Taming Goliath: Selling UX to Large Companies (part 1 of 2)

Large companies are the financial backbone of the web industry, but their size and complex organizational structure can make them challenging to work with. In this, the first of a two–part series, Alan explains to readers how to introduce user–centered design to large companies; forging relationships that will mature throughout the duration of the project.

Large companies are the financial backbone of the web industry, but their size and complex organizational structure can make them challenging to work with. Having worked on both sides of the fence, I’ve seen great ideas become the casualties of this struggle between the proverbial David and Goliath, as agencies or freelancers meet face to face with Big Business to create web sites. Closing the door to large companies means missing out on important revenue, good work, and more people using our designs, so how can we make large companies work for us?

While working as the UX guy for Telewest Broadband (now Virgin Media), I learned a valuable lesson about working with large companies. I was tasked with improving the experience for their 1.5 million digital TV customers, and having researched and understood where improvements needed to happen—and after spending many days with engineers on install visits to customers’ homes—I was surprised at how reticent some people were to making changes that were easily justified. It was only after conducting interviews with key people across the company that a theme emerged.

Everybody interviewed recognized the need to change, but many feared the change itself. I have since found this fear in other large companies, where change is viewed negatively because of the scale of its impact and the difficulty in doing it without hitches. Often, this reluctance to change is founded in previous disasters. Since identifying this fear, I have done some of my best work for large companies, but it requires a different approach.

What follows, in two parts, are lessons learned that can help make large companies work for us:

The beginning of a relationship or a new project with a large company can be daunting due to their size and complexity. Here are key things to get right up front, staring with the pitch or bid process:

To pitch or not to pitch—that is the question.

The pitch process can be a poor way to start a relationship, particularly with large companies. This process can debilitate the people who design web sites. The companies we pitch to hold all the trump cards, which is why more and more agencies are avoiding pitches altogether. Pitches can be unfair, are sometimes political, and are often judged on visual design by people who are not designers. Pitches can result in a seismic shift in design authority away from designers, unless the designers are willing to stand up, be transparent, and potentially forfeit the work for telling it like it is, as Kevin Mattice puts it in The Clear War. Agencies have been known to overcommit on a design idea and costs in order to win the work, which can prove costly later. All in all, this can be a very poor start to a relationship. There is little evidence to show that the pitch process results in better web sites. In my experience, this process may actually result in poorer sites, because too much say on matters of design are given to the large companies.

UX Comic

Illustration provided by Rachel Nabors

However, for many new or relatively unknown agencies, winning pitches is the way to make a name and get work. Some large companies’ procurement processes dictate that they send work to tender, resulting in pitches. When pitches still play an important role in the agencies’ new business strategies, the question to ask is, to pitch or not to pitch? Winning the wrong pitch can be a great loss, so how do we ensure that what the pitch is worthwhile?

Obviously, just because you are asked to pitch does not mean you should. Some companies can be on the hunt for ideas, or might be using the pitch as a way of gathering comparable prices, which they then use to bash their incumbent agency with. Here are some questions to ask up front, which will help decide if you should pitch:

  • Are agencies paid to pitch?
  • What is the budget for the project, and has it been approved?
  • What other agencies are pitching?
  • Can you do your best work on this project?
  • Does the pitch sound straightforward?
  • Is it communicated well?
  • Is the client difficult to deal with?
  • What is the process for selection and feedback on the outcome?

For some agencies and freelancers, pitches play an important part in getting work. Before you pitch, ensure that the pitch is one you can afford to win.

For more information, read Getting to no, by Greg Hoy. We spend all our time trying to get to yes with clients, forgetting that sometimes getting to no is just as important. For more on calculating cost and pitch discussions, read Calculating Hours and Pre Bid Discussions, by Andy Rutledge.

Understand the objectives for the site

Clients, like most humans, are quick to jump to solutions to design questions. Aim to guide initial conversations away from what the client says they need and toward the objectives the site needs to meet. If these objectives are not clear, then the right people from the company may not have been involved. Start by clearly identifying the key decision maker for the site, then check again, but this time follow the money to see who’s footing the bill. Sometimes the bill payer and decision maker are the same person, but often in large companies, the bill payer sits up a level or two. There is no better person to tell you what the objectives of a site are than the person paying for it.

Gather disparate views upfront

In addition to the person paying for the design of the site, conduct interviews with other senior people in order to avoid dissenting voices later. These interviews are called stakeholder interviews, and they are one-on-one interviews with all the senior business stakeholders in the site. The aim of these interviews is to get a deeper understanding of the complexity of the environment the site needs to fit within. Stakeholder interviews are a great way of understanding disparate views.

For more on stakeholder interviews, read Understanding Organizational Stakeholders for Design Success, by Jonathan Boutlele and Setting Up Business Stakeholder Interviews, Part 1, by Michael Beavers.

