Tips for Design Reviews

by June 29, 2006

To follow-up on one of the recurring discussions at this year’s Art of Yahoo! conference, I’ve compiled several of my thoughts on effective design reviews with product stakeholders (clients, business units, etc.).

Chris Conley (professor at the Institute of Design) recently pointed out that the design critique training designers get in school better prepares them for the open discussions and feedback they will encounter in the business world. He rightly notes that the key is to “learn to listen to make your ideas better, not learn to defend your ideas.” But there’s still a need to “sell” stakeholders on the thinking behind a specific design solution. How does this design address business goals and user needs they care about?

In my experience, the following three tips have helped me make the pitch.

Frame the solution within an appropriate context.

What problem are you trying to solve; what goals you are trying to achieve; what are the limitations you needed to accommodate? Outlining these items up front helps establish criteria for evaluating the design.

“Taking the time up front to really research and understand end users and business needs enables you to speak directly to consumer expectations and stakeholder objectives. You need to know what your design is trying to accomplish: who is it for? What does it do? And why does it matter?” - Visual Communication Questions
“Because they research and dissect user needs, designers are in a unique position to define a problem through the eyes of customers. Because they think and act holistically, designers are able to articulate relationships within a market, across product ecosystems, and between customer needs and business goals. Because they can communicate visually and with narrative, designers are able to effectively articulate these definitions to product teams and stakeholders.” - Defining the Problem
“By framing the presentation of a design with problem definition, designers can focus stakeholder feedback on how well the design addresses their goals. If the proper high-level definition is not present to provide context, feedback can quickly turn into a critique of the mockup not the solution. After all, it’s much easier to have an opinion on font sizes and color choices than on the right strategic positioning of an important product.” - Live by the Mockup, Die by the Mockup

Have confidence in the solution you are presenting.

Too many options or uncertainties creates doubt about the effectiveness of a design.

“Good design is problem solving and should always be presented as such. Whenever a designer (be it an interaction designer, an information designer, or a visual designer) presents a client with too many options they risk undermining their value and opening themselves up to “design by committee”. The message is “I don’t know enough about your users or goals so you pick what works best.” Now the design is in a non-designer’s hands (who may very well be wondering why he hired a designer in the first place).” - Presenting Design
"Without realizing it, consumers “transfer sensations or impressions that they have about the packaging of a product to the product itself.” - Blink & Interface Design

Explain what you’ve done.

Use the language of design to explain how your solution effectively (with confidence) addresses the context you established earlier.

“You can use visual design to communicate key concepts to your users. By addressing the question “What is this?” we communicate usefulness. By addressing “How do I use it?” we communicate usability. By addressing “Why should I care?” we communicate desirability. When properly applied, visual design is all about communication. The better at communicating we are, the easier it is for our users to use and appreciate the web sites we design.” - Where Visual Design Meets Usability: Part 1
“For example “Our research has shown that this information is what most users are looking for on this page. As a result, it has the most visual weight (achieved through a strong contrast with the background) on this screen.” Outlining how visual design decisions enforce the relationships between content and guide user actions tends to remove the subjectivity inherent in many design reviews. This can help designers explain and sell their concepts.” - Visual Communication Questions