How to Deal with the HIPPO in a Customer Experience Design Project

How to Deal with the HIPPO in a Customer Experience Design Project

Digital has caught the attention of senior executives at enterprise organizations across verticals. Executives who once viewed digital strategy and customer experience as tangential to their core business now view these areas as critical to company success and possibly to survival.

While having executive interest and attention in customer experience can benefit a marketing team by increasing the budget and resources available to that team for initiatives, it also comes with potential drawbacks. One drawback would be greater involvement from an executive who is used to being right though does not have the digital savvy to make wise decisions about a next-generation customer experience.

Enter the HIPPO

If the term is unfamiliar, the HIPPO is the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.” To those who have spent any time toiling on major initiatives inside an enterprise organization, they have witnessed how the HIPPO, often an executive, can taint and potentially derail the decision making process. The HIPPOs stature within the organization can cause lower status employees, even if more knowledgeable on a given subject, to defer to the HIPPO. This leads to less than desirable, sometimes detrimental, outcomes.

How Does This Impact Customer Experience Design Projects?

With senior executives getting engaged in digital, you will often find an SVP or C-level executive taking part in customer experience design projects, sitting in on visioning, discovery, and design discussions. While this participation has generally positive signals for an organization transforming their digital experience, it can put a lot of pressure on user experience and design teams who need space, open-mindedness, and safety to reimagine the customer experience.

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Having been part of several dozen global customer experience design projects while working on the agency side, I have seen the HIPPO dampen discussions and assert errant conclusions upon the group. I have seen HIPPOs re-rack wireframes based on their opinion about what customers want, jam the stock ticker in the header to please Wall Street analysts, and reorder site navigation or change navigation labels to match internal structure.
In each of these situations, I sensed what was happening to the design team and made sure to intervene to put the decision making back in the hands of the experts, the digital strategists, UX architects, and UI designers comprising the core project team.

Here’s my advice for dealing with a HIPPO.

Get The HIPPO One on One

If you have the status to engage the HIPPO one on one, let the person know the situation and the impact that their assertions have on the customer experience design and the decision making process.

Provide a new structure for the person to engage in the project. While they may still be a part of various discussions, ask them to reserve their comments for the end of the discussion. Others may look to them to speak first, so if the HIPPO can take a step back, then it opens the floor for discussion. When the HIPPO does speak, they should be more informed because of the discussion by experts that already took place.

Also, guide the HIPPO to focus on asking questions versus making statements that could bring a healthy discussion to a halt. By asking questions, the HIPPO can add value by stoking further conversation around a key aspect of the customer experience that they feel needs further consideration.

Collect Data on the Users

Suppose there is nothing you can do to make your HIPPO see the light.

Likely your organization has mountains of data about the user experience and journey. If the data are solid, mine the data to bolster the case for objective decision-making.
Do not use data as a bludgeon in a battle with the HIPPO. Instead, use it to present an option to the group. Bringing the data into the group discussion will likely give confidence to others to pile in with support for the decision and the executive may feel inclined to concede even with a contradictory opinion.

Few executives will ignore credible data, so make use of it in the decision-making process and rely on it heavily as long as the data are good.

Rely on Tactics of User Centered Design

If a HIPPO continues to exert influence on the project, then I recommend relying heavily on the objective feedback of users.

There are a multitude of tools in the user centered design toolbox, such as contextual interviews, usability testing and card sorting, that can be used to ensure your organization makes the right customer experience decisions.

For example, usability testing on the existing customer experience or conceptual wireframes presents powerful methods for rooting decision making in the interest of users, not HIPPOs. Usability tests, when done well, will yield findings that can take the decision out of the hands of the HIPPO by providing objective observations from users of the flaws and strengths of a customer experience.

If you are at an impasse with a HIPPO about the design of the next generation customer experience, put various concepts in a horse race through usability testing, and use testing to figure out the winner with input from users.

What if you are the HIPPO?

If you are the HIPPO, then be self-aware of the influence you may have on customer experience design initiatives. No doubt you are well intentioned, though your presence and especially your statements may change the dynamic of the design process, likely leading to less desirable results than could have otherwise been achieved.

As enterprises continue to move digital towards the core of their business model, senior executives will increasingly engage in projects centered on customer experience design. If you find yourself in a situation in which a HIPPO has entered the room, then use the tactics in this article to promote better decision-making processes and launch a better customer experience.

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