Design reviews are crucial in a website project because they lead to valuable discussions that can reveal important questions and unforeseen problems. This process can be challenging for clients. Some folks don’t know website lingo and struggle to articulate their thoughts, while others find it difficult to manage multiple decision-makers who compete for a voice in the design. It might seem like a burden but it doesn’t have to be.
The best design reviews start by setting specific review parameters and establishing ground rules for suggesting changes. Without these guidelines, it’s impossible to get everyone on the same page, creating frustration and wasting time. So if you’re about to step into a meeting with your designer or you’ve been tasked to write feedback on a design, here’s a basic code of conduct to help you get the most out of your review.

What to Expect in a Design Review

Be Ready to Collaborate

Regardless of project budget, all website reviews involve some form of collaboration between you (our client) and your assigned team. This gives designers a chance to consult with you before implementing drastic changes, especially ones that could unknowingly impact user experience or deviate from best website practice. In short, we don’t say “yes” to everything (even if Jim Carrey thinks we should), and here’s why.

Let’s say you want to upload a background video to your homepage. We get the link to download the video and see the file size is over 275 MBs. Sure, we can upload that massive video, but doing so will bottleneck your page speed, causing longer load times, irritating users, and crippling your SEO potential. In this oversimplified scenario, you can expect our team to advise you of these risks before proceeding. We might recommend compressing the video and uploading it to YouTube or Vimeo for easy embedding, or using an image instead.

Trust Your Designer

We have spent countless hours building and maintaining websites since 1999. Most of us know the web was a very different place back then. Internet usage was primarily limited to computers and most of us had to kick someone off the landline to connect. Mobile phones were internetless, T9 bricks (shout out to the Nokia 3310 with Snake), and Google was only a year old. Not many agencies have been designing, tweaking, testing, and measuring website results since the early days of online search.

We have a deep understanding of user behavior, so let us be the voice for your users. If you’re not sure how a request will impact user experience, reach out to our team, and ask for guidance. Our job is to act as web consultants who help you make smarter decisions about your website, but only you can give us the opportunity to do that.

Set Egos Aside

A successful agency-client team cannot overcome obstacles and realize their goals without some sacrifice, so be prepared to let go of your own personal preferences. This is not always easy, especially when there’s a large group of assertive folks who want to be heard, but it’s impossible to move forward in a website project if everyone is trying to get their way, not to mention particularly dispiriting for the folks involved.

Set the expectation that not everyone in the project is going to get exactly what they want. You risk stalling the project indefinitely and thwarting all progress when you strive to make everyone happy. Agree on a shared vision and nix personal wants and needs so you can focus on what is truly best for your users.

Agree to Disagree

Website design is highly subjective. We all have different opinions of what is right and wrong for the design, so occasionally disagreements can happen. This isn’t always a bad thing. If you act professionally and courteously to resolve conflicts with your designer, then it can actually strengthen the agency-client relationship. It’s all in how you disagree. Everyone knows that yelling and fighting are not effective ways to debate. Instead, listen carefully to others, show empathy, and try to understand their reasoning before challenging an idea.

At the end of the day, it’s just a website. There’s no need to get worked up or lose sleep over it. If you find yourself at odds with your designer’s recommendations, politely agree to disagree and try to meet each other halfway.

Respect Each Other

This is obvious yet its importance cannot be overstated—no one wants to be insulted or ridiculed, so be kind to one another even if tensions are high. Ask questions before jumping to conclusions and never attack someone for sharing an idea, especially if you disagree. When in doubt, ask yourself: “How would I feel if someone made this comment to me?” If your gut says you wouldn’t take it well, then odds are the recipient won’t either.

Bottom line: be respectful and use common sense. Our team gets feedback all the time, so we can take criticism. Just remember that designers have feelings too and sharing our work is a vulnerable part of the website process, so be sure to direct criticisms at problems, not people. It’s not helpful to say: “The color treatment on this page makes me question your design chops.” Try: “I feel the overall tone of this page is too dark. Perhaps we should use lighter colors.”

How to Give Helpful Design Feedback

We’re not asking you to become a designer and assume our role. If you have a critique, explain the issue and trust that we will find a solution. You don’t need to give us directives and tell us exactly what to change. Our goal is to understand why you don’t like something because that gives us context to address the true problem at hand.

Recently, a client asked us to remove a few subheads inside an image grid on her homepage. There was no explanation of the problem or why she wanted the titles gone—just a simple request to get rid of them. We were was confused. Why do the subheads need to be removed when they provide important supporting details to the user? After talking it through, the issue wasn’t that the subheads were unnecessary; she just couldn’t see some of them very well.

Ah, now we have context behind what’s actually wrong and can take steps to address it.
Removing the titles does solve our problem, but it’s a little extreme and probably not the best solution for users. We can make the titles stand out by increasing the font size or weight, changing the typeface, or adding a darker image overlay. My client only considered one solution yet there are many. We couldn’t offer these solutions before because we didn’t understand why the titles needed to be removed in the first place.

Of course, not all feedback can be resolved so easily. I’ve had headstrong clients insist on making more drastic changes; things that create huge problems for the overall design. It’s easy to imagine what that can do to a beautiful website.

