Tips for a Better Design Review Process

One of the hardest part of a designers
job is presenting their work, selling their designs to clients or
stakeholders and gathering feedback. The design review cycle. I know it
used to be something I dreaded. As I’ve gotten older and more
experienced I’ve come to really enjoy it. If nothing else, it’s that
first big step before something I’ve created becomes something real.
It’s also one of the key spots in a project where I can really engage
my stakeholders.

Hopefully, if I’ve understood the project,
made the right design decisions and put lots of hard work into it,
it’ll go smooth as pie. Occasionally that happens. More often than not
I’ve got to grease the wheels a bit.

As much as you’d like
them to, your designs can’t speak for themselves. Well, maybe they do,
and if so, you’re a better designer than I am. Walking a client through
a design and gathering feedback is always a bit of a challenge, but it
doesn’t have to be something you dread. I’ve written up some tips,
tricks and advice that will hopefully help a few designers out there
turn this dreaded task into something they look forward to.

Know Your Stakeholders

of the most important parts to a good design review process is knowing
who will be reviewing your work as early as possible. Don’t trust that
your clients will simply give you this information and don’t rely on
assumptions. Ask them specifically who you will need to present your
work to. Then ask who will be making the decisions.

Doing this
will help you tailor your presentation and could influence your design
decisions as well. If nothing else it’ll help frame your discussion and
appropriately set expectations.

Make Considered Design Decisions

going to assume that you’ve done the necessary up-front work to come up
with a wonderful and appropriate design. However, you’ll want to make
sure and think through (and know well) your designs. You should be
doing this anyway, but in order to sell something and gain consensus
and buy-off you’ll need to be able to explain why certain decisions
were made. This may seem obvious but I’ve been through enough design
reviews to know that sometimes designers make decisions without really
knowing why. It’s easy to work on instinct or not fully think through
decisions as they’re being made. Don’t fall into that trap, it can come
back to hurt you when it’s time to sell your designs.

Only Show The Good Stuff

a big fan of doing some up-front creative work to really capture what a
client is looking for, and then targeting one single design. However, I
realize that this isn’t always an options and some clients need
choices. If you present multiple designs, you should only present
designs you feel are a good fit and only designs you can get behind. If
you’re asked to show three designs, for example, and you show two
“good” designs and one “so-so” design, you’re not only doing your
stakeholders a disservice, you’re just asking to be stuck with a design
you’re not happy about.

Set Expectations

important to set yourself up for success from beginning to end. Tell
your stakeholders what you are going to be doing and how the design
process is going to go down. When it comes to review, explain your
design decisions, tell your clients why they’re a good fit. Tell them
they’re going to love the work you’ve done before you show them
anything. The more you can do to set yourself up to have a good review,
the better it should go.

Remember that your clients hired you to help them, they’ll let you lead them if you step up and take the reins.

Be Prepared For The Phantom Stakeholder

if you are damn sure you know who is reviewing your work and who is
making the decisions, be prepared to present your designs to just about
anyone. I don’t know how many times a new stakeholder was introduced in
the middle of a design review, and what’s worse, they’re usually
someone who’s opinion and feedback carry a whole lot of weight. It will
happen from time to time, regardless of how much prep work you do. Be
prepared for it.

Ask For Specific Feedback

beginning a feedback cycle with stakeholders be sure and let them know
in detail the kind of feedback you’re looking for. For example, I tell
my clients that “I don’t like that” won’t cut it and that they need to
be extremely specific and detailed in the feedback they give me. Make
them work for it, make them really have to think about what they’re
telling you. Not only will it help get your designs through, it’ll give
you much better feedback to work with when it comes to revisions.

good designer needs to lead their stakeholders to a certain extent. By
taking the time to direct them when it comes to feedback you’re setting
yourself up for an easier time of it while at the same time asserting
some authority and building trust.

Defend Yourself but Don’t be Defensive

are that somewhere along the way in a design process you’ll get some
feedback that you don’t agree with. Sometimes it’s fairly
inconsequential and sometimes it’ll really damage the integrity of a
design. When it’s appropriate you should defend your decisions. The
goal here is to come up with the best possible design and your client
can be one of the biggest obstacles to that. If at all possible, don’t
let your clients do something they’ll regret later and whatever you do,
don’t roll over on major design decisions.

Having said all of
that, be wary of getting defensive. That’s the last thing you want to
do. If you’ve made the appropriate design decisions, and you’re truly
behind your work you should feel good about the feedback you’re
getting. Don’t let your ego get in the way. A defensive attitude will
show and you’ll damage your credibility and that of your designs with

Oh and when it comes to smaller stuff, go ahead and let
the client win. It’s not worth fighting over something trivial. Pick
your battles and fight those only worth fighting.

Make Them Choose

you’re offering choices and presenting several design options force
your stakeholders to choose. The last thing you’ll want is a
bastardized combination of two totally different designs. You want to
avoid the design “camel” if you can help it. One of the problems with
offering choices is that stakeholders just love to mix and match. Make
sure they know up front, before you show them anything, that that isn’t
an option.

Listen up!

One of the most important
things you can do during a design review is listen. You should set
expectations, defend your decisions and explain why you feel your
design is a fit, but more important than all of that is listening and
understanding your stakeholders questions and feedback. The simple act
of listening and letting them share how they feel about your work will
help you sell it. Always remember that you’re working for and with
them. They are an essential part of the design process and you need
them to succeed. Listening, really listening, to what they’ve got to
say will help you in a multitude of ways.

Try an Iterative Process

way to avoid some of the common pitfalls in a traditional design review
process is to try and go with an iterative process. It won’t work with
every client, but when it does it can have fantastic results. By
showing a client a single design very early on and making small course
corrections on much smaller cycles you’ll create a dialogue that will
really help get to the best design quickly and with quite a bit less
effort. You effectively remove those big changes and risk areas that
force you back to the drawing board.

An iterative process
isn’t for everyone though. You’ll need lots of trust, some frequent and
honest dialogue and a very, very good understanding of what the client
is looking for in a design. Then again, you’d want all of those things
regardless of your process. Iterative design, when I’ve been able to do
it, has worked out great for both me and my clients.

Go With What Works For You

how to sell your designs is an educational process. You’ll get better
as you become a better designer and as you gain experience interacting
with stakeholders. As you go along you’ll likely find ways to help
speed the process up and get your stakeholders on the same page with
your designs. Just remember the idea is to get to the best possible
design for your client—not for you.

Speaking of educational,
please post any related tips, stories or advice in the comments. These
come from my experience and I’m sure y’all have come up against
situations I’ve not. I’d love to learn from you.