Say why instead of no to bad design

As developers or designers, most of us have found ourselves in a situation where a client or boss asks us to implement something that we know is bad. Bad for usability, bad for aesthetics, bad for readability, bad for accessibility, bad for any other aspect that is important to the project we are working on. The gut reaction for many of us is to say “No”. But maybe that isn’t the best thing to do.

In The Art of No, Derek Powazek suggests that the next time this happens, we try saying “Why” instead of “No”. By doing so we will start a conversation that makes both sides think. Thinking about the “why” may make the client or boss realise that their request doesn’t make much sense. It could also give you a chance to respond to it by acknowledging their reason for making the request and explaining why it wouldn’t improve things. And it could actually lead to you realising that the request you first wanted to say “No” to isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Try it. It’s very educating.

Posted on May 17, 2006 in Productivity, Quicklinks


  1. I have found this to work TEN TIMES better than just flat out rejecting an idea or turning someone down. Asking ‘Why’ instantly engages conversation and both parties are able to bring to the table their reasoning for doing something.

    With web projects, I have asked why on several instances - and in some of those realized that I didnt have the better option. Both parties get to engage and think through the process. It also helps both parties to LEARN going forward in the future. Thats part of why I love honest critique, I dont wear my heart on my sleeve and take the critique (and the source) and then wrap it all together.

    I am young, and I am still learning new things with each day - I am not complete, nor do I have all of the answers. Asking ‘Why’ versus ‘No’ only makes sense.

  2. “Don’t make me think” comes to mind… :-)

    Too many times a “why” won’t lead to more than a “no”, simply because people don’t like to have to think about “why” they have made a particular decision. However, it sure is worth a try, and may at times lead to really interesting and creative discussions.

  3. I think I’ll have to start saying “No” to our designers from now on… instead of laughing uncontrollably when they show me new stuff.

  4. May 17, 2006 by FlorentG

    Don’t ask “why”, but “how”. The “why” will then come naturally after the “how”. Basic psycology.

    If you ask “why”, the client have to find a reason, reason that he may not have thought about. He may reply “I don’t know”, or “I think it’s better”.

    But if you first ask “how”, he will try to explain what he wants, how to do it, and then, there will be far more chances that he will begin explaining “why” does he want his choice.

  5. “ok, but here’s the cost…”

    is an effective technique I’ve learned. This is very similar to the why, but less dismissing of someone elses ideas.. less “confrontational”

    If someone (a boss) suggests doing something against what I believe, I say “ok, I can do that, but here’s the cost… we will suffer usability, readability, accessibility…etc…”

    Also the finger is directed away from you when this happens since you’ve let them know. Of course, for maximum effect, you bring this up in a meeting with lots of people around.

    Very useful trick I learned in the military. An old Master Sgt. taught me that and it’s been VERY useful for me every since.

  6. Good advice. I have been doing this for awhile. Often it throws people off.

  7. I have previously heard the principle of “trying to say yes instead of trying to say no”… I think this fits neatly into that sort of mindset.

    Although I think I have asked “why” on occasion and even though their reasoning just didn’t make sense; some people still can’t be convinced that there might be some issues with their proposed idea.

    Still, it’s probably more productive than a straight-up “no” - at least most of the time :)

  8. Excellent advice. Saying ‘no’ just makes customers feel dumb and like they are fighting against you, not working with you. We are often asked to do some rather funny things to websites and while that can be frustrating, it always, always works out better when you understand why they want it, get to the point yuou agree on the outcome you both want for the site then go back to discussing the best ways to get there.

  9. This happened to me today. I got a fax thanking me for work I did optimising a page for Google. Client thanks me for moving their page from page 5 to page 1 for the keywords they wanted. (It’s nice to have your work appreciated)

    The thank you was accompanied by a note requesting some small further changes to the text on the page.

    You guessed it - the changes were to the text I had optimised, the the client wanted to change / delete the text that caused the big jump in search engine positions.

    I explained why these changes were a bad idea, and offered to help rewrite the text in a google friendly fashion if she could let me know what she was trying to say.

    The client’s response was “make the changes anyway”. I said “ok”.

    I had made a good effort to explain why it was a bad idea, and the client made the decision informed of what might happen. When the page disappears from the search results again, nobody can accuse me of bad practice or advice so I’m quite happy to action the request.

    Had I been responsible for the rankings of this page, this would have been a different story.

  10. I learned to listen to people. I agree that sometimes we may think that something is better, but sometimes it is not. I had customers that simply wanted what they had in mind and drawed out for me. I made some slick designs, but they turned it down. So ofcoarse i wondered why? And my experiance is that they just do not know any better, of what is in their frame of reference. That’s the reason i always broaden my view and that i listen to people, then i can learn something.

  11. I must admin, it’s nicer to be told “no, because…” than just flat out “no”. When the client rejets your work and gives you a reason (even if it’s not a good one), at least you know where you went wrong.

    I couldn’t handle being a designer - it would hurt too much to see 2 thirds of my creative work never used…

  12. May 18, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Phil: “No” may be easier to digest than being laughed at ;-).

    FlorentG: Good point.

  13. This is a good topic that you don’t seem to see anywhere else. I tend to use the “option” technique where I ask them whether they want a good quality, accessible site, or not. 90% say the want a quality site - so I tel them that whatever they have just requested (if it is bad) will reverse all the good that is going into the site, and give a short explanation why. Giving people the knowledge “for free” makes them still feel part of the process, and not complain behind your back to other potential clients.

    Thank you!

  14. It’s just common sense anyway, explaining why you believe a certain option maybe counterproductive rather than just plainly saying “No”.

  15. Problem is that some people are stubborn and convinced they know best since they saw it working one or other time.

    An other issue is getting to technical, it puts clients in a migraine since it is too far away for them. Technicalities need to be explained sometimes? But how do you explain that sort of stuff? Do you need to draw a line?

  16. I find that there is a lot of difference between saying no to a client and to a project manager.

    My clients will usually listen to my arguments, where the project managers will wonder why I am going against his/her decision, without ever considering the arguments.

    This is one of the primary reasons I work freelance these days … I find that working with clients to be more rewarding than working with clueless project managers who are more interested in billing the client than building the best possible website for the client.

    Clients will also consider suggestions for improvements to their site, where project managers will attempt to dismiss the improvements in favour of deadlines, etc.

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