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HiPPOs -- the Highest Paid Person's Opinions -- are a well-known pitfall and obstacle to creating a great web site or mobile app. Features or designs aren't chosen because they're what users need, but because they're what the HiPPO wants.

Well, another common pitfall is something worse than digital design by HiPPO -- digital design by a herd of HiPPOs. Usually, the powerful heads of several departments all want their desires represented. If they all got their way, the new site or app would be a muddy hodgepodge, pleasing to no one.

But their boss, the uber-HiPPO, is distant from the fray and unwilling to wade in. And if data-driven decision-making is supposed to rule the day, many HiPPOs pull out their own respective stack of research to support their demands. Lies, damned lies and statistics…

There seem to be two ways out of this log-jam that can lead to good digital products (if you know of others, do share!) Both solutions depend on a strong guardian of the product vision.

1) The Steve Jobs model -- this is the CEO as Chief Product Officer and the ultimate guardian of the product vision. This uber-HiPPO cares passionately about details of the digital product because he/she understands how they contribute to the overall vision. The herd leader wades into the logjam and clears it through ruthless adherence to the vision, cutting down things that turf-guarding executives demand but detract from the overall product goal.

2) The data battle-of-attrition model -- the philosophy behind this approach is that strong testing results will ultimately win the day, despite each HiPPO in the herd pointing to their own selective findings. This implies that your user experience pros need time to do the testing to gather strong results before the HiPPO herd jumps in. It could also mean that company launches the digital product initially muddied by the HiPPOs conflicting demands, before further testing and optimization shows what works and what doesn't and the product is refined.

In your experience, how have you broken through a HiPPO log-jam?

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Tags: HiPPOs, UX design, optimization, testing, user experience design, user testing, web design

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Comment by Daniel Leuck on August 20, 2013 at 7:07am

The title of this post gave me a good chuckle :-) I believe the best approach depends on the organization and the purpose of the site or app. Design by committee is rarely a good option. Generally you want a single individual who collects input from key players (including HiPPOs) but is empowered to render the final decisions for their realm of expertise (e.g. design, content, technology or, for larger sites, knowledge of a particular domain within the site). You want your best designer controlling the aesthetics, your best engineer dictating technology, etc. This sounds obvious but, as you point out, HiPPOs often muddy the waters, especially if they are permitted to come from people who take strong opinions in areas outside their realm of expertise.

I like your two approaches 1) Brilliant Visionary Dictator and B) Feature Darwinism. Of course for 1) you need to have someone who is actually brilliant and visionary. For 2) I would add that there still needs to be clear decision points and realms of responsibility. I like the Darwinian approach used by sites such as Amazon (i.e. features sink or swim via A/B testing), but you don't want to throw just anything against the wall.

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