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How To Communicate Design Decisions To Clients?


You may have noticed that in certain business and marketing circles there exists a “backlash” against the design community. Despite the rise of attractive, user-friendly solutions, in such circles unattractive designs have somehow managed to remain at the verge of acceptance. You’ll hear ideas being thrown around like “design is a waste of time — we have a really ugly site which outsells our competitors 3 to 1” or “we are not worried about the design, we’ll outsource it or use a free WordPress theme, let us focus more on the product”.

You can almost sense a little bit of pride in how ugly their web-site is, or that they are treating design like a commodity. However off base these types of thoughts might be, there is clearly a lack of respect for designers in the business community at times. I’d like to address how you can shatter this barrier and talk to business folk in a language they understand.

This article provides you with 5 guidelines you can use as a designer to “speak business” — even if it’s just to get your foot in the door or land a big project.

1. Pretty doesn’t mean effective: statistics are your friend! Link

Designers like to show off portfolios. It can look stunning, but business people like to see numbers. What was the conversion rate on that opt in? What was the bounce rate and average time on site? What was the most clicked on link from the home page?

To a business person, “beautiful” or “visually stunning” are just a first step. They only really matter if “beautiful” or “visually stunning” turns into more sales. Probably the worst offender here is the classic “all flash” site that is gorgeous and completely impossible to use or update. Everything has a cost/benefit trade off, and that includes design.

Compare these two sites for a moment. The first is from 2Advanced Studios1 and includes some fancy animation.


The second is from Perry Marshall3, who sells a book on Google Adwords.


Despite being uglier, we can probably agree that Perry’s site is significantly better at getting new customers. It may not be better in other areas, but it all depends on what the goal of the site is. Speaking of which…

2. Every design should have a measurable goal Link

Saying that the goal is to “build the brand of XYZ” or “create an online presence” is basically meaningless to a business-minded person. A goal is only a goal if it is measurable.

What are some good examples of a measurable goal? Generating leads, making sales, number of phone calls, opt-ins, subscribers, incoming links, PageRank etc. Instead of trying to convince them that “attractive visual design of this sign-up form would attract more visitors” present them real numbers such as “in the past this design solution effectively increased the conversion rates by 35%”.

Web Form Design Patterns5
According to Luke Wroblewski’s findings in his book “Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks”, one single design decision related to the design of sign-up forms has increased the conversion rates up to 40%.

Try saying to a business person: “we split tested this design, and A converted 21% of subscribers while B converted 38%, and our confidence interval on this data is very narrow”. Now you are speaking their language!

Try to get inside the head of a prospective customer. Imagine them with a burning pain or question, frantically clicking back and forth on the first page of Google results that came up. Realistically, they are making a decision whether to stick around or try the next result after scanning your site for about 1 second. This brings me to my next point…

3. Your site should have one clear path Link

As a customer comes to your site, you want to be in complete control of the 1st thing they see, the 2nd, the 3rd, and all the way down until they accomplish your goal that you’ve set. In other words, they have entered your sites “funnel” or “chute”.

Research results from an eye-tracking study: users satisfice — they click the first possible solution that is easily presented to them and may lead to their goal. Source7.

The typical method of giving users lots of different options on a page has been tested and it doesn’t work as well. People don’t want to think hard to figure things out. Users satisfice8 — they want the first possible solution that is easily presented to them. You should be in control of things in every step of the way, and miraculous things happen when you start to think of your site as a set “process” instead of a maze of options.

Please take a look at the first page of this site9 (the screenshot is displayed below). Really, go ahead and do it and then come back. I’ll wait.


Well, so you looked right? Let me guess the exact order that your eyes went on the page. First you went to the top left for the site title and logo, then after flicking past the phone number for just an instant you went down to the main headline about “Successful blogging starts with…”. Finally, you skimmed the portfolio and then read the two sub-headlines “Get Started Now” and “Learn to market your blog”. Was I close?

