Designing in the open: How we make design accessible

Fabricio Rosa Marques
Head of Design
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Building a truly delightful user experience is a team effort: Anyone should be able to contribute, especially when it comes to understanding the problems people face when dealing with presentations. That sounds great in theory, right? Working in the design space for 15+ years now, I can tell you quite confidently that it’s easier said than done. During the day-to-day, all too often the work that needs to get done takes priority.

When I joined Pitch in 2018, the appreciation for open design stood out to me as something I wanted to help weave into our culture. From the beginning, we made it a priority to open the product design process to the rest of the company as much as possible. That meant not just making it easy for people to give feedback, but really building processes that encouraged a deeper understanding of how and why we design in a certain way.

Pitch is a company with a lot of people who have a product mindset and an eye for good work. This leads to people across the entire team being very interested (and opinionated) about product and design. Being part of such a collaborative company is great, but it comes with its own set of challenges. In this post, I share what I've learned about dealing with some of them, like:

  • How do you deal with the noise of conflicting opinions?
  • How can you avoid endless feedback rounds and structure for progress?
  • How do you keep people happy when they feel their feedback is being ignored?

I'll also share some of the internal processes and tools we use to develop trust and transparency inside the organization.

Feedback can be noisy
How do you deal with the noise of conflicting opinions?

When you invite everyone to share their opinion, you should be prepared for a lot of noise. And that’s okay: Noise isn’t bad. In fact, more noise means more perspectives and a wider diversity of ideas. When it comes to dealing with noise, you don’t need to turn down the volume, just make sure it’s tuned to the right station.

Never just “ask for feedback”

General feedback often isn’t very helpful and leads to long, broad discussions. Unless that’s what you’re going for, make sure to be specific and mindful about the kind of feedback you want: Do you need visual design feedback? Is it more about the interactions? Are you unsure about the UX copy? The more specific you can get, the higher the chance of receiving relevant and helpful feedback.

Screen incoming feedback up front

Again, it's all about the ask. You can reduce the amount of irrelevant feedback you receive by providing the right context (and the right amount of it). Don't try to cram a lengthy explanation into a single Slack message. The more you write and the more you try to explain, the higher the likelihood that people will misunderstand or miss information. In case you do need space for more details, you can always link out or attach additional information, like a well-structured document that explains your thinking and considerations.

Pitch notion feature page

Whenever we work on a feature, we frame the problem, background, and goals as clearly as possible using a simple, flexible Notion template. Using a template is more efficient and the standard format ensures we're all on the same page. Plus, it offers the perfect amount of context if you need to share with others for deeper feedback.

How do you move past feedback and get the OK to move ahead?

Often, meetings and feedback and revisions are ongoing. The tips for screening noise work very well on a case-by-case basis. But when you're working on a larger project that involves many people in the company, you often face much more noise coming from many different angles for a much longer period of time. For these situations, it's helpful to create regular, recurring touch points that are designed to push the project forward and away from circling debates.

When you’re working on something that’s sure to have a lot of noise, structure your workflow for progress.

For example, during a recent redesign project, we introduced a weekly team meeting. The meeting's main objective was to get sign-offs from key stakeholders on different product teams. We wanted to make sure we could get the okay to move ahead, not get bogged down in suggestions. The meeting consisted of two parts:

  • Sign-off: We presented design work that had already gone through a few iterations, giving us enough confidence to ask key stakeholders for final approval
  • Work-in-progress: We shared specific features we were working on to get feedback focused on the most critical areas we needed to move forward

We also made sure to create a presentation that could be viewed and understood by those who weren't able to attend the meeting so that they would be able to share feedback as well.

This presentation put all of the earlier recommendations for how to ask for feedback into practice:

  • Context: What are we looking at, who is this for and why, explained through short text and accompanied by a click-prototype and video walkthrough
  • Asking the relevant questions: We made sure to include questions, not only to focus feedback on the relevant questions but also to provide prompts that encourage responses

How do you keep people happy if they feel their feedback is being ignored?

