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Business Objectives vs. User Experience

Here’s a question for you: would you agree that creating a great user experience should be the primary aim of any Web designer? I know what your answer is… and youʼre wrong!

Okay, I admit that not all of you would have answered yes, but most probably did. Somehow, the majority of Web designers have come to believe that creating a great user experience is an end in itself. I think we are deceiving ourselves and doing a disservice to our clients at the same time.

The truth is that business objectives should trump users’ needs every time. Generating a return on investment is more important for a website than keeping users happy. Sounds horrendous, doesn’t it? Before you flame me in the comments, hear me out.

The Harsh Reality Link

Letʼs begin with the harsh truth. If an organization does not believe that it will generate some form of a return on an investment (financial or otherwise), then it should not have a website. In other words, if the website doesn’t pay its way, then we have not done our jobs properly.

Despite what we might think, our primary aim is to fulfill the business objectives set out by our clients. Remember that creating a great user experience is a means to this end. We do not create great user experiences just to make users happy. We do so because we want them to look favorably on the website and take certain actions that will generate the returns that our clients want.


Is the business world at odds with creativity? Image by opensourceway2

User Experience Is Important Link

Let me be clear. Iʼm not suggesting that user experience is unimportant. In fact, I believe that creating an amazing experience is the primary means of helping a website fulfill its business objectives. A well-designed website makes it easy for users to complete the calls to action we have created.

Happy users also provide many other benefits. They can become advocates for your website. A happy user is considerably more likely to recommend your services and is more patient when things occasionally go wrong. Enthusiastic users can also become valuable volunteers; they have innumerable ideas about how your website and products can be improved. They are far more valuable than any focus group!

The point, though, is that happy users generate a return on investment, so spending the time and effort to give them a great experience is worth it.

When Business Objectives and User Experience Clash Link

You may argue that this is all semantics and that business objectives and user experience actually go hand in hand. Generally, I agree, but there are occasions when the two clash, and at these times we need to be clear that generating a return on investment should trump user experience.

Let me give you an example. We Web designers often complain when clients ask us to add fields to their online forms because they want to collect certain demographic information about their users. We argue, rightly, that this annoys users and damages the user experience. But we need to ask ourselves whether those additional fields would make users not complete the forms at all—as we fear—or would just slightly irritate them. If users ultimately complete the form and the company is able to gather valuable demographic information, then the slight irritation may be worthwhile.

Do You Have The Right Balance? Link

Iʼm a little nervous about this post because I realize that many people could misinterpret what Iʼm saying. But I passionately believe that the Web design community is in danger of becoming blind to all else but user experience. Iʼm convinced we need to spend as much time and effort on understanding and achieving business objectives as we do on creating a great experience.

I’ll end with this: during your last project, how much time did you spend creating personas, testing usability and generally improving the user experience? How does that compare with the amount of time you spent learning about the client’s business objectives and creating great calls to action?

Ask yourself whether you got the balance right.

(al) (ik)

Footnotes Link

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Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice.

  1. 1

    Well said, Paul.

    Can always count on a thought provoking piece from you. Business trumps UX, but seeking balance is inescapable. Compromise necessary from both sides.

    • 2

      is it compromising? It’s rather co-existing or co-operating… since good UX means good business vice versa.

  2. 3

    Jussi Pasanen

    February 4, 2011 6:17 am

    Good topic. I gather that you’ve polarised this a bit on purpose though, and I think there are many occasions where the answer to the business-vs-ux question is not quite that cut-and-dry.

    In my view usability (and UX as a wider concept) is about focusing on the users’ best interests (1). Once you take this idea far enough it turns into a discussion on ethics. Are in you (and your client) in the business of providing true value to the customers, or moreso after a quick profit? In in other words, are your customers truly at the heart of your business, or is the business itself the centrepoint?

    If users ultimately complete the form and the company is able to gather valuable demographic information, then the slight irritation may be worthwhile.

    Valuable to whom? If the information is collected in order to ultimately provide better customer experience to the users, that goes well with the intent of UX, despite the immediate annoyance. But if it’s collected primarily to just target and upsell and onsell, it’s not in the best interest of the user.

