• UXL | User Experience Lab

Uncompromising Compromise

April 22, 2019 | A conversation with Bianka McGovern, VP User Experience, Goldman Sachs

For nearly a decade-and-a-half in design consulting, diverse clients have come to UXL for creative, effective solutions to complex design problems. First and foremost, clients care about the outcome of the product design effort. Few care about the journey that takes us from discovery to implementation. Meanwhile, that process is essential in legitimizing our design solution, explaining how and why we came to one solution over another.

UXL works flexibly and collaboratively with clients and budgets of various sizes. But is there a limit to flexibility? What is the minimum standard process we must follow to deliver a successful product? How do we mitigate project circumstances that fall short? What is our responsibility to educate clients about the how and why of what we do?


  • Walk in a client's shoes to show them the design journey through a compelling story, up-close views and personalized examples, and even gamification.

  • Show clients you really care about the problem space and how the voice of the customer that you bring is essential to a successful product.

  • Help clients clearly articulate their goals and understand what is most important to the outcome to focus and prioritize the effort.

  • Find ways of cutting scope, phasing, and making the process leaner through the lens of the key client goal to work within time and budget.

  • Compromise on ideal scope of process steps but stand firm on the non-negotiable core in service of a quality outcome.

Julie Fortier: As we think about who we are as an agency and how we’re different, something that we're pretty proud of is that we're not dogmatic. We've been doing this for a really long time. At the beginning of my career, I was a little less flexible, but now I'm like, “Alright, it's not always a perfect process, but we can still do good work under less than ideal circumstances.”

The question is, where do we draw the line? What is the minimum number of things that need to happen in a sequence in order for us to create a respectable product? Otherwise, we just can't guarantee that we're going to do something of value, right?

I know that even in some of your staff positions, you’ve worked in what is much like a consulting role. In your experience, how do you sell your services with a certain level of process and of quality in order to deliver a good product?

Ed Guttman: I’d like to layer in a detail…I believe you had a certification program not unlike LEED Certification for green buildings to bring a certain level of prestige and pride to groups that agreed to do things as you advocate that they be done. Was that something that you came up with or was it already out there?

Bianka McGovern: I don’t think it was out there. I’ve always thought about ways to bring us closer to the people using our services because I really don’t want to compromise on key steps of the process. I try to walk in their shoes and see from their perspective what they think design entails so I can figure out ways to shift their concept of the role of design. I'd rather quit and do something else than feed into the misconception that designers are here to do a bit of UI and make things pretty.

If you’re developing software, you go from writing code to QA testing to user acceptance testing. There are certain processes that you go through. No one is coding a product today without testing. It's the same thing in user experience. If you cut out fundamental pieces of how we do our work, then you can’t expect to get something of quality in the end.

It’s a big change in some organizations to say, “We're always going to do discovery and speak with clients. We’re always going to test our designs with clients. There is no other way.” So I asked myself, “How can I get people to buy into that journey and set a goal with us?” I felt like I needed some incentive. I was just brainstorming, thought about ways to gamify it a bit, and that's how I came up with the idea of certification.

People thought certification was cool. It worked. After a time, it wasn't really necessary anymore because people just got it.

I’m sure it’s harder when you’re running a business and a client wants to cut process steps to cut costs. I would have a hard time compromising. I would be like, “Okay, let's think about ways of making it leaner instead of doing something really big. How can we scope it down?”

Julie: Yup, you got it. It’s usually about cost-cutting.

I remember a client conversation in which a team member felt something that we had estimated at 3 weeks could be done in 3 days. How do you bridge a gap like that?

Ed: In that instance, the client may not have thought our process was useless so much as he thought it didn’t apply to his product. What he said at the time was, "Maybe you guys just don't realize how simple our application is." I don’t think he was discounting our process, but he may have thought we were making a mountain out of a molehill.

This relates to the question of needing to be more insistent about process, and if part of that is about better connecting process to a joint understanding of scope.

Bianka: Again, walk in their shoes. It can be really hard for people to see the benefit just because you tell them that it's important. I feel like it's easier to convince people if they can really feel it and see it for themselves. Maybe you say, “Okay, we understand your concerns. Let’s not scope it all out right now. Let’s do a usability test with one user.” I've often seen it when I take people into a session to observe a usability test on their own software, and they’re like “Oh my God!”

Julie: It’s an eye-opener.

