Agenda Amplifiers

Recently, I was in a meeting where a designer was showing off an analytics chart featuring their site’s bounce rate. “See how the bounce rate is 96%,” the designer told the audience. “People are coming to the site, getting bored with the content, and leaving immediately. We need to redesign the page to make it more attractive to stay.”

In another place at another time, I watched a designer present heat map diagrams of two pages—one was the old page and the other was a proposed redesigned new page. “See how there’s a big red blotch over the ‘Meetings’ link in the new page, but there’s no similar red blotch in the old page, where that link read ‘Meetings and Events’,” this designer explained to her audience. “The eye tracking data clearly shows that users preferred the link when it was just ‘Meetings’.’It was too complicated when it had both meetings and events in it. We need to change to the simpler link.”

In both presentations, there’s an agenda. The designers are trying to convince the stakeholders to accept their recommendations. To do that, they are presenting charts and heat maps to support their case.

The problem is, if you know how to read the charts and heat maps, they don’t support these designers’ assertions. The bounce rate doesn’t mean the users are necessarily bored. The chart doesn’t say that at all. For all we know, the users could’ve found the page’s content fascinating and exactly what they wanted. If they are satisfied, they are done. Leaving would be the right thing to do.

And the heat map-bearing designer failed to mention the other difference between the two design alternatives: On the old page, there was a list of events that was completely removed on the new design. If you look close, there’s a red blotch over that old list of events. When users were asked, with both designs, to find a meeting they’d be interested in, they all had to go to the ‘Meetings’ link in the new design because there was no place else to find the information. It’s not necessarily the change in words, but the reorganization of the content.

In both cases, the designers already had their agenda. They were using these charts and heat maps to amplify their agenda.

Amplifying an agenda is just one thing you can use charts and heat maps for. Finding insights is another. You could look at these design artifacts and use them to explore the problem, instead of using them to support your proposed design changes.

And there’s nothing wrong with using charts, heat maps, and other deliverables to support your agenda. In fact, it’s a great way to explain complex ideas in a way that makes it easy for non-design team members and stakeholders to understand.

Where we get into trouble is when we’re not honest about what the artifacts are telling us. By using complex artifacts, we’re not trying to make things simpler to understand. We’re pushing our agenda through obfuscation.

They only way we can win our way through obfuscation is to hope our audience of stakeholders isn’t smart enough (or doesn’t care enough) to figure out what we’re doing. Because, once they start asking questions, we automatically lose. We’ve undermined our credibility and our message.

The next time your about to stand in front of the stakeholders and make that presentation, ask yourself, “Have I created a narrative that requires these people don’t question the data?” If the answer is yes, then it’s likely you need to do more research and put together a better case for your recommendations. (Or better yet, provide the data in a way that _they_ come to the same recommendations.)