Walking Through Your Product Design With Stakeholders

By Daniel Szuc

Published: June 4, 2007

“As designers, we try to balance user needs with business needs.”

You are the lead designer—or perhaps even the sole designer on a product team. You have just completed your product design, and it’s time to walk through your design approach with the project stakeholders, including management, developers, and users. What do you need to do to prepare for your presentation?

This article provides some basic tips to help you better prepare to walk through your product designs with stakeholders.

Focusing on Users

User-centered design requires

  • understanding your users—typically, through talking with them and creating personas
  • designing with your users in mind—by focusing on users’ goals and developing task scenarios
  • evaluating your designs—by doing usability testing with real users to see if they understand what to do when using the product you’ve designed

As designers, we try to balance user needs with business needs. Creating personas that represent our users is one way we can focus on users and understand the impacts of our design decisions on the business.

The benefits of creating personas include

  • documenting shared knowledge about the people for whom you’re developing a product
  • informing design based on user needs and wants
  • reducing debates within product teams, because the persona’s needs and goals direct design, not the opinions of members of the design team
  • keeping the product team focused on the target personas

Understanding Stakeholders’ Needs and Goals

“You need to understand that every stakeholder has different needs and goals.”

In addition to users, there are other stakeholders whose needs and goals you should consider—both when defining a product and preparing for a design walkthrough.

Firstly, you need to understand that every stakeholder has different needs and goals. You must also understand how their needs and goals can impact and influence the direction of your product design and the way you plan to present it.

“Have conversations with peers and team leads that you collaborate with about their struggles toward their product creation process.”—Liya Zheng

Here are some people who might be present at your design walkthrough and some questions and goals they might have:

  • business representatives—Does the product design meet the business objectives and will it create opportunities for the business? How will this design either make or save money for the business? These people want to see whether the design meets the needs of the product domain and whether users in the field will understand it.
  • project manager—Can the development team implement this design in time and when will the project milestones occur?
  • technical expert—Can the product team implement the product as designed? Is your design technically feasible? How much time will it take to build?
  • usability specialist—A person in this role wants to see whether the design takes user goals into account and whether it will create positive opportunities or problems.
  • users—They want to see whether the product will actually help them do their jobs better:
    • Will I sell more?
    • Will the product enhance my current process?
    • Will it make me look better to my peers or management?

We can’t always accommodate all of these needs, but it does help to document and appreciate the stakeholders’ different needs before doing a design walkthrough.

Preparing for Your Presentation to Stakeholders

What do you need to do to prepare for your walkthrough?

Planning Your Design Walkthrough

“Before doing a design walkthrough, it’s important to plan the session carefully and determine exactly what you want its outcome to be and what you would like to learn.”

Before doing a design walkthrough, it’s important to plan the session carefully and determine exactly what you want its outcome to be and what you would like to learn. Problems arise during design walkthroughs when there is no facilitator, so either assume that role yourself or assign it to someone else. Walkthroughs can quickly turn into free-for-alls if you do not frame the review session properly. For example, a review might focus only on the product’s visual design rather than on the interactive elements or reasoning behind the design.

Here are some tips for effectively planning your design walkthrough:

