How To Design by Committee (And Live To Talk About It)

If you’ve never seen the words “how to” followed by “design by committee” without words like “throw yourself out a window because you were involved in this horror show known as” in between, you may be shocked to read on. You may be one of those people who’s been trapped on a committee and all its egomaniacs, petty arguments and grudging concessions and know what a mess committees can make of things like web projects. Wikipedia puts it this way:

“The defining characteristics of ‘design by committee’ are needless complexity, internal inconsistency, logical flaws, banality, and the lack of a unifying vision.”

That pretty much sums it up.

But as much as people hate to have web projects designed or decided by committee, it still happens. All the time. Like at almost every company we work with. So, as much as it pains me to write this article, I’ll do it anyway knowing that if a committee is going to be involved in a web project, it should at least be run the best way possible.

Don’t design by committee

I know what I just said, but if you can find a way of disbanding the committee, do it. Have one capable, knowledgeable person in charge, and other parties involved weigh in at appropriate times. Note I said “weigh in” and “appropriate.” Not make the final call, unless those parties are uniquely qualified to do so.

I once worked on a website project for teens. The COO – in other words, the 50-something-year-old who was in charge of writing contracts and making sure the organization was following its overall strategic objective – decided that keys were a better teen image than whatever shape the designer came up with. I suppose the reasoning was something like most people get a driver’s license when they’re teens. That means they can drive cars. You start cars with keys. So the final design had keys all over it, which looked weird and spoke to no one.

Opinions are valuable, but they’re just opinions. Let the experts make the final call.

If there’s no escape, organize responsibilities

If a committee is unavoidable, assign separate responsibilities rather than giving everyone a share in every single responsibility. The trouble is taste is inherently subjective. Some will agree, but many will have different opinions. Giving everyone a chance to weigh in on everything goes exactly nowhere. Or worse, it leads to compromise. (“I hate the blue.” “Well, I hate the red.” “Then let’s just choose green. At least nobody hates it.”)

Yet, if you give each person on the team his or her own role and responsibility, they can feel as protective about the thing they’re in charge of as they like. Plus, it helps eliminate indecision and might actually move a project along faster.

Foster collaboration rather than compromise

Sometimes nixing the “I don’t like” and the “that’s ugly” kind of comments can make a difference. When reviewing a design or idea, ask instead, “What works and what doesn’t? Why?” Instead of making or responding to visceral comments, ask, “What can we tell the designer that will address our concerns?” Reasoning and thinking together can help you arrive at rational decisions that leave everyone feeling included.

Speak for your audience, not yourself

The bane of committees is the egomaniac who feels their preference must be reflected in the design. If you’re the rational person on the team, you may understandably feel irritated. Remember, preferences are natural. The person you are and the position you have will influence your taste. You can’t help it if your gut is telling you that you like something or that you don’t. It’s what guts do.

Understand this reaction, and make every effort to direct the conversation to the people who really matter: your audience members. Ideally, this will take the form of user testing. Even informal user testing, where you send the idea to a handful of your audience members and ask for their feedback.

If you can’t do a simple audience survey for some reason, at least put yourself in their shoes. If you were your main demographic, would you respond to these colors? If you were of a certain age and background, would you respond to that style of writing? Do the people who use your site use products whose designs are similar to what you’re considering?

Despite your best intentions, you may very well be pulled into a committee or form one. As long as you make sure you’re asking the right questions, and everyone can come to a sensible decision.

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