13 expert opinions on balancing business and user objectives

How do you argue against what may seem like making more money? Easy... focus on the user.

Many of us have been there – someone with enough authority wants us to do something that’ll hurt users but temporarily boost key metrics.

How do you argue against what seems like making more money? Maybe you’re worried about going against a HiPPO – but you also know just how costly bad design can be. 

So, we’ve asked 13 straight-talking, wisdom-imparting, battle-hardened veterans from the worlds of UX, CRO, eCommerce and marketing a not-so-simple question: 

“What do you do when business objectives and user objectives don’t meet?”

Now kick back, grab some popcorn and feast your mind on an elite squad of expert opinions. But first, a bonus quote from our very own Lee Duddell, UX Director at UserZoom and founder of WhatUsersDo…

“The sweet spot for meeting user and business goals probably lies on different parts of the spectrum for each business. The diversity of ideas within the expert opinions here suggests as much.

To resolve this tension in your particular business, you may need to have one or all of several skills:

  • Being an educator
  • Being a pragmatist
  • Being a scientist
  • Being an artist

The list goes on. As you read these opinions, it might be helpful to identify the roles these experts have had to play within their companies, to achieve and preserve that all-important balance.”

Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint

Andrew Kucheriavy, Founder & CEO of Intechnic

You can’t reach your business objectives at the expense of those of your users.

If you focus only on what your company wants, you risk building an organization-centric experience that serves only your company, not your customers. Even if you manage to achieve your goals in the short run, they’ll fail in the long run.

Since you can’t force users to change their behavior, you must adjust your business goals and balance them with those of your users.

Stay human to stay profitable

Pamela Pavliscak, Design Researcher and Data Scientist. Founder of Change Sciences

Think bigger. Think “human”, not “user” – “evolving self”, not just “interacting self”.

Pick long-term relationships over short-term gains. Look at the life goals of your customers. If your business objectives don’t match up with people’s larger life goals – and have a net positive effect – you ultimately won’t have much success.

The misalignment sometimes stems from focusing only on marketplace measures – return visits, sign-ups, purchases – without a counterbalance. Countries balance GDP with well-being, and companies measure productivity alongside employee happiness, so it’s time to introduce measures for personal and collective well-being.

The result is greater alignment.

You either have the wrong product or the wrong users

Laura Klein, Principal, Users Know & Author of UX for Lean Startups

It’s a mistake to think about business objectives and user objectives in antagonistic terms.

If you’re doing so, it’s often because you don’t understand user needs well enough or because you have the wrong users. If you are solving a serious enough problem for your user, they should be happy to pay you for doing so.

If you find yourself in this position, try this thought exercise. First, ask yourself what your business objective is. This shouldn’t be something like “build a feature” or “add another banner ad”. It might be something like “monetize new users better” or “decrease customer acquisition costs”. You might decide to experiment with monetizing new users better by converting more free trial users to subscriptions. Or you might decide to decrease customer acquisition costs by trying to get more users to refer friends. Figure out what makes sense in these terms for your product.

Next, you need to ask yourself, “What is the user behavior that would need to change for us to achieve these goals?” Once you understand the user behavior that you would need to change, you can start figuring out what you can offer to naturally motivate users to adopt that behavior.

Of course, if the answer is, “There’s nothing we can offer users or change about our product that would get them to want to change their behavior,” then you have the wrong users. That means you have some tough decisions to make about either trying to attract a totally different group of users who want what you’re selling, or changing your product enough that the users you already have want what you’re selling.

Simple as A/B testing

Rich Page, CRO & Web Analytics Expert, Rich Page: Website Optimizer

Using A/B testing is the perfect way to solve this common clash.

Create and run an A/B test with two different versions, one more focused on business objectives, and one more focused on user objectives. Then let the A/B test results speak for themselves, in terms of impact on conversion rate and revenue – the results will help educate HiPPOs (Highest Paid Person’s Opinions) who may often believe that their business objectives are more important than user needs.

Getting usability feedback from your target market on both proposed versions is also recommended – to prove the importance of user needs (particularly if you don’t have enough traffic for A/B testing).

However, the A/B test and usability results may actually prove that business objectives versions sometimes have a better impact. If this is the case, then trust the results but be sure to monitor the continuing impact on repeat visitors and repeat purchases, as these are essential for the long-term success of any business.

Get the right tools for battling UX monsters

Craig Tomlin, Certified Usability Analyst | Marketing, SEO & UX Conversion Optimisation | Useful Usability

I was recently asked to see if I could help improve an internal corporate application that a large number of employees use pretty much eight hours a day.

The application, I was told, had become something of a Frankenstein’s Monster.

Over the preceding years, bits and pieces had been bolted on, modified, or moved to such a great extent that everyone knew it was a UX disaster. I asked the product manager what had happened – why did this application get so out of control? The answer was, “Because requirements come in, and we work on them and add them. But nobody ever goes back and looks at the whole user experience to see if their piece makes sense in the context of everything else.” Thus UX monsters are born!

