6 tips to avoid a design by committee

If someone wants a bigger button, ask why that would make users click more.

Collaborative design is good – a design by committee is not

Ask any team and they’ll say collaboration, especially when it comes to design, is essential. Ask any designer and the last thing they want is to have a product, service or campaign that’s ‘designed by committee’. This designer’s dilemma is real because something that’s created in this way often tries to satisfy everyone in the room and, paradoxically, leaves no-one truly happy with the end result—and if good design can elevate your brand, it’s equally true that bad design can devalue it.

Thankfully, there are solutions and methods that can help strike that sweet spot between true collaboration and ending up with a Frankenstein design. Here are six top tips to get you started.

Tip #1: Recognise that everyone plays a different role

Collaboration is about building momentum. Some of your team members’ contributions will be more valuable if they’re brought on earlier in the design process, while others are best required halfway through or closer to the final deliverables. So it’s crucial that you can identify who has a stake in the project, which then helps inform your decisions when it comes to the design itself. Everyone plays a different role, but not everyone plays it at the same time.

Tip #2: Determine whose feedback is needed when

After you know who’s a key stakeholder in the project, it’s important to know whose feedback is needed at which stage. In other words, just because you’re collaborating at one point does not mean that design itself is completely collaborative. There are times when everyone’s feedback is useful, such as during the early stages, and times later on when you’ll want to narrow that list.

It is essential to always have the fewest, but most useful, people in the room. To do this, consider your project priorities and the subject matter expertise of each stakeholder and you’ll get a clearer picture of who should have an active point of view at which stage. Some more useful advice:

Tip #3: Start your brainstorms by thinking broad

Embrace as many different perspectives from the outset as possible – this is how you start the process of thinking broad to get narrow. In other words, when you begin you’re exploring as many potential solutions as possible in order to identify, as accurately as possible, the right problems which you’ll try to solve. This is where everyone truly is able to be a designer because problem-solving is a universal skill.

Having creative exercises at this stage is essential. Whether you challenge people to generate ideas through sketching or something else entirely, at this stage you don’t want to restrict people’s creativity – remember, when you start there are no dumb ideas, just ideas you need to validate afterwards to see if they’re useful to achieve your objectives.

Tip #4: As you iterate, narrow the playing field

As you iterate, you become closer to having the best possible solution to the problem. Here you’ll decide which ideas are worth pursuing, and in what way, which means you start relying more on someone with a sharp design skillset (such as a design lead) that can help separate valid feedback from opinions.

This is also where you develop the first wireframes and prototypes, in which everyone can contribute but the core product team have the last word on which ideas move forward.

Tip #5: Learn to roll with late-stage feedback

We’ve all been there. The project is well underway, it all seems to progress as it should, and then some ‘few bits’ of feedback come through – except it’s now too late to change those things without compromising your timeline. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but thankfully there are ways to make the best out of that situation. Remember, feedback is a negotiation, not a mandate, so with that in mind here are a few pointers on how to handle this late-stage feedback:

Tip #6: Everyone is a participant, but remember you’re the expert

It’s worth repeating that, even though the process is collaborative, the final decision lies with the designer. Make sure this is true as you refine the product, otherwise it’s very easy for the project to dissolve into a pile of compromises.

The best design comes from making decisions and then learning from them, so use your judgment, test with users, analyse where you can improve, and then repeat the cycle. If you try to please everyone as you iterate, you’ll still end up failing—and in several different directions at once. That being said, if you do address feedback make sure the remaining team are aware – it shows you listened and also strengthens the trust across the entire team.

Use collaborative design to your advantage

Collaboration is a key part of any design project, especially if you’re part of an enterprise environment. If you want to learn more about how collaborative design can benefit you or your team, download our free Design Advantage report.

This blog post was based on the original 99u article, The Right Way to Do Collaborative Design: How to Avoid Designing by Committee.