How to Run a Successful Design Review

As UX designers in the software enterprise, we review our design work a lot. Design reviews and feedback at every stage of the design process is both helpful and crucial for a successful product. One of the most important times to review your design, however, is right before a product release. This is the stage of the design when it’s complete and has been coded into a live product prototype. The timing of the design review is important but also developing a formal and standardized process at this final review is another key component so that this review process can be used over and over again for every product design. Design teams often overlook a final design review when they’re busy working hard to meet the release deadline. Businesses as a whole often think that they don’t have the time or money for this last step, but a final design review before a product release can make a huge difference for your product and more importantly your end users.

Why do formal design reviews make a difference?

In the software enterprise, even the best design work is impacted by things like resource limitations, technology constraints, and time-to-market pressures. As the design gets passed on from the design team to product management and development teams, each team makes changes based on various constraints they have in time or business, in a telephone game fashion. Just like in a telephone game, the resulting product is often not what the design team envisioned.

The most significant aspect that can be altered in the design work reviews is the focus on user needs. In one of our recent design reviews, a design executive reviewing a product design noted how the color choices of the design were not optimized for accessibility. This feedback was able to bring the designers’ focus back to user needs, even from a small detail like this. Making our products accessible to all users is an important part of the design practice on our team, and is a part of what design reviews address.

Having a final, formal design review can help ensure that the design being released is catered towards user needs, just as the designer team originally intended to do. In the long term, this benefits your product, users, and the overall success of your team.

Benefits for designers

An IBM design team sits around a conference table looking at their class=

A team at IBM conducts a design review.

Formal design reviews not only impact the products and business of the organization but also are beneficial to the design teams themselves. Involving designers from different product teams in the review of all the products that an organization releases can help build a common design vision, strategy, and philosophy across the business’s design practice.

For example, since initiating the formal design review process on our team, one of our design leaders has started an initiative to create design consistency among products that are closely related to each other. These formal design reviews gave designers a chance to view the products that other teams are working on and see an opportunity to create a more cohesive body of design work among our products.

Having teams review each other’s work is also a great way to foster team spirit, share knowledge, and let teams look to each other as resources. This is especially important in a large organization, where design teams are often secluded to their own groups and projects. As teams assess the various design challenges their team members face and resolve, they can carry that experience on to their own work.

How to conduct a successful formal design review

So if formal design reviews are so important before releasing a product, how do you conduct a good one? I’m here to share a few guidelines based on how we do things on our team.

A formal design review meeting can have various formats. It can be remote or co-located, but in any case, it is essential to involve key decision makers from the design, management and development teams so that everyone is in the know about the findings and next steps. It’s also important to include designers that did not do the original design work themselves in order to get a fresh, unbiased perspective. Finally, having an executive give final approval to release the design work is also an important step in order to maintain a design standard.

Here are a couple of tips you can follow in your own design practice to start including formal design reviews:

Figure out the problems before the solutions

First, good reviews are focused on identifying the user experience concerns rather than discussing solutions. Solutions are considered the next step and require a much more intensive discussion than this type of design review allows. Formal design reviews are for identifying and tracking any concerns that may impact the quality of the user experience, whether they’re caused by shortcomings in the design itself or limitations of the development or business process. In an ideal review, a team of at least three designers provides feedback on the reviewed designs.

Take notes

During the review, it’s good to designate one designer to take notes on all the feedback being said, so that the other reviewers can remain focused on commenting on the work. Having a designer as the note taker is preferable since they are better at interpreting the feedback given by other designers, as opposed to someone from the developer or management team.

Designate a leader

Another good practice is to designate a designer as a review lead. The review lead will start the review meeting by ensuring all stakeholders are represented and setting everybody’s expectation on what a formal design review involves. They are also there to guide the conversation and keep it focused on user experience issues, as opposed to digressing into design solutions. They also keep the pace of the review so that everyone has time to speak their thoughts and also the note taker can document everything.

Include experienced designers

With the note taker and review lead assigned, the third reviewer remains focused squarely on providing design feedback. A designer with a thorough knowledge of the design libraries, guidelines, and the history of common issues identified in formal design reviews and how they were addressed would be best suited to take on this role. Again, it is important to include designers that did not work on the product themselves, so that their fresh perspective can be taken into account.

Use a checklist

a series of interactive elements including checkbox, slider, accordian, breadcrumb, and class=

It’s helpful to have style guides and pattern available for reference during the design review.

In addition to using design guidelines, have style guides and patterns as references when evaluating the quality of implemented designs. Checklists of common pitfalls and oversights in design also can be useful in ensuring a thorough design review. Good checklists would include common concerns in all aspects of a design, such as information architecture, navigation, interaction design, visual design, accessibility, and help and documentation. Checklists can be provided to product teams ahead of formal design reviews so they can check their work before the review, and also to the reviewers during the review so that they can check off the basic necessities of the design.

Record the results

At the end of formal design reviews, identified issues should be logged into a release management system, labeled as design issues, and marked with the appropriate level of urgency. Product teams can then later move into discussing potential solutions and when the issues are addressed appropriately the product can be ready for release.

Executive approval

Having an executive of the design team approve the final design is a key final step. This final approval helps maintain a standard of design across all of your formal design reviews and helps the design team maintain a voice in the production of the product.

Thank you to Rami Alayan for sharing his insights on our team’s design review process for this article.

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