Retain design authority

Left to ourselves, designing sites would be straightforward, but clients—particularly large ones—often impose their design ideas on the project before design starts. Don’t be limited to a preconceived idea on the part of the client, as they make poor designers. Listen carefully to clients and gather their requirements, but always retain total authority over the design.

The following checklist will help you get started on the right foot:

  • Ensure that the client is right for you.
  • Is the pitch one you can afford to win?
  • Never work for free, as your work will be undervalued. Free work also undermines what we do.
  • Clearly understand the client’s objectives for the site.
  • Interview key people upfront to avoid dissenting voices later.
  • Retain design authority at all times.

Check out Part 2 of Collaboration with Large Companies

About the Author

Alan Colville

Alan Colville is a user experience designer and founding member of Analog. Having worked on the Web since 1996, his former clients include BlackBerry, Vodafone and Visa. Alan resides in Bristol, England with three women, two of whom are his daughters, making him significantly outnumbered on a daily basis. Alan writes about design and other issues on Twitter and on his own blog, alancolville.org.

About the Author

Alan Colville

Alan is a user experience designer and founding member of Analog. Having worked on the Web since 1996, his clients include BlackBerry, Vodafone Visa, and Telewest (now Virgin Media). Alan resides in Bristol, England.


  • Steven Reply

    We’re a two man web company working for a very large company and we did loose complete control of the design to a non-designer overseeing the project. We’ve added color for the sake of adding color to random elements and now there is no appealing way to make actionable items stand out. The entire application looks very clown like. I think we we’re a little intimidated to stand our ground and now we have a mess on our hands.

    • Jen Reply

      You’ve got to suck it up and stand your ground. Remind them that they hired you because YOU are the experts. Back it up with whatever you need as far as stats and information to show them why they are making things messy or muddled. The sooner the better – think of it like a bandaid… just rip it off and get it over with.

  • Russell Hampton Reply

    “There is no better person to tell you what the objectives of a site are than the person paying for it.”

    I agree…but I feel that it is still important to communicate what other objectives can be obtained within the site. The client may not realize certain horizons that can be explored and it’s your job to communicate this to them.

    • Alan Colville Reply

      I may not have been clear on what I mean by ‘objectives’. I don’t recommend asking the person paying for the site what they want. To your point, clients are not designers and are poor at imagining all the design possibilities. Instead I favour asking them what they need the site to do. This is what I mean by the clients objectives. This approach avoids the common scenario, where a client tells you what they want, without understanding the design possibilities and leaves the designer free to explore.

  • Jacob Reply

    Great article. Some good points.

    From my own experience, I’d say the most important is to retain design authority; we should be the design experts, and if we aren’t, we shouldn’t be in the industry. Of course, we need to take input from clients, but at the end of the day, we also need to ensure we don’t compromise our own standards.

    The hardest part is getting both sides to understand the design, why it is the way it is, and for either to be able to get the others perspective on any potential changes to a design.

    This is where I find tools like http://intuitionhq.com really useful (full disclosure, this product was made by our studio). By performing usability testing, and getting the clients involved in the testing process, they can understand the designs more, without over involving them in the fine details.

    By performing the tests, the designer can see if the site design is working as intended, and if not, make any changes required to make the design work better.

    I think this is a win-win for both sides, and definitely has worked really well for us with our clients.

    Steven, I’d suggest you try doing some testing and see what the results show up – if there is one thing big businesses understand, it’s numbers, and if the results stack up they way you expect they will, I suspect you will be able to exert more control over the design.

    That’s my two cents anyway.

    • Alan Colville Reply

      That’s an excellent point Jacob. Possibly one which I should have included. Involving clients, designers, developers and key stakeholders in user testing is a very powerful method of gaining understanding and buy in to the design. However, whilst remote testing is good, I find that live viewing of the testing by the client works best of all.

    • Jacob Reply

      Thanks for the reply Alan. In a perfect we’d certainly do more live testing, but unfortunately, for a lot of different reasons – cost and time being the two most pertinent – so we generally go for a combination of the two.

      The other beauty of tools like IntuitionHQ is that you can gather feedback instantly when you really need it, and make appropriate changes to the design. I guess everything has a place though.

      By the way, I just realised you are one of the people behind the Analog site – really love it, it’s so innovative. Pity your nearest person is 6500 miles away.


  • Rosco P Coltrane Reply

    Great article. I work for a very large multinational and I’m managing the pitch process for a web redesign project right now. In my spare time I run a small (tiny) web mktg consultancy, so I also have a view from both sides of the fence.

    My experience leads me to the conclusion that in large companies, the actual decision maker (who probably does pay the bill at the end of the day) probably has 101 other things to worry about, and is almost guaranteed not to be qualified to make design decisions. 2 things emerge from this:

    1) Stakeholders need to have a lot of confidence in what you’re proposing, which will probably involve considerable change. They need to trust YOU to recommend the right change, so those very important stakeholder interviews actuaLly have another role, which is possibly even more important than you learning how to navigate through the business, and that is that this probably your only opportunity to gain these people’s confidence, so don’t neglect credentials, and take the opportunity to build relationships.

