7 Reasons Why You Cant Sell Usability


7 Reasons Why You Can’t Sell Usability, And What To Do About It

No Usability Sale

Selling usability services has been on my mind quite a bit lately, and in that respect I’m not alone.  Several other usability practitioners have discussed selling usability or UX.  Some of them include Alan Colville, who recently posted an excellent article on selling UX to large companies, Kate Walser and her wonderful UX in the Boardroom article, and even the very useful book Selling Usability by John S. Rhodes.

All of these practitioners and more discuss the problems inherent in explaining usability and UX services to companies that are prospects for potential services.

So why then is selling usability so difficult?  In my opinion, it’s quite simple;

“They won’t buy usability if they don’t know what it is.”

The problem of selling usability:

The problem with selling usability has nothing to do with you and how you pitch your usability services, or your advertising approach, your marketing materials, prospect lists or the copy you create to sell.  The problem is;

“The audience is completely unreceptive to ANY sales message, because the service is not understood.”

Educate first, sell second:

The best method for you to use for selling usability is to not sell it at all.  Instead, work toward educating prospects first about:

  • What usability is (and what it isn’t)
  • Why usability is helpful / necessary
  • How to easily fit usability into the Software Development Life Cycle

After educating prospects about usability, and touching on the benefits usability can bring to your prospect then you can start selling usability.

If dealing with a prospect who either doesn’t know about usability, or is misinformed about how it works, you must know who you are talking to.  You must understand and deal with the reason or reasons for their lack in interest about usability.  Properly educating prospective clients is the best way to sell usability.

Here’s my top 7 reasons why selling usability is so difficult, and what to do about it, I hope you find these useful (note, scroll to the bottom of the page for a handy list of selling usability references used in this article):

#1 – Usability is not understood by senior management:

In many organizations, both large and small, usability is not part of the process for development because senior management has no clue what usability is.  Why should they?  Usability is not typically part of traditional business administration or technology training.

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Usawhat?  What's usability?

Also, senior management, especially technology leaders, are not compensated for usability or user satisfaction of the applications they build.  They are only compensated for how well they complete projects on-time, on-budget and on-target to requirements and specifications. At mid-sized and small companies this impact is even greater.

Solution – Target usability education at senior management levels:

When usability is not understood at all in a company, I’ve found the best way is to start education at the top, speaking the language of executives in terms of ROI.  Providing education and information about how usability contributes to improvements in application speed, reduction in errors, or increases in revenue uses the terms executives understand, and are compensated for.  Human Factors International does a good job of providing calculators for ROI that executives will understand.

#2 – Just say “no”

A very wise former supervisor of mine once told me that he observed that people that moved up the corporate ladder and stayed there were excellent at saying “no.”

Just Say No to Usability

His opinion was that by saying “no” to trying anything new, saying “no” to changing the old routine, and saying “no” to unknown results these managers could safely continue to exist in their organizations.

Perhaps you’ve run across a “no” man from time to time.

Solution – Go over, around or under those that say “no”

It’s unlikely you’ll ever get a true “no” manager to say “yes.”  You can try, using education about how usability will actually enable the manager’s goals to be hit easier, quicker and with better certainty.

There’s even an excellent book on how to deal with Getting Past “No” which you may find useful. However this is a long shot.  “No”  just comes naturally to these types of managers.

You may have to simply cut the “no” manager out of the equation if all else fails.  If necessary, focus on someone either above, or to the side of that person (equal to, but in a different department for example).  I’m not advocating not trying; rather I’m advocating spending your limited resources where the greatest good has the potential of occurring.

#3 – Usability doesn’t add to revenue

I once tried to sell usability testing to a small firm that produces applications on behalf of large businesses.  However, this firm was very resistant to my usability testing.  Why?  Because they were paid to generate code according to the requirements provided by their clients (who knew nothing about usability) and usability didn’t add to their revenue.

No Revenue from Usability

Adding usability testing to the development process would have cost this little company money, money they hadn’t budgeted for and weren’t going to get back from their client.  Worse, it might result in potentially needing to change the requirements, which would cause client issues and potential release delays, and thus more money.  Far from being a revenue generator, usability was considered an unnecessary and potentially dangerous expense.  How sad.

Solutions – Speak revenue in terms each type of prospect understands

For developer companies that build apps for 3rd parties, they could bundle usability as a component of their services, and either add a new revenue stream because they charge their clients for it, or differentiate their services from competitors by offering usability testing as part of the development package (to provide an even better application).

For marketing and sales types, pointing to the usability success of the $300 million button and related success stories of eCommerce gains would be a great usability revenue generation education tool.

