Enemies of UX and how to kill them: #1 HiPPOs

Hungry hungry hippos


Know your enemy and know yourself, and you will win a hundred battles without defeat… Know neither your enemy nor yourself, and you will succumb in every battle.”

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War


The Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO) is the bane of every user-centric professional’s life.

While you want users to interact with your design and optimise based on insights from their feedback, the HiPPO wants you to design in the style of their favourite artist – Jackson Pollock.

The HiPPO’s only customer is their ego and you best believe the customer is always right.


You what?



“Move that button to the left. No, the other left. No, the OTHER BUTTON. RIGHT, NO MORE DAMN BUTTONS!


  • HiPPPO – Highest Paid Person’s Partner’s Opinion (aka the spouse of my boss is my boss)
  • The 2 types of P in your cornflakes
  • Guessing


Often found:

  • Throwing their considerable weight around lavishly-furnished boardrooms
  • Somewhere far, far away (because you’ve never met and they have no idea what the project they’re controlling is about)
  • Standing over your shoulder, whispering unsweet nothings in your ear


  • Rat King – an easily-eradicated cluster of small pests
  • Nessie Monster – a rarely-seen giant that wreaks havoc beneath the surface
  • Cthulhu Rage – a cosmic power requiring only a glance to induce insanity 


Even though we all find HiPPOs annoying, I don’t think enough people understand that they can seriously




And I mean more than simply your design.

Just ask the good people of JC Penney, who wasted nearly $1 billion in 17 months thanks to a HiPPO. After a SuperHiPPO called Ron Johnson took control, he decided he was such a visionary (blessed with deity-level omniscience) that the company didn’t need any opinions but his own.

He apparently rebuffed insights based on customer research and data because he felt he could simply follow the Apple “best practice” template – but we all know how bad best practice is, right?

Here are some other potential dangers of HiPPOs:



…because employees don’t feel like their expertise is valued

Skull and crossbones


…because they’ve not been designed to meet the needs of users

Skull and crossbones


because the only people who stay are other HiPPOs, kiss-asses and people who… just ain’t that good at their jobs

Skull and crossbones


because they keep being derailed or contaminated by unvalidated opinions


Lumbering, bureaucratic corporate giants


These giants are so big, the top dogs can’t see far down enough through the bloated underbelly that is middle management.

Yeah, I said it. And I can because I’ve lived it.

In situations where the person giving orders is so far from the person living the consequences of those orders, challenging the HiPPO becomes trickier. Hierarchical and geographical distance are excellent breeding conditions for HiPPOs.

I’ve sat in on video conferences where directors in another country have told my team what to do, even though they had no part in or knowledge of the months-long work involved in a project.


The human condition



Philosophers have long grappled with the quirks of our sentience and its effects on almost all aspects of life – they didn’t get round to the ego-induced bickering in office meetings though.

We are each at the centre of our own universe, and if you understand the HiPPO is born from that same reality then victory will come more easily to you. You’ll be equipped to separate the opinion from the person it belongs to.

The person can’t change their ego-driven human nature, but opinions can be changed if you take the right approach.


Old chain of command

Chain of Command

Back in the day – “The good ol’ days,” a HiPPO might say – it was all about chain of command.

None of this data science, user research, millennial-induced BS. Opinions came from above, and challenging them was far too logistically difficult and expensive. If things went south, so did the blame and a subordinate was usually fired.

Nowadays, testing any opinion with customers is so accessible, the people who aren’t doing it are the weirdos. This new reality has put today’s liberal-minded professionals on a collision course with HiPPOs.



Strong armRANK

HiPPOs will often carry more weight than you do – direct, forceful opposition will generally lead to epic smackdowns. It’s unwise to publicly challenge or embarrass HiPPOs because you’ll increase their urge to prove the rightness and authority of their opinions over yours.

Strong arm


Direct confrontation may be unwise but so is complete apathy. React but don’t overreact. There are ways of opposing HiPPOs that are more strategic – like suggesting it would be best  to discuss their “vision” in a separate meeting (which never happens).

Strong arm


Yes-men give HiPPOs blind affirmation – essentially, HiPPO oxygen. They give them the momentum to charge down and dismantle your best laid plans. Avoid trying to outmanoeuvre the HiPPO in meetings where yes-men are also present.

Weaknesses… aka how to defeat the HiPPO

Data and testing (including qualitative data)


As Dan Barksdale of Netscape is credited as saying in this UserVoice article on HiPPOs, “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”

In the absence of data, you have no choice but to go with baseless opinions – and if that happens, the big boss’ opinion will usually win. If you come armed with robust, actionable data, you’ll be in an excellent position to take the HiPPO down.

Combine qualitative (e.g. UX testing) and quantitative research (e.g. analytics) to give yourself the best possible chance of overcoming HiPPOs. It’s really not that hard or expensive to do these days.


Robust prioritisation plans


Bring the kind of watertight, head-spinning comprehensiveness to your plans that the HiPPO left behind decades ago, while they were lower down the ladder.

This means you can tell the HiPPO (on the record) the opportunity cost of every opinion they throw in the mix. If they want you to add flashy nonsense to the app, tell them it would mean a 4-week delay to fixing a critical, location tracking feature.

Ask ominously, “We’ll do it, if that’s really what you want?” Even the HiPPO answers to profits and the key is to indirectly remind them of that accountability.


No more bosses

Murderous Unicorn

“In the land of no bosses, the user is always boss.”

I’ll take credit for that clumsy misappropriation of a popular aphorism. But if you’re cray-cray, you can flip the bird at the traditional idea of bosses.

Valve, one of the world’s most successful gaming companies, uses a “bossless” structure it calls “Flatland”. Gabe Newell, co-founder of the company, was inspired to take this approach while interacting with customers… so he could drive more employee interaction with customers.

How meta is that? If you want to adopt a user-centric approach and are (ironically) high up enough to implement a flat organisational structure, it just might be worth it.

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By the way, HiPPOs aren’t all bad. *GASP* I know! Below are examples of where you might want to cut them some slack. I even make a sordid confession about an encounter in a back room :O


HiPPOs aren’t inherently wrong

The problem is with the principle of HiPPOs, not necessarily with the content of their ideas – which is sometimes correct and merely in need of validation.

You should not automatically dismiss an opinion because it’s come from the highest-paid person – they’re often the highest-paid person for a reason. We should fight against the belief that opinions can be inherently correct, not assume that certain opinions can be inherently wrong.


Most HiPPOs mean no harm

HiPPOs hardly want the company that butters their bread to fail. They’re not bad people, just egotistical – and in varying degrees, we all are.

I’ve not been the highest paid person in the room often (actually, maybe it’s been just the once and there were only two people in the room). But I will put my hand up and say I’ve been a HiPPO.

And I’m a so-called millennial! I was supposed to know better… to be data-driven and all that jazz. But the lure of looking good, and the possibility of taking all the credit for a great idea, has probably blinded you too at some point.

Any time you were in a position to impose your opinion (just because it made sense to you, sans objective validation) and chose to do so, you were being a HiPPO.

Still mad? Check out the other Enemies of UX!

Timi is a London-based copywriter and full-time marketing sceptic – there are now more unvalidated opinions out there than ever.

He became a UX testing enthusiast after seeing its power while working at TUI – the world’s largest travel, leisure and tourism company. He then joined WhatUsersDo to sharpen his UX knowledge and work side-by-side with the field’s best and brightest.

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