analysis, but it can build trust and good will, where skepticism and fear might ordinarily creep in. And it can be a powerful token that represents an active effort to change strategic perception.

Part of that’s what I simply call sensitizing.

Yep. Sensitize. Don’t just interview. Don’t just observe or do research. Get to know your business. Open up with all of your senses. Look with fresh eyes. Listen with open ears. Empathize and feel the full experience as it is today. Get to know and understand the real impacts.

Then do the same thing with your users. Do their needs and motivations align with the business goals? Often times they do, but sometimes not. How can you take what you find from the first step, synthesize it into a solution that makes sense to your end users, and then sell it back to the organization with confidence?

Sensitize. Synthesize. Sell. Those are some simplified steps. I can get into the last two at a later time.

For now, let’s just set a foundation. I use three singular words to generalize a design methodology, of sorts, because it helps me remember what I need to be doing at different phases of development, using very broad and efficient strokes. It’s a good little trick because it works on projects of any size — whether you have 30 people and 6 months to solve a particular design problem, or 3 people and 3 days.

So, before I go any further, just remember… Schindler? The good guy. The list? It’s life.

And it could be the beginning of a successful design strategy, if you give it a try.


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