When attempting to sell a newbie on the value of user research, many UXers tell a familiar story. A group of stakeholders thought they understood their product, but after a few minutes of watching users, their eyes were opened. Maybe there was a product feature opportunity they had overlooked. Maybe they realized a key call to action wasn’t as noticeable as they thought it was. In any case, the story ends with stakeholders shouting “Eureka!”, high-fiving each other, and marching out of the room with a list of quick fixes that yield huge increases in their bottom-line.

But if you’ve been in this business for any amount of time, you know that the real story is seldom this tidy. Sometimes, high-fiving is the last thing stakeholders feel like doing after a day of observing usability testing. What they hear from users might not reveal quick fixes or low-hanging fruit, but rather critical flaws in their product that could prevent them from achieving their goals. At the end of this story, stakeholders are more likely to be looking crestfallen and playing the blame game than to excitedly exchanging high fives.

This was the case at a recent UX workshop I ran for a travel client. Over the course of a half-day of usability tests, it became clear that the product scheduled for launch in the next couple months wasn’t ready for prime time. While the product itself was fine, the purchasing experience was hopelessly complex – the byproduct of seemingly insurmountable restrictions imposed by a partner company.

All seemed lost. Voices were raised. Frantic phone calls were made to executives.

In the midst of all of this doom and gloom, someone made a crucial discovery: it was possible to simplify the purchasing process, but to do so would require building a new plugin. That task, they estimated, would push the launch back by a full quarter.

The team was now faced with two choices:

  1. Move forward with the launch as scheduled and fix the purchase process later on; or
  2. Delay the launch, disappoint their executives and partners, and, in all likelihood, miss their annual revenue targets.

After much deliberation, one key stakeholder spoke for the group: “We won’t get a second chance at a first impression.” They needed to delay.

Jared Spool has written a lot about the UX tipping point: the point at which organizations cross into UX maturity. He defines this as the point at which it is no longer acceptable to release a product with a subpar user experience. Reaching this point can be a painful process, and this point has never been clearer to me than when I was watching a despondent team face the unenviable task of delivering the unfortunate news to their bosses.

Ultimately, the team was able to use video clips of the user research to convince their executives and partners that it was necessary to delay. They are currently formulating their next steps, but have already scheduled another round of usability testing.

While this story may not feel triumphant, we must remember that making difficult decisions based on user research is an important achievement in and of itself. Had the team forgone user research or ignored its findings, they may have met their launch date, but they would have been caught unawares by its inevitable failure.