You'll inevitably come across times when people feel unheard or ignored for various reasons. Usually, it's a case of the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe they provided feedback that wasn’t relevant at that stage of the project, or maybe their feedback was overlooked by mistake. If people take time to give thoughtful feedback over and over again, but never see any response, they can easily become frustrated or disengaged. You can't act on every piece of feedback, but you can respond.

Understand the difference between reacting and responding

Each and every piece of feedback doesn't need to be acted upon, but it should be heard, and, if not relevant or applicable, be responded to. What's the best thing to say when you don't agree? Offer a proposed alternative that directs them toward a less prescriptive approach by pushing them to identify the "why," not the "how."

"I like that direction. Could you explain how you got to it?"

Communicate why some feedback isn't acted upon

Make sure your team understands the cost of reacting to every piece of feedback (design by committee, wasteful iterations, running in circles, etc.) Then, explain what makes feedback valuable, so they can better present their opinions in a format that is specific, actionable, and objective.

"I want to understand your point of view. Could you please provide more detail?"

Recognize your responsibility in the situation

You have a lot more control than you think in ensuring people feel their feedback is heard. The context you provide and the questions you ask will determine the quality of feedback you get in return. Beyond being specific in your questions, explain what principles you'll use to prioritize incoming feedback.

"There are a number of directions we can try that achieve those goals. Let's prioritize based on the roadmap."

Developing trust and transparency inside the organization

We believe that the design process — which is all about bringing intent to decisions — is something which the entire company practices. And we believe that the best way to do that is to keep the process as open as possible while getting people involved and educating why we would make one decision over another from a design perspective.

One example of what this looks like is our open Design Review. These meetings happen every Monday and are attended by the entire product design team, but they’re also open to anyone else who wants to provide feedback, ask questions, or just listen in. Sometimes engineers join and present ideas and prototypes to the design team, which, again, goes back to the point that design is not just a design team thing.

Photo of the design team at Pitch in their weekly design review meeting

But more than anything else, how we work is defined by the tools we work with. Here are some of the tools we use and how they help us make design more accessible to the rest of the company:

Slack: Democratic by design

We use Slack as our central communication channel. One unexpected way it helps us connect with the company on design is in the #product channel. This is a dedicated channel where anybody can post product feedback and ideas. There are some light rules in place, like stating what kind of feedback you are giving up front and staying as concise as possible, but beyond that, it’s entirely open for anyone to post.

Since everybody in the company is able to see and react to posts in this channel, it tends to get a lot of activity and we can see very quickly what topics generate the most attention from the team. For example, if we see a certain feature request gets tons of reactions and responses, it raises a flag that there's a large level of excitement or consensus over this feature's value.

Voting in Slack is another tool that's particularly effective when you need to make a decision on something that's primarily visual and needs very little additional explanation. Here's an example with a clear winner in a vote for variations of an empty state illustration.

How Pitch uses Slack to get design feedback

Polls are another interesting tool in Slack that we occasionally use. As an individual or small group it's useful when you want to make sure that you're not too biased in our thinking about a certain problem, or just need some general rough tendency indicators.

Using polls in Slack for design feedback
Loom: Show, don’t tell

If designers need feedback on concepts, they not only share links to prototypes, but also record short videos. Taking a quick screen recording helps designers better illustrate flows while giving more context and explanation to a design. At Pitch, we use Loom for this, because you can easily record your screen and share the entire video via a simple link.

Using Loom to ask for design feedback
Notion: Single source of truth

One of the things that’s really important to use is to ensure information is open and accessible. Whenever it comes to storing information in a more permanent way, our tool of choice is Notion. We use it to organize our roadmap, document and track feature progress, describe design iterations, keep meeting notes, and much more.

Conclusion

It’s not necessary to add a lot of meetings and complex processes to make design more open and accessible to the rest of the company. Making sure you're frequently sharing designs and providing regular updates to the entire team is already a solid start. Really, it's all having a mindset that's constantly thinking of ways to get the broader company involved and engaged. If you're open to receiving feedback from all directions and focused on building a shared understanding of design across the company, you’re well on your way to creating a more collaborative design process.

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