Bianka: Yes! You’ll hear, “The button was right there, but the user couldn't find it! I got really nervous watching.”

Julie: You're bringing up a good point. We’re talking about our process with people who might not be very familiar with what we do. It's not necessarily that they're questioning it, but they don't know.

So how do we convince them that this is important? If we had to run a usability test with one of their participants for free, that could be a week of work.

But maybe there's an in-between that helps us showcase our value a little bit more in the proposal stage. For example, we provide a link to a sample test that we've done with someone else so that they can see, “Oh, this is how it would be. These are the activities we would do. This is the kind of deliverable I could expect.” Obviously, that assumes that they would want to take the time to watch or read to understand what we're proposing to do.

Bianka: It’s always how you sell it, right? How you tell the story. I worked with an agency that does it really well. Once you saw their pitch, you just didn't want to work with anybody else. They've really found a way of differentiating themselves. We’ve had typical agencies come in and they basically say, “Oh, this is all the stuff that we've done, and we could do this for you.” You could have 100 agencies come in and they would all say the same thing.

This agency that differentiated itself started with a simple phone discussion about what we were looking for. They actually connected with some of our users, and asked them about their needs – before the pitch. Then they explained their findings to us and how they would do things. They had a different way of presenting that was very simple and relatable. It was less like, “Okay, this is a past project and this is what we did” and more about the why in a very personalized, visual way that related it to what people care about.

Julie: That made an impact.

Bianka: It made such an impact that we didn’t want to work with anybody else.

Ed: It sounds like they essentially started doing the work before they had the job.

Bianka: They did, but if you think about the effort, in the end, it wasn't that much. The deal was interesting enough that they said, “Okay, we're going to spend three days on user interviews.” It was a little bit of effort but it was what you would typically invest in a pitch anyway.

Ed: So maybe that isn't the part that was most differentiating? Maybe the more differentiating was the way they described what they do?

Bianka: It was both. The fact that they made the effort and already talked to our customers just to get a better understanding of the space that we were working in and the problems that we were dealing with. That was definitely the deciding factor. That just blew us away. I thought it was just very creative.

Ed: Thinking back to the process question, it sounds like they highlighted the part of the work that's questioned by the client if the client is trying to cut corners and time. It's the research, whether it's the generative or the evaluative, that usually gets cut away, right?

Bianka: They did not compromise at all. It was very important to them to focus on the discovery.

Julie: I think if you're giving the client a teaser of that in that early stage, then it's pretty enlightening.

Ed: Well, particularly if there are some interesting findings. If they said, “Oh, we talked to your users,” and you say, "Yes, we know all that already. We've talked to them, too,” then it might not be that interesting. But at least they're showing that the process will yield results that we, as a client, either already understand or that we did not even know.

Bianka: Often internal teams in enterprise organizations don’t talk that much to their clients, except for engagement-specific roles like sales. They understand the market and subject matter but don’t know their clients on the human level. If they do talk to their clients, it’s about sales and the product. To me, the findings made a ton of sense, but I think to some of the senior people, the findings were mind-blowing. It was like, “Oh, wow. I never even thought about them feeling this way about these kinds of things.”

Ed: Is it fair to say that this firm was essentially saying that we believe so strongly in this process that we're willing to invest in it before you even hire us?

Bianka: Maybe there is something to that, but it’s also showing that you really care about the problem space, and that you really make an effort to understand the customer perspective. As a UX agency, you are the expert on the customer. They are the experts on other things, but you are the voice of the customer.

Julie: Right, that's a good point. That certainly seals it from that perspective, which is, “We're the voice and advocates of the users.”

Bianka: Exactly.

Julie: I want to get back to the budget issue because I feel like there are different ways to skin a cat. We have a cat lover here at UXL, so we’re not allowed to say skin the cat. Maybe we can say fry the fish.

Bianka: I love fish. My pets are fish.

Julie: You have a project, you are speccing it out in the optimal way, and I'm sure even internally, you have some issues with budget where you say, “We need to do it a little faster, a little leaner.”

There are different ways to reduce the size of a project, and often the client will say, “Well, we don't need to do that.” That's where it can get a little tricky. We can say, “We've done this in the past. We really recommend upfront user research and speaking with your customers. But if we can't, we'll use some feedback data that you've received, some secondary research.” We’ve been flexible in that way.

