in Minneapolis

How to run a design discussion

Here in Minneapolis I recently started a new meetup called UX Design Discussion. The point of the meetup is for folks in the area to share each other’s work and through the act of sharing learn more about their own designs. We just had our inaugural meetup at SmartThings HQ a few weeks ago, and we started by walking through some guidelines on how to run a design discussion. In this post, I’ll recap the key takeaways from the intro of the discussion.

What is a design discussion?

At Microsoft, I worked on the user experience team for the Windows 7, Windows 8, and Windows 8.1 projects. In my experience, the design discussion is one of the most essential and valuable tools available to a team building UX. A design discussion is a meeting where the different people working different aspects of a project get together and share their work. The goal of a design discussion is to talk through a product design and varying stages of implementation to help improve the design.

Why have design discussions?

If you’re doing design or UX already, you may be wondering why you should do design discussions instead of just working in an ad hoc manner, or meeting when you run into a specific roadblock. I think the value of the design discussion is three fold:

1) Discussing is thinking

Just by putting your design out there and talking about it out loud with other people, you are essentially thinking deeper about your design. Simply from the variety of questions that you’ll get in any discussion, you’ll spark new neural pathways and consider new ideas that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

2) Learn from each other

Everyone benefits from the design discussion. As the leader you get feedback on your design and learn how someone else might approach the same design challenge, and as a participant you get to study a design challenge that you may not have had before.

3) Design across disciplines

A huge advantage of a design discussion is you can have people of different marketing, engineering and design roles participate and discuss the design. If you’re not used to cross-discipline meetings this maybe frustrating at first, but I’ve found in my experience that it always makes the design better. The challenge is to set the right parameters for the discussion. Do you want to ignore feasibility for this discussion? That’s fine. The key value is that you have a more diverse set of perspectives looking at your design, and you’re bringing everyone along with you as you are building your point of view. This way there won’t be a shock or political battle later on when you need to bring in other disciplines.

What are the participant roles?

Discussion leader(s)
Discussion leaders are the hosts for the discussion and they come with the topic or UX to discuss. They setup the parameters and goals for the discussion. They are both responsible for leading the discussion and keeping it focused on the goals of the discussion.

The collaborators are the other meeting participants who engage in the discussion. They may be other designers, or it could be a multi-discipline group. The job of the collaborators, is to ask probing questions of to the discussion leaders and the group to help illuminate more discussion related topic.

What are some best practices?

1) Frame your discussion

As the leader, what is your goal for the design discussion? What do you want to get out of it? Do you want to get feedback on a specific detailed nuance of the design or do you want to discuss the high level principles of your strategy? If you put smart people in a room together they’ll talk about anything, but you want to make sure you make the most of the time you have available. Adding this focus allows for the discussion to go deeper on the topic you’ve outlined rather than spreading around a number of disjoint topics.

Here’s an example of how to frame a discussion:
Today we’re going to talk about how we can make the touch interaction for navigating between the text typing suggestions feel fast and fluid. We won’t be talking about the suggestions UI surface or the language model technology that calculates which words are shown.

2) Find the right altitude

Related to framing the discussion, you need to know what stage of the design you’re ready to discuss. If you bring up a design discussion on detailed visual design or animation polish but you haven’t thought through or discussed the goals of the project, the discussion will be less productive.

30,000ft What is it great at? What is it for?
10,000ft What does it do? What doesn’t it do?
1,000ft What does it look and feel like? How does it work?

3) Use the right format for your discussion

If you are the leader of the discussion, you can choose whatever tool or combination of tools best reflects the design. There is no need to lock yourself into one format. You can expect that depending on the altitude of the discussion, you’ll use a different tool to convey the point.

Brainstorming tools
If you’re brainstorming, you may simply have a blank whiteboard, or sticky notes that you use to organize the free form discussion. If the stage of the design is super early, it could actually work against you to have higher fidelity artifacts like PowerPoint decks or prototypes.

Framing decks
The next phase in design may be about figuring you want you want your design to be great at, and what its goal is. This is absolutely appropriate for design discussion too. At Microsoft, for framing design discussions, the leader would usually bring a PowerPoint deck that outlines the vision, point of view and goals for the design.

Early concept sketches
Another common tool for design discussions are early sketches that convey the spirit of the design. These are intentionally low fidelity sketches that help give people an idea of the direction you’d like to go in without actually making any commitments around the detailed designs.

Low fidelity prototypes
Having a low fidelity prototype with some level of interactivity is also a useful tool to help study how users will experience your design, and useful for design discussions. Low fidelity prototypes can be everything from assembled paper, to PowerPoint animations, to HTML or working Flash prototypes.

High fidelity comps
Detailed production comps, usually designed and rasterized static Photoshop images or AfterEffects animations are useful tools for design discussions, when talking through the brand message that you want to send, and how the design may harmoniously work with other designs in your product suite. High fidelity comps are fairly dangerous though, if you bring high fidelity comps when you’re goal is to talk about broader design topics, or framing, you’re likely to have the discussion distracted by the details of the comp itself.

Product demos
While you’re building the each of the aspects of your product, design discussions are an amazing tool to validate some of your UX goals against what is actually built. This is also a great opportunity catch any details that may have been missed in the implementation.

4) Encourage discussion and feedback

As a leader or collaborator, it’s your responsibility in a design discussion to help facilitate an open and productive discussion. Look for ways to use probing questions to get to the heart of a design or a piece of feedback. Even though design is very personal, and as a leader you may be very passionate about your design point of view, look at feedback as a gift worth considering and know that it isn’t a personal insult or attack. As a collaborator, think about how you can pose the questions in a way that helps the leader have something actionable to think about.

Role Bad Good
Collaborator I don’t like purple as the background. It looks gross. Why did you choose purple as the background? It’s not obvious how that maps to your branding goals.
Collaborator Why are you building this thing? XY product is way better! I’d like to better understand your product is differentiated from other products in the market, XY product, for example.
Leader This is the way I designed it, and I’m not going to change it. Although I feel confident we’re going in the right direction with this design, I haven’t seen that perspective yet. I’m going to study that further.
Leader You just don’t get what we’re doing here. Can you explain in a bit more detail what your question is in relation to ?

Go join a design discussion!

Design discussions are a great way to get your designs out there and get some meaningful feedback from your peers. If you keep an open mind and a collaborative style, as a leader or a collaborator you are sure to learn something valuable from each presentation. Go and start or join a design discussion today, your designs will thank you for it.

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