How to Handle your Hippo
HiPPOs are amazingly good at mind control using the power of suggestion, whether they know it or not. They’re also incredibly good at laying astroturf across the world, however how they use that superpower can be supportive or harmful.
HiPPO is an acronym for the "highest paid person's opinion" or the "highest paid person in the office." The acronym is used to describe the tendency for lower-paid employees to defer to higher-paid employees when a decision has to be made.
Ah, you see I’m using slick acronyms like those swish 90s types and cool down-to-earth managers like Lumbergh. So, now you want to know what astroturfing is so you can get past the idea of a large hippo trying to lay fake grass. Well here we go...
Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by a grassroots participant(s). It is a practice intended to give the statements or organizations credibility by withholding information about the source's financial connection. The term astroturfing is derived from AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to resemble natural grass, as a play on the word "grassroots."
I’ve worked with HiPPOs before and my experience has been mixed to say the least, but how much damage can a HiPPO inadvertently cause? Much more than you think, and a lot of it may not actually be intentional.
The entire point of doing user research is to understand the problems facing users, gathering the true needs and intent of users as opposed to working within arbitrary restrictions. However if a HiPPO has already decided what the problem is it’s going to be a difficult task changing its mind. I’ve been in meetings in the past where I’ve been told what they want the research (that I hadn’t even started yet) was to show us to match their roadmap and vision. If you can somehow dodge the charging HiPPO there is an opportunity to change the dynamic. Instead of diving out the way each time, if you somehow convince the HiPPO of the value and the insight of speaking to users and conducting thorough, objective and engaging user research they can become your ally, charging at others getting in the way.
Ways that I’ve engaged HiPPOs in the past have varied, from customer quotes, videos of sessions, drawing out user journeys to even getting HiPPOs involved in user research sessions either silently watching through a URL, kinda like a two way mirror except less creepy or actually participating in the session.
There are other issues you may encounter with HiPPOs, where they may have indirect soft power, after all if an actual hippo was in the meeting room and looked pretty tetchy, you’d do everything within your power to appease it and get out there as fast as you could. The HiPPO may be imposing and the team, in awe or fear of standing up to them (it may not be healthy, but we know it happens) may just lay astroturf everywhere, rolling out their own agenda and steamrolling any actual debate. The frustrating thing is that the HiPPO may not even know they’re doing it. We’ve been raised to fear HiPPOs in pop-culture, from Mr. Burns’ unleashing the hounds to Darth Vader we’re told that our leaders could destroy us in seconds if they so wished, so keep them placated.
What if the HiPPO isn’t malevolent or threatening and more the soft cuddly type you’d hope to see on a kids TV show? There may still be issues in that even the most objective of managers will still have a view, an inkling of where they’d like the research to go and if that is known, people may want to please and/or placate this. It doesn’t come from a bad place, it’s a noble human trait to want to please others, however attempting to help to appease doesn’t yield actionable results. I mean, look at Neville Chamberlain.
This is reflected in the way we carry out user research. When testing ideas, mocks and templates with users I always make an effort to explain that I’m attempting to be impartial and I appreciate their honesty. If I have something to show them I make it clear that I haven’t worked on it (even if I have), and they should be constructive and critical with it, call it awful if they must, it won’t break my heart (not to their knowledge anyway). We all have the potential to be HiPPOs to someone, and we must ensure this soft power doesn’t stop us getting in the way of building wonderful products.
So, in review here are my quick tips for stopping the unwanted laying of astroturf by HiPPOs:
Get your HiPPO onside by showing them the value of objective user research
Have confidence and conviction in your ideas - if they’re strong they shouldn’t crumble, stand up for data and user driven decisions, it saves time and money in the long run
Strive for objectivity when speaking with users - it’s a conversation, never a sales pitch.
If you happen to be a HiPPO - understand that your presence may be daunting even if you think you’re not.
So there we go, I hope this is helps and even if it didn't, I have surely enriched your life with Hippo gifs. Hooray!