Managing Review by Committee

Picture the scene

You and your team have done the client interviews, written the creative brief, tried to understand the ‘product’ and the goals of your client… now you have a first draft of a design to show them.
Whether you are working with internal or external clients, it’s going to happen and generally the earlier the better.

The ideal

If you can, have lot’s of small scale design ‘reviews’ – particularly in the early stages when dealing with wireframes and scribbles on paper; It takes time, but allows personal involvement and will get you to a deeper level of understanding a lot faster.

The reality

The truth is you probably won’t get the luxury of the time to gradually work your way through doing interviews with everybody you need to involve; particularly when there are larger numbers of people involved from various functions within corporate environments.

Try to pitch to your users as early as possible

Often, corporate environments can mean dealing only with internal expert users or subject matter experts. The input from these people is vital, but you need to make software that works for the people who buy the product. It’s worth keeping in the back of your mind that most of the time that person will not be the one who eventually interacts with the design.

Your challenge here will be to make friends in sales, marketing or other highly user facing areas so that you can subtly enquire about accompanying them on site. Remember that usability testing is also your friend, try to arrange – through those groups – to perform short testing sessions on site or at conferences. This last part can be particularly effective for mobile solutions as they are quick and (obviously) portable. Full desktop applications are a lot more difficult and you will need good support to arrange that testing.
If it comes down to it, just finding people who are not too familiar with the product areas to ‘play’ with the software can be of enormous benefit.

Be like Mr. Spock, control your emotions

I don’t mean be without passion; your passion to produce amazing designs is why those people want you in the room in the first place. I’m talking about your emotional attachment to you and your team’s design. Remember you are designing for the client – or, more likely, the client’s customers, not yourself.

When you are leading a group putting together a new design, at each update session you will hear opinions. Since everybody uses software, everybody has an opinion about software. This is a good thing, where there is no opinion, there is indifference – not the way to drive a class leading design!

Because a degree of emotional attachment is involved, multiple opinions are tricky to manage and sometimes awkward to accommodate. Assessing those opinions and managing their influence on the design is key.
Many of the worst user interfaces are those that are designed by committee. Actually, maybe not the worst, but certainly the dullest and generally the most over-complicated.

Discuss goals not features

The lead designer needs to … lead, to steer the discussions – but the opinions of the expert group must be listened to. They are your inspiration when it comes to producing something they can use and sell.
Committee reviews in particular can often turn into feature discussions. Remember that you are designing something that is intended to allow a user to achieve a goal – and periodically remind the group of that (be subtle-ish).

Lots of opinions; you don’t need to address them all right away

Particularly when dealing with a large group, and even more particularly if some portion of the group are attending via phone or video, its easy to feel pressure to adjust a design or answer challenges to key design points immediately.
Be honest, if you have a good reason then state the reason: If you have not considered a use case then make a note – tell the group that you are making a note and say that you need to consider that one.
If you feel that it’s just a communication problem then arrange a one-to-one if possible…

Arrange a on-to-one

If you know that you will have a challenging individual present or you are reviewing remotely then getting a one-to-one beforehand with that person or a representative from the other side of a remote link can work wonders. Try to work through their concerns and explain your pitch clearly; while this might burn some of your own time it can work wonders to allay the fears of the more experienced subject matter experts – who can often feel that your ‘super simple’ design simply does not work for them.

Recognise excitement

If the group discussion turns to what might be possible using your design or what might come next then you have started to get them excited by the possibilities that they can see opening up because of your team’s design – you have them excited… ride the wave.

And finally… a summary

It’s worth re-iterating that while these reviews can be challenging, they are also your friends. Get them done early and focus on goals not features. Talk to the review team in one-to-one’s – even if not related to a particular design review. Stay focussed and energised by what you and your design team can do.

There is an opinion that you may be able to ignore, of course… “it’s not like that in the previous version”.
Well, maybe don’t ignore it, but gently remind that person that you attempting to design something new… :)