Can You Say That in English? Explaining UX Research to Clients
Issue № 295

Can You Say That in English? Explaining UX Research to Clients

The new business meeting was going swimmingly—that is, until the client started asking questions about our design process. Then we unleashed our lexicon of specialized user experience (UX) research terminology.

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Why should we do that thing you called…what was it, task analysis? We’d like some of those personas. They’re important, right? What the heck is contextual inquiry?!

As mental models flew about the room, I realized how hard it is for clients to understand the true value of UX research. As much as I’d like to tell my clients to go read The Elements of User Experience and call me back when they’re done, that won’t cut it in a professional services environment. The whole team needs a common language and a philosophy that’s easy to grok.

I created a cheat sheet to help you pitch UX research using plain, client-friendly language that focuses on the business value of each exercise. But, before we get to the cheat sheet, let’s talk about how we can communicate the value of UX research at a much higher level.

Try a little tenderness#section2

Strong UX thinking is founded on observed user behavior. You can’t just call in a UX expert and expect to make headway with unsophisticated clients. As independent UX designer Whitney Hess puts it, “User experience designers are liaisons, not subject matter experts, doctors, or any type of magical beings. We don’t have a set of best practices that we can robotically implement, nor do we have all of the answers. Our greatest skill is that we know how to listen.”

As UX researchers, we’re hired to be the glue between business stakeholders and users. In a sense, we’re informed facilitators. And before a contract is signed, our role is to influence our clients with kindness, grace, and wit, on the true value of our engagement.

What results can clients expect from research?#section3

Naturally, clients want every activity they pay for to lead to a tangible result—a website that fulfills their business goals and satisfies their customers.

However, it’s our job to help clients understand that their proposed website’s overall success depends on the quality of input throughout the site design and development process, not the quantity of input. So when you’re talking with clients about creating long-term business value through UX research activities, you should describe the following critical results:



High-Level Results of UX Research
What the client wants What you should say Why you should say it
Insight into how site visitors will think, act, and react when using the site. We’ll use UX research techniques to validate our strategic design decisions by soliciting feedback from people who will use your website. Clients need to know your point of view, but must also understand that it’s only an opinion until you observe and talk to their customers.
Confidence that their website will function as a cohesive whole. We’ll take your business requirements and, with audience input, create a cohesive experience for your users. Clients need to know that you understand how customers will react to both the big picture and the details.
Stakeholder consensus on what will be built and why it will be built. Our research results, with your approval, form a critical part of the documentation we’ll need to “¨build your site. Clients need to feel like they’re in control of the result—even though well-considered audience input should directly influence stakeholder opinion on the features that need to be documented.

Good UX research = smart business#section4

Beyond these short- to mid-term results, what can we offer clients as part of the long-term value of our UX engagement? Can we promise them real long-term return on investment?That depends on how metric-savvy your client wants to become. Five years ago, Adaptive Path showed how ROI can be related to UX considerations with a little time and effort. A key takeaway was that the development of associations between user behavior and business value can act as a gateway drug: if you can show them how to relate behavioral change to value-based assessments of that change, you can have a major influence on your clients’ business strategy. In short, clients become addicted to improvement.

The UX research cheat sheet#section5

After I describe the high-level results clients can expect from UX research, I try to help them understand the specific methods I may use, depending on their needs. I cut and paste the following plain-English method descriptions into the proposal as necessary.

I created the cheat sheet that follows so that you don’t have to scramble for words every time a client request comes in. I mapped each activity to the critical IA deliverables Keith LaFerriere outlined in “Flexible Fuel: Educating the Client on IA,” as well as some additional visual design deliverables. The real-world examples I’ve included are meant to be boilerplates, and I encourage you to revise this material to include examples related to your projects.


What it is in plain English: What people say about who they are, what they do, and where they go.

Real-world example: You’re creating a site for a company that sells professional-grade cameras. You survey 25 photographers on the websites they frequent, which cameras they prefer, how often they do client work, and so on. You collect this information and analyze it to find trends, inform your competitive research, and begin to shape the kind of site experience your audience might want.

Business value: By surveying target users, you’ll learn who your site visitors really are, and what types of content they expect from your site at a very high level.

Questionnaires provide input into: Personas, wireframes, navigation schema, the content map, the site map, and the content strategy.

Contextual inquiry#section7

What it is in plain English: Observing what people do as they go about their day—not what they say they do.

Real-world example: You’re designing a website for woodworkers. You call up some woodworkers and ask if you can watch them for a few hours as they practice their craft. While they work, you observe what they do and ask questions about behavior that you don’t understand. The material you collect can shape every level of the website’s user experience.

Business value: Observing user behavior often helps to create a website that directly supports their day-to-day activities.

Contextual inquiry provides input into: Personas, user flows, wireframes, navigation schema, the content map, the site map, the content strategy, and UI design.

Diary study#section8

What it is in plain English: Learning how people use a product over time, as they write about their experiences with it in their own words.

Real-world example: You’ve been asked to improve a web application that lawyers use to track their case research. You give five lawyers tape recorders and/or journals and ask them to document anything strange or difficult that they notice while using the application. Then, you analyze that data to make specific recommendations on product improvement.

Business value: If your customers are far-flung or hard to pin down in person, a diary study is one of the best ways to uncover a wealth of insight into how your audience currently uses a website or application.