Look at your own site and stand back 10 feet from your monitor. What still stands out on the screen? These are elements that can jump out, with contrast, negative space, etc to help you control where people’s eyes go. There is even some great research coming out on eye tracking11. The point is that you can design with this information in mind to guide exactly how people experience your site for the first time and avoid trigger happy back-buttoners.

4. Remember the swiss army knife Link

One of the best analogies I’ve ever heard about design came from Marissa Mayer12 at Google. She said that Google tries to think of its design like a Swiss army knife. It has tons of features neatly tucked away inside, but you don’t see them all at once. A first time user might come to the site and just the main knife is flipped open. It’s immediately clear what the main benefit and purpose of this thing is: it’s a knife. But for the advanced users, a little thumbnail catch is still visible so they can slowly start to pull out lesser used features when they’re needed.

Many people’s web-site are like a Swiss army knife with every damn tool in there pulled out and exposed. “What the hell is this site for?”, a first time visitor might wonder. And like that, you’ve lost them. They’ll check the next result on Google.

Think of an effective design like a Swiss army knife. It has tons of features neatly tucked away inside, but you don’t see them all at once. Source14.

Keep the site simple with a clear path and purpose. Extra stuff on the page actually does have a detrimental effect in terms of confusion and distraction. Be adamant about eliminating unnecessary pieces of a design.

5. Provide performance metrics Link

Finally, if you really want to impress business people, put together a little report of how a design performs. It doesn’t have to be fancy — maybe a little spreadsheet (those business types do love Excel) with some basic metrics you can pull off of Google Analytics like visitors, time on site, most popular funnel path, and even a goal conversion rate.

A spreadsheet with some basic metrics about like visitors, time on site, most popular funnel path, and even a goal conversion rate can make the difference. Example: Quantcast16.

Just putting in a little bit of effort here will instantly distinguish you from all the other designers out there who would never think to do something like this. Whoever your client is will be much more likely to say to a colleague, “you know they just get it, they not only design but they understand the purpose behind what we’re doing, I really like that.” And boom, you’ve got a referral to grow to the next level.

Conclusion Link

This article may offend some designers. You may think it’s off topic, not your concern, or counterproductive to good design. That’s fine — take what works for you and leave the rest.

Speaking in a language the customer understands is key to good communication in any business. Whenever you get deep into a field and become an expert, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t think like you.

Take doctors for instance. They go through so much schooling and learn so much science that it literally sounds like they are speaking a different language if you see a group of them together. But when it comes time to talk to the patient and explain what’s wrong with them, they switch gears and speak in a language the customer understands.

As a great designer, you can do the same thing and become that much more effective in bringing value to your customers.

Footnotes Link

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Brian Armstrong is an entrepreneur who also enjoys studying design. He writes about topics such as UI design, building web companies, and how to quit your 9-to-5 to work for yourself at his blog.

  1. 1

    – FIRST – ;)

    Great article Brian! Keep it coming.

  2. 2

    i enjoyed this article very much, thanks for posting!

  3. 3

    The swiss army knife analogy is awesome.

  4. 4

    Some interesting ideas, thanks!

  5. 5

    Wow. that is on of the most interesting articles ever :P i really did read every word. i dont usually do that. But that article opened my eyes a little.

    great work :)

  6. 6

    Well, that was a really lovely article. I hate sites that are just like “HERES THE USER INTERFACE NOW TRY TO MAKE SENSE OF IT”.
    And as for the people saying “first”, go away.

  7. 7

    It’s hard to take an article seriously when it has so many glaring spelling and grammar errors:

    “statistics is your friend”
    “in such cirlces
    “increased the convertion rates”
    “You should be in control of things ever step of the way,”

    My answer to your question: “Was I close?” No. I looked first at the pretty pictures. Then I saw way too many visual items pulling my eye in uninteresting directions. The headlines, which might clue me in to what the site’s about, are in gray. The highlighted items (such as the phone number) draw my eye to completely irrelevant information—why would I care about a phone number when I don’t even know what this site’s about? The site design is owner-centric, not user-centric.

