Design reviews are so important for our work as user experience designers, but they too often fail us. Here is a model for design reviews that overcomes the problems of ego, emotion, and communication that so often get in the way of helpful feedback.
Alaina Kraus, Caitlin Potts, and I presented this process for the Jan 27, 2011 IxDA Lansing meeting.
Roles in the design review process
- Facilitator (may also be a reviewer)
- Reviewers (you’ll need at least 2, but 6 may be too many)
Step 1: Designer explains the project and design concerns
At this step the designer shows the design (on paper, on screen, a prototype, etc.) and explains to the reviewers the context of this design. The designer should also point out specific areas that she wants feedback on.
Step 2: Reviewers discuss the design
This is the part that’s going to go against your habits.
The designer steps back and withdraws from the discussion. She should use body language to exclude herself to make it harder for the reviewers to address her. She should instead focus on her listening and note-taking.
Meanwhile, the reviewers are discussing the design amongst themselves. Instead of referring to the designer, they should refer to the design. Instead of talking to the designer, they should talk to each other.
Of course, the reviewers should point out good aspects of the design as well as discuss areas that they’d like to see improved.
By intentionally excluding the designer from this conversation, the dialogue can cover more ground and the feedback can be more honest. Otherwise, the dialogue has a good chance of focusing on a single point or so as the designer begins to explain or defend her decisions. That will derail good feedback, and everyone loses out on good information. People’s feelings are also at risk.
Step 3: The designer rejoins the conversation.
Finally, once the facilitator has determined the design has been discussed enough, he will invite the designer back into the discussion.
The designer can now summarize the notes she has taken in order to give the reviewers the opportunity to catch any misinterpretations. She can also ask follow up questions to clarify feedback she may not have fully understood.
The designer will probably want to defend the work or explain it, but really doesn’t have to. The goal is feedback for her, and at this point, she has it.
Why this method works
This method works because it makes it okay for the designer to simply listen in without feeling a need to defend her work. Likewise, it frees up the reviewers to not have to worry about hurting the designer’s feelings or fear the reaction of feedback taken poorly. While the method may feel a little awkward at first, after a few times it becomes easier.
What kinds of feedback make sense?
The reviewers should provide feedback that matches the fidelity of the design. This is to say, if it’s a rough sketch or task flow diagram, talking about pixel-perfect alignment of the layout is inappropriate. This should be obvious to most of us.
Also, instead of simply presenting your opinion about a design, discuss it in terms of usability heuristics (Nielsen’s list of 10, Tognazzini’s 1st principles document), accessibility concerns, visual design principles (e.g., proximity, alignment, repetition, contrast), and your observations from usability tests.
Where did this method come from?
In the mid-90s I worked at the Michigan State University Writing Center, and we used a similar process that we called the “fishbowl” to teach people to do peer-review writing workshops. In many ways, writing and designing are similar. When I started doing more design work, I recalled this process and adapted it to design reviews. It seems to work great. I credit learning this method from Dr. Sharon Thomas and Dr. Laura Julier of Michigan State University.
Update Feb 26, 2011: Wordcast live on Design Critique
Tim Keirnan over at the Design Critique podcast posted an interview we did on this process. Check it out! And thanks, Tim, for inviting me.
Update July 14, 2011: Michigan UPA workshop
This evening Alaina, Caitlin and I ran this workshop for a Michigan UPA event in Lansing. We had fun and it sounded like the attendees enjoyed themselves while learning this model. Thanks again Second Gear Coworking for letting us use your excellent venue!