This is a classic case of business objectives not aligning with user objectives. Yet, you could argue that each individual requirement was based on a unique user experience objective, and designed to make something better for users! So what happened? The business unit failed to comprehend that an addition to a system must be analyzed in the context of the whole. And that each part in the system must be evaluated in context, to determine where harmony can best be found between the new function and the rest of the functions.

So how did I solve this problem?

I used some of the information architecture and card sorting tools I’ve written about to evaluate the entire user experience of the system. I used that data to make multiple changes to the navigation and taxonomy of the system. I then tested the optimization by conducting satisfaction surveys before and after making changes.

The results? An improvement in Net Promoter Score of 129 points! The moral of this story? Don’t forget that user objectives should always be evaluated in the context within which they exist. Don’t forget that user experience means the entire experience, not just a piece of it. And don’t forget that it is very easy to use tools to help you identify what is happening across a user experience – using that data can make a world of difference! Especially when handling those UX Frankenstein’s Monsters!

It all comes back to research

Sally Graham, Director of Sourcing, UserZoom

When business objectives and user experience clash you should ask yourself: Do I have the right balance between objectives and UX?

If not, you should start conducting UX research to be back on track. Observing your clients will give you all the answers you need to improve the user experience.

Let’s face it – business goals can never be fulfilled if you don’t fulfill user goals. If you start with research in the discovery phase, you will be able to develop a new product faster, while spending less and giving something valuable to your clients.

Evidence-based testing and actionable insights from real users should be shaping the whole user experience. If you skip user research, your design will fail sooner or later. Designing an experience that acknowledges user needs, in a way that directly supports profit, is a win-win. That usually happens when a business is providing true value to the customers.

A good UX project starts with research and ends with research.

School the opposition

Paul Randall, Senior UX Architect, Evosite

It’s all about education.

Of course, 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.

Showing usability videos to business departments is a great way of helping them understand this, so they can refocus on creating a great experience.

A visitor coming to the site has questions and is looking for answers. Much like customer service in a shop, how you interact is key. Focus on that first before jumping on them! Become too aggressive, and they’ll leave. Ask for too much information and they’ll be suspicious.

Not everything that counts can be counted…

Zoltan Kollin, UX Director, Ustream

“Good design is good business”, said Thomas J. Watson Jr., former president of IBM.

However, we as designers sometimes feel that business stakeholders don’t share this view and our users’ experiences are sacrificed for business goals. That happens when you’re asked to add another banner to the home page, hide the free option and overemphasize the expensive plans, or design a huge overlay so that more people sign up for a newsletter.

It’s hard to argue with such decisions when important metrics (like the number of conversions) prove that they work well. However, stakeholders need to consider that a better conversion rate doesn’t mean better user experience (just think about dark patterns). And conversion rate isn’t necessarily more important than the overall experience, either.

A conversion shows short-term success but a good user experience might be more beneficial in the long-term, thanks to customer loyalty and retention.

What you can (and should!) use to prove your point in such an argument is data. User experience might seem hard to measure but it’s not impossible. Your new banner might gain a few clicks but a heatmap can prove that it draws the attention from some more important content.

Hiding the free option might increase the sales of paid plans but you might lose promising prospects looking for a free trial. That aggressive sign-up overlay might get some new subscribers, but it might also annoy other people and significantly increase the bounce rate of the page.

Be creative in measuring and tracking, and compromise based on evidence, not opinions.

Find the common denominators

Jonathan Lupo, VP of Experience Design, EPAM

There’s a classic tension that exists when businesses create a distinction between their business objectives and those of their customers.

Of course, any business depends on customers, so it’s easy to view these objectives as one and the same, right? Well, not exactly. In reality, businesses actually do launch product features that have no real benefit to customers at all. The most obvious example that comes to mind is online advertising. Performance marketing company, Criteo, published a report in 2015, based on a study of 2,200 UK consumers, which found that “A third of British consumers are frustrated by large volumes of online ads”. Consumer frustration results from experiences which lack “task relevancy” and sometimes act as a barrier to task completion.

So, a product designer who IS customer-centric has to find a way to turn business-centric objectives into customer-centric features. Using the example above, we can try to make online ads more useful to relevant user tasks, at the time they are viewed.

For instance, a customer may be looking to purchase a product from an online retailer. Rather than showing them a static advertising banner for a specific product, an online advertiser may opt to create and sponsor a useful buying guide that helps consumers make a decision.

In short, product designers need to understand how to turn business objectives into useful features, that also satisfy user objectives.

Ask the right questions to get the right answers

Per Axbom, Designer, Writer and Coach, Axbom Innovation

Whenever I hear this type of question I assume someone has misunderstood how their work fits into the bigger picture of the business.

The business objectives are what the business is aiming for: the end scenario to be achieved. To communicate this objective the business creates some clear goals, plans to reach these goals and performs day-to-day activities according to those plans. Granted, a business objective is – hopefully – to some extent based on an insight about the human state and human behavior.

