While opinions from strong voices do a lot for a design, there are times when they actually impede the process. Ideas that come too late, are too complex/simple, or are contextually wrong will slow down the process and create more problems than they fix.

Julie Zhuo, product VP at Facebook, calls this “avoiding the camel.” It refers to the oft-cited notion that “a camel is a horse designed by committee.” In other words, you can expect a lot of odd humps and occasional spitting when you get 50 opinions in a room about a particular product.

This is interesting coming from Zhuo, who heads up product development for a website rooted in collaboration, opinions, advice, and criticism. So, here’s her caveat: there’s a difference between designing a horse by committee – which leads to the wrong outcome, a camel – and using true teamwork to create the best outcome possible.

Designing in isolation can be just as harmful to product development as getting too many opinions – if you’re expecting to emerge from an ivory tower with the perfect product in hand, think again. So how can you effectively toe the line between designing by committee and taking on a project alone?

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The “Root” of Design Problems

The biggest challenges in designing by committee come in three forms:

  • A well-intentioned flurry of opinion may come from the wrong level.
  • Committees offer their opinion at the wrong time (for example, when it’s too late).
  • A stakeholder or other party may offer their opinion without background or context for why your team made certain decisions in the first place.

Why Do We Have “Design By Committee” in the First Place?

Committees are a mainstay in the corporate world. In a competitive business environment, businesses operate on the notion that the more eyes on the product, the less likely they will launch a product with a fatal law. It seems like sound logic – until we look at it in a practical application.

Designing by committee more often leads to too many mixed opinions – and a steady stream of finger pointing that encourages not collaboration toward a common goal but a lack of substance. When we elicit feedback from focus groups, consumers, and our great aunt Shirley, all we get is a lot of confusion. More often than not, designing by committee leads to a lot of features – but no core intuitive user experience.

We say when you have too many cooks in a kitchen, all you get is a mess. Yet, there are five star kitchens all over the world that produce stunning works of art that tantalize our taste buds – and they’re working in teams. How do we know what’s too many and what’s an art-worthy team?

If we had to highlight one, it would be that it’s a team of experts working collaboratively. A sous chef may offer a saucier an opinion about gravy, but they both went to culinary school and share similar expertise. You’ll notice they’re not giving taste tests to other patrons as they wheel their dishes out the door.

When Feedback Is Helpful – And How to Ask for It

Feedback can be helpful – at the right time and by the right people. Rather than “designing” by committee, here are some suggestions for getting clients, co-workers, and management involved in a manner that’s collaborative, not detrimental:

Collaborating with Management

When eliciting feedback from management, take the following steps:

  • Use data. Chances are, you’re going to butt heads with management about how certain features should work. In this case, data is your friend – use both quantitative measures, such as behavior data, and qualitative metrics like market research to drive your position. Data wins arguments and will allow members of management to make informed opinions that might translate into useful feedback.
  • Share early and often. One of the worst positions to be in is going down one path, and management telling you you’re totally off base. Here, you only have two options: throwing away all your old work (a waste of time and money) or trying to work all of management’s new requirements into your existing product (which can result in a sloppy effort). While it may be difficult to show what you know are rough iterations of your work, get into the habit of showing your work to management early in the process. It’s much easier to say, “How does this look to you? Am I headed in the right direction?” than it is to backpedal when management thinks you’re completely off the mark. This simple step helps your team stay aligned with management’s objectives.
  • Start with a broad scope. It’s much easier to explore multiple options in the beginning, showing many possible approaches and their pros and cons. Instead of presenting to management in a “yes” or “no” fashion with one idea, you could ask, “which is more intuitive to the user, A or B?”

Talking to Coworkers

If there’s one committee you can’t avoid, it’s your fellow workers. The key to effective collaboration with your coworkers is eliciting multiple perspectives from the onset. For example, while you may be thinking about intuitive design components, engineers may have trouble implementing them in a way that makes sense to a user.

If we think back to our restaurant example, we know an artful dish comes from collaboration between experts of different components – a chef designs a meal, a sous chef helps carry out the order, a saucier makes hors d’oeuvres and sauces, the line cooks prep the individual components, and so on. Together, this activity translates to a meal on your table – and you can bet they’re talking it out throughout the process.

Your digital product is no different. You can learn a lot simply by talking to different departments and seeing how well your vision will translate into reality. From there, you can make necessary tweaks that will develop into an intuitive, quality product.

Working with Clients

Clients are a necessary, but sometimes frustrating, part of the design process. Here are some pointers to keep in mind:

  • Take “the customer is always right” with a hefty grain of salt. In other words, give the customer what they want, but not necessarily everything they ask for. Don’t fall into the trap of letting the client design a product for you – remember, they hired you for your expertise and willingness to do what they cannot. One diplomatic way to accomplish this is by bringing a conversation back to the problem you’re trying to solve for them. Keep the emphasis on aligning the product with its goals and outcomes, not creating new solutions at each meeting.
  • Don’t go on the defensive. At the same time, you don’t want to shut down a conversation by repeating what you said, over and over again. If a client proposes something that runs counter to your idea, say, “it sounds like something isn’t working here for you. Where do you think we can improve?” This guides the conversation back to the current designs and away from thinking up new solutions on the spot.
  • Guide the conversation. It’s much easier to start a conversation with “today we’re looking for feedback regarding the site’s navigation,” then trying to keep a conversation on track later on. Try to minimize distractions and you’ll avoid confrontations down the road.

Balance Committee Thinking With Smart Help

Having several minds working on a project isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When executed correctly, a collaborative effort can lead to a good outcome. Knowing how to talk to key stakeholders in your project can make all the difference.

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