How to win UX Design Jeopardy!

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong” —HL Mencken

At the typical design review, there will be a variety of feedback. Some of it will be obviously brilliant and right on target. Some of it will be OK and require some mulling over. Then there will be some that is just plain bizarre. You are amazed that this otherwise intelligent person is giving you this feedback, and you’re even more amazed at how adamant they are in presenting it.

Over the years, I’ve found that all feedback is ultimately good, but some is just poorly presented. Even the poorly presented feedback is good because you will eventually discover that there is a valid problem behind it. Chances are, the reason the feedback is poorly presented is that the person is identifying a solution—often a really poor solution—to an unstated problem instead of giving you the problem directly.

I like to call this situation UX Design Jeopardy! because it resembles the TV game show. Just as in Jeopardy! you have to respond in the form of a question, in UX Design Jeopardy! you are given a design problem in the form of a poor solution.

Why do we do this?

This problem happens because sometimes people find it easier to articulate ideas in terms of solutions instead of problems. This is especially true for non-designers. It might be because they don’t even know the problem or even realize the problem—rather they’re just thinking in terms of the solution that is simple, neat, and wrong. “Make the logo bigger” may be a poor solution, where “this design doesn’t reflect our brand” may be a valid problem.

People tend to fall in love with the first idea that comes into their heads. While this problem is well known during the design phase, it happens during feedback and other phases as well. And it’s way to easy to focus on how the solution solves the problem without thinking through the larger consequences.

Adding to the problem is that culturally, we tend to believe that people who offer solutions are more sophisticated than those who identify problems. Anybody can find problems, right? And finally, people who give feedback in terms of solutions might be showing off a little—they want everyone know that they too know how to design stuff.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that any debate over an obviously bad solution is a waste of time. Worse, such debates can get rather emotional. The person giving the feedback is thinking “Why doesn’t this person get it? Why can’t they just accept my feedback and move on?” But the person receiving this feedback is thinking “Why are they so focused on this idiotic idea? Why can’t they just let it go?” Once you get past this, the emotional charge may make the rest of the feedback process less productive.

The solution: don’t debate—ask the magic question instead

The solution is to recognize when you are in this situation as quickly as possible. Instead of debating the merits of a bad solution, get right to the problem by asking:

“What specific problem are you trying to solve?”

That usually that does the trick. Now you can understand the real problem, document it, and move on.

However, this question might not help if the person just can’t articulate the problem. In this case, a good approach is to ask the person provide examples:

“I’d like to understand your feedback better. Can you give me specific examples of where the product would benefit from this solution?”

Or:

“Can you give me examples of other good experiences that benefit from this solution?”

This helps because people can often express their ideas easier using examples. Hopefully, you can then use those examples to determine the real problem and get back on track.

Establish design review rules

Asking the magic question helps only after the fact. A better approach is to establish design review ground rules. I’ve found ground rules for effective design reviews to be extremely helpful and they do not go without saying. Here are some relevant ground rules I like to use.

For presenters:

Determine goals. The first step is to determine your goals. What help do you need? What would you like to get out of the meeting? Do you want high-level feedback or low-level feedback? The clearer your goals are, the more likely you will achieve them. Without clear goals, you will get random feedback.

For reviewers:

Respect the presenter’s goals If they ask for high-level feedback, don’t critique the layout, fonts, or colors. If they ask for detailed feedback, don’t critique their scenarios or value propositions. If you have feedback that you believe is helpful but outside their goals, consider tactfully sending it via email after the meeting.

Don’t redesign Your goal is to help the presenters, not do their design work for them. These are design reviews, not design sessions. This is not a design committee. Assume that the presenters are fully capable of incorporating your feedback. Please do not offer your version of the design unless the presenters ask you to. Doing so otherwise is rude.

If you do only one thing:
Remember that there is no bad feedback only poorly presented feedback, which is often presented in the form of a solution. To win UX Design Jeopardy!, get the discussion back on track quickly by recognizing the situation and asking the magic question.

Once you learn how to play UX Design Jeopardy!, you’ll quickly learn that feedback you would have dismissed in the past has some hidden insight waiting to be revealed. The result of winning this game is more effective design reviews and, ultimately, better user experiences.

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