Individuals rarely adhere to such a structured behavioral plan. Human objectives and organizational objectives are not really on the same level and in my mind not comparable in the way that the question implies. Rather, the “user objectives” is one of several data sources the business uses to make decisions about what to do next. Next steps are then matched against parameters such as feasibility, urgency, clarity, affordability and ROI. It’s obvious that you are not always trying to solve everything that can benefit users. It also goes without saying that business and user objectives will clash – or at least chafe – all the time. The business needs to figure out which of many options, based on insights about users, to focus on; paths that will bring it closer to its own objective.

In fact, user objectives and business objectives are not really phenomenons that meet, they are two very different visions of future states, one for the organization and one for the human. Each drive daily activities for both to be in constant evolvement, hopefully moving them closer to their goals. But I’ve never heard anyone say: “Excellent, the business objectives and user objectives just merged!” It’s not something that happens.

It’s no secret that we can have successful products with really poor experiences. You have to remember that a short-term focus on creating an amazing experience may adversely affect the long-term experience. Time and time again I see projects failing to budget for the upkeep – the running costs and competence required – to maintain a successful product or service. It’s great at launch but two years later it’s a mess. Running a business is complex and if you’re putting money in the wrong places you will in the longer term fail to meet any user needs at all, even if your intentions are good.

Most businesses also do not really have a firm grasp of user objectives, they have hypotheses about what will be of help to people. So what do you do? You keep listening, learning and moving. Preferably in a quick and sensible manner. I’m obviously all for creating the optimal balance between user needs and business needs, when great experiences and business objectives match you are in for a great ride – but you can’t relax. When efforts to comply tip over too much on the side of the user the ability to maintain that level of service will begin to falter. Worst case: there won’t be any experience left to talk about.

First follow the money, then the users

Philippe Hong, Designer, author of Practical Web Design, co-founder of @Vytein

There are several situations where this might be an issue but I’ll talk about situations where you’re not getting enough business income by focusing heavily on UX objectives.

We like to say “A good product is a user-centric product.” But before focusing on the user objectives, you have to make sure you have enough business income. And it would be smart of you to make enough money and then focus on the user experience to get more paid users.

I think people are focusing too much on getting a good product for the user. But if you don’t have funding, focus on the business first. Then after becoming stable, focus on the user objectives.

Beware the signs of things to come

Joel Marsh, Experience Architect & Author of “UX For Beginners” | The Hipper Element

User needs and business needs must be aligned. If they aren’t, it indicates a long-term business problem, and possibly even a competitive disadvantage that another company can use to disrupt you.

But often designers and business professionals misunderstand what that means.

If the designer and the marketing team disagree, that has nothing to do with user goals and business goals.

Marketing needs as much information as it can get, for the sake of understanding how to give the users what they want. And UX wants the minimum amount of friction for users – e.g. fewer form questions often means better results. But the key is to find a balance. Ignoring one or the other is a bad idea.

Just because a user goal costs the company more money doesn’t mean it is a conflict.

For example, Spotify makes money from monthly subscriptions, but also pays money to artists and labels based on how much music is played. In theory, that might make it sound like Spotify should design features in a way that minimises the monthly plays. But that would make users unsatisfied, which would mean they’d spend less time in the app, which would mean artists would take their music somewhere else – and Spotify would eventually die from being boring to users. Therefore, building playlists, recommendation tools and top lists is good for business – even though it creates more expenses. It becomes an efficiency problem, not a user/business conflict.

And sometimes things that make more money are actually a bad idea because they manipulate users – like breaking your photo gallery into 10 separate pages and filling those pages with ads, so each user sees more ads. It can be hard to explain – or even to see – how that hurts a company in the long term, but over time, it will train users to spend less time on the site and bounce more often. Eventually the efficiency of the business will collapse.

In all of these cases it is important to see beyond the best practices (or opinions or methods) of any one person or role in the company, and follow your own logic. If your strategy gets worse and worse, it only leads to one conclusion.

If Spotify designs away all of the engagement to save money, it will die. If UX never designs anything that marketing wants, marketing will have a hard time bringing in new users and the super-clean on-boarding will have much less value. And if the only way to make more money is to increase the number of ads, soon your site will only be ads and nobody will be interested.

Needless to say… I feel strongly about the issue of user objectives vs. business ones. 

Start with the deal-breakers

Rémy Rey-De Barros, Creative Director, UX Designer, Pixel Tie

As a UX designer, my first priority is to fulfil the business objectives of my clients, by creating the best possible UX to help them achieve these goals.

So, when there is a conflict between business and user objectives, I’ll try to figure out if either of them is a deal breaker. If one is – I’ll start looking at better alternatives that suit both sides, but business objectives should ultimately win.

Let’s use a simple example: data acquisition. On the UX side, it would be easy to argue that not having a form before downloading your client’s white paper would result in a better UX. However if your clients’ business model relies on monetising its database, not having a form would obviously become a deal breaker.

And this is actually when our work becomes very exciting because it’s all about building a great UX, while working within business constraints.

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