Finding the Balance: Users’ Needs Vs. Clients’ Wants

Negotiating and prioritizing between your clients and their users' needs is rarely an easy task. Oliver Gitsham explores some of the obstacles UX designers may encounter along the way, along with potentially palliative advice.

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Photo by Cyndy Sims Parr

You all know the project. After months of working with your client’s web team consisting of a web developer and a marketing manager, the project has gone seemingly well. The client is happy and you are happy. You have clocked up months of research into who the users are and what their objectives are, and have transformed the userflows into wireframes and a working prototype. Concepts have been designed and you are proud of what you have created.

One last meeting stands in your way: a meeting with the senior decision makers and the board to get final sign-off of the prototype. The CEO arrives, sits at the head of the mahogany-paneled board table and straight away, you can see he is not happy. Your latest designs that you sent through last week are clutched in his hands with scribbled comments in red pen.

The site was not what he was expecting. He has re-wireframed your designs on a scrap of paper. He has changed your navigation, terminology, layout, and colors. He wants you to go away and redesign his wireframes and re-present for sign-off.

You turn to your allies, the marketing manager and web developer, for support and realize that they are staring blankly at their pads. You’re on your own now.

Before you kick off and defend your work, consider the following pros and cons of taking advice from the CEO.

Why listen to the CEO?

The CEO knows his business and, probably, the industry far better than you ever will. He has lived and breathed the company for several years and has great insight into his customers as well as the business strategy. He is also your customer and paying for the project and possibly future projects, so from a business perspective, listening to his opinions and keeping him happy might go a long way toward building a successful relationship and hopefully future projects.

You may also need to ask yourself whether your pride is getting in the way. Are you feeling a bit resentful and not willing to listen to any difference of opinion? Or perhaps you have spent too long on the project, focusing on a single solution without thinking of alternatives.

Why you shouldn’t listen to the CEO

There are also many reasons not to listen to the CEO. Perhaps he has been involved in the business and the company politics for far too long and has lost touch with the reality of who the users really are. His judgement and the way the business is organized may be clear to him, but perhaps not to his website users. Maybe his ego is getting in the way of making a rational decision, looking to exert his influence as “the boss” to the other team members.

There is also the probability that this is the first or possibly the second website redesign he has ever been involved in and likely, he lacks experience in the web industry. He has hired you as an expert and is paying for your experience in user-centered design. You have spent hours studying or researching the users and know a lot more about the rationale behind the decisions made than he does.

Surviving the meeting

So how do you survive the next two hours of the meeting and reverse the CEO’s thinking?

It is important to get across that ultimately what the user wants and what he wants is the same thing. Being prepared before you go into a sign-off meeting is crucial in doing this. By having a rationale ready behind every decision and design choice that you’ve made, you stand a better chance. A great tool in the UX consultant’s arsenal to win over an unconvinced CEO is to refer back to your research with phrases like “our testing showed this…” or “research has shown that…” If the project involved some usability testing, be prepared to show the CEO some videos of users commenting on the designs or using the site well. He will find it extremely difficult to argue after watching his customers using the website. If still unconvinced, it may be necessary to suggest further rounds of usability testing or A/B split testing to provide quantitative analysis that will allow for the best solution to go live.

In the end, you will need to pick and choose your battles carefully. Sometimes letting the CEO save face by conceding some areas that cause the least amount of damage in favor of focussing on the major usability issues will be necessary. However, sometimes it may be better to know when to walk away. If the relationship has deteriorated to such an extent, then sometimes it’s best to cut your losses and leave. A project that requires extensive redesign and many costly iterations may not be worth it. Your reputation is based on the work that you have created and it will be difficult to explain to future clients that massive disagreements with the client led to the designs in your portfolio. Sometimes it really is best to move on and learn from your mistakes.

Points to remember for the future

As UX consultants, we are often to blame for our initial approach. Through better project and relationship planning, these situations can almost always be avoided. Some points to consider when beginning a project include:

  • Aim to get buy-in from senior management and key stakeholders early on in the project. Stress the implications about the risks involved if key decision makers are not onboard and discuss how you can mitigate those risks.
  • Include senior management in important decisions. Collaborative workshops involving the key stakeholders to come up with a joint solution are a great way of getting buy-in from the board and often lead to a better solution than you alone could have provided. Letting clients feel that they came up with the ideas is a great way of ensuring a successful sign-off
  • Include the executive summary into emails when emailing deliverables. Time-pressured CEOs will be more inclined to read the executive summary in an email than open an attachment and read the full document.
  • Get sign-off often. If a CEO agrees with the personas, the tasks, the userflows, and can see the process, it will be hard to turn around at the end of the project and disagree with everything.

