Building Consensus When Making Subjective Design Decisions

A look at how our design team aligned on a new UI for our product’s navigation

Brianna Koch
6 min readMay 6, 2024

When designing digital products, designers often emphasize the importance of making data-driven decisions and putting ego and opinion aside to pursue the best outcome for the user. This would be easy if we always had readily available data to guide us to the indisputable best decision.

Realistically, we’re often faced with a much messier reality, one that blurs the lines between the art of visual appeal and the science of designing usable products. The visual and aesthetic characteristics of an interface can heavily influence the users’ experience of a product, from how quickly they read and interpret content to the emotional connection they form with it. Despite the impact these decisions have, we often lack conclusive data to inform them.

This is often because the amount of research and testing needed for statistically significant insights may not yield user or business outcomes valuable enough to justify that level of investment, which is what my team faced when redesigning the navigation of our B2B health tech web app. With limited time and resources, we focused our research efforts on the information architecture of our product. The visual design of the navigation (layout, colors, font, etc.) was a secondary issue.

When it came time to decide on a visual direction for the navigation, we had our design system and branding guidelines as a starting point to shape our early designs, but lacked the time and budget to run conclusive research studies. We all held different opinions about which visual treatment was “best”, but we were able to work together to create a navigation interface that we’re all happy with.

So how can a team reach a consensus on the more subjective design decisions? Our team learned how during the process of aligning on the interface of our navigation bar. These are my tips for effectively building consensus on subjective design decisions.

Decide: Is this a problem we want group consensus on?

If we sought consensus for all decisions, we’d significantly slow down progress, if not halt progress altogether. Reaching consensus requires time and tenacity. We must accept that inviting more perspectives increases the time to make decisions. However, we want to avoid falling into the trap of “design by committee”, where each decision is bogged down by endless discussions and compromises. To go down this path, we need strong leadership that can balance the diverse perspectives within a team while progressing the group forward.

Bring together the right (and the right amount) of people

The group size should be large enough to offer a variety of perspectives but small enough that the group can reach a consensus. Different academic literature on group decision-making asserts different ideal group sizes. A good rule is to aim for a group no larger than 7 people. (Luckily for us, we’re a design team of seven)

It’s important for group members to feel psychologically safe. Compose a group of respectful, honest, and collaborative members who feel safe sharing ideas and unafraid to disagree with each other. Bring together individuals who agree on sharing an outcome-based goal of reaching a great design decision. The group won’t achieve its goal if the members have competitive motivations to bring forward the best solution.

Diverge before making decisions as a group

Quantity is an important precursor to quality when exploring design decisions. Give group members the time and space to diverge and explore many possibilities, before bringing these ideas to the group for discussion. More options explored, presented, and discussed early on will result in more confidence in the final decision.

To make the divergent ideation the most effective and efficient it can be, make sure the group is strongly aligned on the following before ideation:

  1. The problem the design is meant to solve
  2. Any constraints the design must adhere to

Break the designs down into micro-decisions

When it comes time to share and discuss ideas, consolidate all the designs into a centralized location where the group can view them together. Note the key differences across the designs and document them. These differences become the micro-decisions that the team must align on.

Isolating each characteristic that needs a decision simplifies and expedites the decision-making process. Rather than deciding:

“Should we use a dark background, with uppercase text, and labels aligned horizontally with icons? Or a white background, with Title case text, and labels aligned vertically with icons”

Break it down into

“Should we have a dark or light background?”

“Should we use title case or uppercase?”

“Should we align icons and labels vertically or horizontally?”

Have each person vote on where they fall for each micro-decision

Once all options for each micro-decision are laid out, have each member vote to indicate their preference. Everyone must vote, regardless of how strongly they feel about their choice. This allows everyone to see what level of agreement or disagreement the group has from the start.

Ask each person to explain their vote

For each set of options, have each participant explain what influenced their vote. Expect that the explanations won’t be backed by strong user data, but with anecdotal evidence and design instincts.

The goal isn’t to convince others why they should adopt the same opinion but to have others understand the thought process that led them to their decision. Because of this, it’s important to make sure everyone voices their rationale so everyone can consider as many perspectives as possible.

Allow everyone to change their vote after different perspectives are shared

Once everyone shares their vote rationale, give everyone a chance to re-vote. After listening to others’ perspectives, people may hear something they hadn’t considered before which changes their initial opinion.

Choosing a path when you reach a stalemate

Some micro-decisions may prove more difficult to reach a consensus or anything close to a majority vote. Sometimes, this may warrant more discussion. If you’re at a true stalemate, it may be unproductive to continue the discussion.

I have a few tactics to try when you’re struggling to reach an agreement:

  • Narrow down the options: When there are 3 or more options, narrow it down to the two options that received the most votes and have members re-vote.
  • Postpone the decision: Take a break from that discussion, move on to the next decision the group needs to make, and circle back after.
  • Seek external research: look for any relevant and credible research or case studies that may help justify a decision, and share with the group.
  • Conduct a preference test: if time and budget allow, run a quick preference test where you show participants different design options and see which they prefer.
  • Go with the majority vote: If there’s an strong majority in votes, pursue that option.
  • Look to the group leader to break tiebreakers: when all else fails, have the group leader or facilitator make the final decision. This shouldn’t be the default approach to stalemates, and ideally only needed for as few stalemates as possible.

Final thoughts

Achieving a consensus when dealing with different opinions can sometimes seem like a hopeless task. An intentional approach that breaks down designs into micro-decisions helps us have focused discussions and come to agreements faster. Not all decisions can (or should) be made this way, but it’s a great approach for situations where group alignment is the goal and the decision relies heavily on subjective judgment.



Brianna Koch

Taco Bell enthusiast that does Product Design @ Artera. @briannakoch