Being good at UX requires thinking about business.
UX professionals have to become fluent in business. All of us should be able to argue for anything and everything we do in terms of business value. And the language of business is all about metrics (in other words, it has a lot of numbers in it.)
There are thousands of articles out there that will help you articulate the value of what you do in business terms. My approach (using collaboratively-created alignment personas to produce alignment across a stakeholder team, and to then communicate the resulting focus throughout the organization) starts with getting measurable business goals written down and as explicit first step in the process.
Clarifying goals is a critical first step for any business process or project, and it’s amazing to me how often organizations skip this step—almost always because key people assume the business goals are already clear.
The more questions you ask about goals, and work you do to collect clarifications, the more your work will be associated with business success. As you collect goals, start creating slides for them.
What are business goals, and why should I care?
Good business goals are clearly articulated, measurable, and time-boxed descriptions of how the leaders of your business will determine success.
Business goals can and should be written at several ‘levels’ in your company:
- Company-level business goals: what does your company need to do in order to be successful over a particular period of time, usually a year,
- Organization-level business goals,
- Project-level business goals.
All of the levels of goals should make sense together; the project goals should help to achieve the departmental goals, which should help to achieve the corporate goals.
This looks pretty obvious on paper—so why am I bothering to write it down? Because the most powerful way to communicate results is to tie them to a goal that is as high-level as possible.
The lack of clear business goals, at all of these levels, is the biggest obstacle to great user experience design. And very few companies have any clear business goals, at any level.
Company-level business goals
These are goals of the business as a whole. Why was the business created? What kinds of customers was the company created (or has it evolved) to serve? What are you really trying to build and to do? These goals aren’t really difficult to identify. The difficulty lies in distilling them down to a DNA level, removing barnacles that have accumulated on them over the years, and getting very high-level people all to agree on what they are. These big goals can also (sometimes) be difficult to remember, to articulate such that they are neither too broad nor too narrow, and to put actual numbers on them.
Organization-level business goals
You might find that the Company-level business goals feel very broad with respect to your project, especially if you work in a large company. Try to identify measurable business goals related to your branch of the organizational tree. If you are part of an Engineering organization, what are the goals the head-honcho has with respect to your extended team? These may be goals related to growth, productivity, supporting other parts of the company, etc. You don’t have to spend a huge amount of time gathering these or ensuring that they are crystal-clear and associated with metrics and time periods. But do gather them, and do create a slide for them.
Project-level business goals
It’s ok if the higher-level goals you collect are a little looser and not as measurable. However, you must have clear, specific and measurable project goals.
Project-level business goals should be tied to numbers. For example, we want a 20% increase in sign-ups over the next year, or we need to decrease our customer service costs by 13%, or we want to decrease our abandoned carts by 45%.
Why are business goals so critical to my alignment persona project?
You are wrangling a lot of moving pieces. You are working without the safety-net of data. And you need clear business goals for the same reason people tend to love data so much: because they are as close to set-in-stone as we’re going to get.
Every project includes countless constantly-moving parts. Something has to be immovable and immutable, or everyone will go in circles (and probably go insane.)
As you’ll see, the alignment persona process starts with business goals so that everything you do afterward connects back to the business goals. The business goals are your safety net, your common language, and a guarantee that you aren’t going in the wrong direction in the eyes of your bosses
Do I have to collect all of the types of business goals?
No. Only project-level business goals are mandatory.
You may not be able to get fully quantified, well-articulated business goals at the company or department level. But you have to have something, and it has to be written down. Once it’s written down, and put on a slide, you have to be able to say “<they key stakeholders and super-powerful people we care most about/are most afraid of all agree that these are our <company’s / department’s> business goals.”
You must have fully quantified and well-articulated project goals.
Why bother collecting goals beyond the current project?
Every persona effort encounters resistance. Being able to link your process and deliverables all the way up to company-level business goals is the best possible counter to most types of resistance.
If you make a decision—any decision—and can back it up by citing the business goal that it obviously directly relates to or supports, you will not have that decision called into question. Instead, you will have the support of several layers of management above you…all the way up to the person powerful enough to set the business goals in stone.
And there’s another, even more, interesting reason: alignment personas throw a spotlight on areas of misalignment in your organization, all the way up to the C-Suite level. Often the first signs of misalignment come when you ask the very reasonable question: “Can you share our strategic / company-level / departmental / project-related goals with me?”
Asking for goal clarification, even beyond your current project, is always appropriate. Getting goal clarification is usually nearly impossible.
The alignment persona creation process forces key stakeholders to think about the DNA of your company. It forces them to remember the basic reasons the business exists and re-examine the direction the business is headed currently. Collecting goals at the beginning gives the whole team a place to start, a sense of the level of clarity that exists at the executive level, and something to compare your eventual results too.
