Higher Ed Web Design by Committee?

I had a meeting today with some of the folks from a program on campus  regarding some concerns they have about our public website.  Most of the concerns are also concerns that we’ve identified as topics that need to be addressed as we go down the redesign process.

Some of their questions/comments made me think of a committee redesign process.  They asked questions like “who decided on the wording for the navigation?”

I’ve never been a fan of the design by committee approach that is too often the case in government or higher education institutions.  Seth Godin agrees with this point.  In his blog post, “How to create a great website” he states:

1. Fire the committee. No great website in history has been conceived of by more than three people. Not one. This is a dealbreaker.

The problem I see with design by committee is that everyone has their own take on things.  In my experience as a web designer, you’ll never be able to please everyone.  Thats just what a design by committee approach tries to do and it ends up being the nail in the coffin for the project in many cases.

I’m not opposed to having more than one or two people in the design and implementation process.  It should be limited to key individuals like the designers, web manager and marketing team.

I’m about to embark on a major redesign process at the college I work at and I hope to be able combat the negative impacts of the design by committee approach.  Paul Boag has a great blog post I came across directly targeted to my concern.  He states:

The key to successfully avoiding design by committee is getting all parties to agree to a process before design even begins. In my experience the following order of events works very successfully.

  • The designer produces initial design concepts
  • Working with personas and business objectives the designer and website manager refines these concepts
  • The website manager and if possible designer, meets with each stakeholder individually to talk through the designs.
  • The website manager and designer collate feedback and make any amendments they feel necessary
  • The design is presented to real users and feedback is taken
  • The design is revised into its final iteration
  • The final design is presented to all stakeholders supported by feedback from the user testing and stakeholder interviews
  • Design is signed off.

My plan is to have regular communication go out from office to the managers on campus on where we are at with the process, concepts we are working on and solicit feedback and comments.  I think this, along with Paul’s points above will be a successful attempt on avoiding the design by committee approach.

I don’t think its the multiple opinions and/or feedbacks that cause committees to fail in the design process, its when each member of the committee feels they have some ‘say’ or authority in the final decisions.

I plan on taking all feedback/opinions and applying them where the smaller team made up of my web designers and the marketing team sees fit.  If final say and authority lie with a smaller unit, thats when the design process will succeed.

I am really interested in other people’s experience with higher education design processes when a committee is involved.  Please leave a comment with your experiences.  Thanks.

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  • http://www.edustyle.net Stewart Foss

    In my experience, there is more chance for success, both in a large redesign and in maintaining a large website, when it is handled primarily by a small dedicated nimble team of professionals. When every little decision requires consensus from a large committee with different goals and that answer to different people the website nothing much happens. Who has time to go through that?

    You still need communication with the broader community, but relying on them to make the decisions just doesn’t work IMO.

    I posted a list of the top 10 higher-ed web design mistakes collected from my twitter followers and committees was a popular item. http://www.edustyle.net/blog/?p=266

  • http://www.jm-experts.com Jm-Experts

    cool! keep up the good work!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/jonathanmac Jonathan T McInerney

    It's funny how many nightmare stories you come across about “design by committee” . It's an epidemic. It's just so difficult to make it work. Fuchsia Mac tells a story of one of these nightmares and gives some advice on how to attempt to make it work. http://www.fuchsiamac.com/design-by-committee-a

  • http://carlfinity.com/ Carlfnity

    There should be honest collaboration and clever deduction for every project to succeed. Communication is the key that must not be taken lightly.

  • http://www.davenport.edu/ Von Franklin


    I'm about to embark upon a similar webdesign at the University that I work for. I'm wondering if we might be able to compare notes…. ???

  • http://twitter.com/codyfoss Cody Foss

    While it’s possible to get stuff done with a committee, it’s much harder. Unfortunately, when it comes to higher-ed, it’s almost impossible to avoid them. A few keys to success I’ve found:
    1) The committee needs to know it’s job is to provide strategic direction (not design advice) and the implementation details are up to the web people
    2) You need to assert your position as an expert as early and as often as possible (especially when it comes to design). Use data or expert opinions to back up your positions. If all else fails, use a lot of technical jargon then back up and explain it.
    3) If possible, have a higher up (manager, director, vp, etc) available to back you up.

  • http://www.directrix.com.au Richard Powell

    Committees are often formed as a way to spread the blame if somehing goes wrong. Lucky because they so often result in bad designs.

    Be careful when meeting each stakeholder one at a time. Senior people may me inclined to direct you to do things that other committee members would object to when those others aren’t present.

  • http://www.mikemccready.ca/blog/ Mike McCready

    That’s good advice. I would add to that to make sure you get conversations in writing either through e-mail or such. Fortunately our experience went fairly well.

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  • http://twitter.com/CoyoteNH Ed Dansereau

    Keep in mind the three pillars of academia: Community, Publishing, and Teaching. If you can find a way to give people credit for serving on committee or filling a community service requirement, while using them as advisers, you will be successful. 

    I agree committees are more about process than quality results. 

  • http://jtrader.hubpages.com/hub/How-to-Publish-on-Fanficitonnet-and-Gain-a-Loyal-Following Healthy

    Sometimes small teams could do with an extra person but only when that person’s role is defined before they are called onto the team.


  • notaquarterback

    My experience is making sure you use the committee for specific things. When you give untrained people free reign to make decisions they’re not qualified to make you run into problems.

    But for buy-in and perspective, committees can be invaluable. Understand what you’re needing from these folks and use them accordingly, then keep the rest for a smaller, functional committee of professionals + people who might do more hands-on/day to day things with the website.