How To Survive Your Next Design By Committee Situation

Cartoon: Stick figure clients fighting and a designer running away versus stick figures explaining what they want to the designer one on one happily.

Last week a good friend of mine called to vent. He was in the midst of every designers worst nightmare: working on a client project in which there were 8 major stakeholders. It was a classic design by committee scenario.

The day he went in for the first consultation, the stakeholders were lined up on either side of a rectangular table staring each other down. He whipped out his notebook and asked what the goals of the redesign were.

And so it begins…

3 of the 8 people started talking over each other, then glared at each other. The other 5 looked uncomfortable and didn’t speak. Finally one voice surfaced.

Person 1: “The goal is to increase conversions. We need to make all of the buttons green.”

Person 2: “Um, no it’s not. The GOAL is to create a more usable website. We need bigger text boxes on the landing page, and the registration area needs to be bright yellow to draw more attention to it.”

Person 3: “We JUST had a 2 hour meeting about this yesterday! Were you two sleeping through it? The goal is to update our branding! The whole site needs to be aqua!”

War is waged!

Then the meeting turned into the equivalent of an episode of Big Brother. Factions formed and the volume levels got higher and higher. The quiet team members looked like they wanted to disappear.

Then things got personal:

“You always try to steamroll my ideas!”

“You think your opinion is the only one that matters!”

“I’m higher up the food chain than you are, what I say goes!”

My friend said that he did his best to redirect and refocus the group, but within 10 minutes the meeting had gone from an introductory consultation to a war zone.

Alcohol: Mandatory

He said that by the end of the meeting he wanted to curl up in the fetal position under the desk, and that he picked up a bottle of vodka on his way home.

So how do you avoid this nightmare?

Step 1: Instead of meeting with all of the committee members at once, interview them one or 2 at a time in short sessions. 

Sounds a little crazy right? And time consuming? It’s not. It’s surprisingly effective, and SAVES time.

Instead of folks getting into fiery debates because they’re bitter about unrelated office politics situations, the focus becomes the current design project.

Also, the people who have great ideas, but are too intimidated to speak up in front of their peers, are free to share their thoughts openly and honestly.

The best part? All of the responses are direct and to the point.

If you meet any resistance when you express that you want to conduct interviews in groups of one or two, just explain that you want to make sure that you don’t miss any important details.

Step 2: Focus on a concrete concept: The problems that need to be solved.

When you conduct your interviews, instead of asking for goals, ask for specific problems that need to be solved.

By approaching the interviews this way, you are given the information that you need to complete the design, rather than a grocery list of overly specific requests.

Step 3: Unveil the redesign to one or two stakeholders at a time before the group reveal, highlighting the features that align with the specific problems they wanted to solve.

A majority of the time, the problems the stakeholders are trying to solve are directly related to one another. They don’t realize it because they aren’t professional designers, so they get fired up for no reason at all.

In my friend’s example, increasing conversions and making the site more usable were going to be addressed simultaneously. Simplifying the registration process (making it easier to use) was most likely going to lead to increased conversions. Unifying the branding across the website and social media channels was likely going to contribute to an increase in brand trust, and increased conversions as a result.

By pointing out the specific ways the redesign has been crafted to solve the problems folks identified PRIOR to the group reveal, you wind up with a group of happy stakeholders who feel that their needs have been addressed and their voices have been heard.

If you give this method a shot, I’d love to hear about your experience! My friend gave it a test run after we talked, and called me with a glowing review afterward. He said the change in attitudes was incredible, and that he’d be using this approach every time he ran into a design by committee situation going forward.

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