  • Set an agenda. This seems obvious, but I have attended many design walkthroughs where no agenda was set, the session had no focus, and participants were not sure what they were meant to do during the walkthrough or what their role was.
  • Define the walkthrough’s scope. What will the session cover? During the walkthrough, you may uncover issues that it would be best to discuss at some future review session. Ideally, for a walkthrough, you are trying to get all the people in the room who can answer questions right there and then, so resolving issues won’t hold up design too much. However, you might need to assign some action items to people who can follow up on issues—for example, some stakeholders might need to check with other team members.
  • Define the walkthrough’s objectives. What do you want to achieve during the walkthrough? What are the action items?
  • Invite the right participants. It’s important to have the right people in the room—people who represent different perspectives and strengths—and the right number of participants. Keep your walkthrough to between four and six people. I have run walkthroughs with a room full of about 20 people, and it did not work well, because it was too hard to manage, and there were too many competing needs.
  • Create an appropriate environment. Do not hold your walkthrough in a room with access to email and telephones, and all participants should turn off their mobile phones before the session starts. Otherwise, people are constantly distracted.
  • Schedule the session for the right time of day. Walkthroughs are best held when people are not under time pressures, so don’t schedule them too close to other meetings.
  • Determine the session’s duration. Do a speed run with a colleague to determine how long it will take to cover the design elements you want to walk through and see what questions or issues arise as a result.
  • Define participants’ roles. Make sure everyone in the room has a specific role—for example, facilitator, scribe, time keeper, issue logger, and so on.
  • Define the session’s ground rules. Setting ground rules places everyone on an equal footing before the walkthrough starts. This is where facilitation becomes important, so you can focus the group on the design elements that will move the session forward. Examples of good ground rules include the following:
    • Listen to others.
    • Share your ideas.
    • Consider all ideas as equally valuable.
    • Consider other’s opinions.
  • Define your design goals. Ask people to come to the session with issues that you can translate into design goals or opportunities—for example, ways that you can improve the next version of the design.
  • Create reusable tools. For example, prepare an agenda; list business objectives and design goals and issues; and document user research, usability test results, best practices, analyses of competitors’ designs, and users’ key tasks.
  • Define your outcomes. What do you want to walk away with after the session? What will help you move the design to the next version?
  • Define your next steps. This can be hard to do, as you don’t always know the direction a walkthrough will take. However, you can prepare some next steps that you think might help move the design forward. Think about what people need find out?

Preparing for a Design Walkthrough

“Once it’s time for your walkthrough, your preparation and tools become really important.”

Once it’s time for your walkthrough, your preparation and tools become really important.

You should give yourself at least 30 minutes before the session starts to prepare the room, including

  • setting up your seating arrangement
  • setting up a projector to show your design—Although sometimes it’s better to hang up large printouts of your design, so stakeholders can sketch and comment directly on them.
  • hanging up
    • posters that list your agenda, ground rules, and design goals—These posters might also include some best practices that should map directly to the business goals.
    • your primary personas—Include key tasks that each persona wants to achieve when using the product.
    • competitors’ designs or workflows—If available, these are useful for showing: “This is what the competition is doing.”
    • large sheets of paper on which to record issues and next steps

By putting posters around the room, you let everyone  

  • view their content, so everyone is on the same page
  • write on the posters as the need arises

Now that you are fully prepared for your walkthrough, it’s time for stakeholders to critique your product design. When the session starts, ask people to introduce themselves and define their roles on the project. If the people already know each other, this may not be necessary. However, in larger companies or on teams that are geographically dispersed, it helps.

I like to start with a warm-up exercise to get people in the right mind-set for thinking about the design we are about to review. For example, we might look at a competitor’s product design or a prior version of the product and discuss what was done well and what the issues are. This gets stakeholders thinking about the product domain and gives them some context for evaluating the design you have come up with.

Walkthrough Facilitation

Facilitation of your design walkthrough is critical. The facilitator is the guide who helps the stakeholders walk through the design and directs the discussion to ensure it moves the design forward and results in the outcome you want from the design walkthrough.

“When we look at design, we naturally often look at it from our own perspective or from the team we represent in our business.”—Gerry Gaffney and Daniel Szuc

Focusing on User Goals and Tasks

“It’s important for the facilitator to focus the design review on user goals and tasks and what each design element means to the business.”

It’s important for the facilitator to focus the design review on user goals and tasks and what each design element means to the business. The facilitator’s main role is to get stakeholders to see the design through the eyes of other people in the room—to empathize with others’ viewpoints—rather than just seeing the design purely from their own perspectives. For example, a visual designer might look only at the presentation layer or a usability specialist might not consider technical requirements. Each stakeholder should have the opportunity to provide his or her perspective, but should also understand how the design will impact both users and the business.