    Also, think about dark patterns – “user interfaces designed to trick people” (2) (GoDaddy checkout process anyone?) and services like online gambling (more streamlined “UX” helps you lose your shirt quicker), for examples that most definitely are not in the user’s best interests, but are carefully crafted to fulfil very specific business objectives. The objectives are met, but it doesn’t make them right.

    So no, business objectives should not trump users’ needs every time.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!



  3. 4

    Good post, Paul.

    I don’t disagree with you. Blatant disregard for business objectives is reckless design, and I’d argue that any user experience designer that approaches a project that way is a poor designer.

    What a user experience designer brings to the table is an ability and focus on negotiating the concerns between the business and user. User experience design isn’t about reckless advocacy for the users, it’s about helping a business to execute on its goals in a way that meshes as seamlessly as possible with the users’ context and goals.

    Per Jared’s comment above, it’s certainly not about a black-and-white tradeoff. If anything, the role of the user experience designer is to *prevent* any kind of tradeoff between business and user, and find an elegant design solution that successfully negotiates both sets of concerns. Any “user experience designer” who doesn’t approach the problem space with this mindset of negotiation isn’t doing their job.

  4. 5

    Its a good argument but I disagree with a couple points:

    1. Its not business objective vs user experience its business objective/user experience vs personal opinions. The business objective should be met through the user experience.

    2. “Return investment should trump user experience,” If you ask clients what do they need they usually respond with what they want, which usually does not meet their business objective.

    3. I disagree with placing so much weight on the web design community about finding the right balance, the right balance requires the right people, marketing, research, account teams that have business and user experience.


  5. 6

    When you are at depth with the business objectives, you’ll be able to decide/choose which tools out of your UX toolbox to use. I you just have to be creative. If the want extra fields give it to them, but i would ask myself the most appropriate time for the user to see or fill it.

    You may ask the user to fill it just before an activity you think they really love. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind to fill one or two fields.

    It’s all about creativity.

  6. 7

    Simon Vreeman

    February 4, 2011 4:53 am

    Great post! And I agree. A good balance between is business objectives and user experience could result in happy customers and a profitable company. Get your business goals very clear for yourself and always keep the customer in mind.

  7. 8

    I tend to fight for UX as far as the client will allow. If it’s very important to them to have that extra field on the form, they will fight for it, and I’ll let them have it in the end. In the situation, I see myself as the advocate on behalf of the user, while the client is of course an advocate on behalf of their business objectives.

    • 9

      I think approaching design in that way actually does more harm than good. I think as the designer YOU should be the one to balance UX and business objectives. And just like designing for UX, designing for business objectives requires a learning curve.A business owner will most likely have no knowledge of how best to design and place a call to action. They’ll have no idea about techniques such as price anchoring, or displaying social proof. There are optimal ways to design a website when thinking of business objectives. As a designer, you owe it to the business owner to have a deep understanding of website design for both UX and business objectives. And the business owner should be able to rely on you to use your understanding of UX to helkp them accomplish their business goals. UX and business objectives CAN live in harmony on a website. Especially if a business is solving some problem or need.

  8. 10

    While agreeing with what you have written (and on the fact you haven’t written for/against this)

    Is it the job of a Web Designer/Developer/UX professional/Ninja Rockstar Dinosaur/Whatever you want to be called these days to question the business objectives of the company? Especially when it comes to those that relate to the medium they are creating for.

    Using your example, should we question why they are collecting that data, at a (chance of) detriment to user happiness. Or should we accept they want this data, and ignore our gut feelings/research/knowledge that this isn’t the right way of doing things?


  9. 11

    Interestingly enough the agency I work for now is unbalanced, but in the opposite way.

    We put so much energy into doing exactly what the client (as sometiems we) think is best business wise, we end up skimping on good user experience and attractive product.

  10. 12

    You know what, I really appreciate this post. My team and I constantly fight for the best user experience, and I’ve been in situations in the past where the business objectives trump the user’s experience; at least from our perspective. But you are correct in saying that it can be a pleasant experience, but have no value. And it’s the business that determines the value while we bring it to life in the most pleasant and delightful way.