It's much harder to say to a client, “Your expectations are too big. You need to cut scope.” Is there another way to skin this? We have to be successful in selling the work. If we just tell them, “You can only do this much for this amount of money,” we'll probably not get the work.

We're between a rock and a hard place trying to do the right thing at the right price without compromising quality.

Bianka: I think it comes back to what the goal is for the project. What are they trying to do with this software? Are they trying to go from a legacy product to something more modern? Have people said it's hard to use? It's coming back to the goal and how you can help them achieve it. What do you think some of those goals are with your clients?

Ed: Looking at one example, a goal was to have a unified mobile experience that was consistent and unified with the desktop product. That doesn’t mean the same, but a seamless experience from one to the other.

Bianka: In that case, I would start by asking, “What are your favorite mobile products?” Say they answer, “Amazon and Zappos.” Then I ask, “What do you like about those?” They say, “Oh, they’re so easy to use. They’re really fast. I just have to do a few taps.” You can explain, “In order to achieve that, you must do certain things. Companies like Amazon run many usability and A/B tests every day. They test everything.”

You need to go back to that outcome, the goal, and really focus on that. If you're looking for a seamless experience that people really want to use because it’s more efficient and makes their lives easier, then that would be your focus. You can't have everything. In the triangle of speed, quality, and low cost, you can only pick two.

If there are too many goals, you have to say, “Why don't we sit down and define what your main goal is?” Everybody wants everything under the sun and that's not realistic. You have so many years of experience in this space. You know what's realistic.

Julie: We've started to be more articulate in our intake. We gather information and send it back to them: “This is what we've heard; therefore, this is how we think we can best on support your project.”

But back to that goals conversation…often I think we articulate the goals ourselves based on what we've heard from our clients, but maybe that's something that we need to ask them to articulate more succinctly when we first meet with them.

If we had had that conversation with the seamless mobile experience client, would we have had the same answer or would the goals have changed? Would we have had more clarity at that time?

Ed: I don't know that we would because our clients have expressed to us that they appreciate that we've clearly listened to them when we've come back and told them what we've heard and are usually spot on. If we were something other than spot on, then we would have a bit of a problem.

Julie: Right, so there's a certain talent in hearing and being able to articulate for them because they are sometimes not able to articulate it themselves. That's what you're saying?

Ed: That's right. But despite feeling that we were spot on, they may take a stance where they say, “Even though that was very accurate, we want you to cut out part A or part B of this process to get to the end result.” At some point, we probably need to be more dogmatic. We've prided ourselves on our flexibility. With the wisdom of age, we realize not everything has to be a certain way. At the same time, maybe we need to go back to our younger selves and say, “I'm sorry, that's impossible.”

Bianka: It's difficult! It's not just that you want that project, you need it. You’re running a business. You’re already good at thinking about how to make things leaner. If a client is asking you to do something in 3 days that you know takes 3 weeks, that’s where I would be adamant and say, "Honestly, we've been doing this for a while and it doesn't take 3 days. It's just not going to work. We can spend less time and make it very lean. The risk is that it will impact our confidence in the data. The more data points you have, the more confidence you have.” You have to protect yourself as well.

Julie: That's the problem. It can come back at us if the product is not as successful as it should be.

Bianka: Right - there are consequences of cutting out pieces of the process or trying to squeeze things into a very aggressive timeline. There's always a sacrifice, and you want to help the client understand that.

Julie: Yes, that's an interesting point. The fact that we endorse the quality of our product, and you can't say that much when you're hiring a low-cost hired gun. There is always someone willing to do it on the cheap, but when the project is over that person is gone. We stand by what we do. That's certainly a big difference.

Bianka: Sometimes I think it works to say, “We stand by what we do. We believe in what we're doing. We've done it all for a long time and we've been very successful. We can’t do what you're suggesting” And then walk away. Sometimes that works. They come back and say, “We talked about it, and now we understand.” My home contractor is really good at this. He says, “You can hire this guy and ask him to touch up some things, but I do it the right way, and it's going to last 20 years.” I'm like, “Yeah, okay, I’m going with you.”

Julie: We've had some clients bring up the whole speed-quality-cost triangle. That’s a question we can openly ask.

Ed: The fallacy of this triangle, in my opinion, is that any one of those things can be sacrificed, and that you can get two out of these three, and yet I'm not willing to say to a client, “I'm willing to give it to you fast and cheap, but the quality will suffer.” I'm not willing to do that. Quality is non-negotiable.

