UX Burlington 2015: Making Design by Committee Work

by Sam Selikoff November 2, 2015

Here are my notes from James A. Rosen's talk at UX Burlington 2015.

This talk will explore some lessons learned from a large UI redesign.

Start with empathy for the user

Product featuritis. The Pontiac Aztec is one of the "worst cars of all time". Design committee used focus groups, but the product fell flat.

Why does Featuritis occur? Product teams often dive in too late in the design process:

Many start at Ideate instead of Empathize.

Don't let the funder of a product cloud who you're building the product for! Focus on solving your user's problems.

The importance of emotional intelligence

"Groups are most creative when ...there is mutual trust." - Druskat & Wolff

Emotional IQ is, essentially, how in touch you are with your own emotions. How can you build it? Practice mindfulness. I am frustrated vs. I feel frustrated. Practice experiencing your emotions without letting them control you.

Cognitive biases

Psychologists, behavioral economists and others study biases, phenomena that can affect us without our even knowing it. Here are some popular ones:

  • Egocentric - thinking others are like ourselves
  • Planning Fallacy - poor planning because we're bad at combining probabilities
  • Dunning-Kruger effect - unskilled people overestimate their ability
  • Framing effect - drawing different conclusions based on how the problem/text is framed (90% success rate vs 10% failure rate for a sugery)
  • Bias blind spot - our ability to see cognitive biases in others, but not ourselves

One idea to eliminate these biases is using groups of people. This does help with certain issues, but with others, groups can actually exacerbate the problem. For example, groups often avoid talking about failure. They also tend to be overconfident.

Cascade effects

There are also biases that occur only in groups. Cascade effects are pressures exerted on an individual by a group, which can sway the individual's opinions. For example, a judge may change their opinion when they hear that the other three judges voted the same verdict.

Why does this happen? Because individuals often want to be seen as being in line with the group. Gender can even play into this. Men often self-censor on fashion, and women on sports.

In the context of a design meeting, one way to overcome these group biases is to have everyone design and ideate independently for 10 minutes, and then go around the room and give everyone time to present their own ideas.

Common Knowledge Focus

People tend to focus on what "everybody knows." Instead, have a process to invite cognitively different people to share their perspective. - For example, ask non-UX users their opinion explicitly.

Contention & Loss of Focus

  • Lateral thinking - Duncker's Candle Problem
  • Socractic dialog - often used by groups, but can lead to (1) annoyance and (2) loss of focus
  • Parallel Thinking can overcome these problems.

    1. State the problem
    2. Propose a solution
    3. Everyone lists pros. (Instead of offerring alternatives. They're thinking positively, and aligned emotionally.)
    4. Everyone lists cons
    5. Everyone lists ways to mitigate cons

    What's the result? Everyone feels heard, and ideas are explored more thoroughly.

Tips to boost your creative team

  • Meditate for 10 minutes a day, for two weeks
  • Talk to real users of the product
  • Prime your creativity before meetings (e.g., with 30 circles and Use My Line)

  • Generate ideas independently, then reveal simultaneously
  • Remix. Say one thing you really like about a design that wasn't yours.
  • Analyze critically


  • "Search Inside Yourself," by Chade-Meng Tan (Googler)
  • "Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups," by Vanessa Urch Druskat and Steven B. Wolff (link)


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