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Design by Committee

Politics was again a popular topic at this year’s Front Conference. Espen Brunborg took a humorous approach to the „monster“ that is company politics, created an almost proverbial pink hippo for drunk pirates and proved very skillfully that a solution designed to please everyone may please no-one in the end.

What is Design by Committee?

„Design by committee“, also known as „crap by committee“: Wikipedia states that designs which were decided in participatory processes have a tendency to turn out poorly, even horrible. It is what happens when you have to compromise between existing requirements and unqualified opinions just to please a bunch of ego-driven bigwigs. The underlying causes are a lack of leadership, a lack of technical and design expertise, unnecessary complexity and a lack of a clearly defined vision.

Design by Committee Vs. Design by Dictator

The polar opposite of design by committee is design by dictator, where a Product Owner or a Project Lead has the final say. Some also say that in product development, decisions should be based solely on a clearly defined vision and expertise, but certainly not on a consensus between various stakeholders. As soon as design becomes a group decision, you end up creating something nobody hates, but nobody really likes either.

User Feedback Vs. Group Decisions

Mind you, we’re not talking about user tests or user feedback. The smartphone may have been developed based on the vision of a core group or even a single person. But the iPhone wouldn’t be what it is today without customer feedback. No, we’re talking about company politics driving decision-making in the development phase of a product. The most dreaded sentences usually start with „I’m not a designer, but...“ and end with „...why can’t we use all the white space there?“ or „...it just doesn’t pop.“

No, none of you are designers. All you know is what you don’t want, but you can only express yourself when you see something. You need a point of attack before you can unleash all the expertise hiding inside you. But after all, we are service providers, and the customer is king. So maybe we just have to live with compromise and the less-than-satisfying results of group decisions?

Picture by Front Conference Zurich 2019 (Flickr)
Picture by Front Conference Zurich 2019 (Flickr)

Espen and the Design Committee

At the Front Conference on 29 August 2019, Espen Brunborg conducted an experiment. His goal was to put together a product concept in less than an hour based entirely on the input of the audience. He challenged the ultimate committee to find a product name, a target group and a design for an imaginary start-up.

Decision-making With Instant Surveys

He gave the audience access to a survey that systematically used carefully selected questions to guide them through the process. Whether it was the choice of color, the font, the product name or the target audience — the majority decided. This gave the audience an insight into the thought processes and problems a designer is faced with when dealing with an impossible deadline and a mob of stakeholders. He started the workshop with the quote „a camel is a horse designed by committee“, but stressed at the same time that camels are designed perfectly for the desert and asked the provocative question: Design by committee — is it a good thing, in the end?

The Product: „Pink Hippo“ for Drunk Pirates

The result was a fictional high-end product which was to be sold to drunk pirates: Pink Hippo (yes, „hippo“ easily beat „panda“ as a product name), the half-digested beer with the company slogan „Get drunk. Twice“. Nobody hated it, everyone had fun. But when asked about the design, the feedback was devastating. Surprise: Nobody liked it.

Everyone Had Their Say — but No One Liked the Result

At the end of the session, the message was clear: Too many cooks spoil the broth. If a committee is in charge, everyone will have had their say, but the audience will be dissatisfied in the end. If you would like to see the result, it’s available on Espen’s Twitter account: https://twitter.com/ebrunborg. It’s been documented by diligent participants, complete with the hashtag #drunktwice.

Picture by Front Conference Zurich 2019 (Flickr)
Picture by Front Conference Zurich 2019 (Flickr)

Own the Process — Control the Environment

And the solution? Espen says that committees can’t be avoided. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Design is a series of decisions and a lot of questions. However, the designer does not have to helplessly suffer the tasteless assaults of an unqualified audience, whose only mission appears to be to treat the creative artist like a schoolchild who needs a committee to do their job.

We can decide which questions to put to the committee. And we can determine what happens between the meetings. It is possible to gently steer stakeholders in the desired direction. The truth, says Espen, lies somewhere between looking over your shoulder, diligent preparation of all input for decision-making as well as briefing of all participants. How is that supposed to work, you ask? Ask our designers. They’ve mastered this challenge more than once.