    2) Your day-to-day contact may need to do a lot of selling of your ideas, even if they’re not particularly radical, simply because they are changes. That is much easier when you think of it as a joint responsibility and the designer helps to build the business case.

    • Alan Colville Reply

      I’m sold. I like the way you have highlighted another benefit of this technique. Stakeholder interviews are crucial but often over looked when designing for large companies. I think one reason for this, to your point, is that key stakeholders in large companies have very busy diaries. Getting their time is not easy. This is why these interviews need to be included as part of the process rather than a nice to have.

  • Dr. Peter Meyers Reply

    Great info, Alan, and interesting to see the similarities and differences in our two posts this week. I think stakeholder buy-in is a huge aspect of selling to large companies. When I deal with an SMB, I’m typically dealing with upper management and even CEOs/owners. Buy-in trickles down (whether people like it or not ;) ). In a large corporation, you’re convincing people from the mid-level up AND across and have to get support from multiple teams (IT, marketing, etc.) if you want to succeed.

  • Jim Cassidy Reply

    Hi – Excellent article. However, I have one question: could you define “design authority”? How does that work in practice?

    • Alan Colville Reply

      Design authority may be too lofty a term. If you’re the only designer in the room and people are not looking to you on design matters, you’ve lost design authority or control. Simple as that.

      Unanswered questions, poor rational or indecisiveness can all lead to loss of design control. In large companies in particular, there is always someone very willing to jump in with a design opinion. As we know, everyone has an opinion on design, much more so than on wireframes for example. So, control needs to be maintained.

      I’ve seen design control lost in many ways in a large company:

      – When design issues are not answered quickly.
      – When the design rational is poorly throughout or communicated.
      – By not frequently involving key stakeholders.
      – Through lack of continued involvement of the designer.
      – By appearing weak, indecisive or inarticulate. Same as any profession.

      In practice, it’s about designers being courageous and not being afraid to challenge, stand up and be counted. It’s also about designers staying on top of the design and the client. In summary, it’s about leaving no doubt that the design authority remains with the designer.

      We can’t help clients not liking a design, but that is about taste not authority.

  • Erin Lynn Young Reply

    Alan – I appreciate your article. It raises many good points.

    One thing I have to disagree with, however, if the concern you mention about pitchwork being “judged on visual design by people who are not designers.”

    It’s important to remember that when it’s all said & done, the ultimate judges of a design’s success are its users. Users, like clients, are also not designers. Any sighted person can provide valuable feedback on a design, whether or not its feedback that you’d ultimately want to act on. Objective user research is the only way to determine whether something truly works.

    On the contrary, the biggest risk I see with providing visual design as a part of the pitch process is that you’re often designing blind on a tight turn — often entirely uninformed about the needs of the team you’re pitching to our their user base. Not only only does spec work cost your company money, but it also creates risk. Or, worse – the client falls in love with your shot-from-the-hip concept and gets stuck on it.

    Thanks for the great read.

    • Alan Colville Reply

      I’m really enjoying the varied responses, which raise some great points.

      As I wrote this article, it quickly became apparent that pitching is complex and topical. It deserves it’s own post. If you are interested in telling the US side of the story, maybe we could co-write a post, because it does differ in the US and UK.

      I’m going to stand my ground on this one Erin. In the context of a pitch, the user is not the judge. Instead it’s the room full of marketing, product, commercial managers for example that have the final say and tend to be most vocal on visual design.

      But I think we are in agreement fundamentally and I whole heartedly agree with a point you highlighted in your post on the Fallacies of User Testing;
      “Asking users subjective questions kicks off a chain of events that normally ends in a poorly made business decision”. However, I think something similar could be said for some clients, who need to trust the people they pay to design and then ensure testing happens and is objective, as you suggest.

      Overall, I find that most users are far less concerned with design than we think. They are happiest when it ‘just works’, which is what we should be testing with them, not visual design, unless it gets in the way of it working or alienates them in some way.

      I like how you very eloquently highlighted another problems with pitches – when a client falls in love you your ‘shot from the hip’ and this shot is then sold across the company – before the designer really puts pen to paper.

      Thanks again for your comment.

  • alastair simpson Reply

    Hey Alan,

    Great article, really interesting read. As a former sales manager turned UX professional, I couldn’t agree more with your points. It is so important that UX professionals can concisely convey the true value they bring to an organistion, as often the people approving the budget really don’t understand UX.

    Asking questions and really listening to the answers is a classic sales technique, that can really help uncover the true objectives the client has for a project.

    Looking forward to part 2.


    • Alan Colville Reply

      Delighted my experiences with large companies resonated with you Alastair. Luckily, you don’t have to wait for part 2, it was posted here yesterday.

      Thanks again for your comment.

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