Too many design walkthroughs focus purely on visual design—colors, graphics, icons, and so on.

Two Facilitators Can Be Better Than Just One

If resources allow it, you can divide the facilitator role between two people. Facilitation can be tiring, and it helps to have another person share the load by assuming certain responsibilities—for example:

  • Facilitator 1 might keep stakeholders focused on users and goals.
  • Facilitator 2 might lead the design walkthrough, using task scenarios.

A facilitator also needs to watch the time and ensure that the session goals are being met.

Questions to Ask During Walkthroughs

Here are some example questions a facilitator can ask participants when walking through a design or doing a design review:

  • What is the primary user goal for this screen?
  • What is the business goal for this screen?
  • What is the main call to action?
  • What would you do next?
  • How does this compare to a competitor’s similar screen or workflow?
  • Is it consistent with an existing approach?
  • Are we following existing standards—internal and external?
  • What would personas A, B, and C do here?
  • Are there any distractions that move users’ focus away from the primary goal of the screen?
  • Are there standout usability concerns?
  • What are the main issues?
  • What do we need to fix?

You can repeat each question for each screen. It’s important to annotate each screen, so you have a clear record of what to improve in the next version of the design. Take photos of the annotated images of the screens as a record.

Walkthrough Tips

Here are some tips for a successful design walkthrough:

  • Move the design forward.
  • Get everyone’s focus back on user goals and business objectives.
  • Capture issues as you go, but don’t let doing that keep the session from moving forward.
  • Look for opportunities for innovation. How can your product team push the technology to create a better user experience?
  • Refer stakeholders to best practices. The design is not about your viewpoint.
  • Refer stakeholders to user research—again, taking the focus off you, the designer.

In this article, I have provided some guidelines and tips to help get you started doing stakeholder design walkthroughs. With these tips, you are better prepared for walking through your designs and doing design reviews with your stakeholders. I’d like to know: what techniques and tools have worked well for you when doing design walkthroughs with your stakeholders?

Bibliography

Gaffney, Gerry, and Daniel Szuc. The Usability Kit. Collingwood, Australia: SitePoint, November 2006.

Meighan, Fiona. “Personas: Focusing on Getting the Design Right—Part 1.” Apogee, April 2, 2007. Retrieved June 3, 2007.

Szuc, Daniel, and Gerry Gaffney. “The Constant Design Balance.” Apogee, March 2005. Retrieved June 3, 2007.

Zheng, Liya. “Six Techniques for Advocating Design in Your Organization.” Apogee, March 1, 2007. Retrieved June 3, 2007.

8 Comments

Some very solid points and tips that will help you with clients.

I recently had a problem with a client who wanted his psychedelic 70s logo instead of the nice modern feel we designed.

Yes. It’s especially challenging when designing home pages or key landing pages, being able to talk through design decisions from both the user and business goal perspectives.

Why are we doing it this way?

To be different?

To be innovative?

To follow an existing design pattern?

All useful to think through.

Shouldn’t this have been done during the design process as a course of evolutionary design?

Hi Adam:

Yes, it should be a standard part of the process to take a more structured approach when walking through designs. Although, I have also experienced many projects where this is not done and designs are quickly moved into development without check points.

Robert Barlow-Busch also has a nice piece on something similar called “Design Checkpoints.”

I like this article, to prepare and understand what should be the steps.

It’s too nice, because it is important for all the organizations as their promotion of business, even this article organizes this very clearly. In this article, walkthroughs with good structure are good and clear. Thank you.

I want to understand what is product design?

Hi Yogesh

Put simply, product design, as it’s referred to in this article, is a Web application design or function / page or workflow on a Web site that you, as a designer or UX person, would be presenting to stakeholders in a company or on a project team.

But product design can also be extended to mean design as it applies to physical products as well.

Regards, Daniel

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