Combating design by committee

Design by committee has been the nail in the coffin of many good design concepts. So how can you minimize the damage done when a client decides to approve a design through a committee structure?

The problem is that it involves compromise. Everybody has a slightly different opinion and so the design is tweaked and tweaked in order to ensure everybody’s concerns are addressed. The result is inevitably a design that offends nobody but also fails to excite anybody. In short it creates unobtrusive design.

Unobtrusive design does have its place. A mediocre design can still be very usable and can meet many of the needs of your target audience. However, it is never going to excite or inspire them. It will never create brand loyalty or generate a feeling of satisfaction with the site.

The best approach is to limit the number of people making design decisions. Ideally this should be just the designer and the website manager. However, realistically this cannot always be the case. In the real world of internal politics there is often a requirement to consult and let everybody have their say. There is however a difference between consultation and design by committee.

The key to successfully avoiding design by committee is getting all parties to agree to a process before design even begins. In my experience the following order of events works very successfully.

  • The designer produces initial design concepts
  • Working with personas and business objectives the designer and website manager refines these concepts
  • The website manager and if possible designer, meets with each stakeholder individually to talk through the designs.
  • The website manager and designer collate feedback and make any amendments they feel necessary
  • The design is presented to real users and feedback is taken
  • The design is revised into its final iteration
  • The final design is presented to all stakeholders supported by feedback from the user testing and stakeholder interviews
  • Design is signed off.

The crucial step is the individual meetings with stakeholders. By meeting with them individually you prevent “design on the fly”. This is when a group of people starts making changes to a design in an attempt to reach a consensus. Without a doubt this is design by committee at its worst. By meeting with people one on one you can simply listen to their opinion and then collate all the suggestions together later. No design decisions will be made in the room.

It is also important in these meetings not to simply show them the design and ask what they think. Provide them with the background information they require to give educated feedback. In particular talk them through the user personas and objectives for the project. When you do show them the designs, do not ask them their personal opinion but rather ask them how they believe the target audience would react to the design. The aim is to encourage them to think beyond their personal preferences and focus on business and user requirements.

By adopting this process by the time those involved in design sign off see the final version they are already on board. They have contributed to the process, been given all the background information, seen the design testing and been educated to think from the users perspective. You will have done everything possible to ensure that the design is not produced by committee.

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