Avoiding the Problems of Design by Committee
29 Apr 2008

Avoiding the Problems of Design by Committee

29 Apr 2008

We all know the saying “too many cooks spoil the broth,” yet it is common during the design process for too many stakeholders to become design decision-makers. When reviews go beyond discussing issues in the user experience and gathering new information and ideas, stakeholders with varying points can sometimes begin to dictate the direction of the design. This leads to a once cohesive set of interactions diverging on many different paths. Slowly, the experience that was begins to slip away, and the product definition dilapidates. So, what can be done to avoid this situation?

1. Define the Problem and Articulate the Goals

Before one can tackle any redesign, whether feature enhancement or new development, it is critical to know ‘what issues need to be solved?’ Oftentimes assumptions are made without proper investigation, and wrong solutions are derived.

For instance, one may note that there is a high customer attrition for one’s product while the competition increases its market share. Without analysis, one could assume that this problem is due to a feature of the competition’s product. However, it could be that the issue really stems from a less apparent problem such as misinformation during the customer engagement process. By narrowing the problem down to its source(s), one can define a specific and appropriate strategy. By speaking in broad terms and ultimate goals (such as ‘out-do the competition’), teams can become divided in ways to tackle the issues.

From the outset, you should deconstruct the problem and state the ultimate and intermediary success criteria for the undertaking. This provides a solid foundation to guide the design phase and keep focus throughout the entire process.

2. Identify Stakeholders and Roles

In keeping with the mission to maintain focus, it is crucial to also synthesize the voices for design conception and refinement. This is one of the more delicate balancing acts one has to perform. As a designer, you want to be sure that you have enough feedback at each step so there isn’t a surprise overhaul at the end, but you also need to preserve productivity toward a unified goal.

The user experience design should be a collaborative effort, and to be successful it should include input from representatives from various touch points in the company. These representatives should not only provide input from their own perspectives, but also bring vetted feedback from members in the company with whom they interact. This allows for more voices to be heard in a more unified way. Once these stakeholders have been identified, it is important to communicate their roles as a liaison and representative. It is also important to set expectations for collaboration and to highlight the importance of putting the user first in each decision. Furthermore, each stakeholder should be familiar with (and played a part in defining) the goals which were set forth at the beginning.

Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path talks about this complex issue of breaking through the organizational barriers to produce a successful user experience. An important thing to not forget in discussions is that everyone should feel that their ideas are being heard. You must bring closure at each step by explaining how concerns have either been addressed or sidelined for the benefit of the experience.

Sharing Ownership via UXMatters

Beyond the voices within the company, another voice that cannot be ignored is that of the user.

3. Test Early and Test Often

Iterative testing is a great principle to follow, particularly in groups where a central authority makes hasty decisions. It is also essential for contentious groups that tend to incorporate everything into the design without discrimination because they are unable to reach a general consensus. User testing at crucial junctures can often bring harmony to a group by validating certain design choices and reminding everyone of the user’s perspective. Remember, that testing does not necessarily mean having expensive usability testing sessions, particularly at this level. Informal testing and sanity checks are more important to ensure that the business goals and conflicting internal interests are not overshadowing the needs of the users.

This iterative approach allows the design team to have the freedom to try many different approaches, particularly in the beginning, and in so doing, ensure that the various concerns and ideas are not being lost. Frequently, it becomes important to try even the “crazy ideas” to bring the team together and provide something which helps visualize ideas and facilitate conversation.

Escaping Design by Committee

These three components can be very effective in keeping the design focused while addressing the concerns and needs of the various stakeholders. Despite this, there is clearly no error-proof approach, so in case you do find yourself caught in the mire of design by committee you should rely on reason. The business, and indeed your team, will want to have a rewarding experience and fully developed product in a timely manner. By explaining that the constant redirections and lack of focus are deteriorating the experience and hurting the schedule, one can reintroduce both urgency and rationale. Taking a step back to revisit the original goals and testing against them can help to restore purpose. It may also be that the original goals are no longer applicable and should be updated to unify the team once more.

At these time, the iterative testing will come in handy as it will be easier to identify where you had digressed and what you may leverage in the re-focusing effort.

In conclusion, avoiding unfocused design is a core element of preventing design by committee. In order to keep focus, you must identify roles explicitly, facilitate open and effective discussion, test frequently, and maintain clear goals.

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