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On Presenting Work

Occasionally, I am abruptly reminded that many interaction designers haven’t been to a formal design school. As long as they have formally-trained visual designers to help on that front, interaction designers coming from fields of research, product management, self-taught or development bring great strengths to the role. The most common problem I see in these folks is a lack of experience presenting their work. Those who try cool online tools like ConceptShare, ProofHQ, or some of Adobe’s new stuff and haven’t learned the “soft skills” (and thick skin) of presenting often find that projects easily and quickly spin out of control.

However, a quick informal poll suggests that my experience in design classes is fairly common, and that even people with experience in formal classes find that they’re different from client reviews in several ways:

  • criteria for judgement can be very different (Is it “cool” or “challenging” vs. “Will it be useable” / “Will it make money”)
  • criteria for success is often not clearly stated (An assignment to design a poster, but where will it be? Who will be looking at it? How far away/close will they be? What precisely are we trying to get them to do? What work has preceded this? What will follow?)
  • usually many fewer revisions than is common w/ clients
  • often you don’t get to present the work, it’s just up an a wall with everything else and the class goes down the line
  • in the end, the outcome with clients is more binary — clients don’t give you one of 5 (or 13, depending on how you count it) letter grades, they’re either happy with the work and it’s done or they’re not and you have to fix it

I do think there is something to say about the development of presentation skills coming out of a peer-review based schooling, especially in science, art, and design fields. Peer reviews clearly do help with:

  • requiring a person to be describe, defend, and react to others affects the creative process and becomes a feedback loop project to project
  • learning to listen and actually incorporate feedback, and to be a good sport about it
  • nervousness about speaking in front of people
  • developing a thick skin so that you don’t take feedback personally
  • learning to verbalize, explain the basis for, and defend your work
  • learning that input really can improve the work beyond what you can do alone

If you’re a designer, a few points to consider follow below. And if you’re a client and your designer or agency isn’t doing these things, you may want to ask yourself how they can pick them up, whether they’re putting the project at risk, or if you want to look elsewhere for design help.

1. Actually Present Your Work
Starting a review by emailing your work around or posting to a sharing site is a great way to get an eternal tailspin started. You get little opportunity to set up the work or the goals. And you are much less likely to come to definitive agreements than to have the conversation fizzle out. Online tools are great for work that’s very close to done so that there are specific and limited open questions that can be addressed and closed on, but starting with these is a recipe for trouble.

2. Arrive Early and Be Prepared
Show up five minutes early so that you have time to set up the space and focus. Running a professional meeting certainly isn’t impossible if your meeting starts with chair shuffling, phone plugging in, wire untangling, white board erasing and lighting and temperature adjustments, but that’s not a great way to kick things off. Of course bring paper for notes and a pen (yes, old fashioned notes), printouts of the design work, and if you’ll need them, tape, tacks, or large sticky sheets for making notes that all can see and that you can take with you.

3. Two is the Magic Number
If you can, bring two people from the design side of the house, or a designer and project manager, to the meeting. The second person can help with explanations, support, and most importantly with an extra pair of ears to listen to feedback. And if there is any miscommunication or lack of clarity (especially if one of you thought something was perfectly clear), you can work it out together, before the next meeting. Also there is no substitute for hearing feedback first-hand. If you need to bring more than two because of the number of people working on what’s being reviewed, then do so, but be aware that more people in a meeting, from any team, will lead to more feedback and longer meetings. If you’re a consultant, you may also run the risk of leaving your client wondering why one or two of you aren’t back at the office.

4. Set Things Up
Quickly run through what happened at the last meeting and what you’re going to do in this meeting. If it’s your first meeting, cover the goal of the project rather than what happened at the last meeting. This can take less than two minutes, but it’s critical to getting everyone back in the mindset they left a week or a few days ago when you had your last review.

5. Be Clear About Your Needs
State the goal for the meeting and the next deadline you’re up against. Then stop and ask if anyone has anything else they’d like to cover. (This gets everyone focused and also allows room to air any additional agendas up front so you’re not sidetracked later.)

Finally, before you start reviewing, explain what kind of review you’re hoping to have. Hugh Dubberly once told me that Clement Mok always states the kind of feedback he’s looking for in a meeting, and I find this incredibly useful. If you’re looking for high-level reactions to overall page hierarchy and color, that’s very different from getting pixel-level feedback and finding typos. Stating the kind of feedback you’re looking for up front (and that you’ll cover the more detailed stuff later) gets you better, more focused feedback and saves reviewers the frustration of giving you feedback that you wave off.

6. Get Reviewing, Paper and Digital
At this point, you can begin to lay out the work. I like to bring one printed copy of each piece, or one printed representation if it’s an interactive piece, and lay it out myself. This gives me a chance to give a quick introduction to each one, get everything that we’re reviewing on the table at once, and give an overview of everything so that if the first piece is universally disliked we can just move on to the second, rather than getting bogged down talking about the one thing on the table. Then it’s time to quickly look at each thing on screen if it is interactive or has color. The color in print, of course, will never match what’s on screen.

At this point, you may need to stop to let people go back to their desks if what you’re doing is exceptionally large or interactive and they need time to play with / read / look at it. That’s fine, now that you’ve set things up and explained your needs. You can reconvene for feedback later but you should *definitely* reconvene. If you brought copies, now is the time to hand them out, because if you do it earlier people will be flipping and thinking instead of watching and listening.

If you’re reviewing in the meeting itself, you can use the printed versions to take rejected options off the table literally, which prevents them from getting referred to (and bogging you down) throughout the meeting even though everyone has agreed that they’re not right. You should also write your notes on the single paper copy. This does several things for you — first, it will be easier to make revisions with the feedback collected all in one place. Second, your clients, whether internal or external, will see what you’ve written. This way if you’ve mis-scribbled, there’s an opportunity to catch it.

7. Wrap Things Up
Once you have the agreement you need (unless you don’t — but that’s probably the subject for another post), you can thank everyone for coming and remind them about what you’ll be doing next and when you next meet. After the meeting, be sure to do your follow-up, including typing up the feedback. You may decide to email this out to all attendees. You’ll be amazed at the number of times people will disagree with written notes that were seemingly agreed to without hesitation in the meeting. (On the other hand you may also open a can of worms by emailing them out — use your judgment here but do not email notes to any stakeholders that weren’t in the meeting unless it’s an exceptional situation. Otherwise you’re really back at Step #1, collecting feedback and responses to feedback without the context a meeting provides.) You and any other designers you’re working with can use the notes going forward, and finally you will use them when you get to #4 in your next meeting.

There’s a nice tidy set of seven rules. These apply whether your clients are internal (you’re part of an in-house design team) or external. We’d be interested in hearing if you try some of these and how that goes — or if you have any you’d add. Leave a comment here or email us at info@designmap.com.

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Audrey Crane

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