Usability vs. Marketing (was 'R&D' vs. 'mainline')

12 Apr 2006 - 12:50pm
10 years ago
2 replies
1186 reads

I've thought about this some more, and this really comes down to the 'usability
/ marketability' issue. What have others' experiences been with this issue? My
company is almost exclusvely marketing-focused. Getting to end-users for
'real-world' usage info has not been easy. We rely almost entirely on our sales
organization as surrogates for them.

What arguments can I use to challenge this mindset? What activities might prove

Bret Hekking

--- Bret Hekking <bhekking at> wrote:

> [Please voluntarily trim replies to include only relevant quoted material.]
> Hello -
> Do you have similar experience you can share? I'm a solo usability
> practitioner
> responsible for both analysis and design for a small software company. I'm
> getting mixed signals about what my priorities should be, especially because
> we
> are simultaneously dedicating lots of resources to pure selling, and to
> improving what customers already use. So, my time is being divided between
> the
> needs of our pre-sales team and development.
> My question is - how common is this? I had imagined that improving the core
> product for current customers (rather than wowing prospects with slick demos)
> would be my domain - but it's not at all clear. Actually, the 'r&d' team
> seems
> to appreciate my help more than mainline development does.
> Have others had to deal with these issues?
> Thanks,
> Bret Hekking
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12 Apr 2006 - 2:38pm
Julia Hayden

Bret Hekking wrote:

> I've thought about this some more, and this really comes down to the
> / marketability' issue. What have others' experiences been with this
issue? My
> company is almost exclusvely marketing-focused. Getting to end-users for
'real-world' usage info has not been easy. We rely almost entirely on
> sales
> organization as surrogates for them.

(I started this in reaction to your first message, so this may be broader
in some ways than this question...)

I struggled with this issue for years when I worked at a software
start-up. It's a tricky problem, particularly when your company looks at
the marketing efforts as a primary driver towards sustained growth (and,
sometimes, existance at all). This is particularly frustrating when your
management wants to take the approach of throwing lots of darts at a wall
and seeing what will stick, and can't be convinced that opting for
research, analysis, and talking to industry experts would be a good idea.

We went through several waves of management, so the following tactics had
variable success - maybe one/some can work for you.

* Negotiate work balance. I was able to convince some of my bosses that
having a 70/30 or 50/50 or 25/75 balance between designing the core
product and doing the client acquisition work like prototyping and
customizing our core product would best position our product (since they
weren't going to hire more folks). We renegotiated the balance several
times as the needs and goals of the company changed. That balance would
fluctuate with the day-to-day needs, but averaged out to that over time. I
was able to use that agreed balance to help control the work and demands
on my time. (If your bosses want you to focus only on the marketing
aspects, tell them how this will impact core development -- and your
current client base whom you want to retain.)

* Identify consequences of your allocation: "OK. I'll start building this
prototype for the Boondoggle Corporation, but it'll slip the design
schedule by two weeks, and the overall dev schedule by a week for the next
release." Frequently, my higher-level bosses didn't really understand the
way everything interlocked, and thought everything could be done with a
wave of the hand.

* Take advantage of your position doing marketing-type work if you work in
a org where Marketing has power.. I successfully convinced the power
players in the marketing group that multi-faceted usability (focus groups,
ethnographic studies) studies would help market, sell, and improve our
products, and they were able to get the funding and official approval to
support that. (The Problem: When power players leave early on in this
process, the funding can dry up.) The other big advantage is that you will
get to know what requests are coming in, what the sales folks are trying
to sell, and it should help you/your dev management team identify what
features you should be focusing on. Where possible, try to reuse your work
when prototyping new or innovative add-ons.

* Try to build a evocative excellent universal prototype. If you can do
the research and have a strong view of the business/industry/goals your
product is targetting, you should be able to build an excellent prototype
with big impact that can be minorly customized for each sales call (swap
out consistantly-sized image files with company logos, have swappable
datasets or text files they could maintain, etc.) We taught the sales and
customer teams how to do this, and it cut way back on specific custom
needs, and freed me up to focus on the core product and defining the user
experience. By the time we had to build custom prototyped elements for
potential customers, they'd made a commitment to seriously considering us,
and the chances of eventually reusing that work went up. This tactic also
made it more likely that I'd be involved in the discussions of additional
features potential clients would like see prototyped, which would get me
closer to their user-base and cut down on revisions.