For applications developers / owners, the ability to sell more units, based on improved interface performance would be useful.

The Nielsen Norman Group produced a helpful ROI of Usability study that provides plenty of rationale for usability’s return on investment.  All would be excellent ways to drive home the point that usability can indeed add to revenue.

#4 – Usability will slow development down

I hear this concern about usability slowing development down mostly from technology teams.  The thinking is; “We already have our requirements and specifications, so UI issues are already decided.  There’s no time to test usability, testing will slow us down and add no value.”

Usability will slow me down

The real issue here is the technology team is probably acting in a reactive manner, and simply building code based on requirements received.  They may have no power, or no desire, to rock the interface boat based on usability testing results, they may not own the requirements.  Thus there’s “no time” to usability test.

Solution – Educate the requirements owners about usability

The solution in this case is to find and educate the people responsible for drafting and approving the requirements, which may not be the technology team.  Mention how usability can be added to early stage development (paper prototype stage or wireframes) with minimal time impact, and maximum effectiveness.  Tout the ability of early testing to optimize UI design decisions, so that the requirements can be written and or revised with better UI information.

#5 – Usability is focus groups which are already done (or not needed)

This argument comes mostly from companies that have marketing research departments or leaders, who assume usability is just a form of market research.  The issue here is lack of education about the methodology and purpose of usability testing.

Focus Groups are not usability

Solution – Educate about the differences between focus groups and usability testing

Here’s where you must clearly define that usability testing is not about gathering opinions about designs (aka market research and focus groups), it’s about gather task-flow error points.  I’ve found using a table or chart showing the differences in usability testing vs. market research goals, methods and analysis can help educate market research types who are confused about or unaware of the differences.  Another handy tool is WebCredible’s article on the differences between focus groups and usability testing.

#6 – There’s no budget for usability (it’s expensive)

I partly blame us usability practitioners for causing this confusion about usability and budgets.  It doesn’t help that well known usability gurus charge $38,000 for a simple usability review of a web site.  Although this may be their cost, your cost might be significantly less.  The assumption prospects may make is if they charge that, so do you.

Usability is Expensive

Also, there are many usability agency web sites that make no mention of the cost of their various usability services at all.

And it doesn’t help that the usability industry itself has no standard definitions for simple usability terms and prices vs. services guidelines for things like remote testing, usability reviews, heuristic evaluations, etc. etc. etc.  We as an industry are helping to cause this confusion.

Solution – Educate about the costs of usability testing

The reality is your usability testing might cost far less than $38,000 for a basic usability review, and you need to tell prospects that.  Also, applying remote research methods early in the design process is a very cost-effective way to run usability testing.  Informing prospects about the costs of usability, based on each type of test (in-person, remote, moderated, unmoderated, etc.) can really help to clear up all the confusion.

A couple of good resources to use are Bolt | Peter’s article on comparing remote to in-person usability testing and the how-to book, Remote Research which has case studies and related cost/benefit information for low cost remote testing methods.

#7 – Usability isn’t needed, we use web site metrics and A/B testing

I hear this often from eCommerce firms that have dedicated web analytics or optimization teams.  The feeling here is they already have detailed reporting and testing for all user interactions.  Their reporting, and resulting A/B or multivariate testing already provide optimizations, thus no usability testing is needed.  Some prospects mistakenly believe “hard” interaction data via A/B testing is much better than “soft” usability testing data.

A/B Testing

Solution – Educate about the “why” of usability

Moderated usability testing is the only tool I know that can best uncover the “why” of user behavior.  Explaining this to metrics-happy companies can be a difficult proposition.  It helps to inform them that there’s a difference between only knowing that button “B” had 25% more clicks than button “A”, versus WHY button “B” had 25% more clicks.  The usability testing “why” information can be used to make better decisions about future tests.  This is because user reasoning and behavior is now part of the A/B testing equation.

A helpful tool you might use is my post on A/B vs Usability testing.

Conclusion: Top 7 reasons why you can’t sell usability

So those are my top 7 reasons why you can’t sell usability to prospects.  The issue is selling can’t happen if there is a lack of understanding about what usability is.  The best approach I’ve found is to educated prospects about usability, based on their reason given for not needing it.  If properly educated and informed about what usability is, how it works and how it can provide benefits, prospects almost don’t need any selling.  They will actually approach you with a potential project.

Perhaps I’ve not covered a reason you’ve run across?  I hope you’ll take a moment to share with us in the comments your typical reasons, and how you deal with them!

Selling Usability Handy Resources Guide:




Lists of Selling Tools



  1. Thanks Marc, I appreciate it.

    Selling usability is exactly like selling vinyl house siding – more than likely you don’t physically need it to keep your structure intact – it’s a leap of faith that it will provide value and improve the usefulness of the structure over time.

