Robert Bowen November 16th, 2011

The Prioritization of Design

When we design we have a hierarchy that we are responsible to, which is what drives us to deliver a great design. In this way, there are three groups that we effectively owe the design to. And while most of the community would agree on the three areas that we are beholden to, many of us completely prioritize them differently. Those that we owe the design or are responsible to are the client, the users, and last but certainly not least the design itself, its goals and purpose. Naturally there are many factors that impact how we tend to prioritize them, but these are the proverbial lord and masters of our projects. The instillers of purpose in our design endeavors. Besides just being points of priority, these areas also tend to play a heavy part in the outcome and overall effectiveness of the design. So today we are going to take a look at these areas of design priority and see if we can determine which is the best hierarchy to work by. When we design, we should know who is king in our hierarchy. Now there is also a fourth area that sometimes gets added into this mix that we will take a brief look at as well. So for the purposes of this discussion, the four key areas that we are responsible to for our designs are the client, the users, the design itself, and our reputation (or that of the firm we work for).

Why the Hierarchy Matters?

Whenever we begin a new project there is lots of important information that we must collect in order for our design to end up being effective. There is a reason that this research phase is so vital to the project, it basically sets up the foundation that we are going to be building upon. But even after we have this foundation laid firmly in place, we still have to decide the direction to take the design. This is where the hierarchy begins to factor in. In order to decide the best course of action, we have to know just who exactly we are building this design for. We have to apply this hierarchy to find our footing, and point us down the right path towards an effective resolution. So it becomes a matter of who we owe this design to that will help us put all of the pieces together in the best possible way.

The Who Leads to the How!

Do not misunderstand, yes design is all about providing solutions. And while so many just look at the problems that they need to address and go from there; having this hierarchy to look to while we begin assessing and addressing said problems can steer us towards much more effective solutions. There are many who will always come down on the side of the client being at the top of this list, as they are the ones paying the bill. Others see the users as always occupying the top of this design food chain. And it is not to say that either group's prioritization is incorrect, just that this chain does dictate so much of our course of action. Whichever group occupies that top spot will certainly determine how we deal with any proverbial roadblocks or barriers we come up against. They will usually steer our problem solving processes as we craft the design. Dictate whether we turn (or even return) to our research to find the way forward, or whether we just consult the client for their input. Or if we just allow our egos to take over and power us through any potential problem areas in the design without any consultation whatsoever. So the hierarchy does play an important role in the process. But it does mean more than just how we tackle any issues we may arrive at. It shapes the entire project, even if somewhat passively at times. Which is why it is good to have an idea of the sort of hierarchy we are working by.

The Client

When the client is the top priority with your design, the positions of many of the others in the hierarchy are at times, completely subjective. No matter which group falls below them, the top consideration is always given to the client's wishes. Even when they act in complete contrast with the goals and mission of the design itself. This is pretty much the major flaw in this hierarchical structure. For there are numerous designers working in the field today who will simply cave to the client's wishes, without even making the case for the other areas that need to be considered and would be impacted by this design decision. Yes it is true that the client is paying for the final product, but they are also paying for our expertise. And it is a complete disservice to all of these areas of priority if we do not urge the client to allow our expertise to sometimes be the guide. This is also not saying that those who follow any of the other hierarchies will not consider the client or even end up caving to their requests. It is just saying that when the client is the top priority, those who tend to ascribe to this way of design, will often not bother challenging the will of the client. They will just cave and move on.

Where it Leads

This path of design tends to not always end up in the best of places. With compromises made without care of the outcome, but essentially to just get to the end and collect the check; the design's effectiveness can easily become compromised. If the client decides that they want navigation elements that make moving through the design unclear and difficult for the users, and we allow this breach without attempting to make the client understand why this can hurt the project and their mission, then the fail rate climbs all around. The project's, as well as our own. While it is always important to respect the wishes of the client, we should always be giving weight to the other areas of design priority. But when the client leads the hierarchy, this does not often happen. And this is admittedly an easier trap to fall into for the newer, less than confident, or even the over-worked designers. For whatever reason they feel that just biting their tongue and riding it out is better than speaking up and steering the course themselves. This can often not only extend the time-frame you are dealing with, but increase the number of headaches and revisions you end up with in the end.