A diary study provides input into: Personas, user flows, wireframes, navigation schema, the content map, the site map, the content strategy, and the use case / requirements document.

Task analysis#section9

What it is in plain English: Observing how people take part in an activity, and then examining what they are thinking and what they are doing as they complete each task, step by step.

Real-world example: A health-care company wants you to improve their claims-processing system. You observe their employees as they use the software to process claims. Then, you go through the process yourself, documenting each step required to fulfill every task. From that analysis, you make recommendations to streamline or improve the process.

Business value: By conducting a task analysis to break down how customers use the website or application, and then using that information for process improvement, you can increase the number of site transactions and create operational efficiencies that save money.

Task analysis provides input into: Personas, user flows, wireframes, navigation schema, the use case / requirements document, the content map, and the site map.

Card sorting#section10

What it is in plain English: Discovering how you can help people find information more quickly and easily on your website.

Real-world example: IBM asks you to rethink how they organize a portion of their website designed for librarians. You examine the site’s information architecture and distill it into 60 to 80 index cards. These cards contain the proposed names of various sections of the site, as well as content that you might find within each section. You meet with librarians and have them organize the cards. Then, you analyze the data from all of the sorts to discover patterns in how people organized the information. The results of the sort inform your IA recommendations for the site.

Business value: Card sorting helps to create websites that are easy to navigate. If you have a highly complex product or service, or a website with a lot of content, it’s crucial that your customers can easily find information they’re interested in.

Card sorting provides input into: navigation schema, the content map, the site map, and the content strategy.

Paper prototyping#section11

What it is in plain English: Simple paper versions of your site pages that customers can use to give feedback on your proposed designs.

Real-world example: Bank of America’s site visitors aren’t signing up for the new AmEx card as they’d expected. Reviewing site metrics, it becomes clear that visitors are bailing on the sign-up form. After analysis, you draw up sketches that represent different form design options. You put the sketches in front of users and ask them how they would sign up for a credit card, moving papers around as necessary to “load” new screens. Based on this user input, you make an informed recommendation on the AmEx card sign-up form design.

Business value: Seeing customer reactions to simple paper prototypes will validate critical interaction points, helping you to protect your website investment without having to write a single line of code. This is especially important when you want to create seamless transactions for your customers.

Paper prototyping provides input into: Navigation schema, wireframes, user flows, interaction storyboards, the UI design, the content map, the content strategy, and the site map.

Functional prototyping#section12

What it is in plain English:  observing people as they use a very simple website or application prototype that has copy in place.

Real-world example: Have users actually use the form to sign up for a credit card on the computer. Write down what users experienced during the process, and improve the design with your key learnings.

Business value: Having customers use areas of your website in a rudimentary, low-fi manner will help you validate that you’re fulfilling their expectations. And this can happen before you’ve completely finalized the user interface design of your website or application.

Functional prototyping provides input into: wireframes, user flows, the use case / requirements document, the UI design, and the content.

Usability Testing#section13

What it is in plain English: Observing people as they use a website or product, and recording any difficulties they have during the process.

Real-world example: Your client is very excited about their new site for people who love smoothies—but site statistics show that users aren’t clicking past the homepage. You do a quick heuristic analysis with five smoothie-lovers. You ask them to sign up for the Smoothie Lover’s Club and find out how many calories are in a 16 oz. Berry Blast. By observing them as they perform these actions, and noting key trouble spots, you can make recommendations to the client on updates to their site’s IA and UX design to improve its overall usability.

Business value: Conducting a usability test and soliciting feedback on a fully functioning website gives the greatest insight into what is and isn’t working for your customers—and usability test participants will often give you solutions for perceived problems right on the spot.

Usability testing provides input into: Personas, user flows, wireframes, the site map, the use case / requirements document, the UI design, and the content.

Keep the training wheels on#section14

Congratulations! Your new client has agreed to include user research as part of your next website project. Over the lifetime of the client work, be prepared to continue describing your proscribed research activities in plain language. Through a slow process of education and mutual trust, your clients will grow to understand your UX terminology—making it easier for them to request and participate in critical research activities in the future.

4 Reader Comments

  1. Great article. It’s so easy to forget that words that are critical topics to one person are jargon to another. We can go farther, and think about how to write all of our reports in plain language – language and information design that helps people scan them quickly, find information in them, and make use of that information.

    There’s lots more information at and (or on twitter @plain_language)

  2. it’s is humongoysly shocking that business endeavors in the United States and in other parts of the world, are this deeply focused to UX, in my country, sadly, website design industry is rules by the cheapest in the room, they just want a cheap website and the get it, it doesn’t work and then they sey that website design is useles, WD culture in my country obeys a single principle, WAR, you get the prize if you are the dirtiest mercenary (therefore my name), and I’m glad that I can learn some tools from you guys to make WD culture something more serious in my country.

  3. @whitneyq Sadly, in order to write in plain language, we sometimes need to write everything out in technical jargonese, then decode it on the page. This may take extra effort, but building that time into each deliverable can yield great reward–in hours saved not having to re-explain things that are often quite simple.

  4. It’s really important to be able to speak in a “client’s language” when trying to explain something. Knowing it simply won’t do it by itself…

    Nice article 🙂

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