Bianka: That’s because the quality for you is your business strategy. That's what you stand for, so you're always going to stand firm on that one.

Ed: That's right. Exactly.

Bianka: Then the other ones are speed and cost.

Julie: It's not one or the other, but they have to prioritize what's most important. They can’t come to us for top-notch work at a bargain basement price delivered within two weeks.

Bianka: You’re always going to stand for quality, so you're never going to sacrifice that one. That's not on the table. If you want to sacrifice quality, then find one of the many companies that are willing to do that.

Ed: Let's say a client says, “Great. You guys are the quality people, but we don't have a ton of money, so I guess we're just going to have it be high quality and cheap but it'll be slow.” Projects don’t work that way either.

Bianka: Referencing an agency that I worked with in the past…they never compromised except on one thing: scope.

Ed: Scope is what it's really all about.

Bianka: Exactly. They never actually priced anything down. They just de-scoped.

Ed: Okay, so this application is three tabs. It's only three tabs and you have only this much time and this much money. We can do a really good job with one half of one tab. I'm kidding, but you got the idea. “This is your application. Do you want to do all of it or do you want to do some of? With what you're asking, we can do some of it really well.”

Bianka: In my experience, that's hard to tell a client. Typically, they don't get everything built anyway. Development is the most expensive part. In a way, design is often the easy part if you look at the entire project. Nobody builds everything at once. It’s pretty rare.

Ed: A lot of times what I do is try to acknowledge that up front and say, “Listen, let's not do a big project here. Let's do a small project. I'd love to do a big project, but let's do that later.”

Bianka: Exactly. Phase it. Let's do a first phase and then we'll talk again. In the past we negotiated the engagement with the agency around solving one piece. When we wanted to continue, we found the budget somewhere – there was a way.

Ed: There's a process and there are certain steps in that process that always take this long. If the scope equals this many screens and we want to do this many user tests, then it's this much money. If you want us to test with only one person, the results will be questionable. I don't think we're going to do that. The bare minimum is 5. We recommend 15. If you want, we can do 9, and here's what the costs are.

Bianka: We want to do three rounds of testing. If you want to have just one round of testing, be aware that there's lower confidence in the findings.

Ed: There's transparency we can offer by translating scope into price and time, and stating the recommended range.

Bianka: Jeff Gothelf explains an interesting approach in the book Lean UX. Instead of trying to cut parts of the process, start with the questions “What am I trying to learn?” and “What’s the fastest way for me to find this information?” Traditionally, projects start with user interviews as part of discovery, followed by design based on the user research findings. This involves a good amount of effort. Lean does it almost in reverse. It starts with the assumptions followed by an experiment with users to validate those assumptions, aka the “MVP,” which allows designers to learn insights that inform further design decisions. In a way, user research, exploration, and ideations are combined into one effort and that shortens the “process” tremendously. In terms of the MVP, Jeff Gothelf says “You can always go leaner” when your resource constraints don’t allow for a lot of heavy lifting.

Julie: I’m not sure how lean you can reasonably get.

Bianka: Maybe “lean” is the aspiration and “leaner” is where you try to land.


Broken Bow Brewery Red Ale

“Our Red Ale has a malty, lightly sweetened personality that is smooth and easy on the palate. Subtle caramel aroma, topped with a cream-colored head, this beer is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to food pairings.” – Broken Bow Brewery
“Delicious.” –Bianka McGovern

About Bianka McGovern

Bianka is a design program manager at Goldman Sachs involved in building web platforms for financial services professionals. She has spent most of her UX career in the Enterprise space, typically working on multi-layered platforms and redefining the experience of professional and operational workflows. More recently, she built up the UX design practice at the Tax & Accounting division of Thomson Reuters. Bianka is passionate about taking a holistic approach to UX that fosters awareness of the many touch points in the experience ecosystem.

About UXL Inc. | User Experience Lab

UXL solves complex user interface and information problems. We specialize in strategic design of data-rich, process-oriented applications across platforms and devices. Since 2005, our diverse clients rely on us to hone their vision and design better user experiences. Our expertise is especially deep in financial services, healthcare, and insurance, and runs across the product design lifecycle. From research and requirements to strategy, design, and validation, we work flexibly and collaboratively with our client teams onsite or in our own design studios based in NYC and Westchester. Learn more: uxlinc.com

UXL Inc. | info@uxlinc.com | 914-468-0838

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