5 Tips to Improve Your Design Sign-Off Process

Craig Buckler

Everyone knows good design when they see it.

Unfortunately, everyone has a different opinion about what “good design” actually is. This is a problem if you’re creating products, software, graphics or other media for a client. Your design may need to be agreed by multiple people all with their own notions and prejudices about how the product should look, feel and work. If you’re banging your head against the wall in frustration, here are five tips which could help…

1. Outline Your Process

Walk your client through your design process. In the web sphere, this could be:

  1. collate the requirements and objectives
  2. devise concepts, walkthroughs, story boards and wireframes
  3. produce a final mock-up or prototype for approval

A little tweaking at all stages should be expected, but avoid falling into iterative traps; i.e. the client demands 27 different concepts, scavenges their favorite parts of each and creates a Frankenstein design which has little hope of satisfying the original requirements.

2. Avoid Design-by-Committee

Ideally, your final design should be signed off by one person — two at most.

Unfortunately, many organizations have a culture where employees are afraid to make mistakes; it’s safer to sit on the fence than take responsibility for a decision. You may encounter situations where a decision is reached by compromise: half liked the blue design, half liked the red, so they settled on purple (which no one liked).

The problem is exacerbated by design meetings. Meetings can be dominated by one or two people who force their opinion on others or use the forum as a battleground for political posturing. The design suffers and the opinions of quieter members are never heard.

3. Approach Decision Makers Individually

If the final sign-off absolutely must be agreed by multiple people, approach them individually. You can explain why the design satisfies the original objectives on a one-to-one basis and collect feedback. It gives everyone a voice, prevents internal politics and documents the responses. It’s also makes it harder to raise objections at a later stage.

Obviously, this can take more time than a single meeting but it’s less likely lead to design compromises. Rather than performing your presentation multiple times, you could consider creating a video or slideshow. That should reduce the effort required and it’s impossible for viewers to interrupt!

4. Ask Direct Questions

“What do you think of the design?” is the worst question you can ask (especially by email). It turns an objective critique into a subjective discussion. People will resort to their gut instinct or first impression; you’ll rarely get anything more informative than “I liked it” or — worse — “I didn’t like it”.

Ask direct questions such as:

  1. Does the design satisfy requirement X?
  2. Does the design meet the defined business objectives?
  3. Does the design implement all features outlined in the wireframes?

This makes it easier to identify and document specific issues. Avoid obliging decision makers with open-ended discussions: if they can’t pinpoint a problem accurately and concisely, that problem doesn’t exist.

5. Use the Wisdom of Crowds

If the client steadfastly refuses to appoint a single decision maker, you could consider taking the process to the other extreme. Ask everyone’s opinion: all company employees, their customers, website visitors, passers by, social media users, etc.

A decision can be made by poll statistics; it’s difficult for an individual to complain if 94% of respondents stated the design satisfied all objectives.

Please share your sign-off scare stories. Was approval expected from 93 people? Did a client dither for months? Did a lovely original concept turn into a monster? Was a design rejected because Amy in Accounts didn’t like a shade of green which reminded her of broccoli?

Comments welcome…