Why we did away with formal design reviews

Here at TrendKite we’ve scrapped our formal approval process. We’ve recently replaced it with a step called “Validation” in which we gather feedback from one or more of the following groups: customers, subject matter experts, customer support and the broader design community. We’ve completely removed executives from the design review process. We did this because we value usefulness just as much as beauty. Our product development process is customer-driven, so why can’t our design process operate the same way? Executive approval became too subjective and slowed us down. We tried having both steps in place for a while but customer validation often won the day and eventually executives removed themselves from the review process.

Why do we do this?

We’re a small Product team and we needed to be more inclusive, increase our sample size to clarify feedback data and see better trends. This stems from one of core design pillars: Efficiency through belonging. We want TrendKite customers to be more effective within the broader Marketing organization through the use of our platform. We wanted customers to have a voice within our design organization too. It takes wise leaders to recognize that they aren’t the end-user and that whimsical preference can actually hurt profits. Smart executives want to design things that work for real people.

How do we go about it?

We have a fully-formed visual language in place. We applied rigor to our UI systematically early on and solved many aesthetic concerns at the onset. Even those decisions were customer-driven. We A/B tested visual design options both in interview sessions and feature flag releases. We use Trello to keep track of our design workflow. Each validation group gets a label before it’s accepted by Engineering.

Our “approved” labels in Trello

Validation with the right customers

We’re intentional about recruiting the right customers and SMEs. We do this by tracking quantitative data and monitoring cohorts in the app. Those users have a skin in the game. We can identify through Intercom and MixPanel the right customers who are concerned with any particular interaction or flow, then recruit them to review our designs.

Validation with the broader design community

We need to get feedback from other designers. A good example was our login page redesign. We uploaded 3 versions to Dribble and monitored the like and comment count of each. The options with the most views and likes was built by engineering. No stakeholder approval was needed. When experimenting with the nuances of a design, we turned to the broader design community. Rounds of review with stakeholders would have taken way too much time and been preferential. We also invite local Product Designers to provide feedback via the Slack channel #ATXbuilt. And the feedback is great. Sure, there’s the occasional “hey, looks good” comment, but we usually find that our designs benefit from external perspectives. A small team of designers have a finite amount of solutions and viable alternatives won’t come from executives.

Design options for TrendKite login screen

Validation with Subject Matter Experts

One of the fantastic things about living in Austin is access to the the Moody School of Communications at the University of Texas (Hook ‘Em). Reviewing designs with PR undergrads is beneficial on many levels. Our feedback loops are non-threatening. Students aren’t in the market for TrendKite — although they may someday (hey, Paul, remember us in a couple years). They have domain expertise and are technologically savvy. They know how to use online tools and aren’t encumbered by antiquated PR monitoring methods.

Conclusion

We’re a small team. We need design feedback internally but we found looking outside the walls of TrendKite lent itself to producing better designs and — to no surprise — more profit. Co-owning the process with a potentially uninformed design audience has had some bumps and bruises but the results so far have been positive. It does have some limitations. This won’t work particularly well if you’re still figuring out unmet needs and product market fit. It also won’t work if leadership isn’t amenable to good UX methodologies. Some executives have a hard time letting go of their “blue umbrella.” This method also requires unfettered access to customers and customer support. With a fully-orbed visual language in place and an emphasis on usefulness, designers can feel comfortable reviewing designs with end-users early on in the design process.