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.

  • Benjamin Wiederkehr

    Great article Paul!
    You mentioned some problems we run into nearly every time when there are several stakeholders involved in a project. By putting these simple thoughts together in a list, you’ve created a nice guideline for a successful workflow.
    One single thought comes to my mind:
    When is the point reached where you stop creating different designs and fully concentrate on the “one”? I think it’s hard to discuss all the designs. Could the website manager be that person who decides, based on the results of step 2, which design communicates best the main objectives?
    I would be interested in your opinion

  • Not to sound surprised, Paul, but this absolutely freakin’ BRILLIANT.
    Thanks for a simple roadmap.

  • Paul. Great, except for one thing. Surely you don’t do user testing solely at the end of the project? That seems dangerous.
    What good is it to achieve the business goals you set out initially only to find out your target users (who are most likely not geeky like us) are having a hard time using a fundamental design element.

  • The key I agree is to “encourage them to think beyond their personal preferences and focus on business and user requirements.”
    “Gentle” guidance is a must.

  • @Josh… I think it is important to differentiate between design testing and usability testing. Yes, it is vital to carry out usability testing throughout the project. However, design testing is a different beast. It is easy to change a design so it is not as vital to do it upfront because it can be easily tweaked later in the process.
    @Benjamin… I like to expose the client to as few design concepts as possible. In my experience all this leads to is “I want x from design 1 and y from design 2 which rarely works”. Where multiple designs are involved I suggest narrowing down to a main design concept as quickly as possible.

  • Hey Paul,
    I can relate. A lot of people seem to think design by committee is a good idea, and it can be hard to avoid, especially when you aren’t in charge. The problem with design by committee is that the goal becomes consensus, not developing a great product.

  • Simon Griffiths

    Good article, great in an ideal world. I have tried many of these tactics in my company, usually with no positive result. Trouble is that at the end of the day, they all give their all, usually contridicting each other. Then when you reach the final design they all want it changing!
    My advise if you work for a company producing their website, do the changes and get results before anyone notices! You can do this by split testing the site.
    I have to say that companies such as mine also get used to a constant evolution in design as we try to get our site functioning better. You really learn a lot from using Crazy Egg and Clicktale, if you take the time to install them on your site.

  • Of course, you should ask your clients to give a detailed description of web design they demand, it’s better if they can give you some examples of sites they like. That will help to avoid problems of misunderstanding.