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Handling User Experience Design Disagreements

Posted by Peter Mah on Oct 15, 2012 10:43:17 AM

Many design decisions on a project can bring disagreements

During the course of any project for a product, system, or service that involves user experience designers, visual designers, engineers, project managers, product owners, and stakeholders, there will be many design decisions made that will affect the business and its users. Many of these decisions will be minor with little disagreement amongst project members on the design solution being built. It is also possible that you'll encounter something in the design that becomes a hot button issue and triggers a debate between members of the team.

With so many "chefs in the kitchen" it can make it very difficult to come to a consensus on any user experience design. Most people will have their minds in the right place and believe what they are advocating is the best solution. But with experts in different fields, you may end up with conflicting opinions and information.

The question that comes up is how can so many experts be right and disagree? How will you move forward with decisions that will also build consensus and confidence that what is being built is going to be the right thing for the business and its users?

Everyone has an opinion (and that's okay)

Everyone has an expert opinion one way or another and that's okay. When there is disagreement, it doesn't mean that one team member is going to be right, and the others are completely wrong. Everyone is looking at the problem through their own colored glasses based on experience and what they know, which would lead them to conclude that their opinion and perspective is the right one.

In order to have a productive design discussion about the different opinions and ideas being brought forth, a user experience designer (UXD) will need to understand how they thought through the problem and the solution. Even with skilled user experience designers on the team, who are responsible for the experience and interaction design, other project members may have a different opinion on what they have designed because of different priorities.

To move the project forward, it's important for team members to get past the idea that someone has to be right. Instead they should focus on how to find the right answer because products should not be built on individual opinions or on who is the best at arguing a point.

How do you decide what's right?

The problem with having so many opinions that are "correct" is that it leads to designs that are inconsistent because solutions are derived from project member biases and opinions. This isn’t a reliable way of designing and building products that will be useful and usable and provide value to the business.

The first step that needs to take place in the beginning of a project is user research to give you a foundation for making decisions. It doesn't make the decisions any easier, but it does reduce the emphasis on using individual opinions or assumptions that may or may not be correct about the user. For a user experience designer, this may be the obvious thing to do, but other priorities or different viewpoints in an organization may drop the user research in the beginning. Some of the usual excuses that come up are: "There's no budget for research," "There's not enough time," "We're in a rush to get this project out the door," "We know our users," or "You can't talk to our users," etc.

On a previous e-commerce project, the user research I helped conduct on the various target user groups validated the team’s initial designs against real users. The results were brought forth to the entire team and stakeholders. The key benefit of the research was to ground everybody’s decisions on real user behaviors and not our own opinions. The research effort took the user experience (UX) team a little over a week to prepare paper prototypes and conduct the usability study.

Cennydd Bowles, digital product designer at Twitter, wrote about using a validation stack which is levels of proof based on user evidence, user research, and design theory to systematically win a user experience debate. However, a key point made by Bowels was that the validation stack formed the basis of deciding upon a design recommendation. And the user evidence and research formed the strongest components of that validation stack, not individual opinions from the stakeholder or even the user experience designer.

If the evidence or the research in the validation stack doesn't support the design, then it should be changed instead of continuing to debate something that doesn't work. The decisions should be based on user research instead of how well project members can debate their opinions and viewpoints.

Second step, if there was no user research done up front (which is a bad sign on a project), then you can gather the different opinions and design ideas and validate them against a short usability study to gather some information to inform the decision making process.

On a past project, I found myself having a different viewpoint from the product owner on a specific user interface. We were both able to bring up strong valid points for each design option. But this did not help us arrive at a final design option by debating back and forth with valid points and reasoning. We were stuck without design consensus. At this time, a short usability study using paper prototypes again was conducted in a day and it highlighted where we were both right and wrong. This small amount of research helped to inform our decision making process and brought us back on track together. The research conducted was much smaller in scope, but some information is better than none at all.


There will be disagreements over the user experience design so it's best to plan for a way to handle it in a way that will build consensus and move everyone forward on the project in a productive manner. It's okay to have different viewpoints and opinions, but make sure the final decisions are based on a foundation of good user research and design principles.

Topics: Design, Usability

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