Nothing is more important than business objectives

Let me be entirely clear. Usability, accessibility, aesthetics, technology or indeed any other aspect of web design you care to mention are worthless if they do not service your business objectives.

Somebody recently asked me on formspring what the most important aspect of web design was. Without hesitation I replied business objectives even though that was not on the questioners list of possibilities.

Comic image demonstrating that putting users first isn't always right

To me this was the obvious answer. However, as soon as my answer hit twitter it became apparent I was in the minority believing this. The overwhelming response was that I should have said ‘user experience’.

The logic went something like this – if users are not happy then they will leave and you will have no business.

Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more, but people are missing the point. The reason user experience matters so much is that bad usability prevents a site meeting its business objectives.

Anybody who knows me, knows that I am passionate about accessibility, usability, design and any other aspect of web design you care to mention. However, I believe in these things not as an end in themselves but as a way of enabling a website to meet its business objectives.

I don’t make a site accessible because I believe it should be accessible. I do so because ultimately I believe it will help the site meet its business objectives.

I don’t make a site usable because I believe it is some lofty goal that should always be attained. I do so because I believe that without happy users no website will meet its business objectives.

Is this all semantics?

You may think that I am being picky and that actually this is just a matter of semantics. However, I disagree. It is a vitally important distinction. Without it we allow things like user experience to take priority over achieving business objectives.

Ultimately websites need to pay their way. This means that when user experience and business objectives truly clash then business objectives must win. Admittedly most of the time a better user experience benefits the business objectives. However that is not always the case.

Take for example an ecommerce site. Most users hate registering. They would prefer to make a transaction and then leave. However, from a business perspective we want them to register. If they register they are more likely to place a repeat order and we also have more opportunity to market to them.

If you take a pure user experience perspective need you wouldn’t force users to register. However I suggest that the business objective trumps the user experience. Admittedly you may lose a few users. However, if the benefits of registered users outweighs the lost customers then it is worth it. Obviously you do all you can to minimise that loss, but ultimately the increased profits are more important than alienating a handful of users.

Of course, you have to take the long term view. It could be argued that the handful of users might be very vocal in their dislike of your site and alienate the others. Equally you might reduce customer satisfaction in those who do purchase, reducing the likelihood they buy again. These are all valid points. However, my point is that these things only matter if they damage the business objective of increasing sales.

So go on, tell me I am wrong? I dare you! -)

  • http://www.jamesgreenwood.co.uk James Greenwood

    Interesting.

    One question for you – you say:

    “Anybody who knows me, knows that I am passionate about accessibility, usability, design and any other aspect of web design you care to mention. However, I believe in these things not as an end in themselves but as a way of enabling a website to meet its business objectives.”

    How does this fit with budget constraints? Do you leave out something (usability testing/accessibility work etc) if the business doesn’t demand it?

    How do you deal with a business who says disabled users aren’t important to them and not to spend too long on ensuring accessibility for all but to spend time on the something the business owner does want?

    I know this is being a bit pedantic, but I don’t think it’s a black or white issue.

    James

  • Tom Frame

    100% on the money!!

  • http://www.mapledesign.co.uk Peter Bowyer

    Amen to that! Our job is to enhance client’s businesses, and that’s tied to meeting their business objectives.

    When we worked with smaller clients, we always asked what their business objectives were in the first meeting. Frequently the only one they could articulate was “to make money”, and it becomes a matter of teasing out objectives. I very much enjoy business development and helping clients was a pleasure, as was explaining how the web could help and provide a return on investment.

    I’m going to stick my neck out and say the major reason web designers steer clear of focusing on business objectives is because it requires taking (sometimes a lot of) time to understand the client’s business. Being a business development manager/external consultant isn’t seen as part of our job description, but if we see our role as creating business value on the web, then it’s very much part of it.

    The other reason is that doing this requires some business nouse on our part, and not everyone has it. But a basic grasp of business objectives should be well within everyone’s reach.

  • http://vukasins.com/ Vukašin

    Double rainbow all the way bro, awesome post.

  • http://www.mikehealy.com.au Mike Healy

    The concept is sound, I’m not sure the ecommerce example was the best one though. From what I understand, not requiring registration can give a big boost to conversion rates. But you did say if, so fair enough I guess.

    I think it’s fortunate that their is a fair overlap between on-site SEO and building for accessibility. If there weren’t, a lot of clients would see making a site accessible as a waste of time; but if they think it might help their Google rankings they’ll do it.

  • http://rubken.net/ Ruben Kenig

    I think it’s a case of perspective rather than semantics. User experience, with a company, goes beyond the boundaries of the website. So making the site less shiny and spangly from a designer/developer perspective in order to make the whole interaction between user/customer and company better does make sense in the end.

