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How to Change Design Reviews from Tedious to Awesome

We’ve all been ‘there.’ Watching the ‘mechanical’ design team lead go through 378 PowerPoint slides of suffocating technical content, pixelated iPhone pictures of bearing housings, and lists of ‘open’ items in fonts that are too small. There are ‘senior’ engineers wheeled in to ‘review’ but instead nod knowingly and ask sporadic questions about something they once designed ‘back in the day.’ And the chairperson nervously/condescendingly asks our ‘mechanical’ design team lead if they are ‘on track.’ Over and over.

Then comes the ‘electrical’ design team lead. And so on.

It doesn’t have to be this way. But it will always happen if we lose sight of what design reviews are supposed to be. When we do design reviews because the contract says so, or another procedural deity decrees it, then (by definition) our primary motivation is not to improve the design. It is to show we are ‘on track,’ to update our ‘issues of concern’ or something else that feels like progress but is instead admiring problems. 

So how we do make design reviews awesome? Here are some tips.

Awesome design reviews create awesome designs. Not ensure we ‘meet requirements.’

What? Isn’t the main purpose of design reviews to ensure requirements are met? A lot of textbooks and standards say 'yes.' They aren’t wrong - technically. But the problem with this mindset is that we don’t meet requirements until we finalize our design. Focusing on ‘meeting requirements’ automatically creates a binary ‘yes/no’ mindset. Which means we instead continually ask each other if we are 'on track.’ This kills morale, excitement, and a free and open discussion about improving design.

If we instead focus on incrementally more awesome designs, then we will (as a useful side effect) meet and exceed requirements. Designing is all about skill and creativity. If we get input from a bunch of useful experts, we feel good about improving design instead of being forever concerned about being 'on track.'

Brainstorm ideas before you start designing

Designers often live and die through their designs. Designs are the ultimate manifestation of who they are professionally. And this comes with emotions.

Let’s try and stop that from happening. We can come up with a bunch of ideas and design considerations before we start designing (so we don’t have to challenge anyone’s egos). This can be as simple as reviewing customer feedback from our previous models. Or field data. Or anything else that tells us how we have gone in the past.

A really useful activity is a Failure Mode and Effect Analysis (FMEA) which sounds boring but (when run well) is an amazingly organized and useful brainstorming session that results in a prioritized list of corrective actions that eliminate problems and meet customer expectations before we start designing.

This means that design reviews stop being converging assessments of us being 'on track' and move toward a genuine examination of how we can make our design awesome.

Be vulnerable. Not defensive.

This comes back to emotions. Once a design starts coming together, the designers are (understandably) proud of their ‘baby.’ 

We can’t come up with every great idea before we start designing. We will inevitably come across several design challenges as we go. There is nothing wrong with accepting help from others. In fact, this is the best way to come up with an amazing design.

Get the right people. 

Not just people who are in the hallway at the time. Design reviewers need to know what they are talking about. Not just fill seats. And we aren’t talking about the most ‘senior’ people either. Young engineers bring a unique perspective and are more likely to find things we are used to ‘not looking at.’ 

And make sure they are independent. Not the buddies of the designers.

Be prepared. Everyone.

I am looking at you design reviewers! Design reviewers aren’t celebrity contestants on a talk show who are parachuted to add an element of ‘pizzazz.’ They need to be invested. They need to have reviewed the design before getting there. They need to have questions or issues already documented. 

What they can’t do is learn about the design as part of the design review. This wastes everyone’s time, and the talent of the design reviewer (if they have any) because they spend all the time working out how the design works.

And to demonstrate involvement they will come up with half-baked suggestions that aren’t thought through ... if they aren't prepared.

Take ideas all the way through to specifics.

Have you considered <great idea goes here>.

Tremendous words for a design review! But what does that mean? These can often be a metronomic comment from a design reviewer that is trying to demonstrate that they haven't fallen asleep. Or ... they can be ‘nuggets of gold.’ To separate the two, ask the design reviewer to be specific. What do they mean by ‘considered?’ What should the design team go away and do for something to be ‘considered?’ If it is a helpful suggestion, the design reviewer should be able to tell you.

If not … they will waffle and backtrack and mince words. Noted.

Record everything. Well.

And making sure that everything is specific really helps. Because a design review is useless without any actual outcomes. And even if we go into a design review with best intents, it is often difficult to remember every bright idea someone offered.

Lead and demand that everyone behave.

This is the biggest one. Whoever runs the design review owns the outcomes. 

Do we want our designers to discuss what they are doing to make an amazing design? Well, make sure that any pre-design brainstorms are part of the agenda. Tell designers what you want to hear. If you don’t tell them anything, they are almost obliged to be prepared to tell you everything (over 387 PowerPoint slides.)

Do we want to improve design? Then reassure designers that they are not being judged on what they bring to the design review. They will instead be judged by the final design. Even if this includes lots of great ideas from others from each design review. Ensure they feel ownership. Find the right people. Give them information.

Don’t be afraid of stopping the review. If a design team lead starts down the path of going through those 378 PowerPoint slides, stop them. Ask them to instead talk about design challenges and not simply present a photo journal of effort. If they aren’t ready for this – tell them we will do it next week once they are ready. If the design reviewers aren’t prepared and haven’t gone through the material, then don’t waste everyone else’s time. Reschedule. This also sends a clear message that mediocrity and disinterest will not be tolerated.

What are your thoughts? Any other ideas on how to make design reviews awesome?


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