I'm often asked by other designers the best way to deal with design reviews that seem to "go south" when put in front of their VP's or senior leadership. There's no easy answer because this question is so loaded to begin with, however, I thought I would share some of my thoughts…
Warning! My response is guised in the form of a compliment sandwich. I start with the positive (that's the top bread) and then go into the meat (that's the negative) and then end on a positive note (the bottom bread) It's a real thing. Google it.
So back to VP's…I hear lots of stories about how designers work back and forth on designs with fellow designers, then present to their managers, who will have a say and recommend changes, (back and forth a few times) then maybe even a senior manager or director will get pulled in for their opinions (back and forth a few more times), and then finally the designs are ready to be offered to the VP for approval.
Now, at this point, designers can feel fairly battered by the process, but if that whole hierarchy has had a say in the designs, then one would think that collectively and professionally, you are all on the same page and really, what could go wrong at the VP level?
Well, sometimes, as some of you know, EVERYTHING CAN GO WRONG. As in, the VP doesn't like any of it, the VP is confused, the VP wants to know why you went in that direction, the VP would never allow this to ship. Designers can walk out of those meetings feeling fairly skinless and beaten. (or worse, hear about them from others because they weren't invited)
All of the above has happened to me at one time or another.
Why is that? What should you do? How did it come to this? How do I make my VP understand?
All good questions but like I said before, no easy answers. Here are a few things you should keep in mind (here's the bread part):
1. Your VP may be right —One of the great things about VP's is that they aren't down in the weeds like you are. As in, they haven't lived and breathed the project like you have for months at a time. That means they get a fresh perspective on the project. Sure, you know how it all works and it seems so simple, but that's because you've become an expert on "XYZ new feature" or "XYZ new product". The VP can represent the customer, the person on the other side of the fence that might look at your designs and just get confused. I've been in situations frustrated that I didn't see simple problems with my designs that a fresh set of eyes can pick out immediately. (I was probably too obsessed on kerning the type to see that the information architecture lead to a brick wall.)
2. Your VP may have to submit your designs to the CEO —So yeah, expect your VP to ask tough questions. They are professionals and very smart people, they don't want to look bad in front of their boss either.
Now on to the meat of the sandwich…
3.You should be invited to VP meetings. Getting information second hand is unacceptable — If your manager trusts you enough to complete designs that will be seen by a VP, then they should invite you to the meeting to present. That way you get all information first hand. You state your rationales (you better have some) and if possible, bring data to support your theories. But wait, you say, I prefer to duck out at 4:30 and hope my review goes well at that 5:00pm meeting with the VP. Well, don't assume anything. You build a relationship with someone by creating trust, and trust only comes with time—that may mean many reviews. Don't be afraid of your VP, get to know them, and the more reviews you have with them the more comfortable you'll be. Which brings me to:
4.Don't go into a VP meeting with opinions only —Smart companies have research and usability presence now more than ever. Get on somebody's calendar and start testing in front of customers. Get numbers. Figure out who to talk to about pulling numbers. The information is out there (it's buried sometimes) but it's out there. VP's ask tough questions because they want to make sure you've done your homework. Don't go into a meeting even if it's purely a visual design review and say, "I changed the CTA to green because it's like, a green light at an intersection, plus I just wanted to try something new." insert sound of machine gun fire here….
Now some of you might be saying, "Yeah yeah, I did all that and the VP still chewed up my designs and spit them out"
5. Your manager/director/other designers should support you in person as a unified front — What did your manager and rest of the team say to support your designs? Did they argue for your designs (since they had a hand in creating them) or did they step out of the way and wait for the bloodbath to end? They should be as familiar with the project as much as you are and should back you up with your theories and statistics and well thought-out designs.
6. Manage upwards — Designers I feel, never do enough of this. We tend to go off and do the hard work on the designs, but then don't champion our results effectively or stand up to our managers when we disagree. Don't have make-believe conversations with your boss at two in the morning because you can't get to sleep. Talk to them in person. They respect honesty —as long as it's not brutal. Remind them that they are there to help you deflect the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. As in, protect you at VP meetings. If they don't have a good relationship with the VP, or won't defend you, it's time to find another place to work (and tell HR that in the exit interview).
Back to the sandwich bread or, a Matrix Movie metaphor…
Which pill will you take? The blue one or the red one? One thing I've seen in management at any company, is that they want to see what their staff will do in stressful situations. It doesn't mean they enjoy watching you sweat and fail in front of them, but they want to see you rise to the occasion. They want to know that if things go south, or that emergencies erupt, that their staff can handle it; that the people they hired will roll up their sleeves and stand up for what they believe in and get things done. Grace under fire. The alternative to that is the blue pill, or polishing up your resume and leaving the company. But ask yourself if you are leaving because the work is intolerable or because you're just running away from the problem.
Because it will be waiting for you at the next company.
At the end of the day, after all of this, you still may feel like you got the short end of the stick. Well, I recommend sipping pear liqueur after dinner. It eases with not only the digestion of your meal, but the digestion of your day.
You earned it. All designers do.