All the Things You Did Wrong

Auditing: the art of gracefully telling someone their child is ugly

Auditing or redesigning a product can be a tricky proposition. Most designers I know are great at identifying problems and designing better solutions. But even the best designers have story after story of “bad” clients/developers/stakeholders — you know, those people who are wedded to bad solutions, who won’t listen to reason, who just don’t “understand design.”

Here’s the hard truth—every “they don’t get design!” story is secretly a story about bad communication.

I fielded a question on Quora about whether is was okay to be “blunt” when conducting audits. My answer was that blunt vs. polite wasn’t the right axis to be thinking about — the right axis is useful vs. not useful.

Feedback must include two qualities to be useful— it must be clear, and it must point the way forward. Since then, I’ve realized that I missed a third key quality, one that is critical but rarely talked about — feedback must be built on a shared understanding of goals and values. Otherwise you’re talking past each other.

Every “bad” client, every “intractable” stakeholder, every person who just “doesn’t get it” is someone who you, as a designer, have failed to communicate with on an emotional level.

You’ve identified their bad design, you’ve explained WHY it’s a bad design, you’ve showed data and research that proves it’s bad, but they still won’t budge. Why not? It’s because they fundamentally don’t believe you understand their product, their goals, their values, or all three.

Essentially, you’re telling someone their child is ugly. It doesn’t matter how correct you are, or how many graphs, charts, and better-looking children you pull out to bolster your claim — they’ve already decided you aren’t worth listening to.

This problem is particularly acute when you are just doing an audit. When you’re presenting new design work, it’s easier for people to let go of their existing design and say “Hey, I do like that better!” After all, if they weren’t ready to do that, they wouldn’t be hiring a designer, right? But for an audit, when all you’re doing is picking holes in their hard work, you’ve got to make sure they know that you’re on their side.

“So how about that glowing testimonial?”

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Know who they are trying to reach. If you can frame your feedback from the perspective of the users they care about, your feedback will be much more palatable.
  2. Know their goals, and use those to ground your insights. Empathize — have a long conversation about goals and values (if you can, run a workshop). I use a simple structure for insight statements: “[this is our goal], but [this is how we are falling short].” 
    EX: “We want users to get started quickly, but our app has a 10-screen onboarding experience.” (see the workshop article for better, funnier examples).
  3. Pair insights with recommendations. This is the classic good-bad-good sandwich for giving negative feedback. Start with their aspirations, then talk about how the execution is falling short, end with how to fix it. 
    EX: “We want users to get started quickly, but our app has a 10-screen onboarding experience. We can reduce that to 3 screens and progressively disclose additional information only when it becomes relevant!”
  4. Get agreement at a strategic level before giving tactical feedback. Remember Chesterton’s Fence. Straight up telling someone to cut a feature is going to get them to dig in their heels — they wouldn’t have invested time and money in that feature if they didn’t think it was valuable. Pointing back to a strategic insight and high-level recommendation that they’ve agreed with gets you out of those dead-end arguments. 
    EX: “We want our app to be intuitive, but we have conflicting navigation schemes. We’ve got the opportunity to streamline our nav, so that’s why we’re moving the settings option.”
  5. Speak their language. Use their vocabulary, not design jargon. If they challenge your rationale and you start talking about heuristics and affordances, you have only yourself to blame. Frame everything as cooperation between their users, their product, and yourself. Notice all the “we” and “our” language in my examples — that’s intentional and important.

So a final audit deliverable might be structured something like this:

  1. What the product is and what it’s trying to do (2–3 sentences top, can be taken directly from their marketing materials)
  2. Background/Methodology/etc. (most people will skip right over this, but feel free to include if you feel it’s important)
  3. 3–5 strategic insights paired with recommendations (these should speak to the product as a whole, not to specific screens or features)
  4. Screenshots with tactical feedback (InVision boards are my recommended tool for this — group them by key tasks or workflows)
  5. Next steps or rough concepts for new designs (here’s where you offer additional services for implementing the recommendations)

You can put everything in an InVision board using the “notes” feature, put it all in a slide deck, or mix and match.

For a redesign, this could be the deliverable for your “discovery” phase and once you’ve got stakeholder approval you can move forward with the “design” phase.

The key takeaway is to present your work in a way that’s sensitive to your client’s context, that’s responsive to their goals and values, and that communicates a shared understanding of the challenges they face and the opportunities they have to improve.

Either that, or tell them their kid’s ugly and cash the check. Just don’t expect much repeat business.

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