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Feb 10, 2009: Engagement and stakeholding. And steak.

Yesterday morning I was lugging a suitcase homeward, still bleary from a red-eye flight from Vancouver, where I'd attended the interaction'09 conference. Although I felt like hell, clearly I looked like a giant of industry, or at least a man of reasonable means, as I was approached by a fellow who asked me, "Hey, chief, want to buy some steaks?"

Raw steak. On Seventh Avenue. In the morning. Oh well, you've gotta admire the entrepreneurial instinct, however misplaced.

But the funny thing was that I'd just been thinking about steaks. Well, to be honest, stakes, as in stakeholding. At the conference, I'd been explaining the Rosenfeld Media publishing model to a dozen or so prospective authors. I kept returning to the words "engagement" and "stakeholding". I explained that one of our major goals is to engage with all sorts of people—practitioners, influencers, subject matter experts, and more—so that they'd have a stake in each book. More engagement from more stakeholders during the creation of the product leads to a better product.

That our goal, but isn't it yours too?

Whatever type of work we're doing, and whatever terms we use to describe it, when it comes to our hoped-for outcomes, aren't we all trying to get beyond experience, interaction, and design? Aren't we trying to create artifacts that ultimately engage? Isn't that the secret sauce?

For example, at the conference, I was talking with a couple of the interaction design field's strongest advocates. I think they're doing wonderful things, and the conference was fantastic. But the term interaction: well, interactions happen, one way or another. And they can be good, or not so good. But it's a dry term, almost too objective.

But engagement seems to have a much higher degree of implicit value. People don't typically engage with things the don't like. When they engage, they've acquired a sense of stake in whatever they're using, and there's a true dialogue between user and system and the people behind the system. Engagement means blurring the lines between user and provider, as the implicit dialogue leads to all players enjoying a stake in a shared system (or experience).

Thinking in terms of engagement, rather than experience, architecture, or interactions, has opened all sorts of doors for me, whether I'm consulting, publishing, or whatever. I look at every potential relationship between people involved in an experience, and ask "How we engage better?" and "How can they have a stake in what we're doing?" To me, that's much richer than asking how we can help users interact better, or help them find better, or entertain them better, or anything else.

So please pardon me if, during our next conversation, I keep repeating the terms "engagement" and "stakeholding". It just feels right. Moreso than any other term, even "user experience".

What do you think?

PS To all you vegetarians out there, please pardon the red meat reference; it's just difficult not to share some of the odd occurrences that happen along Brooklyn's Seventh Avenue.

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Comment: dan k. (Feb 10, 2009)

hey lou,

i think you're right about "people" and how they don't typically engage with things they don't like. but stakeholders often need to or are required to engage with the unliked or unlikeable. for example, a 2-hour UI spec walkthrough is often an inherently unlikeable activity for our stakeholders.

the gap between the level of engagement stakeholders *should* be at w/r/t the planning and structural design phases of a project and the actual level of engagement they attain is sometimes a very deep chasm. the thing i wrestle with is where the UX practitioner's responsibility lies relative to that gap, and if the stuff we prepare for the purpose of attaining optimal stakeholder engagement makes all or just most of the difference in the width and depth of that gap.


Comment: Lou (Feb 12, 2009)

Dan, interesting point about stakeholders. I wonder if we're talking about different types of stakeholders though? I'm talking about making users into stakeholders, rather than engaging with stakeholders who are AKA business owners or product managers. Are we on the same page?

Comment: dan klyn (Feb 12, 2009)

I *think* we're on the same page. But perhaps not. I may be projecting.

When you talked about the expansion and intensification of stake-holding as being accomplished (in part) by "blurring the lines between user and provider" ... I loved that.

Users' capacity for engagement being at least in some ways a function of delight, and stakeholding being a function of or reinforced by engagement ... I'm trackin with all of that, too.

But I think where your focus was on what it means for users' level of engagement when the lines between their stake and the provider's stake become blurry or are intentionally blurred, your piece left me focusing on what all that might mean for providers. Especially if we return to the delight piece, and what you observed about the difficulty with engaging stuff we don't like.

Making users into stakeholders. Yes. And how about moving in the the other direction also and making stakeholders into users?

Comment: Lou Rosenfeld (Feb 12, 2009)

I love that direction!

But I'm more interested in the converse: users=>stakeholders. I don't see this as a stated goal in many projects, and I'm wondering why not. Isn't it the end-all of just about all of our projects (with the possible exception of those with captive audiences)?

Comment: Alis Whitman (Feb 13, 2009)

We have build products with stakeholder involvement from the ground up. Stakeholder engagement soars when you find the "point of pain". It is amazing how detailed, concise and insightful user feedback becomes when someone realizes that what you are building will...
a. Optimize their future work flow/bottom line.
b. Reflect their expertise in it's functionality and makeup.

Thanks for the thoughtful "pun". I don't like the idea of our users coming at me with a knife and fork, but I can roll with it + Alis

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