Design Review Best Practices: 3 Ways to Keep Your Reviews from Going Off the Rails

Meagan Campbell

May 3, 2022

6

min read

If you’re actively looking to recalibrate your design review process, you’re already ahead of the game. Many engineers and engineering leaders are growing frustrated with painful review processes that aren’t efficient, effective, or collaborative enough. And even for teams that are doing reviews digitally, it can still feel like there’s a lot of wasted time and missed opportunities. 

But what can you do to make your design reviews better?

Change is hard, and making changes to your design review process is no different. While the term “design review” can bring different things to mind for different people, it’s essentially referring to any situation where design work is shared for feedback. And despite the many types of design reviews that exist and the unique needs of different design teams, there are some best practices that always apply.

So no matter what your process looks like today, here are three things you can do right away to start improving your design reviews.

1. Have a Clear and Specific Design Review Goal

Whether it’s a formal design review with many stakeholders or an informal review between two people, everyone needs to be on the same page. What is the purpose of the design review? Any design review should have a clear, specific objective and explicit criteria for meeting it.

So if you’ve ever left a design review meeting feeling like it was a pointless exercise, it’s time to reassess. Take a step back from the process and look at the big picture. For each review stage, does everyone understand the goal? Does your team have the right structure in place to achieve it?

It sounds simple and obvious. But it’s easy to overlook. Take a few minutes to map out each step in your design review process. Then, beside each step, write down what the outcome should be (ideally). If you can clearly identify the goal of each step, that’s a good start. But if the specific goals for each specific review stage are fuzzy at all, that’s a sign you need to revisit the foundation of your review process to evaluate if it’s still serving its purpose.

Once you have that solid understanding of exactly what your reviews should achieve, then you can start to look at the people, process, and tools involved. Putting process and tools aside for a minute, having clearly stated goals is particularly important when you think about the people who need to participate in reviewing designs.

Setting shared goals for a design review is crucial to:

  • get everyone to give focused feedback on a particular challenge or question,
  • enable outside perspectives to give meaningful input,
  • align interdisciplinary viewpoints with a common purpose, and
  • evaluate whether your team and collaborators have the right process and tools to get the job done.

This is step one. That means it’s not a step you can skip. So if your design review doesn’t start off with a clear, specific, explicit purpose, it can easily go off the rails before it even gets off the ground.

2. Make the Most of Your Design Review Meetings

For most teams, it’s probably not realistic (or recommended) to try and go 100% meeting-free with your design reviews. Complex mechanical design will likely always require actual meetings at particular times or for particular reasons. And that’s okay!

Without aiming to eliminate design review meetings, it’s worth thinking about how you might minimize the amount of meetings and optimize the ones you do need. How can you make the most of your design review meetings? How can you structure your review process so that it maximizes creativity, collaboration, and productivity?

One of the best places to start is by considering synchronous versus asynchronous design review. While holding a meeting and having everyone in the same “place” (even if it’s a video call) does have advantages, it also comes with serious scheduling pains. And sometimes, depending on the goal at hand, a meeting isn’t the most effective method.

But when parts of the review process are done asynchronously, it can completely change the dynamic of the meetings you do hold. Some tasks are better suited for asynchronous work. To work as effectively as possible, smart teams are working to adopt a hybrid design review model—one that puts a structure in place that strikes the right balance between meetings and asynch review.

Cutting out unproductive meetings doesn’t just save time. It also prevents your team from getting burnt out and disengaging from the process. When you strategically enable your team to work asynchronously where it makes sense, everyone can be more prepared for the meetings you do have. That means you can get the very most out of that valuable collaboration time.

3. Standardize Your Design Review Process

Finally, once you’ve locked in your goals and you’ve strategized how your team will work best together, you can look at standardizing your design review process. One of the biggest problems with most review processes right now is the lack of standardization. But why does it matter?

Can you “get by” without a standardized design review process? For the most part, you probably can. Yet there are two important questions you should be able to answer if so: will just “getting by” be enough for you to hit your targets this year? And if you did a stress analysis on your non-standardized process, what would it take to break it?

On the first point: a standardized process helps you deliver quality products, on time, with less hassle and fewer mistakes. Anyone in the engineering world can appreciate the value of standards. When it comes to design reviews, it’s highly valuable to have a standard approach that’s easily repeatable and consistent across the whole team. That way your reviews move faster, and the risk of anything slipping through the cracks is greatly reduced—so you don’t just feel confident about hitting your targets, but rather you feel equipped to exceed them.

And even if you know you can hit or exceed your targets without standardizing design reviews, what happens if something changes? Often, design review problems start to bubble to the surface when an engineering team starts scaling (or getting ready to scale). What worked okay for a handful of people to manage reviews won’t always keep working when there’s growth in the volume of work or the number of people involved.

If you’re looking to achieve more output with the same inputs, or to adjust to changing inputs, standardization should be on your radar. Because if everyone takes a slightly different approach to design review, that non-standardized way of working gets even more deeply entrenched. And when that happens, it’s exponentially harder to make changes once that change does become absolutely necessary.

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May 3, 2022
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