Tips for handling a HIPPO


It’s not just on Safari that you need to beware of hippos – you can find them in board rooms, golf courses and offices all around the world. Of course I’m not talking about the sort of hippos that like water holes, can often be found in zoos and are apparently always hungry. I’m talking about the highest paid people and their opinions. Ever presented a design, only to have the programme manager shoot it down because he doesn’t like the appearance? Ever outlined a possible site structure only to have the CEO demand it be changed because it’s not what he had envisaged? A HIPPO, or highest paid person’s opinion might not be quite as life threatening as a real hippo but it can certainly de-rail the design that you’ve painstakingly created and tested with users and leave you with a big headache as a result. HIPPOs ultimately call the shots and are really your friend, not your enemy so with this in mind here are my top 5 tips for dealing with HIPPOs.

  1. Know your HIPPOs

    Like a good zoo keeper you must get to know and understand your hippos. What makes them tick? Are they a visual or narrative person? What are they most concerned with? By understanding your senior stakeholders you can not only present concepts, visions and designs in a way that is more likely to resonate with them, but you can also anticipate potential issues before they arise.

  2. Keep your HIPPOs in the loop

    Now I don’t know about you but as a general rule, I don’t like surprises (apart from at Christmas and the odd surprise party). I especially don’t like the nasty surprise you can get when you present your ideas and designs to your senior stakeholders and find out that they are way off the mark. This is why it’s so important to include HIPPOs on the journey and to keep them in loop. Don’t wait until you have pretty visual designs to engage with senior stakeholders – walk them through the paper sketches. Thinking of scheduling a design workshop? Include your HIPPOs (just don’t let them dominate). The longer you leave it to engage with your senior stakeholders – the greater the risk of getting those nasty surprises.

  3. Be prepared

    When ever you’re dealing with HIPPOs it’s good to remember the boy scouts motto – be prepared. Think about the sorts of questions and issues that might come up and gather your data so that when a senior manager questions why a feature is missing, or why a particular design has been chosen you can back up that decision with cold hard data. Remember, in a battle of opinions a HIPPO will usually win, but armed with good data you should be able to come out the victor!

  4. Explain, explain, explain

    When a HIPPO sees a design they don’t see the hours of hard work, research and thinking that has gone on to get to that design. There is (hopefully) a very good reason why a particular design has been used, or why a particular look and feel has been applied. By explaining the rationale behind design decisions it should make it more difficult for a HIPPO to shoot something down because you can get beyond superficial judgements.

  5. Steer, don’t just ask

    This is probably the most important tip of them all. Instead of just asking senior stakeholders what they want, or have in mind instead try to use your powers of persuasion to Sheppard your HIPPOs to the preferred design (even if they don’t realise it) and then make them see how it accomplishes what they are looking to achieve. HIPPOs are generally lousy designers (just don’t tell them that to their face) so for example letting a CEO dictate the look and feel for their website is just asking for trouble.