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The challenge

So here was my challenge. As the manager of a team of user researchers, I was asked some years ago to help shift the mindset of our executives from traditional software benchmarked by features and functions to one measured by the quality of the user experience. But how do you shift a software executive’s attention away from pressing deadlines, performance feedback prep, the-way-we’ve-always-done-it, customer demands, internal politics, and lunch in order to focus for one hour on user experience? Oh, and make an impression that will last for years?

My first thought was no matter how great the slides, certainly not with another PowerPoint presentation!

With trained psychologists in my team (i.e. user researchers), it was clear that getting people emotionally involved and doing something hands-on both strengthen neuron communication in the brain and thus improve memory of the event. So it seemed obvious that in order to make an impact we should set up a learning situation that was very high touch and help executives feel the pain of end users. Thus the Executive Lab Tour program was born.

The set up

Starting with our board members and working our way down the corporate hierarchy, we invited a maximum of two executives per one-hour usability testing session. Joining me from my team were a senior user researcher to moderate the session and a senior designer to create collateral materials and coordinate the meetings. We created a task for each of the executives to complete using our software.

Fortunately, we had all the resources we needed. We had experienced people, a lab with a one-way mirror, usability testing equipment, and we had a lot of executives.

After a short introduction round, the user researcher sat down with one executive at the computer set up for the usability test and the designer and I took the other executive behind the one-way mirror to observe the session and see our testing equipment. After approximately 15 minutes of struggling with the task, some more successfully than others, the executives switched the observer / tester role. (If we only had one executive present, our designer sat in as the second test participant.) After 30 minutes we were done with the testing portion of the session and invited our guests to discuss their experience and ask questions.

Note: The danger in this exercise, of course, is that user experience becomes synonymous with and reduced to usability testing. This is why the second half of the session focused on the big picture and we emphasized that usability testing is one instrument in a much larger toolbox of the whole design process.

The results

It took us the better part of a year, but we did conduct the Executive Lab Tour program with a majority of our c-level managers and R&D decision-makers. We also got many requests to conduct an abbreviated tour with whole units of team leaders and visiting customers.

What I found particularly interesting was the enthusiasm and interest of the executives as they observed the testing process and, prompted by the testing moderator, “thought aloud” about why they were struggling with the user interface of the application as they tried to complete the task. For us in the design business, usability testing is as normal as putting on our shoes in the morning, but for executives, whose daily work is millions of miles away from this, it was fun and fascinating. Many executives delegate enterprise tasks to others in their team, but in this situation, they really had to struggle and do their best to complete the task. You could practically hear the “click” in their minds after about 15 minutes. Many second and third level executives commented to us that they now deeply understood why each of their products should go through usability testing.

Even now, several years after the program, with design thinking well established in our organization, executives still sometimes comment to me in passing, “I remember when we did that usability testing thing… In that room with the one-way mirror… That was really an eye opener.” Hearing that makes me smile.

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