    I think it’s dangerous to believe the you, the Web designer or owner, will create an effective site if you try to control the behavior of someone who visits your site. People go to sites to do something they want to do, not something you want them to do. If your design fails to hep the visitor accomplish their task, they’ll be off to a more cooperative site.

  8. 8

    Great article except for the first reference…

    “Probably the worst offender here is the classic “all flash” site that is gorgeous and completely impossible to use or update”

    It is possible to make SEO and User friendly Flash sites – with CMS systems… Just like it possible to make beautiful HTML/CSS websites – but the majority are extremely bad.

  9. 9

    Interesting article. There must be some way of modifying your spam filter to block some of these “First!!!!!!” comments though; really detracts the discussion which follows. Perhaps an idea for an article in the future(!)

  10. 10

    Not a bad post but your first guideline is short sighted and not at all factual. First the claim that the 2Advanced site is “completely impossible to use or update” is untrue on all accounts. The site is actually backed by a full CMS, how is that impossible to update?? Impossible to use? Really? It has full backbutton integration, deep linking control, tab accessibility, and hey what do you know my mouse can click on things… novel idea.

    You second claim that the HTML site is “significantly better at getting new customers” is hard to prove or quantify unless you have both companies conversion statistics in front of you (which I highly doubt). Considering that 2Advanced has drawn in clients like Ford, AOL, Bacardi, ESPN, Capcom, EA, Enron, FOX, Lexus, Lucas Arts, Motorola, Oakley, Wells Fargo, etc… I’d say there having no problems attracting clients with their work.

    You probably picked the worst example of a full flash site to pick on by choosing the 2Advanced website. But then again the claims you make in the first guideline you post don’t exactly sound like somebody who has done their homework with regards to Flash anyway. Its ignorant comments like that that don’t do anybody any good and cause the rest of your claims and suggestions to be in question.

    I do however think the rest of the post wasn’t all that bad, but I’d suggest checking your facts before posting about something you arent all that familiar with. Especially when that something happens to be what you lead off your post with.

    Just my $0.02,

  11. 11

    Kenneth Knudsen

    July 22, 2008 2:00 pm

    Best post yet! loved it!

    2advanced are very pro. and i know some people would say it’s the only way, being flash and all – i’m not that good – thanks! for writing in a level I can understand and use

  12. 12

    Very useful article. Great!

  13. 13

    Well guys,

    I think you’re right…2Advanced is not the right sample to explain the first guideline of this post but in general (and I think this is what Brian considers the goal) it’s more convenient to keep your site simple and clear, and in the most of cases more flexible and approchable, rather than working on a beatiful website absolutely monolithic.

    Anyway thanks Brian for your post that I think could be usefull for some webmasters.

  14. 14

    I really digg usability/analytics articles, keep them coming :)

  15. 15

    Nice article, highlights some valid points and is a nice glimpse of how “some” clients think indeed. As you said the purpose is not that everyone agrees with you but just that people learn something new or remember something they have been overlooking, very well written (the spelling isnt something I really care about pointing out as most times when someone does they make some mistakes themselves).

    However, your example for a flash website was very very bad as its completly the opposite of what you said and your point of view over flash is not only wrong but also shows a deep lack of knowledge for the subject. Sure there are some amateurish flash websites all over that lack in accessability and other things but there’s as many, if not more, poor html ones. You pointed out flaws that dont exist in flash (unless the designer is incompetent) while you could have touched some valid ones regarding bad aspects of flash if you wanted (html has its own too though).

    If only you didnt talk about flash or if you had done some proper research on it your article would have been excellent in my opinion, still, good reading.. thanks for that.

  16. 16

    Dave == 2A fanboi!

  17. 17

    This post is so right about the points made with regards to designs and options one should consider.

    Perhaps, design schools could incorporate the concept into their curriculum.

  18. 18

    You’ll hear ideas being thrown around like “design is a waste of time — we have a really ugly site which outsells our competitors 3 to 1″ or “we are not worried about the design, we’ll outsource it or use a free WordPress theme, let us focus more on the product”.

    What is that? Where are you pulling this from?

