Design Reviews in Name Only

26th September 2013

Microphone Milestones are often tied to customer design reviews, factory acceptance tests, site acceptance tests and the like. Having spent much of my career on the design side it’s been interesting representing a client and my perspective can’t help but be refined in the process.

Reviews are often considered to be onerous tasks that "have to be done" in order to meet an often arbitrary schedule milestone. They are regularly treated with contempt and those seeking changes are often muffled, given token concessions or even silenced completely. "Reviews for Reviews Sake" are thus essentially complete wastes of everyone’s time other than the designer (presumably also the meeting chair). Reviews are in place to ensure that the content is up to scratch not just to put a tick in a box, but budgetary and schedule pressures often make them ineffective.

The decisions about who attends and the format of the review are the keys to a reviews success or failure. There are two opposing perspectives surrounding these choices. Each shall be examined in turn:

Restrict the number of people attending

Cynic: Too many people means too many people to explain the design to. Too many people means too much feedback that creates unnecessary redesign.

Optimist: Clients (or other departments) often have multiple representatives and getting a clear view of what is ACTUALLY required will vary from person to person. It’s always better to have a smaller group of client representatives to act as a focal point for all feedback.

Restrict the experience of the people invited to attend

Cynic: We will invite attendees with less experience in the area under review but can still ‘represent’ some component of the area under review are less likely to have meaningful feedback of any significance.

Optimist: We will invite attendees with the right kind of experience in the area under review will have useful and helpful feedback and not just, "The grammar is incorrect…" type feedback.

Restrict the different types of feedback   i.e. We’re not here to discuss the colour scheme, the font etc.

Cynic: Reject all feedback that doesn’t fit within the established feedback guidelines as the point of review is about something specific and not about making the overall design better.

Optimist: Noting any feedback that may not fall within the feedback guidelines can make the design better but stops getting bogged-down in less-critical details during the review.

Minimal or closed reviews during early development stages

Cynic: Reduces outside influences during initial development and once the design is well-developed then inform those suggesting changes that it’s too late to change anything at this late stage.

Optimist: Early design development needs to be kept in-house early on to reduce excessive external feedback before the design is fleshed out enough for a meaningful review.

Effective Reviews

The best approach for an effective review must be considered from both perspectives: The Designer and The Reviewer.

The Designer

  • Don’t call the review until you have a design with an agreed level of completeness that is suitable for review. If you haven’t gone through it thoroughly yourself and perhaps had at least one other persons informal feedback then releasing it for a full design review is likely to be premature and a waste of everyones time.
  • Invite people to the review that have knowledge about what you’re designing. Be clear in the invitation that you’re trying to keep numbers down and that only those invited should attend. Be willing to accept alternatives if your "chosen" individuals are otherwise busy on that day, but keep the numbers on the small side.
  • Circulate the design prior to the review amongst the attendees to allow them the chance to get caught up on the design under review.
  • Organise a minute-taker that is knowledgable about the subject and preferably also involved in the design. If not, take detailed minutes yourself. Reviews need to be traceable in case future design decisions require rework and these changes must be identifiable at variations to the main contract.
  • Acknowledge and accept all feedback as valid, initially. If some feedback is way off-base, politely inform them where you see the disconnect and note their feedback and your response in the minutes.
  • Progress through the design in a methodical way. Solicit feedback on specifics one section/functional area at a time. Opening the floor up to just "any comments you like from anywhere in the design" is a recipe for a drawn-out review.
  • Respect everyone’s time that attended. They are taking time out of their work schedule to attend and provide comments to make your design better.
  • If it’s a long meeting then schedule regular breaks and stick to it. Not everyone has a bladder like a balloon and people can’t concentrate without a leg-stretch once in a while.
  • If it’s a long meeting keep a bowl of mints or lollies in the centre of the table such that people can keep their blood-sugar levels up during the meeting. Low blood-sugar affects concentration and can affect peoples moods making them more/less critical.

The Reviewer

  • It’s easy to be nit-picky when you’re not the designer (or perhaps not ‘A’ designer at all) so keep your feedback focussed and relevant.
  • Respect the designer and their design where possible. Naturally if it’s a terrible design state the specific issues you have with it and why, however keep in mind that the designer is exposing their credibility and competence for all to see and potentially hack to pieces. Be kind.
  • Take the time to review the design BEFORE the meeting and make notes to discuss during the meeting. Pre-warming your brain to the design makes a huge difference and means you’re not wasting everyone else’s time reviewing during the review when you should be listening and interacting with other people involved.
  • Pay attention during the review meeting. Distractions such as phones, laptops and side-conversations mean that critical discussions may be misunderstood or missed entirely and this wastes everyone else’s time and reduces the overall effectiveness of the review.
  • Be thorough with your review and review comments. Design isn’t easy and you were asked to provide input on the design. Your help can provide a better end result.