A product that I work on as a developer recently received a complaint from an irate customer because of data lost due to a usability issue.

I want to suggest to the team that a friend of mine in the company, who is a usability expert, be involved in the project again (he had pointed out the usability issue mentioned above months ago). He used to work in the team (in his spare time from his assigned work) but was (according to him) gradually sidelined because of politics.

My only interest is in improving the product (I feel distraught for the customer) but I'm worried that suggesting bringing in my friend, the UX guy, will be perceived as a political move. How do I float the idea without ruffling feathers?

  • If the customer is already aware of your friend, you might suggest to them that they ask to have him brought back. If you're concerned about the politics, you may need to request that they keep your part of this to themselves. – GreenMatt Dec 5 '12 at 19:02
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    Besides the politics, what make you hesitate? I don't see the issue in recommending someone to solve the problem at hand or solve the usability issue. – David Segonds Dec 5 '12 at 19:03

I'd start with the problem and let others suggest a solution. The problem you see is that you don't have the right focus on user design - your friend's involvement is one way of solving the problem, but others on your team may have a different take. I'd start with saying what you need (more user design experience on the team) and then see what the team or your manager think.

Where you already know there's some history here, saying "let's do what we did before" may not be the right move. My guidance for defusing politics bombs is:

  • go slowly, learn the personalities and the driving forces - someone out there thought chasing this guy out of the team was the right thing. Unless you are very clear on why, who this person is, and what their stake in the project is, it'll be hard to blindly suggest anything. Quite honestly, if he's managed to tick off someone critical enough to the success of the project, bringing him in may not be the right answer.

  • ask lots of questions. It helps with learning the key aspects of the situation and it shows that you aren't blindly pushing - if you have a good relationship with the person you're talking to, going right to "why didn't we keep this guy on the project? he totally called this case correctly!" may be fine. But in many other cases, you may need to be more tangential - "what if we have a user design expert?", "what can we do about this problem?", "why wouldn't we want someone with XYZ skills?" are all good questions and don't point to a specific answer.

  • don't accept just one viewpoint - if you have a political mess, it's probably because people disagree - talk to as many people as you can, and see what's up. You could easily find that 10 people love the guy and 1 hates him - but if that 1 is the decision maker, you aren't going to win it.

  • chances are, there needs to be a change - if this guy's involvement didn't work out before, repeating the exact same pattern of collaboration is not likely to be any more sucessful than it was last time. Change doesn't have to be dramatic, but it has to be reasonable. If this guy's collaboration with the team could be improved, then you may just make a huge value add to the group.

  • realize that sometimes it's not worth it. If the stakes are small and the difficulty is high, you may simply not win this. There's been many times in management that I've had to agree that, based on cost vs. value, the right thing to do from an engineering perspective (make the right product the best way you can), was opposed to the management perspective (make a product that brings in more value than it costs). Chances are, if you reach this point, management will win as companies that don't make money don't survive.

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    +1 for the focus on knowing that when it comes to political issues, sometimes the only winning move is knowing when not to play – GuyM Dec 5 '12 at 19:24

I would say there are several threads to this issue that you need to consider.

You have a solution ("get my friend into the team to fix the UX") that you are essentially going to try to sell to management, but understand that there is a wider political dimension to this that make create a backlash.

Its always easier to sell ideas if you are focussed on the outcome as a whole, rather than taking credit; this allows you to coach or lead them towards solutions by asking questions as opposed to promoting answers. Of course, this may lead to a different solution than the "obvious" one you are after, since we're not actually engaged in Inception.

The areas you need to think about here are:

- is your root cause of the client issue accepted?

Does the product owner / team leader agree that the issue was a usuability one, or are they focussed on other solutions (client training issue, specific form layout, improving the manual) that may be cheaper or easier to implement?

will improved usability drive revenues?

A lot of companies make money out of product training. A lot of manuals tell you specific details of functionality, without telling you how to perform a workflow, perhaps as a result. Depending on the industry, product and business model improving usability of functionality that is already in place may not be a priority. Fear (losing revenues and/or clients) and greed (selling more product) are generally two of the biggest drivers.

Does your friend want to be involved?

If your friend isn't interested in being part of your team, then its the wrong aprpoach to take. Politics can be a "coverall" excuse for a lot of different issues, including team culture and personality clashes.

How to plant the idea

As a starting point I'd suggest raising the overall issue of usability of the product as a concern with your manager; if you do "root cause" analysis on incoming complaints or tickets this may have been hihglighted.

The best way to do this as a question, or a concern : "Do you think the issues that Joe had over at Widgets Inc. was mainly about usability? It cost us some reputation over at Widgets, and it might have a bigger knock on effect."

If the response is positive, you can move on to "I'm not a UX expert, so while we could fix this based on Joe's feedback I'm worried we have other 'usability bombs' waiting to trip us up. It would be nice to get infront of this - can we get someone in to have a look?"

This is probably as far as you can take things; your friend has been involved in the past, and the line manager will either head in that direction, or they won't.

If your focus is on the product, then it shouldn't matter if it is your friend who solves the issue, or someone else.

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You don't really indicate your role or position in the company as far as the structure; which has a lot of impact on how you might make this suggestion and how it would be accepted. But if the company/management is comfortable with suggestions you could easily put a bug in the managers ear that this person would be helpful on the project.

Doing it in such a way would also help isolate your from it. After all it's the managers decision not yours.

But you have to keep in mind the politics of why he's no longer on the project. Could be that management simply doesn't want to hear his input. His observations and suggestions could easily be stepping on someone's toes and feelings are being hurt or turf is being fought over.

Try to figure out the why of his lack of involvement before you step in to the middle of something.

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