In the autumn of 2006 I spent a month travelling in Vietnam. Riding a taxi into town from the airport in Ho Chi Minh City, I noticed several fancy billboards, featuring soft-focus photography and slick English slogans, advertising the brands of large foreign corporations. They seemed out of place, like an Armani suit in a student common room — and I realised that the airport road was the only place in the country where I’d seen this type of fluffy marketing. Elsewhere, where I’d seen billboards at all, they looked less polished, they marketed specific products, and they used the local language, Vietnamese.
So why were these masterpieces of advertising guff reserved for the airport road? The answer was obvious. I’d assumed that the billboards were aimed at the companies’ customers — the people who bought their products — but they weren’t. Their audience was the people who pay the advertising agencies’ bills: company executives, and ultimately the CEO. These people aren’t likely to see much of a country — they’ll fly in, take a car to their hotel, and perhaps attend a conference, or tour the company’s facilities. Amid all the rush of a whistle-stop tour, they might assume that the whole country is plastered with billboards just like the ones on the airport road — and that therefore, the great international branding strategy is working exactly to plan.
Flattering the client
The billboards in HCMC were an example of flattery masquerading as marketing — a corporation paying an advertising agency to make executives feel good about themselves. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing — many corporations can afford it, and a few fluffy posters and magazine ads don’t do any harm. But on the web, designing to flatter the CEO leads to disaster.
Ego marketing doesn’t work online
I use the term “ego marketing” to describe inward-focused, self-congratulatory marketing that takes an organisation-centred viewpoint rather than a user-centred one. With the exception of sites that aren’t supposed to be communicative, like vanity sites, ego marketing doesn’t work on the web.
The client will ultimately judge the success of a website project by user feedback and results, not personal aesthetics or preferences. Ego marketing annoys users and weakens the site’s message, so any use of it will tend to work to your disadvantage, negatively impacting the client’s judgement of success. What’s more, the client will expect you to have thought this way from the start, even if he or she didn’t, because you’re the web professional. Don’t design for the CEO — he won’t thank you for it.
The temptation to pander
During the web design process, it’s tempting to give in to clients’ personal aesthetic tastes, naive preferences, and ignorant prejudices, instead of challenging them to think from their audience’s point of view. For example, a client might ask for a colour scheme that he personally likes, an information architecture that fits his internal view of the company, or a crowded, cluttered layout because he “doesn’t like vertical scrolling”.
Paul Boag proposes some useful methods to deal with these unhelpful requests in “10 Ways To Get Design Approval” — particularly relevant are “define the role of the client and designer” and “control the feedback”.
Who pays the bills?
Design agencies get their income from clients, and so tend to be over-sensitive about doing exactly what the client asks for. Whether or not your boss is looking over your shoulder, muttering, “she pays the bills!”, there’s often pressure to do whatever the client seems to be asking for — even if it’s a stupid idea, and you know it isn’t what she actually needs. To make it worse, clients and co-workers are often accustomed to less user-centred fields, and so genuinely expect websites to be designed for the client.
Visualising how abstract concepts will work in real, living websites is notoriously difficult, especially for those unfamiliar with web design — which makes unworkable or inappropriate requests common. Processes like wireframing and prototyping help to mitigate this problem, but they don’t remove it.
Technically, the client pays the bills. But figuratively, the users pay — because if you don’t design with users in mind, they’ll be turned off, and eventually you’ll lose the client.
Success is judged by others
Although it might not seem like it at the beginning, the CEO will judge the success of the website on feedback and results. If users like the site, and it achieves its aims, he’ll be happy — but if they hate it, and the site fails, he won’t feel any better for knowing that he got his way earlier on. In fact, he’ll expect you to have advised him well from the start — even if that meant you had to challenge some of his assumptions and preferences. Nobody likes to be told that something’s their fault when it’s too late to fix it — and as web professionals, it’s our job to advocate the user’s point of view throughout the design process.
Don’t annoy your users
Suppose the CEO requests one of the all-time classics of ego marketing, the splash page, and you go ahead and implement one (with a really big logo). You know what will happen — users will be annoyed, because instead of helping them find what they’re looking for, the site is wasting their time by pushing empty marketing guff into their faces. Perhaps that’s an extreme example, but the same principle is true of all ego-marketing — users are unconvinced, and so feel annoyed — weakening your message.
Make it user-centred or pay later
In this article I’ve argued that if you give in to unreasonable client demands upfront, by designing for the CEO, you’ll pay for it later. Even if pandering to requests for ego marketing pleases the client in the short term, once the site is live she’ll judge it on feedback and results, and then you’ll be blamed for failing to advise her properly. Even though clients pay our bills, user-centred design is complicated — we’re paid to help clients communicate with their audience, not to make them feel good about themselves.
If you manage to steer the client away from designing for the CEO, by advocating the user’s interests and resisting ego marketing, you’ll get a big payoff when the site launches and the client starts to get positive feedback from users. Ultimately, your clients will love you for thinking of their users first — which will make you more successful in the long term. And if they’re still not happy, you could always design them some big fluffy posters…