The Better Fit?

Perhaps for the client, a much better fit in this hierarchy is in one of the secondary spots. While they are still being considered, they are not potentially derailing the design with their (not always as informed) opinions and revisions. So while it is not always easy to do for some, just as for some clients it would not be necessarily a pleasant thing to hear, putting them first or at the top of this list is not always conducive to the best results. And framing it as such should take the sting out of adjusting the client's position in this hierarchy.

The Users

Another popular way to top off the hierarchy is by placing the users in this highest place of priority. This is followed by many in the community, but once again, is not without its downsides. For the most part, adopting this hierarchy does tend to breed more good than bad, but especially given the temperament of the client it may not always work in our favor. Or the favor of the project for that matter. This seems like a sound route, given that the end users are who is being targeted with this design. But which areas receive priority immediately below it also raises some issues that need to be addressed. Whichever takes the second place in this design food chain, either the clients or the design itself, will help to further decide how we proceed, but to so much of a lesser degree it seems. And potentially, we can risk losing sight altogether of anything beyond the users and how the design can be crafted around their needs. Given the amount of designers whose entire careers are focused on UI design, it is easy to see where this push for user prioritization comes from. And while there are arguments for and against placing the users atop the list, devotees of this hierarchy are hard to sway from it.

Where it Leads

When this route is opted for, the focus on the users risks becoming too fixed, and other areas begin to suffer. Mainly this user focus can cross the line and confuse the issue of the design's true purpose. Suddenly our grip on what the design is intended to do slips and the only mission that matters, is delivering the most user friendly experience that we are able to muster. Which looks and sounds good on paper, but in practice can steer us a bit off course with regards to our client's wishes and the design mission that was meant to be our guide. This is not to say that the we should abandon our attempts to keep the users in mind, and make the design intuitive and friendly, but that our focus needs to be a bit more flexible when it comes to this groups place in the hierarchy. Now if we were being hired to design a truly exciting and cutting-edge user experience that needed to achieve this and little to nothing else, then having this group atop the hierarchy would be completely justified. But beyond that sort of project coming our way, is there really a need to adopt this hierarchy?

The Better Fit?

When it comes to the users, perhaps they have a better fit outside of this first position. Especially if we risk the confusion of the mission itself. This is not to suggest that consideration of the users needs to be forsaken to satisfy other areas of the design, only that other priorities considered first perhaps would lead to an overall better design that still lands comfortably in the user-friendly realm. This way they stay in our minds, but do not overrun our focus.

The Design Itself

Perhaps one of the best hierarchical leaders in this prioritization equation, is the design itself. The mission and goals that the project needs to achieve to be considered successful and effective are natural measurable benchmarks so why not use them as guideposts throughout. Whenever you encounter any sort of problem in the project, looking to where it needs to end up and working backwards can often lead us to just the solution that we were looking for. With the clients and users still being held in close consideration, this path seems like the lesser evil, and certainly the route with the highest chances for effective designs. How can the clients argue with the mission and purpose of the design taking priority in this instance? It gives their project the most consideration, not necessarily another group (i.e. users). If it is another group's opinion that takes priority over theirs, then there are risks of their ego and/or pride becoming threatened. As they believe their opinion should rank highest. This is not at risk with the design taking the lead.

Where it Leads

Here we have a hierarchy that pits the design's very purpose as the highest priority, which means that the mission never has to take a back seat. Never becomes relegated to a secondary role, when in point of fact, it should always be at the top of this food chain. Any interference with this mission is easily sacrificed in this hierarchical structure, so there doesn't even have to be much discussion. The lines become very black and white, and if any element crosses them, they automatically lose out. This is not always a perfect recipe for success, but it certainly does take so much of the hemming and hawing, the guesswork out of it. Now this is also seen as a path where little risks are taken, as most fall back on proven solutions for achieving the goals as laid out in the beginning. But that does not always have to be the case. Just because some see this as an excuse to only play it safe, does not mean that everyone adopting this hierarchy will do the same.

