Why your clients don’t care about their users, and how you can make them

By Paul Boag Posted Oct. 28, 2014 Reading time: 4 minutes

We have all been there haven’t we? The meeting where the client asks you to subscribe users to their newsletter without their permission. Or when they insist on adding an overlay to the homepage promoting their latest offer. In fact these kinds of requests have become so common that they have their own name — dark patterns.

As web designers these kinds of requests seem so alien. The idea of user centric design lies at the heart of everything we do. How could anybody suggest things that undermine the user experience?

Yet despite our best attempts the client insists on these changes. They seem oblivious to our cry of, “Will nobody think of the user?!”


In an attempt to generate more leads many clients resort to trickery, damaging the user experience.

How do we convince clients to change their ways? What can we do to get them thinking about the users’ needs?

The first step is to understand why they appear not to care in the first place.


Why don’t your clients care about users?

Let’s be clear, its not that your clients are uncaring. It is just that they are not thinking about the users when making decisions. Even when they do, they often conclude that the inconvenience for the user is worth the potential return for the business.

This means if you wish to convince a client to prioritise the users’ needs you must achieve two things:

  • Get the client thinking about the user.
  • Get them to realise the damage ignoring the user can cause.

Let’s look at how to address these two areas…


Getting your client to think about the user

There are no shortage of ways to get the client focusing on user needs, if we are willing to put in a bit of work and plan in advance.

A good place to start is by telling the client up front to focus on user needs. I know it sounds obvious, but it rarely happens.

Most clients are not familiar with running web projects. They don’t understand their role in the process and so it falls to us to explain it to them. As we explain their role we should always make a point of stressing that they are the advocate for the user. Tell them that they have more contact with their users than we do and so it falls to them to champion the user through the design process.

In reality we are championing the users’ needs too. But giving the client this role will help them to think about the user more often.


Also early in the project do a couple of quick usability tests on their current site with a service such as usertesting.com. Take the videos from these sessions and edit them to focus just on the key problems.

The client probably won’t pay for this, especially as they already know their current site is bad. But, this kind of testing is cheap and the video will likely shock them. Most of all it will remind them just how frustrating a bad user experience can be.

Next, hold a little workshop with the client (it doesn’t need to be long). Just enough to identify your audiences and create some personas for them. Take these personas and pin them up near the client’s desk. Explain that these are your reference points for making decisions. Ask yourself whether these users would be happy with the decisions you are making.

At Mailchimp they took this approach. They turned their personas into attractive posters that adorn their office. These ensure the user is never forgotten.


These personas shouldn’t just focus on who the user is but also identify what they want to achieve on the site. What questions do they need answers to? What tasks are they trying to complete?

Finally, when it comes to gathering the client’s feedback on a design, never ask what they think of it. This will encourage them to consider their own feelings. Instead ask how the client believes the personas will respond to the design. Once again this helps focus the client on the users’ needs.

These techniques will help get the client thinking about the user. But that is only half the battle. You also need to convince the client to prioritise the users’ needs over short term business gains.


Understanding the damage caused by ignoring users

To us the damage of ignoring user needs is obvious. But, then it is not our business or job at stake. Clients are often under huge pressure to deliver more leads, make more sales or drive more traffic. When under that kind of pressure you need solid arguments to justify putting users’ needs above short term gain.

It falls to us to convince clients and give them the ammunition they need to justify their decisions to their boss.

I always start by laying the groundwork early. In kick-off meetings it is not unusual to ask a client about sites they like. Designers often use this as reference for producing a design. But have you ever asked a user about sites they hate? If you get them talking about their own bad experiences, they realise just how frustrating a bad experience can be.

It is not unusual for a client to moan about a dark pattern on another site and then propose an almost identical thing on their own. By talking about their bad experiences you help them make the connection. That in turn helps them realise the bad blood they are creating.

But that is not enough to argue their corner when challenged over their decisions. In such situations I tend to focus on how consumer behaviour has changed. Consumers have two things today that they never used to have. They have the competition a click away and an audience to express their dissatisfaction to. These two things put the power with the consumer and means that customer service has to be at the heart of what our clients do. Few clients have a problem grasping the impact that easy access to their competition brings. But they do tend to struggle more with the power of an audience.

In fact the customers’ ability to publish their opinion on a company is far more dangerous than the competition being a click away. When every customer can reach millions of people, it makes keeping them happy pretty important!

One of the best ways to communicate this fact is through stories. I tell the story of Dell Hell and how one man’s complaints about Dell online turned into a firestorm of negative publicity. Or how one customer dissatisfied with British Airways went on to take out an advert on Twitter condemning the company.

These stories help to drive home the amount of power today’s customers have. It also demonstrates how ignoring their needs can cause significant damage to a business.

By helping clients understand the power of users and focus on their needs, it is possible to turn clients into user advocates. But be careful what you wish for; before you know it they will be complaining about your beautiful design because it is not intuitive enough!