    Anyone even vaguely serious about anything will not say they have a really ugly site, they may say it outsells their competitors by whatever margin you invented but they wont say that theirs is ugly.

    That is almost like them saying “Ours is ugly and sells this well, we know it is ugly but cant be bothered fixing it because if we made it easy on the eyes it would totally bury everyone else”.

    Would you really want to hire someone like this?

    Perhaps you have one experience where this is the case but I can guarentee it is not the norm.

    You can almost sense a little bit of pride in how ugly their web-site is, or that they are treating design like a commodity.

    Everything is a commodity. I think you mean more of a non-required good/service.

    Maybe like a.. I’m sure I know the word.

    A Luxury.

    Article is not bad. Preface is terrible.

  19. 19

    The step with creating graphs and grids is kind of silly, honestly. Unless you include this in your proposal/bid or the client requests it at the start of the project, it seems like a great way to waste time and money.

    I’ve written e-mails that border on essays explaining mockups to clients, informing them as to why a navigation placed in position X will generate more clicks than position Y, why color 1 adds much more depth and resonates with their brand far more than the color 2, and why stock photo A reflects the content of the site far better than stock photo B. And a day or so later, I’ll get an e-mail back that reads, “Hey, we read through the changes. Good ideas, but we like the old layout better.”

    Point of the story: don’t bend over backwards, writing essays, doing research, and making charts to convince someone that a mockup is worthwhile when they can e-mail you back in thirty seconds and say “Nah, make it look like our competitors.” Make your point, explain what requires explanation, and call it a day. Your work should speak for you.

    (P.S. That first example about 2Advance is garbage. You picked the site of one of the most well-known, succesful web design/dev studios in the country to call ineffective, even though they’ve generated more traffic than anything you will ever create in your lifetime due to their design style. Smooth.)

  20. 20

    This article is great… keep up the good job

  21. 21

    Business people really care about the bottom line, and the return of investment. Google analytics helps tons with this!

  22. 22

    A very interesting article! I even read all you source links. Great work.

  23. 23

    Nope straight up I can’t agree with point One. Plus I totally agree with what ‘Dave’ wrote above. I would struggle to believe that Perry Marshall site has a higher conversion rate on its specific goals with what you are comparing it against. Speaking of which, you are not really comparing apples with apples here. You compare a company like 2advanced which is a design, development, motion graphic, rich media, 3d design, audio creation, promotional studio against someone flogging off a course…what the????? Plus you have no data to back up your claim. If 2advanced suddenly did a switch flip and had a virtual text based site, you honestly believe they would still be able to pull clientele of their current caliber? No a chance. A great design is an effective marketing tool no matter what the business. If anything Perry Marshall site looks allot dodger given the fact it has no effective design on the page. Compare Perry Marshall site against another selling virtually the same product but with graphical design layout, and then show us the statistics.

    Design matters hands down.

    That’s my opinion anyway…

  24. 24

    I really appreciate when the design is combined with real business world! We work for people, for their business and if we want respect, we should be professionals in any levels.

    We all have some “artistic side”, but it must be used with intelligence.

    Brilliant article!!

  25. 25

    I disagree with the first point. I think while it is pretty as you mentioned, 2Advanced Studios site is also very effective in capturing sales from the right customers. The entire site creates for a superb user experience.

    2Advanced Studios target market are looking precisely for an advanced flash website. Take a closer look at the sites they develop and their target market. Their site is geared perfectly towards the people they are aiming to get business from–gaming companies as one example.

    I’d say it’s served it’s purpose well and the proof is in the pudding, they have an enviable list of clients and continue to push the boundaries of what can be done creatively with flash. Sales doesn’t seem to be the issue here. I’d go as far as saying they can pick and choose whom they most want to deal with, like-minded creative proffesionals.

    I would argue that such creativity as displayed through their site hasn’t harmed sales at all, quite the opposite, it has likely created a lot of interest from the people they sought in the first place.