    I have seen more and more pitches being won on the basis of ROI potential rather than cost. Companies are waking up to the potential of the web. More companies are able to accurately value newsletter sign-ups, Twitter follows and so on as well as simple sales transactions.

    Like Peter says above this puts pressure on web companies to know how the web can help businesses tangibly. It can be a bit nerve-wracking to put a value on the site your proposing but it is going to become a much more usual practice even dealing with SMEs.

    Also good Ux isn’t the same thing as pretty.

  • http://jamesduncombe.com James Duncombe

    Very good point Paul,

    That was a good read. I especially agree with the bit that says that a website should pay it’s way.

    There’s no point pouring hours of time into a site only for it to fall short of it’s business objectives.

    Cheers,

    James

  • Roger White

    Very very true.

    I’m still amazed how some businesses/organisations are still running/operating without clear business objects.

  • http://www.virtuosimedia.com/ Benjamin @ Virtuosi Media

    I quite agree, Paul, and kudos to you for the post. I’d go even further and say that the business objectives, primarily revenue, are the only real objective measures of a site’s success. You can say, “We just made it to the front page of Digg!” That’s great, but how much revenue or future business did that bring in? We should be constantly measuring our business metrics and trying to improve them. Otherwise, a website is likely to fail.

  • http://www.johnegraham2.com johnegraham2

    Great perspective! You could actually make “Business Objectives” the base for the pyramid in the Web Design Hierarchy of Needs that Smashing Magazine wrote about back in April.

  • http://www.theunifiedwebtheory.com carlmagnus

    Great post!
    User experience has arrived and it soaks up all the atention right now. If ppl remember Owyang’s three spheres of web strategy http://bit.ly/3j7uTH , Business was one of the spheres.

  • http://www.cartanova.ca Andrew J. Holden

    I agree – business objectives come first. Web Developers have a critical influence in discovering new customers and helping companies to grow. However, I believe we should be using our technological and marketing sophistication to assist only ‘good’ organizations and technologies – discussion of human and environmental ethics are far too rare in our industry’s internal conversation.

  • http://www.juegos.gs Martin

    I totally agree with you, we must sacrifice the user experience to achieve our goals, if that’s necessary.

  • Bob Reid

    We have a saying in our shop: “all projects are business projects, not technology projects.” There are many times when I would like to believe otherwise, but it’s true, even when we know best, provide all the answers, and keep projects on track. Without a business case there would be no business need for what we do.

  • Rick Cusick

    You’re right, absolutely. I’ve literally said these exact words, and seeing them here is nice validation. Would love to hear your thoughts on engaging ways to draw out the business goals from a group of people who may be on somewhat different wavelengths.  I’ve seen stakeholder interviews, sticky affinity exercises, top-down decision-making, and consensus building workshops, all with varying degrees of success.  I also find that making the business goals an ‘input’ to another process (e.g. persona development) helps drive attention back to this point. What’s worked for you in getting at these, when they’re not as clear as you would like? 

    • Anonymous

      We tend to work with stakeholder interviews. Out of these we draw up our own list of business objectives. Having something to respond to often helps to focus their minds. People are normally very good at saying what they don’t want to do rather than what they do want to do :)

  • Rick Cusick

    You’re right, absolutely. I’ve literally said these exact words, and seeing them here is nice validation. Would love to hear your thoughts on engaging ways to draw out the business goals from a group of people who may be on somewhat different wavelengths.  I’ve seen stakeholder interviews, sticky affinity exercises, top-down decision-making, and consensus building workshops, all with varying degrees of success.  I also find that making the business goals an ‘input’ to another process (e.g. persona development) helps drive attention back to this point. What’s worked for you in getting at these, when they’re not as clear as you would like? 

    • Anonymous

      We tend to work with stakeholder interviews. Out of these we draw up our own list of business objectives. Having something to respond to often helps to focus their minds. People are normally very good at saying what they don’t want to do rather than what they do want to do :)

  • Trevor

    Surely making content accessible for disabled users is not about the bottom line, it’s about complying with the law and upholdng a basic human right.

    No?

  • http://headscape.co.uk/people/boag.html Paul Boag

    Not breaking the law is a fairly fundamental business objective! If you do your business isn’t going to survive very long.

    Yes accessibility is a human right but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a business benefit as well. No self respecting shop would turn away as many as 1 in 20 visitors and neither should a website.

    Making a website accessible makes good business sense and provides a tangible return on investment.

    Sure it has other benefits too but they are a bonus.

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