Building a bridge between marketing and usability

To be an effective representative of both the user and the designer, and to help steer decision-making, usability practitioners must find a way to influence retailers of consumer products. That means building a new partnership with marketing.


In a previous article, I argued that consumer product designers often don’t know who they are really designing for because marketers, in thrall to the 'big box' retail customers, are unwittingly blocking the designer's view of the end user.

This is because in most organisations, the marketing and usability functions operate in almost non-overlapping spheres. They almost never consult with each other — and when they do, they speak different languages and barely understand each other's point of view.

Marketers don’t understand what usability is or how to exploit its value.

Usability practitioners don’t understand marketing or how marketers make decisions.

The two disciplines must address this mutual lack of understanding and form a genuine working alliance. This is a new dynamic and here are some specific suggestions to make the alliance work.

Action points for marketers

  • Get started with usability. If you're a marketer and don’t have a usability team or at least a usability practitioner, get one. I don’t mean shanghaiing someone who is already too busy with their own work and giving them a new business card. I mean get some real usability expertise into the company. Someone who knows that there are such things as ISO and ANSI standards for usability and who knows the content of these standards. This cannot be an entry-level position. This person must be able to mix it with marketing, design and engineering on an equal footing, and must have the clout needed to make things happen. Make this a leadership position and hire in an experienced usability expert who has strong leadership qualities.
  • Make sure every designer has a 'go to' usability person — even if they all go to the same person. And put a usability expert on the leadership team of every major product.
  • Make a financial commitment to usability. Build usability activities into your annual marketing budget. A good place to start is to invite your usability function to do some user needs discovery research. Use the resulting data to create user personas and bring the user to life inside the development team. These user behaviours and user requirements data will complement and help reinforce the market research data you currently use to characterise the consumer. 
  • Start a monthly seminar. You might call it “A Day in the Life of a Marketer” or “Usability: My role in the product development lifecycle”. Invite everyone involved in product development to attend and contribute insights into their own roles. To guarantee attendance, supply pizza or sandwiches.
  • Make sure you are exploiting the full value of usability. As a marketer, you live and breathe the consumer. But it's easy to get sidetracked by a retailer's demand for new features. Usability practitioners can help you understand how to create a successful new product around real user needs, how to solve actual user problems, and how to harness the value of usability methods and techniques in your work. Instead of relying for guidance on gut feel, past experience, team consensus, or opinion-based feedback; or waiting for competitors to make the first move so you can create a ‘me too’ product, your new alliance with usability will give you real use data and genuine user insights to fuel innovation. And you will eliminate the fuzzy thinking that gives it’s name to the ‘fuzzy front end’ of product development.

Action points for usability practitioners

  • Build a bridge to marketing. Introduce yourself to your project's marketing lead. Do lunch. Gen up a bit first on Marketing 101 and be prepared to share some nuggets of usability information you think might pertain to a project. Don't make this a one-off encounter. Start to build an alliance and foster trust.
  • Build another bridge to design. This should be a three-way alliance that includes design. I often hear usability practitioners say they think designers don’t understand usability. I don’t think this is true. They learn about it in design school. In my experience consumer product designers get usability. But I do think usability needs to better understand how designers think and to spend more time understanding what inspires them. Keep in mind that designers are problem solvers and that design is not just about aesthetics, it's about how things work.
  • Start sharing usability information with marketing. Make a point of ensuring that your marketing colleagues, and everyone else on your project teams, explicitly knows what usability actually is. When everyone has a different and erroneous idea of what usability means it's difficult to engage with colleagues on the subject or meet their expectations. If you achieved nothing more, this would be a major win. You should also consider starting a monthly newsletter with snippets of usability news and hot topics with links and references that people can follow up. Start to generate a usability buzz.
  • Invite marketing and design to every usability test. Send each of them a copy of the report and follow up to discuss the findings and talk about what they should do next.
  • Get marketing to sell usability into your company. Selling things is what marketers do best. You have a partnership with them now, a trusted alliance. You understand each other's world. So get your marketer to sell usability throughout your company and up to the highest echelons of the organization. Unlike marketers, who always seem to brim with confidence, usability people can sometimes be rather diffident, so have your marketing colleague help you learn how to sell usability yourself — and let some of their self-assurance rub off on you. Marketing has easy access to business numbers, so make it a point to sit down with your marketing partner and work together to calculate the actual usability ROI for your company.
  • Win an audience with the retailer. By now the idea of introducing usability to the retail customer should come easy to your marketer. You'll know you've made a real difference when you hear the retailer say, “How did this product concept you're trying to sell me perform in usability testing?” or “Did you run this idea by usability first?” or “What does usability have to say about this?”

Creating a dream team

Following these action points will allow a Marketing + Usability + Design 'dream team' to emerge. Eliminate the ‘ingroup’ and ‘outgroup’ behaviours by replacing the silo walls with mutual understanding, trust and confidence. At this point, working in an interdependent way will become second nature, and this new working alliance, in which usability fills an ambassadorial role, will allow the user to enter new product negotiations.

 

Philip Hodgson, December 2012