The Great Unveiling

The moment of unveiling our designs should be among our proudest, but it never seems to work out that way. Instead of a chance to show how we can bring our clients’ visions to life, critique can be a tense, worrying ordeal. And yes, the stakes are high: a superb design is only superb if it goes live. Mismanage the feedback process and your research, creativity and hard work can be wasted, and your client may wonder whether you’ve been worth the investment.

The great unveiling is a pivotal part of the design process, but it needn’t be a negative one. Just as usability testing teaches us whether our designs meet user needs, presenting our work to clients tells us whether we’ve met important business goals. So how can we turn the tide to make presenting designs a constructive experience, and to give good designs a chance to shine through?

Timing is everything

First, consider when you should seek others’ opinions. Your personal style will influence whether you show early sketches or wait to demonstrate something more complete. Some designers thrive at low fidelity, sketching out ideas that, despite their rudimentary nature, easily spark debate. Other designers take time to create more fully-realised versions. Some even argue that the great unveiling should be eliminated altogether by working directly alongside the client throughout, collaborating on the design to reach its full potential.

Whatever your individual preference, you’ll rarely have the chance to do it entirely your own way. Contracts, clients, and deadlines will affect how early and often you share your work. However, try to avoid the trap of presenting too late and at too high fidelity. My experience has taught me that skilled designers tend to present their work earlier and allow longer for iteration than novices do. More aware of the potential flaws in their solutions, these designers cling less tightly to their initial efforts. Working roughly and seeking early feedback gives you the flexibility to respond more fully to nuances you may have missed until now.

Planning design reviews

Present design ideas face-to-face, or at least via video conference. Asynchronous methods like e-mail and Basecamp are slow, easily ignored, and deny you the opportunity to guide your colleagues through your work. In person, you profit from both the well-known benefits of non-verbal communication, and the chance to immediately respond to questions and elaborate on rationale.

Be sure to watch the numbers at your design review sessions, however. Any more than a handful of attendees and the meeting could quickly spiral into fruitless debate. Ask your project sponsor to appoint a representative to speak on behalf of each business function, rather than inviting too many cooks.

Where possible, show your work in its native format. Photocopy hand-drawn sketches to reinforce their disposability (the defining quality of a sketch) and encourage others to scribble their own thoughts on top. Show digital deliverables – wireframes, design concepts, rich interactions – on screen. The experience of a design is very different on screen than on paper. A monitor has appropriate dimensions and viewport size, presenting an accurate picture of the design’s visual hierarchy, and putting interactive elements in the right context. On paper, a link is merely underlined text. On screen, it is another step along the user’s journey.

Don’t waste time presenting multiple concepts. Not only is it costly to work up multiple concepts to the level required for fair appraisal, but the practice demonstrates a sorry abdication of responsibility. Designers should be custodians of design. Asking for feedback on multiple designs turns the critique process into a beauty pageant, relinquishing a designer’s authority. Instead of rational choices that meet genuine user and business needs, you may be stuck with a Frankensteinian monstrosity, assembled from incompatible parts: “This header plus the whizzy bit from Version C”.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t explore lots of ideas yourself. Divergent thinking early in the design process is the only way to break free of the clichéd patterns and fads that so often litter mediocre sites. But you must act as a design curator, choosing the best of your work and explaining its rationale clearly and succinctly. Attitude, then, is central to successful critique. It can be difficult to tread the fine line between the harmful extremes of doormat passivity and prima donna arrogance. Remember that you are the professional, but be mindful that even experts make mistakes, particularly when – as with all design projects – they don’t possess all the relevant information in advance. Present your case with open-minded confidence, while accepting that positive critique will make your design (and ultimately your skills) stronger.

The courage of your convictions

Ultimately, your success in the feedback process, and indeed in the entire design process, hinges upon the rationale you provide for your work. Ideally, you should be able to refer to your research – personas, usability test findings, analytics – to support your decisions. To keep this evidence in mind, print it out to share at the design review, or include it in your presentation. Explain the rationale behind the most important decisions before showing the design, so that you can be sure of the full attention of your audience.

Once you’ve covered these points, display your design and walk through the specific features of the page. A little honesty goes a long way here: state your case as strongly as your rationale demands. Sure of your reasoning? Be strong. Speculating an approach based on a hunch? Say so, and encourage your colleagues to explore the idea with you and see where it leads.

Of course, none of these approaches should be sacrosanct. A proficient designer must be able to bend his or her way of working to suit the situation at hand. So sometimes you’ll want to ignore these rules of thumb and explore your own hunches as required. More power to you. As long as you think as clearly about the feedback process as you have about the design itself, you’ll be able to enjoy the great unveiling as a moment to be savoured, not feared.

About the author

Cennydd Bowles is a user experience designer and writer. He works for Clearleft, speaks at design events across the world, and wrote a book called Undercover User Experience Design. He blogs at www.cennydd.co.uk and tweets @cennydd.

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