Product Design Lessons

Mastering Design Feedback  |   Lesson #87

Defining User Goals and Business Needs

Learn to figure the differences — and overlaps — between what businesses and users want.

Sometimes clients tell us what they want. Other times, what they need. Sometimes we spot problems with their websites right off the bat, or bring solutions to the first meeting.

And why not? As business owners, our clients know their products and services better than we. Meanwhile, as professional designers, we want to impress clients with our expertise. Keeping them happy is good business.

But that thinking doesn't lead to lasting solutions. Design isn't just about solving any ol' problem — it's also a process of uncovering the underlying issues. To dig deeper, we need to question everything. Here's how to assess user needs and business goals before you find yourself building the wrong product.

1. Don't just start with an open mind, stay open minded

Never design in a vacuum.

Following this maxim helps frame the project, its goals and requirements. But we've learned that just saying "we want to increase conversions" isn't enough. 

We want to discover the underlying problems — how a product will actually benefit people — long before we pull all-nighters to undo a week's worth of effort that didn't help. Discovery should start even before we sign a contract. And by "discovery" we mean "keep asking 'why?'"

Let's say you think a website should be mobile friendly because that's the way things are headed. But how will that help this project? If analytics confirm that users access the site in question on their phones, then we ask why are people trying to access the site on the go?

For example:

"We want to move this button to the right."

"Why? Do you think that will improve conversions?"

"Well, we think people will find it easier on that side."

"Why? What makes it hard to see on the left?"

"Because … because it gets lost over there with all that stuff."

"Then maybe the interface has a clutter problem."

"Well, now that you mention it … yeah, it's a mess. And not just in the form."

Asking why repeatedly starts to uncover real problems. 

2. Keep asking questions

As outsiders, we — the hired design team — have an outside view. At first we're more like potential customers than stakeholders, putting us in a great position to ask innocent questions like:

  • "Does the signup page really need all these fields?"
  • "Why do we think end users want to see a video from the CEO on the home page?"
  • "Why is the background pale blue?"

Staying open-minded doesn't mean starting with a fresh look at the problem. It means looking for something better each step of the way. Let nothing become sacred, even your own ideas, in your search for the best design solution.

You can try it yourself, right now. Whether you work for a corporation, are part of a small agency or you're an independent freelancer, answer these questions about your own work:

Why do you have a website? No, seriously. What would you lose if your site became one blank page? 

Your answer(s): _______________________

So you need a website. Why do your users need your website? What's in it for them? Obvious answers:

  • To learn about your work
  • To see your portfolio
  • To contact you for some reason

But you're creative, and look beyond the obvious. So you say: _______________________

3. Use "why?" to focus the product

The advice of "do less" is easier said than followed. So we won't tell you less is more. We'll ask you why.

We once worked with a company who seemingly wanted to do everything. Their product reflected their ambition — which was unfortunate because no one could describe it properly. 

It did this. It did that. It did things automatically. It did them all together while juggling goslings. That last part may not be true, but it certainly seemed to juggle something with all its features and addons and it-will-also-handle-so-and-so.

In working with this client, we asked why they wanted each new feature for the redesign. "Is that really helpful? Is that really what you want?" By insisting they explain their ideas, they gradually began to question their own motives. Asking "why?" is habit-forming.

4. Read between the lines

The art of listening involves figuring out what people mean. How does that work? A few tips:

  • Repeat feedback in your own words to confirm you understand — and to emphasize that you're listening.
  • Steer feedback away from personal preferences. This isn't about someone's favorite solution, it's about what's best for the users and thus for the business.
  • Find the angle. Turn discussions about the project conversations about the company or its customers. Find the story.
  • Listen first, make decisions later. This is about understanding the situation as it stands.

To paraphrase the old adage, "measure twice, code once." That means don't bring your solutions until long after you've found the right questions. Ask first, recommend later.

About the instructor


Ben Gremillion is a Design Writer at ZURB. He started his career in newspaper and magazine design, saw a digital future, and learned HTML in short order. He facilitates the ZURB training courses.