Finding The Sweet Spot... Bridging the Gap Between User and Business
By D. Keith Robinson
Published on December 1, 2004
The Web is slowly but surely growing up. For Web professionals
its becoming more and more important to understand not only
how various disciplines interact with and affect each other, but
also the impact of business objectives on Web projects. Our clients
and stakeholders are, thankfully, getting a better handle on what
we can do for them and how they can use those things to meet their
The days of a Web site as an afterthought are coming to a close.
The Web is (or should be) central to most companies marketing,
communication and branding goals. If its not, it soon will
be. Budgets are loosening up a bit, our clients are better educated
and well soon have a real opportunity to do some special work.
If youre making a choice between user and business goals,
youre making the wrong choice. Period.
Word-of-mouth and easy, direct access to companies mean that a good
user experience is becoming more and more necessary. Its just
so darn easy for a person to find things on the Web. Because of
this, user goals will naturally become business goals as the Web
moves forward and decision makers have a better understanding of
what their Web sites can do for them (or to them).
Mark Hurst said in a great article recently:
Customer experience is the defining success factor in business
for the next twenty years. Learning from customers, creating the
experience they want, measuring the success of what you do, continually
fine-tuning the service and returning to customers to learn more--this
now must be the primary mission of any business that has customers.
If you create a great customer experience, youll almost certainly
Your Web site and how good you are at meeting a customers
needs are central to that success.
But were not quite there yet.
Goals are still a balancing act
For awhile now Ive addressed projects in terms of goals. I
use what I call the Golden Triangle (as opposed to some
boring old Venn diagram) to express how different goals are related
to a Web project.
There are organizational goals, and things like ease of maintenance,
ego and designer vanity. Dont laugh--these things can have
a huge effect on a project, as youll see. (Theyre really
more like requirements than goals, but I dont want to wreck
my triangle metaphor just yet. I hope thats cool with yall.)
And then weve got business goals and user goals.
When youve addressed and balanced all three of these sets
of goals, youve created the Golden Triangle. It can be a challenge,
but when a project is clicking on all sides its a great thing.
Balancing these goals is challenging. There are many times when
the goals of the business seem to be in direct conflict with user
goals. Often, this conflict (or gap) is caused by organizational
goals or constraints like budget. We almost as often create this
In theory, business and user goals should be aligned and support
each other. However, business goals usually end up oppressing user
goals. This is often the case when it comes to branding. Because
decision makers dont fully understand how people interact
and use the Web, they make design decisions that support branding
and hurt user experience.
When it comes to branding on the Web, the users goals must
be met in order to assure success. There is no other option. To
do any less would be detrimental to the brand as a whole.
These kinds of uninformed decisions hurt both user and business
goals. Its important that Web professionals educate decision
makers about how addressing user goals usually supports business
goals. Its going to have to be our responsibility to take
a step forward and try to make decisions that support as many goals
Sounds daunting, but theres good news! Business goals and
user-centered Web design have much more in common than you might
think. Lets take a closer look at branding, one of the more
important business goalsand one that seems all too often to
conflict with user needs.
Why branding is important
Branding is often central to business strategy. Even when its
not central, you can bet everyone involved agrees that the goal
of a Web project is not to hurt the brand. This is exactly what
would happen if the needs of the user werent met or were somehow
sacrificed for some perceived brand benefit.
When I think of branding I dont think of a logo, color scheme
or typeface. I think of the overall impression a person has of a
company, product or service. Its that feeling, or identification
in the mind, that a person gets when they come into contact with
something that represents that company, product or service.
This can be anything from a whole range of touch points. It could
be the product or service itself. It could be an ad on TV, a print
ad or (you guessed it) a Web site. All of these things have a responsibility
to the brand to put their best foot forward at all times. Unfortunately,
when it comes to the Web, that touch point doesnt put its
best foot forward. In fact, it takes a few steps back.
Why? Because the average Web site is unusable. Letting perceived
business goals get in the way of users goals can do much more
to hurt brand perception than most decision makers realize. They
may be thinking theyre doing the right thing, but the reality
is a poor user experience can destroy a good brand perception in
On the Web, meeting user goals should be central to any brand strategy.
Its as simple, and as complicated, as that.
Why the conflict?