You play a vital role in shaping the final outcome of the design. It’s okay if you offer solutions, just make sure you also explain the problem so we understand why you want something changed—and don’t be surprised if we recommend something else. If you’re struggling to articulate the issue, tell us your feelings instead. Or, try sending screenshots and visuals to illustrate your point, and, even better if you can show us an example on another website.

Be Specific

Point out exactly what is bothering you and leave nothing to interpretation—the more explicit, the better. Vague and ambiguous comments such as “make this title pop” or “make this button more elegant” are easy to misconstrue. Does “pop” mean bigger and bolder, or maybe a different color or font? Will the button be “more elegant” if we use a thin border instead of a solid background color? No one is good at mind-reading, so don’t expect your designer to know what you mean.

As you write feedback, double-check that your comments are explicit. We can’t all be Charles Dickens in our writing, nor is that the expectation—just read your notes aloud a couple of times and make sure it’s clear before sharing it with our team. It will save everyone from unnecessary headaches and ensure we correctly understand the intent behind your feedback. Plus, we won’t waste time and money making the wrong revisions.

Ask Questions

It sounds harsh, but you hired us because we know more about building websites than you, so it’s in your best interest to ask for our opinion and heed our recommendations. If you don’t understand something in the design, just ask us! You’re not going to bother or annoy anyone—in fact, your designer will appreciate these inquiries because it gives her/him a chance to educate and explain the strategy behind our design choices.

Asking thoughtful questions also creates a dialogue around the website so you can be better informed to maintain the design and continue reaching toward your goals in the future. Don’t be that client who always says, “I’ll just figure it out on my own.” That’s the fastest way to ruin both a beautiful design and your online reputation. Let us guide you down the right path with your website—it’s what we do best.

Celebrate Wins

Many clients think a website review is all about finding something wrong in the design. While that’s certainly part of it, we also like to know what we are doing right so we can explore it further. Besides, it can be a downer to have a review that points out everything we got wrong in the design, so be sure to share some wins too. It will uplift your designer and strengthen the agency-client relationship.

In some reviews, you might not see any obvious issues in the design—and if so, it’s an extraordinary design feat worth celebrating. Don’t try to fix it if it isn’t broken. You’ll just waste time, create unnecessary problems, and take away from what is working. Just make sure the design satisfies your website goals, and if it does that right out of the gate, then mark it as a win and move on.

Content Can Change

It’s common for clients to fixate their attention on content instead of evaluating the overall design. This probably happens because it’s the easiest part to latch on to. Your imagery and copy are essential elements in telling your story, and, if they’re not right, then the design feels off. We can easily train your team to make content updates later, so don’t let the photos and words we use dictate your overall feelings about the design.

We get it. This is hard to do when you don’t work in the web design industry. But we have to be willing to look at the design through the lens of your users so we can identify and fix pain points. As difficult as it may seem, avoid the temptation of putting your content under a microscope for the interim, and instead assess whether the design as a whole fulfills your website goals, accommodates users, and appropriately represents your business.

Think of it this way: we don’t move our personal belongings into a new home while the builders are still laying the foundation; the same is true in a design review. Make sure the general layout and structure of the design are solid before worrying about your content. There will be plenty of time to swap out images and update copy later.

Avoid “Design by Committee”

In most projects, our point of contact must report to a larger team of people who have decision-making authority. These folks are almost always board members or upper-level management—i.e., people who are busy and can’t be directly involved in all aspects of the project. This often leads to what we call a “design by committee” approach and it can be especially dangerous in a review if it’s not handled with care. Let us explain.

It’s difficult to keep a large group apprised of the website goals and expectations if they haven’t been present since the beginning of the project. If they don’t get that information before they see a design, then they can’t be on the same page with others who are more actively involved. When this happens, these people become a loose cannon with all (or some) decision-making power. Add a couple of choice personality traits to the mix—e.g.,  stubbornness or impulsiveness—and you have a recipe for disaster. This approach often yields feedback that is wildly offbase from the website goals, and as you can probably imagine, frustrates our efforts to create a user-focused design. It can also cause project delays, change orders, and—worst of all—irreparable damage to a design.

Let’s face it: not everyone should be involved in a design review, but we don’t always have control over that. Whenever possible, we strongly recommend appointing one to three decision-makers who are actively involved in the project from the start so we don’t have too many “cooks” in the kitchen. But, if this is not possible and you must collect design feedback from a larger team, make sure you do the following:

Set the right expectations for the review and inform the group of the website goals before they look at anything. This will give them the knowledge and the tools they need to keep the review from veering off course.
Discuss the design as a group and make sure all feedback supports our efforts to fulfill the website goals. Nix personal preferences.
Filter all feedback to our team through a single point of contact.

Final Thoughts

The website feedback you submit to our team has the power to turn a good design into a great design, but we have to follow the rules. When organizing your feedback, be sure to give us specific problems (not just solutions), and don’t be afraid to share how the design makes you feel, whether it’s good or bad. If you have questions or need clarification on something in the design, just ask our team and let us guide you. With a little collaboration and trust, we can help you solve problems and build a website that serves both your target audience as well as your team.