    Ergo: We need more vinyl house siding salesmen in usability. 🙂

  2. Great article, same applies to accessibility, your are so right about education, education, education….
    On the sales side don’t forget that people buy emotion not fact as with accessibility we are concentrating too much on the usability fact – we need to publicise the benefits more.
    “It helps to inform them that there’s a difference between only knowing that button “B” had 25% more clicks than button “A”, versus WHY button “B” had 25% more clicks.” Not just why, but the benefits derived from why. It is those that will make the difference.
    Oh there is so much that could be said …

  3. Great article Craig.
    Yes educating people on usability benefits and ROI in the language they understand is more helpful to our success as practitioners.

    I met a lot of people who understand and define usability as good design, good navigation, and some fancy JavaScript’s tools. In the same time more senior management are using the term “Usability/User Experience” without understanding the real value of it “at least here in the middle east” and I believe this because we as practitioners didn’t spend enough time to educate them.

    Great work, keep up

  4. You hit the nail right on the head.

    I’m from a small country (Belgium) and I had the impression that it’s even harder to sell usability here.

    I’ve more or less the same experiences like you do.
    And you’re right, it starts with educating the potential customers, that’s why I started a website about usability, not to promote my services, but to advocate usability in general.

    People have indeed all kind of weird assumptions about usability:

    • It’s expensive.

    Jakob Nielsen is expensive, not usability. And Jakob Nielsen is not usability, usability is larger than Jakob. He’s playing in another league than most other usability professionals anyway.

    It’s not expensive, since a good usability expert should calculate the ROI of his own work. If the client is making a positive ROI then the cost is acceptable.

    ROI is not always a matter of selling more products, increase traffic or conversion. No, you can cut in development time (and thus costs) too, achieve long-term trust, you can cut in costs for training (for desktop applications and intranets) and service calls, etc.

    To give you an idea, I did once a short contextual task analysis for some company. The result was a cut in costs for about 500,000 Euro per year. The cost of the task analysis was about 8,000 Euro.

    • It’s only for big companies

    No, it isn’t. There are low cost usability practises available which are tailored for smaller companies. You don’t need expensive eye-tracking and usability labs to improve the usability of your website or application a lot. And I mean A LOT.

    • Traditional focus on functional analysis

    If we build the functionality and features as demanded by the functional analysts then we did a good job, no?

    No, they don’t focus on users. There’s often no contact at all with the real living humans that have to use the applications. They don’t focus on them, they don’t focus on their tasks and they don’t focus on their environments. As a result the websites and software are working more or less functionally but are unusable for the actual user. IMHO, this is the main reason why many user-interfaces are unusable.

    Usability is not only a matter of putting the right buttons on the right place, using the right colours and making sure that the gizmos have the right size. No, instead, usability is far more a process.

    In fact I could go on for ages why usability is hard to sell.

    Nice job Craig, keep on going!

  5. Really nice detailed article Craig and I agree education is really important and selling usability can be very tricky. As a former sales manager who now works in UX, I really think this topic needs to be pushed as much possible. I see and speak to many excellent usability practitioners who simply can’t get buy in from clients or managers. Being able to really sell the value of usability is certainly difficult, but not impossible and following your guidelines above will really help.

    For me the key things are really speaking in your clients or managers language and asking questions. Don’t focus on the features of usability and a good UI, but sell the benefits they will bring to the business. Managers (usually, but not always) understand dollars and cents and the bottom line, so speaking in these terms, rather than usability jargon is crucial. Similarly, asking questions and getting answers gives you invaluable information about the problems facing the business. This will allow you to shape your pitch so that you can strike the right chord with your manager to help solve the businesses problems.

  6. Hi,

    Right said Craig and all you folks. I run a usability company in India and find it pretty darn hard to sell it. In India where design itself has always been on a backbench, you can imagine how companies look at usability.

    However, I guess this is a pattern that would have been in the past out there in the west as well and we are going through the same cycle.

    Alastair, would you be kind enough to share some of your sale experiences, on how you educated and convinced companies, preferably ecommerce companies to adopt Usability testing


  7. This is a great article and a great list of resources. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about education. The A/B testing thing is one of my pet peeves. I’ve written an article about why many A/B tests aren’t worth the time or money spent on them.

    I’d like to add a word of caution about pricing. While NNG’s prices are off the charts, it’s important to remember that they’re leveraging Nielsen’s celebrity, that doesn’t mean you should undersell your services. Remember that well done work on your part may truly help a company and enhance their bottom line. Make sure you are compensated for your hard work and brain power.

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