In my own projects, I always insist on working directly with the executive team. Usually, the work we do together results in the execs re-examining, and often re-writing or at least clarifying, business goals at all levels.
When can/should I gather these goals?
The best case scenario is to gather as many goals as possible before you embark on your Alignment Persona workshop, and have them ‘officially approved’ by executives as high up the ladder as you can reach.
If you don’t have time to do a deep dive on goals before the workshop, do your best to jot down as many goals as you can (of the types listed below) in advance of the workshop. During the workshop, you will have to be clear that your draft goals are simply that: drafts to spark discussion.
If you aren’t able (or willing) to put draft goals in front of the audience of key stakeholders you are gathering for the workshop, you will create some blank slides to spark the discussion during your workshop.
Goal conversations are usually contentious (or all but silent, for better or for worse, if the CEO is in the room and is the one presenting the goals). Advance preparation will leave you more time for the rest of the workshop, and will require (slightly) less wrangling of difficult personalities.
How to identify and collect useful business goals
If possible, collect and clarify goals before your workshop, in collaboration with high-level stakeholders who will be willing to ‘sign off’ on the goals.
There are various ways to get to clarity on business goals. You can do this in an ad hoc way, or you can apply lots of tools, lots of meetings, debates, official processes, etc
Business goals define “success” for your company, organization, or project
I usually don’t come right out and ask for ‘business goals.’ Instead, I ask:
- What does success look like?
- What numbers will you look for to know you’ve succeeded?
- How will you know you hit it out of the park?
Business goals must have numbers in them.
You want goals that include things like “20%” or “4 hours” or “15 per hour per associate” or “$5MM.” And you’re going to have a hard time nailing down the numbers. That’s just the way it is…and it makes sense. We’ve already established that it’s hard to identify a basic goal; imagine how scary it is to write an actual number down. Once numbers are on paper, they threaten to rear up and bite people, because they are so easy to miss. Even missing them by beating them significantly is bad, because it ‘proves’ the number-writer was way off in his or her analysis of the business and the potential. It’s a pretty human thing to not want to paint oneself into a corner.
Numbers are often associated with Increases in:
- Information access (number or types of pages accessed)
- Return visits
- Average order size
- First, second, third purchases
Or decreases in:
- Time required to do X
- Returned merchandise
- Assistance requirements (reduce number of people who call for help)
It may be difficult to get stakeholders or your boss to agree on numeric goals. If this is the case, do the best you can. You can create your own metrics for success and ask if they are close enough (for example, you can ask whether a stakeholder is thinking of a 10% reduction in costs, or a 50% reduction in costs?). Even just asking for clarification on goals should start the ball rolling among the stakeholders.
There’s never just one business goal.
If you can only find one, it’s too broad. Break it down into pieces.
Other goals also worth collecting: Brand Goals & Customer Experience Goals
Business goals are by far the most important with respect to your alignment personas effort. Without them, you can’t succeed. But they don’t give you the full picture.
Business goals are measurable and should be relatively indisputable. Brand goals and customer experience goals are much softer, but can be equally as important and helpful during the alignment persona creation, design and development process.
Loosely described, your brand is the perception your target market has of your company and products. Because alignment personas describe your current users, or the users you want to attract, the perceptions they have of your company and products matter.
Unlike business goals, brand goals don’t have to have numbers or metrics associated with them (and they usually don’t, in my experience).
Brand goals force you to understand how the marketing and communications teams are trying to position your company, products, and services to attract attention and differentiate you from your competition. Gathering brand goals helps you get support from marketing, which you’ll find invaluable.
Some examples of brand goals:
- To be seen as a competitor to Acme, Inc. who is currently the leader in our space,
- To make sure the differences and similarities between our sub-brands / individual products are understood. For example, we want people to understand why they should buy the professional edition or the home edition or the student edition, and why those three editions exist.
User Experience Goals
User experience goals articulate the problems you want to solve for your customers and how it will feel for you customers to use whatever you are building.
To create experience goals, write down quotes that you’d love to hear from customers after they use the product you are planning to build. It’s fun to start with the word ‘wow’:
- Wow, I had no idea that I could buy both the product and service online without talking to anybody!
- Wow, this new support service is great. I feel I can get all the answers I need quickly and easily!
- Wow, I’m so glad that they offer this service now. I didn’t even know that I could expect this from this kind of business!
If you do collect user experience goals now, you will revisit them after you create alignment personas. The alignment personas will give you new insights that will help you evaluate and tune your user experience goals. You can also use the before-and-after versions of the user experience goals to illustrate the impact of the alignment personas (see Alignment Persona Project Goals.)