User experience & hairdressing – making good ideas happen

by Ben Allen on May 9, 2010

Do you ever have a tough time describing user experience and what UX consultants try to do? I’ve been trying to spread the good word for over 5 years and it still trips me up some times. It’s not a case of whether I understand, it’s a case of getting my audience to understand. Stories, analogies, metaphor and simile all help. Here is one I stumbled on while talking to my hair dresser.

How are haircuts and user experience alike?

Here is the conversation I had with the awesome hairdresser, who’s skills are sadly lost on a balding man like myself, at Steven Papageorge Salon.

Hairdresser: “I had a tough week last week because I had all my difficult clients in”

Me: “Why is that?”

Hairdresser: “They are difficult in that they make me cut their hair in a way that is not flattering. It’s hard work when you have to do that.”

Me: “I totally understand!”

Hairdressers work with thousands of different types of people with different types of hair, they are trained to work out what looks good and what does not look good. They have probably made loads of mistakes in the past and learnt from them. I’m going to that hairdresser because I think they are good or my friends think they are good. Why then do we all walk into a hairdressers, sit down and answer the question, coming from the hairdresser, “how would you like your hair?”? Shouldn’t it be me asking “what can you do with my hair?”?

My point is that “the experts should know best” but sometimes the wishes of the client can get in the way of the best ideas.

When designing websites the UX consultancy world can get like hairdressing. I’d suggest that, like good hairdressers, a good user experience professional will be able to create a good experience even if you, the client, cannot picture it yourself. Sometimes I get asked to make an interface or experience that I know sucks or to put it another way I’m being asked to cut may favourite client a pristine mullet.

Banishing the mullet!

What can you do? How can clients and agencies banish the mullet?

Client side

If you’re getting push back from your agency maybe have a go at doing the following:

  • Take a step back and ask yourself “am I qualified to cut my own hair?”
  • Start to phrase your feedback as problems and not solutions (point added to post on 6th June 2010)
  • Read this excellent article by Seth Godin – how to be a great client

Agency side

  • Take a deep breath & remember who pays the bills. The worst possible thing to do is to be disrespectful or arrogant. If you lose your temper you’ve lost your argument or, worse, your client
  • Keep a log of key decisions, document both (client & agency) points of view. If the solution you don’t like really does bomb you want to make sure you have an audit trail of sorts
  • Keep a log of the ideas that got shot down, call it your “innovation log”, whip it out if you get a shot at A/B testing or iteration 2 of the same project
  • Promote A/B testing within a lab study – let your users decide which solution is best
  • If it’s technical constraints that are sending you down a dark path – try to understand the constraints you’re operating within? Is there a hack around the constraints that are forcing you to build out a bad experience?
  • If all else fails – picture your client with a sweet ass mullet, mohawk, bowl cut or <insert bad hair cut here>. A smile on your face may help you keep perspective

Your stories & ideas

Over to you:

  • do you think the hairdresser analogy is a good one?
  • what stories, metaphors, analogies do you use to help clients understand your services & good ideas?
  • what other industries are analogous to user experience consultancy?
  • what techniques do you use to get the best ideas implemented?
  • when should an agency back off? When does the client really know best?

Happy story telling & best haircut wishes to all of you.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Alex May 10, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Great analogy. I don’t know if you can extend the analogy that sites like hair cuts do need reviewing from time to time “I’ve always had my hair done like this, it works”. As an agency you may have to review a ‘cut’ that you previously recommended but fashion/ux expectation has moved forward.

But Ben, in the defence of those difficult clients. UX as a profession is still (for most businesses) relatively new. The Internet has been changing massively over the last couple of years. What they want may not be the height of fashion now but was once. Is the job not then to educate the advancements in UX rather than CYOA? (I know, easier said than done)

After all the mullet was fashionable once!


Ben Allen May 11, 2010 at 9:41 pm

Alex – thanks so much for the feedback, you make several good points (as usual).

  1. “changing your hair” – certainly scary, no one likes change even if we all know it’s good for us. It’s a good extension of the analogy. Look at how popular make-over shows are, we could do a web equivalent before somebody else does!
  2. “Fashion moving on” – it certainly does! I wonder what moves faster the web or fashion? Do you think we have fashion cycles in web design i.e. what was good in the 70s will suddenly come into vogue today? I agree it should be the agency’s responsibility to keep track of fashion.
  3. “internet & UX is still new” – I guess it is. I think the principle of “listening to customers” is harder to grasp than the web itself. Although that can present a problem in itself. So many people, clients included, use the web heavily and therefore they believe they “get it”. Most also believe that “everyone uses the web like I do”. Another common misconception which we always battle. The Highest Paid Person in the Organisation (HIPPO) culture is also another tough battle – the guys at the top always think they have the best ideas. Cultural problems are so difficult to overcome.
  4. “education, education, education” – I strongly believe in this. I think smart individuals and smart companies need to publish this kind of content. It will be good for everyone – the smart get smarter and the “less smart” get a little slice of sanity & a huge improvement in their education too. The stubborn will listen if there are enough voices promoting ROI. UX case studies and blogs like this (I hope) help to some end

Was the mullet ever fashionable? Questionable :)


Frances July 19, 2010 at 3:37 pm

If only you could A/B test a haircut!


Ben Allen July 20, 2010 at 8:51 pm

The funny thing is Frances – so many other industries would kill to be able to do what we can do within web sites. A/B testing is so cheap and easy within digital circles but probably underused! A/B testing haircuts would be great :)


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