Consultant Thursdays: Sometimes The Best Design Isn’t The Best Design

I’ve worked with my fair share of clients, coming up with something cool or snazy, presenting it to them, they look at it, and the first thing that comes out of their mouth is, “I don’t like it” or “I like this design over here,” pointing at another design produced by another designer. There’s the usual complaint of, “but our design is better” or you mutter something under your breath.

Smashing Magazine has an article on this too, but here’s a few truths to live with:

The clients don’t always pick the best design

The design you are presenting might be something rich and inviting, with all the bells and whistles you throw on there. The other design might be something clean and sharp, but not exciting. Not exciting sells, especially in certain less progressive environments, like governments or large corporations. The stakeholder or final decision maker probably isn’t a designer, so they really can’t tell the difference between rich and not rich, just what they like or don’t like. Some of the sites I’ve designed I hate, but the client loved, because it hit their target audience.

The clients are influenced by a local designer

There’s nothing like being there in person when showing off a design, and if you can’t do this, you’re already at a disadvantage — you can’t discuss some of your motivations for doing a particular design, or taking a particular angle. Sometimes you are set up to fail from the very start, and it’s best to recognize it and put your best foot forward, even if you know you aren’t going to be the winning design.

Sometimes the best design isn’t the most usable design

When I was working at, eBay was one of our partners. We redesigned the user interface of the site, and on every iteration, we made it look more like eBay. On every iteration, revenue increased. As much as the user interface designer I worked with hated it, we had to keep going that way. Many users might consider eBay one of the ugliest sites on the web, but when revenue rises, you keep going that direction. If you don’t, you are ignoring your users. Follow the obvious roadsigns.

Design is subjective

Totally true, but the best argument I’ve set for some of the clients is, “let’s try some A/B testing.” If it’s a simple website, and the site gets a fair amount of traffic, you’ll know quickly which design works better. Changing the colors of certain buttons in a design can affect the conversion rate. As much as you would like to tell the stakeholder they aren’t the audience, sometimes it’s best to do just that by involing end users.