ROI and UX

There’s an awkward, infuriating question that every seasoned UX researcher will have encountered: “What’s the return on investment from implementing UX in my development process?”. Henceforth we will refer to it as The Question.

It’s awkward because there’s often no straightforward answer to The Question and it’s infuriating because it is notoriously difficult to assign an ROI to UX. This doesn’t mean that UX doesn’t produce an ROI, it’s just that getting an accurate number is tricky.

UX is often involved as part of a number of other interventions, such as design tweaks, functionality changes, etc, and these all impact ROI. It’s rare that a UX related change is released in isolation so that an accurate ROI can be ascertained.

What adds to the frustration for those of us in UX is that other disciplines in the development cycle aren’t held to the same account. You don’t tend to find graphic design teams being asked The Question – or indeed HR or finance teams. They’re all usually understood to be integral parts of a company producing good products and services. UX should be seen in the same way.

This isn’t trying to dodge The Question, and there are certainly ways to answer it, but the problem is that The Question isn’t very likely to produce useful insight into why your stakeholder should use UX in their development process.

That said, the fact that The Question is asked often enough suggests that it is important to stakeholders. And obviously when trying to make an argument for including UX, it’s in our interest to help as much as possible. So how best to answer The Question? It turns out that there are a number of ways to think about it:

Man looking at screen

Sidestepping a manhole

A stakeholder spends several thousand on a UX research project which ends up determining that the proposed product has little chance of success. They cancel the project. Savings from not developing a doomed project amount to many times the cost of the research project.

Continuous improvement

A UX project evaluates among other things, the effectiveness of moving a button’s position on a stakeholders e-commerce site. Sales improve by a small percentage over a large number of transactions. This UX activity is perhaps the hardest to attach an accurate ROI figure because it’s rare that these changes are made in isolation. For example, at the same time, several other changes could be made and features added or removed.

Paving the way

A stakeholder wants to launch a product in a new country and so runs a large ethnographic project to understand the culture and explore real-world experiences. The project uncovers a number of insights which inform the design of the product for that market. Again, the ROI is tricky to ascertain as a parallel product wasn’t launched without these insight-led changes.

The painful truth is that most of the time, there’s going to be a discussion following The Question, rather than a simple Q&A. It’s a process of helping stakeholders understand that even when a definitive figure can’t be attached to UX, the real cost of excluding it from their development process will undoubtedly be higher than including it.

Thanks goes to my colleague Andrew Swartz for his insight on this discussion!

Principal Design Researcher

Sutherland Labs
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