  26. 26

    Let me preface everything with I worked at 2Advanced for 4 years so know that I am naturally defending their position with the site, but let me state my reasons why…

    After reading your first point I simply disregarded the rest of the post. How can you begin to assume that one site is more effective at selling over the other? In my opinion both are equally effective at selling to their target customer/client. If you were to find an over-the-top Flash site for an author trying to sell his book on Google Ads and compare the two I would agree with you. The author is relying on SEO and advertising for people to find his site and convert a sale. The medium and format of the site is well suited for the target customer. On the other side look at what 2Advanced is “selling” – brand experiences.

    The over the top interactive site and the clean/basic html site both have their purpose. Think of the two as specific tools. One is a paintbrush and the other is a typewriter. Both can be used to communicate a message or illustrate an idea. You would be crazy though to write a brilliant essay with a paintbrush or use the typewriter to type out ASCII art on a canvas.

    Your first point should have been use the correct medium for what you’re selling. Should a summer blockbuster movie site, newly released car microsite, unique interactive marketing site be created with simple and plain stylized HTML? No, you would be missing the mark and your communications would fall short and be uninspired. Should a movie studio site, car manufacturer landing site, or a blog be created with over the top Flash? No, this would be a horrible choice for the medium.

    I actually did read down to your second point, and again I strongly disagree with the fact that because the goal of a site is to build a brand that it isn’t measurable. The industry for creating experiences, websites, content, etc for the purpose of building a brand is a multi-billion dollar industry. Strengthen a brand with a site or interactive campaign is an incredibly effective marketing tool. To a degree though all of this can be measured with very specific metrics, which 2Advanced is using to a very in-depth level.

  27. 27

    What a brilliant read! The analogy with the doctors is spot on – and I have never put emphasis on that explanation process so I think I oughta change!

  28. 28

    An interesting post as usual from the great team of Smashing Magazine :)

    However, I am slightly disagree with your first fact (pretty doesn’t mean effective) by picking the wrong choice of example: First of all, main business is selling visual communication solutions to clients, so being pretty is effective for them. Thus, it is very much down to your INTENDED TARGET AUDIENCES, to determine what method of communication (eg visual or words) that you want to use.

    By the way, good use of colors and graphic elements definitely will make a longstanding stamp on potential clients’ minds!

  29. 29

    Wow, Smashing Magazine — this is the worst article I’ve ever read from you guys. It’s obvious that this contributor is unqualified to provide guidance on design.

    I agree with Granulr, Dave and Two Socks regarding their poinst about Flash and the 2Advanced site. Their points cannot be echoed enough.

    Now, if the author wants to argue that a site’s visual aesthetics aren’t the end all and be all, I can’t argue with that. But he never builds a meaningful correlation between an all-Flash site and sales conversions. He says:

    “Despite being uglier, we can probably agree that Perry’s site is significantly better at getting new customers.”

    Sooooooooooooooooo, the author is basing the significantly better customer acquisition on the idea that we can probably agree? Really? Huh? Wha?

    And then he goes on to say:

    “It may not be better in other areas, but it all depends on what the goal of the site is.”

    The two examples offer completely different services and cater to equally different audiences. Their goals are OBVIOUSLY different. 2Advanced is a company that specializes in high-end, interactive and rich media experiences. Perry Marshall’s site caters to people who want to know more about Google Adwords. I’d argue that both site designs actually succeed in attracting their target markets. Really, really poorly thought-out examples Brian Armstrong. Really.

    Furthermore, how can I honestly take someone seriously when their description reads: “Brian Armstrong is an entrepreneur who also enjoys studying design.”? He studies design?!?! WTF? Okay, fine, we’re all still students of design, no matter how many years we’ve been doing it. But the description gives me no indication that he commands any authority on the subject of design except for the fact that he studies it and writes about it. Again, I say WTF?!?!?

    This is a truly disappointing article and I hope this is a one-time fault for Smashing Magazine. Everybody makes mistakes.

  30. 30

    Indeed, the first examples of this article are poor – as some of the comments already said. However I think this topic is quite important because it refers to the point of communication, which is surely underrated by many Designers.
    So although this could be written better, it has shown me some things, I will consider to think of in the future.


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