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When Business and Customer Goals Seem Contradictory

Let’s say an organization promises to use the profits from selling its products to fund important environmental work. It wants to feature how that promise is being fulfilled on its website. The organization’s customers, however, are busy and just want to find and purchase what they need from the website quickly. The environmental feature is in their way and not related to their task. Can both goals be met?

Organizations often come to us for help with business design contradictions like these. Whether they are designing programs, technologies, or processes, we help them unpack the issues and identify a satisfactory solution, one that meets the needs of the customers and the business.

Why Design Contradictions Happen

Misalignment between business and customer goals is common for government organizations, that are accountable to the public for how they spend money and tend to be financially strapped. This causes them to be risk-averse and hesitant to identify and design for primary user groups. Their services may suffer from underfunding, overexposure, and attempts to create one-size-fits-all solutions that often do not end up fitting anyone well. We see this play out on government websites with hundreds of links on the homepage, important content hidden in PDFs, and processes that still require customers to fax notarized documents.

User-centered design (UCD) brings clarity to what organizations and their customers actually want and need by requiring an early understanding of business and user goals. Data and research with stakeholders and end users help define these goals. The iterative design and testing phase then provides a low-risk way to identify a solution that will align goals and eliminate contradictions.

When we research instances where a customer goal seems to contradict a business goal, we typically find one of three things are happening. Organizations are either:

  • Allowing misinformed assumptions to drive decisions
  • Conflating business goals with design solutions
  • Hesitating to attempt big ideas

Allowing Misinformed Assumptions to Drive Decisions

One of the tenets of user-centered design is making data-driven decisions. When the basic approach requires data, assumptions don’t tend to hold up for long. They are either validated or debunked. We use any data we can collect to make decisions, including analytics, interviews, audience survey data, and usability study findings. After collecting data from different sources, we compare and combine them to identify patterns, which greatly increases our confidence in the insights we gain and the decisions we make as a result.

Not all organizations have a process for making data-based decisions. They usually have a lot of complex data, but very little of it is about their customers, and they are unsure where to focus. Individuals within the organization may struggle to allow data to drive decisions and detach from the solution.

Think back to the example organization presented earlier that promised to use the profits from selling its products to fund environmental work. The organization is a government agency that sells fishing and hunting licenses and uses the proceeds for wildlife and habitat conservation. When the agency redesigned their website, they assumed that the best way to communicate their progress and partnerships in conservation was to dedicate an entire section of their website to it. The assumption they were making was that, even if users were not coming to the website to learn about conservation work, dedicating a section to it would demonstrate its importance and users would click to read more. Of course, users were coming to the website to purchase their fishing or hunting licenses, and data showed they rarely visited the conservation section. Segregating conservation information into its own section led to the opposite of what the business wanted. Once the assumptions became clear, the solution did as well. Dispersing conservation information throughout the website provided more opportunities to educate users than dedicating a section to it. Users can now consume bite-sized conservation content that is relevant to their interests, rather than expecting them to digest the whole meal.

Conflating Business Goals with Design Solutions

Sometimes an organization will inadvertently write business goals that include assumptions about a design solution, and not realize it. For example, a proposed business goal might be to, “provide users with a button to print their results.” Seems innocent enough, but the actual business goal is for users to have a way to retain a record of their results. A “button to print” is a design solution and should be determined during the iterative design and testing phase.

A medical center knew that visitors were struggling to find their way around the confusing facility layout. They approached us with a request to design a touch screen kiosk that would help guide people through the building. Rather than jumping into designing the kiosk, we started with research to understand visitors to the building and their goals. We conducted a baseline usability study, (i.e., shadowed visitors as they arrived and found their way to their appointment). What quickly became clear is that a kiosk would have been overkill and the signs were the problem. Improving signage and informational materials solved their visitors’ wayfinding issues in a much more cost-effective way.

Hesitating to Attempt Big Ideas

Organizations, especially government agencies, are hesitant to try out ideas that take big changes to implement. What if it turns out to be a bad idea?! User-centered design’s upfront research, low-fidelity design, and testing with users reduces the risk normally introduced by big change design ideas. Organizations test, validate, and refine the concept with users before investing in the big changes.

When we were working on redesigning the transit agency ticket kiosk to make it easier for customers to purchase the correct ticket, the data showed us that selecting the wrong destination was a common reason for purchasing the wrong ticket. Our initial user research made it clear that including maps in the interface would help customers select the right destination. However, maps (especially the dynamic maps people are used to these days) seemed to be in direct contradiction with the business goal that the solution be accessible for those who cannot see or use a touch screen. Every tap option on the screen must correlate to one of 12 buttons on the keypad. This allows users to complete the same tasks using the keypad as they can using the touch screen.

Since both the business and customer goals were validated and data-driven, we had to find the solution that aligned them through multiple rounds of iterative design and testing. After three rounds of usability testing a low-fidelity prototype, iterating our design in between each round, and testing in the field with real users, we found a fully accessible design solution that includes maps and can handle system expansion in the future.

Contradictions between business goals and user goals for a new program, technology, or process are never what they seem. The basic tenets of user-centered design allow us to quickly unravel contradictions and reveal the alignment.