In the world of ecommerce and UX design, it is commonly understood that there are five types of shoppers–the product-focused shopper, the browser, the researcher, the bargain hunter, and the one-time shopper. Established by a Nielsen Norman Group report, these shopper types have become the basis for personas that are now responsible for much of what we have come to see as convention in ecommerce design today. Everything from what ecommerce site navigation looks like and how products are commonly organized, labeled and described to how products can be added and removed from shopping carts and how sale items are indicated, have been influenced by these personas, each with their own set of behaviors, needs, and desires.

Learning about users and then using this information to design products for them is the very premise of what has come to be known as human-centered design, and it is what we are all about here at Cake & Arrow. And when we design, we don’t just rely on studies like the Nielsen Norman Group report to learn about users. We do our own primary research with users to develop unique user-generated insights, and we engage these users in co-creation techniques to ensure that the experiences we design are not only usable, but loved by the people they are created for. This is why our clients hire us.

And while most of the clients we work with understand this idea of users and personas when it comes to direct-to-consumer interfaces, like online stores, it is more rare that they consider the other “users” involved in a design experience: the internal user. This might be the digital team member who will be managing or implementing the product the designers are creating, or the internal stakeholder, who, while they may never actually interface with the product, will be affected by its failure or success.

Designing for the Nth Persona

This “other user,” whether it be a digital team member, a stakeholder or someone else, is what we have dubbed the “Nth Persona.” And while it may refer to one of these specific types of users, it is more of a concept than it is a specific user type, like the “bargain hunter” or the “researcher.” It is a term we use internally and with our clients to illustrate the idea that to design a great user experience requires thinking holistically about a product and the impact it will have on everyone, from the end user all the way through to the internal stakeholder.

Stakeholders as users

While UX designers (and clients) are accustomed to taking front-end users into account, it is rare that a UX designer will have much experience at all thinking about stakeholders, and how their interests might be considered within a human-centered design process. If it falls into the hands of UX at all, it is a task that is usually reserved for more senior designers and is very rarely taught.

There are reasons for this. For one, stakeholder management is often considered the domain of the project manager, account manager, or business lead, and seldom the domain of the UX designer. As I have written elsewhere, UX design is often thought of as a craft or a discipline–a kind of heads down job that may even, at times, be considered antithetical to business practices. Which leads to my second point. Rather than seeing clients as partners in the success of a project, UX designers often go into projects believing that their clients get in the way of great work.

There are reasons for this too. While UX designers see themselves as fervent advocates for users, they often see businesses as more interested in profits than people. In my experience, this is often a false and unnecessary dichotomy; not only are the interests of the UX designer and the business not necessarily opposed, often times they can actually align. Truly human-centric design happens when UX designers advocate for stakeholders as one of their users or personas and businesses remember that putting people first can actually be profitable. A strong UX leader can make both of these things happen.

Learning how to manage stakeholders should be the domain of everyone on a project–including UX. By taking on this responsibility as UX designers, we help ensure that not only are we producing great experiences for end-users, but great experiences for everyone a product will impact. By participating in stakeholder management, UX designers have the opportunity to shape the strategic direction of a project or product and also build relationships with clients that will improve the standing of the team in the eyes of the stakeholders.

The majority of the online articles I’ve come across aimed at teaching UX designers about stakeholder management are written primarily from the point of view of project managers or are just a nice list of tactics. While these can both be informative, they don’t really help UX designers see how stakeholder management fits into their role as designers and help them develop this practice within this context. As a UX designer myself who spends a lot of energy managing stakeholders, I think it's best to look at this problem from the lens that we tackle all design problems:

It’s all about empathy

Perhaps the most important characteristic of a UX designer is empathy. Good UX designers are able to put themselves in the shoes of users and design experiences around user needs, not their own. This same quality is necessary for successful stakeholder management. It's critical that whoever is taking on this role understand a stakeholder’s motivations, behaviours, goals and pain points. UX designers, already holding this skillset, are perfectly poised to do so. By putting themselves in the stakeholder’s shoes in the same way they would any other user, UX designers can begin to understand what matters to stakeholders and craft an approach to help them accomplish their goals. By taking on stakeholder management as one of their roles on a project, UX designers will be better equipped to design holistic experiences that benefit everyone involved in a project, and are in an even better position to advocate for end-users.

Stakeholder management for UX designers

With this end in mind, I’ve designed a workshop to help designers hone the skill of managing stakeholders. The workshop leverages the same techniques we use everyday to design user experiences–user research, persona creation, ideation and more. By embedding stakeholder management into the context of UX design, the workshop aims to clear away the assumptions that create artificial barriers between designers and stakeholders, and help UX designers develop the skills they need to lead projects that benefit all users.

The workshop will require both a facilitator to drive dialogue and keep things moving as well as a cross-functional team, each of whom have interactions with the stakeholder–designers, project, product managers, account managers etc. I recommend conducting the workshop with a full cross-functional team, not just other designers. Including the entire team will give designers an opportunity to learn from other team members about stakeholder management, but will also help everyone interacting with stakeholders think about stakeholder management from a UX perspective. The workshop will also require the standard design thinking tools: post-it notes, sharpies - or any writing implement, and a wall or surface for prioritizing those post-its.

Step 1: Observe

During this step, each team member will be asked to recall a past interaction with the target stakeholder. Alternatively, if the team member is new to the team, and hasn’t had interactions with the stakeholder, they can simply observe a recent interaction. Record the stakeholder’s perceived motivations, pain points, behaviors, common questions, preferred data sources and decision trees. Write each of these observations down on a post-it note.

Step 2: Create Personas

As a team, conduct a persona workshop. Combine all of your observations from Step 1. Everyone on the team should take turns reading their observations, putting them on the wall and then when someone has a duplicate or similar answer, group it with like observations. The team should pay special attention to common questions the stakeholder asks and data that they trust. By knowing the go-to questions they will ask, you’ll easily be able to role play before future interactions to ensure you are addressing their common thoughts. Likewise, by knowing the data that they trust, you can ensure that you always have it available when you need it to answer questions and support your opinions.

Step 3: Brainstorm & Roleplay

As a group, list common interactions with the stakeholder. Note any that tend to end in frustration. Break into groups of threes, and roleplay these scenes. One person will play themselves, one person will play the stakeholder and another will take notes. When roleplaying, it is critical for each team member to always reference what was produced in the persona workshop. Remember that playing both yourself and the stakeholder is critical to building empathy for the stakeholder and understanding their viewpoint. Similarly, when you are roleplaying yourself, you develop muscle memory for how to respond in certain situations,which can remove apprehension and fear and build confidence. It is critical that everyone has an opportunity to play both sides.

Step 4: Coach

As a team, give the team member playing themselves feedback on when they missed a cue from the persona and how they can do better. Repeat role-playing so that each member has a chance to play themselves and the stakeholder.

Stakeholder management continues to be a role few designers take on within project teams. But making stakeholder management a part of the design process, and teaching UX designers how to apply their skill set to the task can be a powerful means of removing the tensions that so often exist between UX and business when working on a project. Considering stakeholders in the design process will almost always lead to the design of a better experience, one that is mutually beneficial to the user and the business. An experience people love.

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