For some reason there is a disconnect between usability and branding
and other business goals. In my mind these things not only dont
oppose each other, theyre on the same team. As the Jedi says,
There is no conflict here.
If youre making a choice between user and business goals,
youre making the wrong choice. Period.
When these goals are placed at odds, its due to a lack of
understanding. These are complicated topics that require years to
master and specialists to implement. The thing is, when it comes
to a Web presence, user and business goals need to be in harmony.
User goals need to be met to help meet business goals. There, was
that so hard? On the surface, once its laid out like that,
it seems pretty simple. However, organizational goals, job responsibilities
and budgets conspire to make it much more complicated.
Thats why we need to find some places where branding and
usability overlap and actually support each other in a real-world
way. The idea is to not only make the best design decisions possible
to support your goals (both user and business) but to have those
goals overlap or be as close to each other as possible.
Killing two birds with one stone
Often, overlooked user goals can be supported by business goals.
In fact, they do so naturally. Most businesses have customers, right?
Even functions of branding can overlap user goals--wanting to belong,
attractiveness, likeability and more can support both user and business
goals at the same time.
Here are four practical ways you can help align your business and
1. User research
Both usability and marketing efforts rely heavily on research. User
research can uncover much about business needs on the Web. Combine
these research efforts and talk them over with a mixed group of
stakeholders. Bring the Web team and marcom group together and go
over results from a focus group, for example.
At Phinney/Bischoff, we do a bit of this in our Brand Builder process
and I hope to do more. The Web is so central to branding, its
natural to pull some information about a clients users (or
potential users) along with all the brand perception stuff we gather.
I cant think of a more natural way to marry business goals
with user needs than in the persona process. If you use personas
as part of you information architecture or user research process,
try getting together with marketing to flesh them out a bit with
their information. Another idea would be to actually talk about
how their behaviors and attitudes affect the needs of the business.
Personas can be a great way to help clients visualize a user and
a conversation starter with stakeholders.
3. User testing
There are a variety of ways people test their sites with users.
Ive run many user testing sessions in different ways, with
different goals, and have seen a variety of outcomes. User testing
doesnt have to be an absolute science. You can tweak it to
fit your needs and test to see if the business goals are met as
well as a users personal goals.
4. Coding with Web standards and Web best practices
There is no decision herejust do it. Web standards coding
practices help support business and user goals in many ways. Use
of CSS for presentation as a best practice, for example, can reduce
page weight (which in turn saves bandwidth and reduces load time).
Semantic and well-structured markup can make a page easier to use
as well as set the table for search-engine indexing. (I could go
There are many other ways you can help align business and user
goals. Get creative, innovate and share youre ideas with others
who are in the same boat. If you find something that works, talk
about it. Help people understand the value of user-centered design
when it comes to business goals. Better yetprove it!
Once youve altered your process to help align business and
user goals, look for ways to show the value of your efforts in business
terms. You can start slowly by holding a postmortem with your client
and/or stakeholders to discuss how the project went. Gather success
stories that show how user-centered design actually helps meet business
goals and go out there and evangelize those to the people who count.
As you begin to get better at this, come up with proof in numbers.
Understand the business needs very well before the project begins
(a good idea anyway) and identify some baseline measurables you
can work with down the road.
It can be easy to forget these things along the way, so add this
into your process. Create a milestone relating to proving the value
of your efforts. Chances are, youll be able to go back later
and sell the value of usability in terms your clients or stakeholders
Finding the sweet spot
As the Web matures and we get better at architecting, designing
and building it, our clients and stakeholders will begin to have
a better understanding of what goes into a successful Web project.
Were already seeing this, and if we can do our best to educate
and take that step forward to bridge the gap between user and business
goals, well all be in a better placewhat Ive been
calling the sweet spot.
The sweet spot is designing in a space and having a process in
place that supports as many goals as possible. Its bridging
that (mostly artificial) gap between user and business goals. Finding
the sweet spot can be a challenge, but if youre like me, and
youve got a passion for your work, youll do whatever
it takes to find it.
D. Keith Robinson is a Web Designer and Developer living in Seattle,
Washington. Keith is also the Editor in Chief of Digital Web Magazine.
His expertise comes from 10 years of professional Web development
and design for companies like Boeing, Microsoft, and Sony.