Convincing Clients to Pay for Usability

by Jakob Nielsen on May 19, 2003

Summary: Professionally run design agencies user test their designs to increase the value they deliver to their clients. The challenge is getting clients to understand the benefits of a solid development methodology.


During my usability conference series, I was asked the same two questions in both New York and London:

  • How can a design agency convince clients to pay for usability testing?
  • What should you say when clients complain that there's no reason to test the design since they hired you because you supposedly know how to create good websites in the first place?

When people ask the same question repeatedly, I usually assume that many others will be interested in the answer as well. So here goes.

At first, it might indeed seem that subjecting a design to user testing challenges the design firm's professionalism. Are the designers so insecure about their own work that they need to test it? Shouldn't they just know how to produce something that works? In reality, using sound methodology is the true sign of professionalism, as is knowing how to manage the project by planning for the necessary steps in advance.

Analogy: Software Development

Consider software programming as an analogy: If you hired developers to code a piece of custom software and they claimed that there was no reason to debug the code, you would think they were crazy. In software development, we know from 50 years of experience that all code has bugs . It's impossible to write perfect software the first time you try; the only way to deliver high-quality programs is by using a sound development process with explicit steps for several types of testing.

Modern user interfaces are just as complex as software in terms of the number of different variables we combine. More importantly, 20 years of usability engineering experience have shown that it's impossible to design the perfect user interface on the first try. Even the world's best designer cannot immediately produce an interface that is perfectly simple, meets all users' needs, and never induces a user error. It cannot be done. It is reckless to bet that your project will be the first in the history of the world to create perfection without iteration.

There are plenty of other analogies:

  • Even the best architects don't just build the first building they envision -- they check to ensure that the proposed structure conforms to the building code, and they run many tests on its strength and integrity before starting construction. Hire architects that don't bother with these steps because they assume that whatever they draw will be great? Only if you don't mind having your building torn apart by the first storm.
  • Even the best writers ask editors to improve the correctness and readability of their writing before publishing it. Using an editor is not the sign of an unskilled writer; it's the sign of a writer who knows what it takes to write well.

In design, usability serves the same role as debugging, building codes, or editing serve in other fields. We know that a design will have weaknesses, and usability provides principles and testing methodologies to find those weaknesses and improve the user interface.

Client Advice: Select Agencies That Use Sound Methodology

I advise clients to avoid design agencies that are too arrogant to include user testing in their project plans. If you hire them, you'll waste money on something that probably won't work well and that you'll have to redesign shortly after release -- when your customers are forced to serve as the design's real-world user testers.

In fact, before the project starts, the only way a client can assess a design agency's professionalism is by reviewing its test methodology and other project management plans. Is the agency a fly-by-night operation that designs by the seat of its pants, or a professional organization with a mature development process? You can't know in advance whether the designers assigned to your account will create something as nice as the agency's other designs, but you can assess whether they know how to run a project and whether they understand user-centered -- rather than ego-centered -- design.

Selecting an agency that plans to user test your design has two major benefits:

  • Your design will be of higher quality and will be more likely to work for your customers, and thus to serve your business needs.
  • Assuming that the agency routinely tests projects, the designers will have experience with user behavior and will thus avoid many mistakes in your project. In contrast, agencies that don't test encourage bad habits among their designers, whose only reality check is what the client likes (not what the client's customers actually do).

Cheap Usability

One answer to the question of how to get clients to pay for usability is to include it in the overall price rather than charge extra. After all, you don't charge clients for the number of Photoshop licenses you need for their project nor for the lead designer's latest computer memory upgrade.

Usability is just a tool, and it need not be expensive. You can conduct simple user tests in 2-3 days and still improve a design considerably. If the client doesn't insist on a fancy usability report, you can run several rounds of tests in a week and view it as a standard part of your work.

Of course, good usability reports should cost extra as they require considerable effort to produce. A report with insightful analysis of customer behavior provides long-term strategic value, and you should charge the client for it as a separate deliverable. But if all your report contains is a tactical list of design deficiencies to fix, then you probably shouldn't let it escape your agency.

Ultimately, the real answer to getting clients to pay for user testing and other user-centered design methods is to point out usability's astounding return on investment. Simple usability can be cheap, take only a few days, and still more than double a website's effectiveness. Suggesting to your clients that they take advantage of this powerful tool is simply good advice, and will hopefully be appreciated as such by more and more people as they learn about interactive media.


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