* Train the sales and marketing folks who can be trained to ask questions
that will elicit a stronger understanding of the user goals and needs. Not
all of them can or want to do this, but there's usually a few who have
knowledge of the industry who can walk you through broad strokes, and who
can ask many of the questions you want answers for or verify the personas
(on their own, or with people they're selling to). These folks are worth
their weight in gold. For people who specialize in a specific field, this
provides a tangible benefit for them as well, as their knowledge gets
deeper, and they're better able to sell the product.

* Do Case Studies if you feel you are not being heard when you try to
change the status quo. I've been known to put up big posters on walls
touting successful processes, highlighting specific best practices, in
addition to talking them up to reinforce my message (and get through to
some parties.) to peers. You don't have to be this heavy-handed, but the
ability to identify best practices and encourage their use can eventually
pay dividends. When arguing with the decision makers in your company,
always have a case to make about why your way would benefit the company.
For example: "We spent 2 weeks of churn reacting to these concerns or
issues from our potential client/artpner. We could have avoided these two
weeks with 1 2 hour meeting up front where we did X, Y, and Z." If you can
tie it to the bottom line (e.g., "We would have had a good chance of
getting this sale in the last quarter if we had the meeting upfront"), the
argument has a lot more power in an organization where sales in specific
timeframes are critical measures of success. It's also good if you have a
successful example to contrast and compare.

* Guerilla Information Gathering. There were far too many times I was
over-insulated from the clients, much-less the end-users. In a culture
where there is a persistant unchangable blindness to my need to have
contact with these people, I tried to gather information informally. Even
when I had a knowledgable sales person, I trolled my network of contacts,
looking for people in the field who would be willing to talk to me
generally about the industry or business. I skimmed industry best
practices documents and websites. Heck, on one occasion, I found out when
a potential client was coming to our offices, loitered in the lobby to
greet them, escort them to their big meeting, and chatted them up while
waiting for our execs. Just doing that made the User Experience come to
the forefront of the negotiations thereafter.

These tactics have both worked wonders for me (I got more resources and we
started doing things more sensibly), and had absolutely no impact. In a
few instances, it was for the worse: I had resources moved from my
bailiwick despite using the consequences tactic (they decided the
consequences weren't that important ... to them.) -- and there was that
one time where I was told the user wasn't important until testing, and I
needed to back off. But generally, some of these tactics worked with some
of the bosses some of the time.

-- Julia

12 Apr 2006 - 7:37pm
gretchen anderson

On 4/12/06 10:50 AM, "Bret Hekking" <bhekking at> wrote:

> What arguments can I use to challenge this mindset? What activities might
> prove useful?

I don't know what kind of product you are developing, but here's some
general suggestions:

Sales people are not a *bad* source of info, but they are only one. Things
that you might miss out on if you only listen to them are:
- trends and evolutions among users that arise out of usage of similar or
related products
- expert behaviors: sales people usually know (and over-advocate for) less
experienced users. You are missing out on things like repetitive tasks that
can be streamlined and irritations that develop over time.
- Halo effects from real-life experiences that color the perception of your

- When you rely on only the sales organization as a proxy for users you are
inheriting their assumptions about users without necessarily knowing what's
an assumption and what's not. You also tend to get a view of what they
*want* the user to be (well-educated, willing to part with money, etc.) not
what the user really is and does.

- Marketers tend to think of user groups in terms of demographics and traits
that affect *buying* a product, not using it. The fact that you sell
differently to a 35-year old Mom from Ohio than a 60 year old grandfather
from France does not mean they use things differently. Conversely, you might
sell something to two people the same way, but their usage and needs are
very different.

- "guerrilla research": call your friends & family. Post an ad on
Craigslist. Even if you only get a few people, it's better than none! Just
be sure to keep perspective (a la previous threads about "scientizing"
personas and "prototype" personas).

- Intuit started a practice called "follow-me-homes" when the CEO staked out
a store, watched someone buy a product and literally asked to follow them
home and watch them use it.

- look for bulletin boards, support group mailing lists, and other online
resources that you can read to hear what people are saying. This is
especially relevant in the medical space. Again, bear in mind that you are
experiencing a self-selecting group of people here.

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