How Freelancers Can Balance Business Objectives and User Needs

No, I don’t want to be my healthiest self.

No thanks, I don’t care about staying up-to-date on world news.

That’s okay, I enjoy going to sleep alone every night.

Chances are, while browsing the web you’ve been hit with one (or several) of these shame-inducing pop-up windows. Lately, they’ve become ubiquitous—so ubiquitous, in fact, there’s a tumblr solely devoted to documenting them.

These pop-ups are a classic example of business objectives overruling user needs. Clients ask designers to do this all the time: They make a request that’s great for the business, but not so good for the user.

Greatist Popup

For instance, Greatist probably collects more email address with this exit link than if it simply read “No.” But to get those signs-up, Greatist is forcing its users to insult themselves.

How do you balance client goals with user needs? Great question. Let’s dive in.

Go Back to the Bigger Picture

There’s a strong business case for designing the best possible user experience you can: Ultimately, happy users make good customers. Whenever your client asks for something that’ll degrade the UX, remind them of this fact.

For example, maybe they want to make the call-to-action button red instead of blue—since, as they point out, red is more attention-grabbing and will increase conversions.

That’s probably true—and you could run an A/B test to prove it. Yet a red CTA will look jarring. Consequently, the site will look less professional, and user estimation of the business will go down. Total conversions will decrease as well, more than offsetting the incremental gains of the color change.

Remind your clients to take a holistic view of the design. User needs and business needs are actually one and the same, but that might mean taking a couple small conversion losses.

We work with clients on meeting their business objectives, but we also tell them the site isn’t for them–it’s for their current and prospective customers.

By focusing on user goals first and business goals second, you’re more likely to give visitors a more positive first impression of your brand–which makes them more likely to purchase or get in touch.

Paul Randall, Senior UX Architect at Evosite

Use Data

Bringing in quantitative evidence to back up your points is always wise. After all, most clients aren’t satisfied with qualitative arguments: They want proof.

With that in mind, you should always come prepared with multiple types of data. Show videos of users navigating the interface. Provide quotes from your interviews. Pull in relevant third-party studies. Run A/B tests.

Remember that your clients might not be familiar with these tools, so it’s always important to give them some context. And don’t forget to link what you found to your argument for or against a design aspect.

For instance, if you’re using the results from a task-based test, you’d want to say something like:

“In this scenario, we asked participants to add a sweater to their cart and check out. It took the average person one minute and forty seconds. That’s way longer than we’re shooting for. Our team thinks the process could be greatly streamlined by offering guest check-out—I know you wanted to make creating an account obligatory, but the faster customers can check-out, the less likely they are to abandon their carts.”

(And if they don’t like the results? Check out our guide to handling unhappy clients.)

Involve Your Client

Some designers try to limit their client’s participation as much as possible. And that’s understandable; after all, clients often make unreasonable and picky requests, question your expertise, and slow down the process.

But the answer isn’t cutting them out completely—not if you want to solve for the user, anyway. Your job is to fundamentally change how the client thinks about design, and you can’t do that if you vanish for two months and then show up with a fully fleshed-out product.

(You might also like, “Keys to On-Going Work for Freelance Designers.”)

To teach your clients about trade-offs, UX consultant Paul Boag recommends using three exercises.

First, he writes, “Ask them to design a book jacket that communicates the core messages of their organization.”

This exercise makes them focus on their core messaging; plus, it gives you greater insight into their organization.

Next, Boag suggests showing your client Google’s homepage and Yahoo’s homepage and asking which they prefer. They’ll say Google. At this point, explain how limiting what you display (i.e., making trade-offs) is better for the user.

Finally, ask them to design six different versions of the homepage.

The client will do two or three and then start to struggle. At that point, you might want to prompt them. Suggest that they consider what the home page would look like for different audiences. Or suggest emphasizing different calls to action.

This could lead to an interesting discussion, one about the emphasis of the website and how the design could fulfill its requirements.

Pick Your Battles

Should you ever take the client’s side over the user’s side? Ultimately, you have to remember a couple things. The client hasn’t hired you to create a beautiful but nonfunctional piece of art (although that would be cool)—they’ve hired you to create a product that will make them money.

Furthermore, endlessly debating with your clients causes strife. It’s sometimes worth giving them a “win” so you can do what you want in another area.

Finally, there are certain deal-breakers, or situations where the business needs really are more important than the UX.

The New York Times is a great example. Without a subscription, you can only read 10 free articles a month. It’s extremely frustrating to open a link and start scrolling, only to have an obtrusive pop-up take over your screen. However, without this feature the newspaper wouldn’t sell anywhere near as many online subscriptions.

The same concept applies to many forms as well. If given the choice, most users would probably never fill out another form. Yet organizations want their contact info, so they’re going to keep asking for name, email address, and company (among other things).

Whenever you’re caught between the user’s needs and the client’s request, do a simple cost-benefit analysis. Let’s use a simplified version of the NYT example. 100 people see that pop-up every month, 90 of them leave feeling annoyed, and 10 buy subscribers. Without the pop-up, 100 of them would stay on the site. However, zero would purchase subscriptions. Plus, current subscribers would cancel—if they don’t need to pay, why would they?

Clearly, gating the content is valid from a business perspective.

Final Thoughts

Unlike most jobs, designers actually answer to two completely different people: the client, and the user. Each stakeholder has separate and often conflicting goals. To make matters more difficult, only one of them actually pays you.

Yet balancing business objectives and user needs isn’t impossible. Once you’ve implemented these best practices, you’ll find walking the line much easier.

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