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Why the design sign–off process is so badly broken and how to fix it

By Gareth Dunlop
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Why the design sign–off process is so badly broken and how to fix it

In many enterprises the sign–off process for digital product design is very badly broken.

It is broken because the people who sign off work are frequently senior and thus far removed from their customers and it is broken because it is signed off based on the wrong criteria.

This is not the fault of the senior people themselves, who commonly hold high office as the result of competence, hard work and loyalty over many years.  It is simply a reflection of the fact that as people progress in their careers to a more senior level, they become distanced from the front line and so the level of direct customer engagement reduces.  And it is this intimate customer knowledge, so essential to getting digital product experience right, which is therefore missing.

Perhaps more importantly, too often interface and design work is signed off as a result of answering the wrong question.  Allow me to illustrate using the foibles of the political interview, where the question asked and answer given frequently diverge, as a result of differing priorities, political posturing and ego.

Should such a book ever be written, Chapter 1 of “Political Interviews for Dummies” will contain evasion advice for politicians who find themselves in a tight spot or getting close to giving an uncomfortable answer when under pressure from a Paxmanesque interviewer.  Over the years a number of survival techniques have evolved to help get the hapless politician out of jail.

The first option, which we as viewers or readers are all too painfully aware of, is to answer a different question.  It was this approach which so irked Paxman in his infamous 1997 grilling of Michael Howard about a meeting Howard had had with prisons chief Derek Lewis about the possible dismissal of the head of Parkhurst Prison.  “Did you threaten to overrule him” Paxo asked mercilessly twelve times as Howard answered any number of questions other than the one in question.

Option two focuses on drawing out a specific and broadly irrelevant emphasis from the question that the interviewer never inferred, and take it from there.

Did I threaten to overrule him?”
“Did I threaten to overrule him?”
“Did I threaten to overrule him?”
“Did I threaten to overrule him?”
“Did I threaten to overrule him?”

Occasionally there are circumstances where neither option 1 nor option 2 will cut the muster and it is in those situations where the big guns of option 3 are required – challenge the question itself.

George Galloway is a frequent proponent of this tactic, as his constant attack on his media interviewers reflects not just an interview survival tactic but also a political philosophy.

So in summary, because of options 1, 2 and 3 and many more, the answer given is frequently unrepresentative of the importance of the question asked.

This mismatch between question and answer happens in businesses of all sizes all the time.  The sign–off proposition – sign off this work if you believe it represents the best solution for the organisation – is translated subconsciously or otherwise, as “are you happy with how the interface looks”?

The question that must be asked – directly and unambiguously – is “are you satisfied with how the interface performs?

This is a much more powerful and apposite question as it reinforces the truth that the power of the design primarily lies not in its beauty but in its usefulness. It puts the customer back in control where they belong (because it is they who will make the interface perform) and it commits the person signing off the design to understand the metrics by which the design can be deemed successful or otherwise.

For all design, it is the customer who must sign it off.  The signer–offer is merely a conduit, a proxy for the customer. As a result, within the Enterprise, senior people responsible for signing off design must stop asking, “do I like it?” and start asking “do I have the evidence I need to assure me that it performs for our customers?”

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