When 'Highest Paid Person's Opinion' Stomps on Your Project

Last Updated Jun 21, 2010 12:37 PM EDT

I had the pleasure of attending Norman Nielsen Group's usability conference in San Francisco last week, where I learned this acronym: HIPPO, or Highest Paid Person's Opinion.

You may not know the term, but you do know how it works, I'm guessing. HIPPO is the high level manager who comes to your project at the last moment and offers an opinion on what to include to make the project a success. And you must consider it, even if the idea is out of scope, past deadline or as crazy as buying BP stock.

I was once leading development of a Web site and had to choose among several color palettes. We tested them with users, and with internal stakeholders before making our final decision -- green. But it was not final, actually. A HIPPO waded in after the decision was made preferring red, and that was that. Another example. While I was at the conference I talked to a project manager who was embarking on an iPhone app simply because the boss thought it would be cool. There were a lot of those stories at the conference, actually.

How to deal with a HIPPO who clearly outweighs you on the org chart? Jim Sterne, a web metrics expert who introduced the HIPPO term at the conference, offered a very good solution.

While you may want to say, "Your opinion, while interesting, is irrelevant," what you need to say is, "Great idea Boss! We'll test it."

Bathe your beta site in red and see if users buy more product. Inventory your customers or look at user data to see how many actually use an iPhone. One of the great advantages of working on the Web is that testing options is relatively easy, and data for analysis easy to come by.

If you can tell your boss that the green site results in a 35% increase in sales over the red version, that's a pretty good argument.

Have HIPPOS stomped around on your work? What's your strategy for keeping them at bay?

(Hippo image by geoftheref, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.