Usability and Passive Aggressive Clients


I love usability, but not everyone does, because not everyone understands how it works. It seems to me that sometimes, usability brings out the “aggressive” in passive aggressive clients!

Usability depends on having clients who appreciate and understand why usability is important. If you do your usability work in a corporate environment or other big firm, then your clients are your fellow “Associates” or “Employees” or whatever name your Human Resources department calls your co-workers. If you’re a consultant or you own your own business, then your usability clients are external customers and also their co-workers and/or employees, who may or may not refer to each other as Associates.

So, whether you’re a consultant or corporate Associate, I’m betting dollars to doughnuts that you’ve met plenty of passive aggressive clients when trying to pitch or conduct usability testing. What’s a passive aggressive? Anybody who by their lack of commitment, action or support for your usability project stops your usability work from being done.

How do you recognize a passive aggressive usability client? Simple! They are the people who remain silent for almost a whole meeting, and at the end of the meeting (after all the discussions are done and some commitment has been reached) may say something like, “Well, that all may be well and good, but you don’t know my customers/clients/web site users/etc etc etc…” They are also the people who will not say much at all in the meeting, but later on (the next hour or day or week) will sneer at your usability project to their co-workers, and who will be critical of the project.

More than likely, you have maybe just one or two clients who get that usability is important, and the rest in the organization either have never heard of usability or have a passive aggressive attitude about usability. If you want your usability project to progress, then you may have to deal with trying to get passive aggressives to agree to move forward. Here’s a few tips I’ve learned over the past 10 or so years that might help you, should you find yourself in a passive aggressive situation:

I’ve noticed there are three things that most passive aggressive clients will say, when presented with a usability project that seeks to recommend changes to a web site or application that they do not agree with:

1. “Well, I know my users and they would never (or always)…”
This argument is often a favorite of passive aggressives. The implication is usability is not valid, because the passive aggressive client understands the wants and needs of his or her users better than the usability professional. Sometimes, the passive aggressive client will, if pressed, refer to demographic research that is available to demonstrate their knowledge of their user. Often the passive aggressive will, if pressed, point out the lack of an adequate sampling of users for the usability test, insisting that 7 (or whatever the number you’re planning on using) users is not sufficient to properly conduct a usability test.

The easiest way to deal with this type of passive aggressive client is to remind him or her, and the other clients, that the research you have is behavioral based, not demographic, and that by testing the critical tasks associated with each Persona (which hopefully have been agreed upon in advance by the client AND the passive aggressive, but don’t count on it) the number of users are sufficient for your usability test. And, that the results of the test will be valid because it’s the task being tested, not the user.

2. “Well, I know we agreed to do XYZ earlier, but I still have doubts and don’t think we should proceed, because…”
This is another common passive aggressive behavior I’ve noted, which is to rewind a conversation back to an earlier discussion point and/or agreement. Often, the passive aggressive will raise new concerns or questions about the prior agreement, causing an entire meeting or discussion to become derailed, with a subsequent lack of progress. Warning! It’s dangerous to get trapped into continually re-hashing earlier agreements with a passive aggressive. They will continue to stop progress and argue points pretty much forever, or at least until they retire from their company. This stall technique is often a favorite of the more expert passive aggressives.

I’ve found over the years that the simplest way to deal with this rewind behavior is to not allow it. A firm, “Thank you for your input. However, in our earlier meeting/discussion we all came to consensus and agreed to do XYZ, and so in order to continue our progress on this usability project let’s all agree to use the decision we made earlier on this point and continue, shall we?” Two things must happen, first, you must not allow the conversation to back-track and second, you must reach out to the other Associates or co-workers to gain their agreement and support for moving forward, that this issue has already been decided and does not need to be brought up again. By the way, if you suspect that you’re dealing with a passive aggressive, especially in a position of authority, you should probably do as much as possible to gain agreement and allies with the rest of the Associates by approaching them on a one on one basis, and requesting their support. Only in the face of overwhelming support for the prior agreements by the rest of the team will the passive aggressive back down from their rewind position.

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3. “I just don’t think you’re test is valid, because you’re not testing all of the things our users do on our site.”
I’ve noticed that passive aggressives will often try to put a hold on a usability project they don’t agree with by pointing out that not all of the tasks or functionality is being tested, thus the test is not valid. I believe this derives from the mistaken belief that because we cannot always know exactly why a user is visiting a site, we must offer the users every singly possible function that might be used, no matter whether the function is used often, or almost never.

I’ve found that reminding the passive aggressive (and the rest of the team) that usability testing does not test every single possible task on a site, but rather the most critical tasks, is crucial. A usability test can very quickly become quagmired if your clients follow the belief that all tasks have to be tested. Re-state the methodology of only testing for the main part of the bell-curve of users, and remind them that you are not trying to test designs for all users and all tasks.

Hopefully, these tips will help you keep your usability project on track if you find yourself stymied by a passive aggressive.

Do you have tips or tricks on how to deal with passive aggressive clients? I’d love to hear your ideas on how to keep moving forward on your usability projects, feeel free to leave a comment!