Our Reputation

This is an often unfortunate addition to the hierarchy, but one that gets included sometimes nonetheless. Sometimes our reputations, or those of the firms we work for, become priorities by which we make decisions for the design. Now while it is important to always do our best work, and that may point to the necessity of adding this area of consideration into our top positions, that is rarely the case. And it often does not tend to serve the design's best interests in the end. There are some who would argue that naturally if we are letting consideration of our reputation take the lead, then the end results will tend to be reflective of some of our best work. If we go into it keeping our reputation held in such high regard, then how could we turn in anything other than stunning works? But it is not always the destination that matters. Sometimes it is the journey that means much more. This is often one of those cases.

Where it Leads

The main problem with this hierarchical approach is its tendency to make us completely unreasonable and difficult to deal with. When the clients come to us with their concerns, our egos intrude and cause us to dismiss them. After all, our reputation tells us that we know what is best. This is not always a good for the design, for the client, or our reputations. With so much potential for damage, perhaps it'd be best to leave this out of the hierarchy altogether.

The Better Fit?

Our reputations should always be in play, as mentioned before, driving us to perform our best, but they should never become a barrier to the project. Taking rank in our priorities over the regular hierarchy. Keeping our egos in check as we work with our clients will usually be the best thing for our reputations, as well as turning in a fine design that meets its every goal.

In Conclusion

When we look at all of the factors involved, it would seem that perhaps the best hierarchical structure to follow when prioritizing those we are responsible to for the design, would be one like this:
  • #1 - The Design Itself
  • #2 - The Client
  • #3 - The Users
All the while embracing our reputation as a bar that we have set which this new design must meet.

Time for Your Two Cents

What are your opinions when it comes to these hierarchies? How do you prioritize your designs? (rb)

Robert Bowen

Robert Bowen is an emerging author, celebrated podcaster and poet, and most recently the co-founder and imaginative co-contributor of the creative design and blogging duo at the Arbenting and Dead Wings Designs.


  1. I agree with you Peter. I always trying to say to my clients I want to clean up old code and make nice HTML/CSS structure who is easy to read and understand. More often the client want an easy fix and save time and money for functions insteed.

    1. Totally get that. Every client is different. Hopefully we will not be discouraged from even trying because of those times the client has been less than favorable.

  2. I find this a really strange viewpoint on the prioritisation of a project. Surely the design is the solution to the problem. It doesn’t define what the project it, but helps you solve the balance between the client requriements, the user requirements and the technical challenges and requirements.

    1. And that’s a perfectly valid way to view things and run your projects. As pointed out, this is an opinion, and while I feel that a project’s mission and overall goals can be translated into a hierarchical position worthy of consideration and weight when calculating directions to take them. Obviously, you do not. ;) Perhaps next time we will see eye to eye.

  3. This article almost suggests the UX should come last in the design hierarchy. I think it is more like a cycle, particularly in web design. You can and often should compromise the design to some degree in favor of usability.

  4. Why does the user come last in the hierarchy? It seems like it should be the design itself first, then the user, then the client. While the client is the one paying, the website’s is intended to be used by the users, not the client. What the client wants may not be best for the project or company, and prioritizing a client’s decision over what’s good for the user can’t really produce amazing designs.

  5. Hi Robert!
    I loved this article!
    Can i translate him to portuguese and publish in my blog (design.blog.br)?
    Of course i would give the credits for you!!

  6. It depends on the project. If the project is some “state of art” presentational website, the design as primary is OK, but if you design e-commerce web site… you must put users first. Why? Because your client don’t want web site and don’t want “pretty” website. All she wants is to sell. And to do this, you must get users.

    I suspect that you as designer are biased to put design first. In my opinion, the sites that must get users with design are minority. Most of sites must get users with content and easy of use, and design is just a tool to do that.

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