When every product of design is one of opinion

Illustrations by Robbie Cathro for this article.

Every creation is a product of opinion. If you want to produce high quality design you need develop a strong opinion, but one shaped by that of many others.

Opinion decides what goes into the work and what stays out of it, who the work is for and who it is not for. Opinion can shape the objectives and goals of the work while defining a line between distractions and inspiration. To have a valuable opinion of the work is to not limit yourself to only your own, personal, knowledge or experience.

The work we do is only ever as good as the multitude of perspectives and ideas that go into it. If what you're designing is going to be functional for anyone but yourself, you're going to want to get a second opinion on how it should work, appear, or feel.

Better outcomes come from hearing a diversity of perspectives.Julie Zhuo, Facebook VP of Design

Collecting opinions doesn't mean giving up accountability or responsibility. Every decision needs a single decider, someone who can own the decisions and be held accountable when things go well, or not.

But what gets handed off to the client, or to engineering or other partners, is often the result of the designer's opinion; with that delivery comes a lot of bias. We don't know what we don't know, and it's hard to see how a design might impact those who have different beliefs than us, or who aren't using the same technology, or who intend to use what we design in ways we never imagined it to be used.

To set ourselves and the work up for success it's in our best interest to shape our opinions of the work by gathering the opinions of others.

Early and often in the design process we should be building a broad perspective of the work by pulling in other's who can add to our opinion of it.

What problems might arise or what edge cases might break the design? It's helpful to know how people might get confused, or be empowered, or feel as a result of what we design. We can never know everything about how our designs will function and be received once they're out in the world, but we can try and learn what others think, feel, and perceive about the work before it makes its way outside our direct control. That is: before the design reaches a static state.

How do we gain diverse perspectives without losing focus? How do we tune-into those whose opinions can be additive to what we're building, rather than distracting? What is the best way to gather other's opinions without sacrificing our responsibility in the work?

1. Share design early and often

In design critiques or one-on-one with designers, engineers, product managers, clients—anyone on your team—share your work.

It doesn't matter what stage the work is in, the sooner you share it the sooner you can catch issues or shortcomings.

If you're afraid your work will be unfairly evaluated or that others simply won't understand it, remember that effective work can stand up on its own regardless of how we personally feel about it. An effective critique is never a critique of the designer, only the work. And you are not your work.

Sooner or later the designs you create will have to stand up without you there to defend them. By exposing the work to other opinions early and often, you end up strengthen it early and often. Because you can take those early opinions and incorporate them, or start to build "defenses” against them into the work itself.

"Many designers want to take a problem and hide away with it in order to produce the work, but that usually backfires. They want to shelter their ideas and designs but end up weakening them instead. Like an immune system that hasn't had a chance to strengthen itself against diseases. Designers who don't collaborate well end up seeing things from a very limited perspective and that hurts the designs.” — Tanner Christensen

2. Share your work with as many people as possible

Sharing work early and often is good, but if you're only ever sharing it to one person you're limiting the perspectives and opinions that can help you evolve and strengthen the design.

Your goal should be to get a broad picture of the work you're doing, and to do that you need to share it with as many people as possible. The more opinions you can get, the better. Because everyone has a unique background and lens from which they will see the work .

The goal is not to "design by committee”—having many people determine what should and should not get built—bur rather to solicit many different perspectives and opinions without giving up your responsibility for the work.

If you approach others with a clear intent to learn what they think—and when everyone knows who is responsible for the final output— these conversations become easier to navigate and leverage to your advantage.

Consider sharing your work by presenting it with one of the following introductions:

  • I respect your insights and want to hear your opinion on this, I may or may not take the feedback into the next stage but really want to hear what you think, can you take a look?
  • I'm trying to ensure I have all the information I need to make an informed decision in my work, can we take five minutes to have you review it?
  • I want to ensure I'm getting as many opinions as I can so I can collect what others are seeing and take action on it, can I get your perspective?
  • Would it be ok if I showed you some of my latest work and walk you through what I'm thinking, I want to make sure I'm not overlooking anything?

3. Clarify and re-declare your objective whenever you can

One of the most difficult parts of soliciting other's opinions of your work is ensuring the feedback you do get is aligned with what your focus or goal is.

Especially if the opinion you get from someone else is strong but not exactly what you need to hear. It can be incredibly difficult to turn away feedback or opinions without a strong rationale for why you're doing so. If you simply reject someone's opinion as being unhelpful they may not be so willing to share their perspective with you in the future.

It can also be difficult to know what feedback is actually helpful or what feedback you're rejecting simply because you don't personally agree with it.

To face the common challenges that arise when sharing work, you should always begin the conversation with what your objective is, or what the design is trying to accomplish.

One of the most vital indicators of whether an opinion should influence the work is whether it relates to your objective. When the objective is unclear or different than what others are thinking, the feedback will be less helpful than ideal.

When you share the work or ideas for the sake of building a stronger opinion, state and re-state the objective so everyone can align on it. Be clear by saying something along the lines of: "My purpose with this project is to get X result, I am not worried about Y or Z at this point but will consider anything that helps move the work toward those goals.”

If you feel the feedback you're getting isn't helpful, or that the opinions being shared are too removed from the objective of the work, take a minute to re-declare them. Not only will it help the person or people giving you their opinion, doing so will also help you re-orient yourself around the purpose of why you're looking for feedback.

Sharing your work and asking others for their opinion of it is not an excuse or a reason to give up responsibility. At the end of the day the designs you create are yours alone, not anyone elses.

If you want to ensure your design succeed you'll want to collect many different opinions of it before it's considered "complete.”

The more diverse opinions you can collect about your work, early and often, the more likely the design is to stand triumphantly against any challenges it faces in the future, especially once it's left your hands.