Seven Tips for Presenting Usability Issues to Stakeholders

In a previous life, I was a Library and Information Science masters student, and part-time reference desk librarian. I worked in the Biomedical library, connecting medical students and professionals to journals, articles, research, studies, books, knowledge…I attended medical library conferences and studied how to help medical professionals with “evidence-based practice.” As a
result, I became adept at helping people find evidence to base their practice on in medical research literature. That skill has certainly served me well as a user experience researcher as I work closely with designers and stakeholders, and now unsurprisingly, finding and delivering evidence to inform design decisions is my absolute favorite part of this wonderful job.

I’m in the thick of user research on my current project, and along the way I’ve been reminding myself of all sorts of best practices I learned from the brilliant Joan Kaplowitz, an Information Literacy Librarian.  Using her advice, I do everything I can to make sure the people consuming the information I present, are getting what they need and informing the design questions they have.

My hope is what works well for me, using Joan’s principles, will help you too when you have to communicate your results to a team of stakeholders.

1. Engage your stakeholders

“Active learning is better than passive reception for retention and transfer of learning.” Joan Kaplowitz

In my experience, the best way to engage stakeholders, and have them actively learn usability issues is to involve them in the research.  Having them come to observe usability test sessions and contribute their observations to an affinity diagram is a very effective way for them to retain the feedback they hear, and see trends across users.  One strategy I learned from attending the Nilesen Norman Group Usability Bootcamp in 2007 was from Kara Pernice: have your observers take notes on post-its (quotes, observations, one issue per post-it), and then change color post-its for different participants. Then you can start to group issues together with stakeholders, and see usability trends across users (colors). Your diagram of groups then can turn into your report, transcribing your wall of insights into a presentation slide deck or any other format.

2. Keep it lightweight

“Less is more. It is better to teach a few things well than to overwhelm learners with so much information that they become frustrated, anxious, and unable to retain anything from the instruction.” Joan Kaplowitz

The best way to describe this principle as it applies to reporting usability findings was best articulated by Todd Wilkens from Adaptive Path: “The effectiveness of your research report is inversely proportional to the thickness of it’s binding.”  You will be so much more effective in making change happen, and getting people to take action on your findings, if you don’t overwhelm them with new information. Your goal is to inspire your stakeholders to address the usability issues, and have designers solve the usability problems.  Then, validate those changes were successful with another round of testing!

3. Get them talking

“The instructor’s voice should be the one heard least during teaching.” Joan Kaplowitz

The best presentations I’ve ever given have been because I met with stakeholders ahead of time to get a sense of what they learned from watching usability sessions. Get designers to tell you what they learned, because it doesn’t matter so much what is in your head, as it does what is in theirs. Before giving your final presentation to the larger group of stakeholders, talk with your key stakeholders, and have them tell you what they learned, observed, and took away from the sessions.  Review the takeaways you intend to present, and invite them to add to it. Your final presentation will be far more effective at inspiring change to happen.

4. Grab them in the first 5 minutes

“You win or lose your audience in the first five minutes. Talk to your learners as they enter the room. Provide them with something to do and/or think about as people are arriving. Engage them from the start.” Joan Kaplowitz

Sometimes the beginning of the findings presentation is the most challenging, because all your great insights are coming later in your slide deck.  However, the beginning of a presentation ALWAYS sets the stage for the message you are giving. Get to the presentation room early, and build rapport with each person who comes through the door.  Great them with a hello, and say their name (people love to hear their own name).  The goal before the presentation starts is to get “audience members” on your side, because in my experience, these are the folks that that are most likely to help fend of hecklers in your defense! Also, you want a strong introduction.  You definitely don’t want to stumble through your first 2 minutes of speaking.  Here is a basic introduction that I use often – but the more creative you can be the better!

“Great, let’s go ahead and get started. Today we are going to talk about_____________. We have about 45 minutes for the discussion, and I’ll leave some time at the end for questions, but if you have any questions along the way, please feel free to ask. First I want to ask… who had a chance to observe the sessions?  Great, well if there is anything you would like to add that you remember observing, please feel free…”

5. Demonstrate each key issue

This advice I learned on the ground floor at the UCLA Biomedical Library reference desk.  Students, nurses, patients, etc. would come to the desk asking how to use the library databases.  The most effective way for them to learn how to use the databases wasn’t just telling them, but actually demonstrating it to them. In fact, it was best if you could hand the keyboard to them, and have them drive themselves.  In an usability findings presenation, you really want to re-create the issues that participants had during the session.  Stakeholders tend to be quite visual, and greatly benefit if you show them what you mean.  Take full screen shots, and simulate the experience of using the technology using basic animations such as fading in.  This seems to be the best way to re-tell the story, and have your findings really sink in with stakeholders.

6. Keep track of your effectiveness

“Always include a way to assess your outcomes. Otherwise you will have no idea if your learners have attained them.” Joan Kaplowitz

In the world of UX Research, the best way to assess your outcomes is to keep track of which issues are on the plan to getting fixed, and which ones have not been fixed. You can keep track of these in an Excel spreadsheet on your own, but the best is to have your issues make it to the product roadmap.  You want to see your usability issues turn into “user stories” if you are working with Agile teams, or possibly the roadmap, bug fixes, or “change requests” if you are working in a waterfall environment. However your organization keeps track of changes that need to be made to the system, do what you can to make sure usability issues are represented there.

7. Take a multi-format approach

“Use handouts, web pages, and pre and post activities to extend your contact time with your learners. Offer ways for learners to keep the conversation going after instruction is completed — through email, blogs etc.” Joan Kaplowitz

A PowerPoint presentation is a great way to walk through usability findings.  However, you don’t want to only deliver a slide deck. In addition to your presentation, you will want to give a “hand out” to your key stakeholders, the people who need a “check list” of things to address.  Don’t rely on them taking their own notes during the presentation, give them a list that they can easily make notes to.  You don’t need to pass this out to everyone, just to your 1 or 2 key stakeholders. Also, I’ve seen a follow up email work really well, with a link to your presentation, to the recording of the discussion, and a couple bullets that summarize the key takeaways.  Inviting users to continue the conversation using wiki pages is a great way to keep them engaged, and continue with next steps.

So there you have it. This is my very best advice on how to present usability findings so that it inspires your stakeholders to take action. Many of the information literacy principles listed here apply to basing design decisions on evidence.   How do you communicate your usability issues?


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