When the Business Wags The Dog

When The Business Wags The Dog

Designers often make bad business decisions. Our “good design” negatively impact the business. Making the buy button red and huge may drive sales, but it makes designers cry inside: it runs counter to their established aesthetic sensibilities, and feels like a bad design decision. And so we make it small with tiny text, and revenue goes down.

This collision between design decisions and the business isn’t just aesthetic. Product managers fight to minimize the quantity of features, knowing that more features results in cognitive dissonance and complexity. Yet products – particularly enterprise products – are often compared on a feature by feature checklist, and so creative decisions that feel right run counter to strong business decisions. Like it or not, feature checklists sell products – primarily in the context of RFP-driven sales cycles – and it’s hard (and maybe dumb) to argue against the machine that pays your paycheck.

But that conflict runs the other way, too. Business decisions can have a materially negative impact on products, resulting not just in poor experiences but also in brand dilution and loss of users or revenue. These decisions are rarely made out of ignorance. They are often made in pursuit of well-intentioned business goals. Yet the decisions are frequently made without consideration of the product “in the whole” and without consideration for how customers will experience those decisions. At Modernist, when we’re working with partners and see this type of decision manifested in a product, it’s not just an indicator of strange or bad product decisions. It’s really an indicator of a culture that is unbalanced: it’s a clue that customer-centricity is at odds with other parts of the business.

When the business wags the dog

Here are some of the most common things we see that indicate this mismatch.

1. Capitulation to traditional user-facing sales or distribution models. Many older businesses have entrenched models for how they interact with customers, and these models are hard to get rid of, even when they are no longer effective. Insurance has long depended on agents to sell their products, and this agency model still acts as a centerpiece in the industry, even with the obvious benefits of direct-to-consumer models on the internet. The same is true of real-estate agents and car salesmen. Threatened by new models that exclude them, they push on established companies to tiptoe around the benefits of the internet.

Car dealers have lobbied hard against direct-sale models, and so the consumer online purchasing experience ends up in a lead-gen model. This has been true for years. My first employer, Trilogy, launched a site called CarOrder.com (with $100M in funding) in 2001. Customers could buy a car online, and it would be delivered on a flatbed truck to your house. They ran head-first into the National Automobile Dealers Association, whose members – Dealership Service Managers – felt that the giant purple inflatable gorilla above the car dealer, and the salesmen, were the right way to sell cars. Not much has changed: visit a popular automobile manufacturer’s site, and you’ll find yourself in a Build, Quote, and Referral process where the output is a lead generation to a traditional dealership.

2. Partner integration prioritized over the core product capabilities. Partnerships between companies can yield mutually-beneficial financial output, particularly when there’s alignment between product capabilities. But these partnerships should be largely invisible to customers, because they don’t care – on the way to achieving a goal, it’s not important to know that this feature was powered by that company. But partnership agreements are often made with customer value discussed only in the abstract, rather than in the context of the experiences they are having.

If you use Bank of America’s mobile app, you would have to be living under a rock to have missed their partnership with Zelle. It’s front and center in the Transfer Money dialogue in their mobile app, complete with Zelle’s branding and colors. Yet for a customer, they don’t know what Zelle is, and don’t particularly care who is powering their money transfers. The jarring shift from brand language to brand language creates a material disconnect, and it’s not out of the question to see it impacting trust (and reducing usage).

When the business wags the dog

Sometimes these partnerships are more overt selling models. Upon logging into AT&T, the very first thing you see – before your account information – is a fullscreen, no-nav takeover selling you an iPad. After logging in, taking up the largest amount of real estate on the screen, is a time-contextual ad (in my case, shopping for father’s day).

When the business wags the dog

There’s a strange mismatch between my interest in managing my account or paying my bill, and being asked to buy stuff. It’s like going to a doctor’s office and being asked if you want to buy some deodorant when you check in. It’s just strange.

3. Broad cross-product positioning. Microsoft is notorious for integrating hooks from one product into another. Look no further than the default placement of OneDrive in the Save As dialogue in Word or the presence of Bing throughout the overhauled consumer Skype product. Adobe has a similar approach to cross-product positioning; after they acquired Behance in 2012, Behance buttons showed up in all of their products. Now, they’re pushing Adobe Stock pretty hard. It’s presented twice in the top navigation panel of Illustrator, and also gets its own place in the File menu.

These connections are often well-intentioned, as a customer’s experience will be much more seamless when they interact with a single brand for a variety of tasks. But they make an assumption that a customer has locked-in brand loyalty and lives in a nicely structured digital world, and that’s a poor assumption. Most people use services and products from a variety of providers, for a variety of reasons. For these people, the scattering of product logos and capabilities throughout the product are, at best, noise, and at worst, annoying marketing.

4. Purposefully obscured access to a human being. Even in a digital age, we often need to talk to a real person. But talking to a person is expensive: it requires a physical call-center, with trained employees, management, and so-on. And so it’s often in the best interest of the company to hide direct-to-human interactions, and automate services. We experience this pain every time we call an airline and yell “agent” into the phone.

When the business wags the dog

There’s no easy way to get access to a human being at Uber, even when you’ve been in a serious accident or incident. There’s an ability to file a complaint, but it’s hidden deep in the app. The user must press the menu, select Help, select More, select Legal, privacy and other inquiries, and then select Report a serious incident. And this presents only a structured form, not access to a real person. It’s plausible that Uber doesn’t want to pay for a customer support team. The customer suffers.

5. Prioritizing “cover your ass.” We’re all familiar with the EULA that we fly through whenever we install a new product, but if you actually stop and read them, they are pretty indicative of how a company feels about legal protection. One of the most notorious comes from Apple iTunes, which includes the clause: “You also agree that you will not use these products for any purposes prohibited by United States law, including, without limitation, the development, design, manufacture, or production of nuclear, missile, or chemical or biological weapons.”

Compare this to Tesla. When you put the car in ludicrous mode (yes, that’s really the name), instead of making you sign a lawyer form, they simply explain that the mode will cause extended wear on the gearbox. There’s no indication that the lawyers were involved in these decisions; instead, the responsibility is placed on the customer directly.

Kickstarter’s taken a more human approach to the legal requirements. They are written in plain language, and have an even plainer summary described above each section.



As strange as these business decisions often are, they are rarely made out of ill intent. These mismatches – where the customer experience suffers due to “bad business decisions” – are observations from the perspective of a user advocate. From the perspective of a different portion of the business, these decisions are sound. But companies are increasingly seeing how experience impacts revenue, and are also increasingly equating experience to the business itself. For leaders striving to become more customer-centric, these issues described above aren’t just problematic. They are signals of a core disconnect, and are indicative of more serious problems. If customer-centricity is at odds with the business itself, the company will never be in a position to drive great experiences.

Modernist Studio

Modernist can help you align business and design strategy.

Get In Touch

Related Posts