    It’s up to us the take those sometimes wacky business goals and translate them into the best experience for the user — even if sometimes there has to be frustration (but really, there’s always some website that annoys us, yet we still use it!).

  11. 13

    This is a great blogpost. But you let yourself become sidetracked.

    The simple truth is, business goals can never be fulfilled if you don’t fulfill user goals. Hence, many UX designers mistakenly think that the ultimate experience is their mission. This is wrong as it tacitly assumes there is only ONE correct solution. In fact, there are MANY different user experiences we can create. For example, if we don’t look at business goals, we might as well just give our products away – wouldn’t it be a better experience for users if we didn’t have to pay for stuff? This, of course, is absurd.

    The trick is to design an experience that both acknowledges user needs and fulfulls visitor goals in a way that directly supports business goals (which usually means turning a profit).

    And to answer the question you pose in your last paragraph, I estimate that our company, FatDUX, typically expends 4-5 times as much effort in gathering research and defining a viable online concept as we do on the creation of personas or developing other deliverables to support our research and creative conclusions. And truth be told, the better your research, the easier/faster it is to develop a concept, personas, etc.

    Our process can be boiled down to: Discover – Design – Deploy.

    If you skip the first step, you will never produce a successful design. Never.

    • 14

      Sayan Mukherjee

      February 11, 2011 3:30 am

      A great insight, I really like the way you represent the process
      Discover – Design – Deploy.

      love that.

  12. 15

    I believe most designers would define putting UX first MEANS “Putting UX first within the confines of the business objectives.” Very few designers would suggest that user experience for user experience’s sake is a viable design OR business objective.

    If it were, websites that put UX first in the way you imply we are in danger of doing would result in a collection of emotionally satisfying interactions that have no business purpose and ultimately achieve nothing.

    At least you acknowledge that to some degree in your section about When Business Objectives and User Experience clash. But even the example you cite frames the issue in overly simplistic terms.

    You are right that I (and many of us, I’m sure) advise our clients not to burden the user by collecting excessive demographic information when filling out forms. The reason we suggest that though isn’t just because it makes for a more pleasurable user experience. It’s because we have years of experience and research that tells us that the cost of users abandoning forms with demographic collection fields is much higher than the value of collecting that information to begin with.

    If you are a good UX designer, you will frame the issue in terms of business risk and opportunity. If the opportunity cost and business risk of getting 50% fewer completed form submissions is out weighed by the value that comes with getting demographic info with the 50% that DO complete the form (potentially along with the harder to measure cost of goodwill, for both users who complete and abandon the form), then by all means, include it.

    Typically though, collecting certain demographic information has far less business value than the form submission itself. And typically these types of requests come from marketers who do not see the big picture in terms of business objectives. They are focused solely on collecting information that has value to them and are blind to the primary objectives of the site.

    It’s not a black and white issue where UX must always trump Business Requirements or vice-versa. It’s about creating the optimal balance of customer value and business value while maintaining a quality UX. If you end up with a design where one of those three falls to zero then your design has failed like a 3-legged stool with only 2 legs.

    As you say in your final line: “Ask yourself whether you got the balance right.”

  13. 16

    Interesting article. I would argue that if the design of the user experience is getting in the way of the business goals, then the UX is not fulfilling its true purpose, no matter how gorgeous and easy-to-use it is. Yes there will have to be compromises on both sides, but the designer should be able to asses the user’s goals and the business’ goals to come up with overlapping design principles that apply to the project.

  14. 17

    Your example could have another solution – what if you would come up with a separate functionality that would motivate the users to send their demographic data by themselves? Thus you can retain great UX and also support business goals.

  15. 18

    Steffan Antonas

    February 4, 2011 6:37 am

    Paul. I think re-wording 1 sentence in the opening paragraph would have gotten your point across much better, which is not to say that I don’t think you’re right on the money. You are.

    “The truth is that business objectives should trump users’ needs every time” should have read more like…

    “When designers blindly let users’ needs trump business objectives we have a problem, because generating a return on investment is more important for a website than keeping users happy.”

    Same point. I think this reads better. No more UX happy designers doing double takes.

