Role playing in design reviews

Not in that kinda way.


Over the past year, as I’ve gone through the transition from product designer to also managing product designers, I’ve had a bunch of conversations with people around how we run design reviews at Heist. I usually point people toward resources like Jason Fried’s list of review questions and Julie Zhuo’s great design process rundown. One activity we’ve found useful is taking on the roles of our customers and their goals.

Normally we try to have a mix of designers, developers and product managers from other projects in a design review. Exposing product managers or developers, who may not have a background in design, to the language and frameworks designers use to think about their work, makes our entire team stronger.

Before we dive into the work, we’ll discuss some of the goals, use cases and customer-types that the designers have been focussing on. Each person in the room will then assume a different persona and explore the experience through the lens of that person, trying to accomplish the tasks they’d want to complete. For example, our work with SMART technologies focussed on three customer-types: teachers wanting to get help with their lesson plan; IT directors for the board of education whose main concern is ease of support; and school board administrators juggling fiscal concerns.

Role playing in design critiques helps create distance, empathy and focus. Distance makes feedback more objective and easier to digest as a designer—it’s not Aleah questioning what the next step is supposed to be, it’s the head of a school board. Empathy puts everyone on the team in the shoes of a customer, which makes the customer’s context, goals and feelings the center of the conversation. Finally, assuming a persona brings focus to the feedback and keeps the critique productive. Having a predefined lens to view the work through, gives everyone a clear understanding of how their feedback can make the work better and be acted on.

The habit of pausing and putting on the hat of a customer before sharing feedback or criticism is something that we’ve been building into the way we work. The ability to hold both the customer’s perspective and an experienced designer’s view point takes practice and we use role playing to help us get there.

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