Due to the qualitative nature of our profession and difference of the opinions and agendas between stakeholders, the UX consultant’s job is always going to be tough one. Getting buy-in by always being prepared to show our processes and rationale and working closely with the client to achieve their success will ensure that projects become easier, more efficient and therefore profitable, and more enjoyable.

About the Author

Oliver Gitsham

Oliver is a senior user experience consultant at Experience Solutions, user centred design specialists.


  • Kimmo Linkama Reply

    Although I’m a copywriter, the situation you describe is not unfamiliar to me. Because there will be a content writer involved in almost all web design projects, it might be a good idea to go to signoff meetings as a team for more muscle (and brain). And yes, you’d better have a rationale ready for every move you’ve made. Then again, pros will always be able to do that, won’t they?

  • Rg Reply

    Very useful. Thanks for this.

  • John Tangney Reply

    “Aim to get buy-in from senior management and key stakeholders early on in the project.”

    Any job you do for someone else involves sales at some point in the process. In your scenario, the UX consultant has to sell (and often resell) ideas all the time. Constantly.

    Now flip back to oh, pretty much any book or web site or blog or overheard conversation about SALES, and you’ll recall that the prime directive in a sales conversation is to make sure you’re talking to the decision-maker.

    THAT’s where this whole scenario can be completely short-circuited. There is no point in dealing with underlings. The person with the authority to approve the project is not involved from the get-go.

    That’s not to say that some disfunctional higher-up will never come in at the last minute and undo tons of work. And that kind of person will not care if he (always a he) signed off on a gazillion intermediate milestones.

    And this is where the second rule of sales comes into play. If the customer is um, a silly person as described above, then you do not want to work for him. (Again with the him, though I have run into some silly hers too.)

  • Dare Reply

    I like how the article assumes the CEO is a rational human being backed by some form of logical decision-making behind what he/she wants. LOL

  • Keith Scandone Reply

    Oh man. Spot on. I am about to jump into a meeting with a CEO who fits this description perfectly! It is always a balance about making them happy, catering to some of their needs, and also providing a product that you believe in and know will assist their business. Delicate balance as it may be. Thanks Oliver.

  • Sherman Unkefer Reply

    Vision versus marketplace! Sigh, it’s a struggle that’s all too familiar. Thanks for your great tips on navigating this particular storm. It’s easy to get too defensive or give in too quickly.

  • Andy Fryer Reply

    I took a slightly different look at this issue on my blog recently.

    I think your approach is good; using data from user testing is invaluable in persuading the client, if they are persuadable.

    Too often, these debates happen as a result of the stakeholder’s need to be seen to be contributing (or, to put it another way, it’s their pride that needs to be put aside).

    In these cases, persuasion doesn’t always work, alas.

  • Rokked Reply

    The CEO giving advice isn’t the worst case scenario… I’ve had the CEO’s wife sending me jpgs with updates to my wireframes.

  • Señor Swinstead Reply

    This article starts off well, with talk of when the CEO should be listened to, but then launches into a guide to getting him to ditch all his ideas and listen to yours instead.

    At any point should we consider accepting that not only does he know the company and the marketplace better than us, but that we should take advantage of that rather than figuring out how to dodge it?

  • Yuriy Romadin Reply

    It’s always a big problem with 99.9% of customers :D

  • Andy Reply


    do you any recommendations for conducting user/client interview for feedback on web app usability / visual design?

    I was thinking of:
    “The User is Always Right: A Practical Guide to Creating and Using Personas for the Web”.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Kimmo Reply

    Personally, I’ve worked with several CEOs such as you described, the ones who don’t listen to anything other than themselves. User research etc have very little value to them. They phrase I hear most often is something along the lines “I’ve done this for ten years, so I know”. That means he has expertise, but that expertise doesn’t necessarily apply at all, for example when a business is trying to target new segments. I’ve noticed that it is common for business leaders to “know all” about everything just because they are very skilled in one very limited area of expertise. CEOs, too, need to stay humble enough to know when they are out of their own area of expertise.

    I blogged about issues related to the topic discussed here just recently, take a look if you want to:

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