    Great article.

  16. 19

    David Fiorito

    February 4, 2011 6:40 am

    Mark Skinner and Eric Reiss have already said much of what I wanted to say, but I would add one more thought – exchange.

    Market forces shape the value of a product and the amount of effort a consumer will exert to acquire it. Buying a car takes time and a lot of money. Consumers will research their choice, spend hours at the dealership working through the paperwork, and suffering through the pitch for all manner of rust protectant and stain proofing. Buying a car is a horrible user experience. But the value and desireability of the product is high, so we put up with it to get what we want.

    Imagine if we had to do the same thing for a Big Mac value meal. The sale of Big Macs would drop to near zero. The value of a Big Mac would not warrant hours of work to acquire.

    Back to digital UX – if the form mentioned above is a simple newsletter subscription then we need to point out to our business stakeholders that we are increasing the effort and cost for the newsletter. We need to challenge them, not because it is a bad user experience to add those fields, but because they are choosing to charge too high a price for the value of their product.

    We have a duty to both the user and the business. Our duty is to make sure the exchange of cognitive capital from the user matches the value of the products and services on offer by the business.

  17. 20

    Way to generate some heat. The title lone provides meaningful insight to pervasive digital business culture. Certainly as an “agency” creative, I get it.

    And I believe it IS a cultural issue at heart. UX – or Experience Design or whatever you want to call it – is not, by my definition, a discipline that should be in competition (real or imagined) with any other business camp. UX is a collaborative approach to designing things that relies on input from all vested parties.

    I also think it’s important to address the persistent clash between “design for marketing ROI” and “service design.” People who believe in the holistic definition of UX will say that these two must be entwined, and must address the arc, however short or long, of a person’s engagement, and where they are within that arc.

    Take your example here:

    “If users ultimately complete the form and the company is able to gather valuable demographic information, then the slight irritation may be worthwhile.”

    How many times have you hidden somebody on FB or un-followed someone one Twitter, or bailed on a website due to “slight” irritation? Well, that probably depends on the depth of your relationship with the person, service, or brand, right? Our “forgiveness” threshold is directly related to the depth/state of our relationships.

    Another comment grabs my attention:

    “I passionately believe that the Web design community is in danger of becoming blind to all else but user experience.”

    Here in agency land, I’ve seen examples of this kind of blind defensiveness plenty of times. But I can only restate that this is an output of an outdated, siloed approach to doing business. Genuine collaboration only happens when clients, directors, and designers stop saying things like “it just has to be this way,” or “but that’s the whole campaign,” and start being blind to all else but user experience – together.

    You needn’t apologize for fanning these flames – this stuff needs to be debated and socialized more. Great post!

  18. 21

    Jamie M Swanson

    February 4, 2011 6:54 am

    Let me start by saying I’m not a web designer, at least not professionally.

    I’m a photographer. My website is my storefront. I follow Smashing Magazine because it gives me ideas about what I want to do with the new site I plan to roll out with our re-brand, once we get around to that. I want to be aware of trends in the industry and have questions ready for selecting my web designer when that day comes (hopefully sooner than later).

    I just want to say that this post is golden. Yes, yes, yes. The only reason I’m willing to invest in new design is to get a return on it many times over what I pay for it. Of course I want it to be an awesome user experience (I am still a creative afterall), but in the end if I’m not booking more weddings because of it, then it would be chalked up as a failure in my mind. In fact, I think I’d be more tempted to hire someone who had a testimony on their site about how profits increased after rolling out the new site than someone who simply had beautiful websites and talked about usability.

    Paul, thanks for saying it like it is. Truly. And I hope designers take note.

  19. 22

    Wonderful post! As a developer in an IT department that doesn’t do that much development I can attest to trying to find the right balance. It’s hard as we are constantly trying get departments to use us instead of paying for outside firms and sometimes we spend too much time making something look good instead of getting it to work the way the user asked.

  20. 23

    Good post. I live by a few points of wisdom:

    1) less is more; more or less.
    2) UI Design: getting people to ‘do’ things online; UX Design: getting people to do it more than once AND tell their friends.



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