GuidesProduct developmentWhat is design by committee, and why should you avoid it?

What is design by committee, and why should you avoid it?

Last updated

16 April 2023

Reviewed by

Jen Lee

Design by committee is an unfavorable process involving too many parties participating in the product design decision-making process, resulting in a less effective platform for the users.  

When it comes to a design by committee, the proverb "too many cooks spoil the broth" applies perfectly. No matter how experienced and qualified product designers and other involved parties are, working as a committee with equal opinions is counterproductive. It lacks data-driven decisions, a unified vision, and a team structure.

Why else does this collaborative effort yield poor results? Let's take a closer look.

What is design by committee?

Design by committee is a form of democratic teamwork. It involves a group of designers, stakeholders, and clients working on the same project and sharing equally valid opinions. When each person's opinion carries the same weight and there’s no established decision-making process, the next version may not fulfill users’ needs and will likely have low quality.  

Why doesn't committee design work?

While design by committee sounds like an excellent collaborative effort, in reality, it's addressing the collaboration without structure, data-driven decisions, and processes to organize a system to include the right parties and the right time. Unorganized team structures without a guideline to use data to make decisions will experience design by the committee. Opposing views will increase as the number of people working on the project increases.

Since design is a creative process that becomes even more subjective without data, it can be difficult to agree on one opinion. That's when compromises come in. In many other collaborative efforts, a compromise can be an excellent decision. In product design, it usually produces low-quality results.

Besides being ineffective, design by committee is a time-consuming process. Collecting opinions and finding a compromise can take a while, especially when several stakeholders are involved.

Discussion without collaboration

Successful product design is rarely achieved by one designer working on the entire project. It's a collaboration of different roles and stakeholders on the team. To make valid and useful decisions for the platform design, it's imperative to implement structure.

You should consistently maintain user feedback to identify and validate from tests how the user is thinking. However, design by committee involves doing the guesswork without qualitative and quantitative data to validate hypotheses. Another problem is without roles identified or a team structure, opinions and preferences carry the same weight—it's unorganized and challenging to know which ones are important to continue with user research and testing to validate them.

The effective collaborative design process organizes teams and their roles so they can make considerations at the appropriate time for hypotheses to be validated in support of existing data or to further validate leading and suggestive data as to how the interactions and interface of a product design screen ought to be. By doing this, we can suspend the problem and fasten the designing processes so that when opinions are shared, they’re appropriate and relevant.

Pontiac Aztek: example of design by committee

One of the most prominent examples of committee design was General Motors' when they were making the Pontiac Aztek vehicle model released in the early 2000s. The manufacturing giant decided to leverage design by committee and create an affordable, stylish, and edgy vehicle that would become a head-turner to several markets and consumers.

The group responsible created a vehicle that became the least visually pleasing car of the year. Instead of the expected 70,000 vehicles sold, GM sold fewer than 30,000 and eventually took the model off the market in 2005. While the stories continue with how this can happen for multinational companies and mom-and-pop brands, the principles to avoid this remain the same, and we want to walk you through how you can avoid this in your team design processes.

How to avoid design by committee

To avoid design by committee and achieve optimal results, it's imperative to implement the design through a structured, organized framework and process led by quantitative and qualitative data. Below we show you how.

Make goals clear

Before the plan begins, all parties need to be on the same page:

  • Goals. You need to communicate the key goals clearly. The more details the team has, the more likely they are to come up with effective, valuable ideas based on the users’ needs.

  • Communication. Team members should understand how, when, and where they can communicate their ideas. Providing and discussing the format of these ideas will make it easier to consider them and test their hypothesis.

  • Roadblocks. If you already know the expected roadblocks from previous experience, address them and strategies before the design process starts.

Stakeholders and parties need to understand the goal is to create an efficient product design and should increase the usability and value of the problems being solved. 

Build hierarchy

While you can have a large team of designers, you should only have one decision-maker. Your entire team should understand that no matter how valuable their opinions and decisions seem, only one person makes the final call. You should have a clear team structure, with roles and duties plainly organized and visible for the team to understand.

  • Team manager. Designate a team manager who gathers everyone's feedback and opinions, including designers, users, and stakeholders. The ideal team manager has extensive design experience and market knowledge to understand trends as well as aggregate qualitative and quantitative data to generate reports and identify hypotheses for further testing and their next steps.

  • Decision-maker. Designate a person who makes the final decisions about feedback prioritization and implementation from what has been validated. They should be a team member with industry and market trend knowledge who also has an understanding of deep user pain points and the problems the user base is experiencing. 

When all team members know their roles and duties, the product design process increases tremendously. With the structure provided, people are aware of how and where they contribute to the design decision process and focus on achieving their duties and tasks. Building the hierarchy and designating the correct roles is crucial to avoiding design by committee and achieving optimal design experiences.

Define feedback structure

To analyze and process stakeholder feedback along with users’ qualitative and quantitative input, you need to establish the parameters and structure of how feedback is organized. To accomplish this for designated stakeholders, you can create an internal idea survey and add a set of questions they can use when evaluating the quality of their feedback. This allows them to reflect on their feedback relevance for consistency and achieve greater focus in their future contributions. 

For example, a checklist might look like this:

  • The design aligns with the goals.

  • The design aligns with the guidelines and focus areas of impact.

  • The design translates the personality of the company.

Whereas a survey collecting team ideas might ask:

  • What type of feedback is being provided? New feature? Feature optimization?

  • What problem is the feedback solving? 

  • Is the idea supported by experiments or research conducted, or is it a new hypothesis that needs to be tested and validated? 

  • Who will mainly benefit from the new feature?

This doesn't just make it easier for the user researcher or product or design manager to deal with feedback. It allows product designers to double-check their work and prevent ineffective personal preferences from seeping through the suggestions so there is consistency with relying on data to validate opinions and the design outcomes are focused.

Set clear deadlines

One of the best ways to avoid the downsides of committee by design is to include timelines. This can prevent opinions and feedback from flowing in after the project goes to the next stage.

Feedback windows with clear deadlines can help all team members structure their work and enhance the outcome.

Don't forget that product design isn't a flat democracy. It's an organized data-driven decision process led by an organized team with clear duties and roles with one to a few decision-makers using validated hypotheses of how users think and behave to determine what design solutions are needed. Without incorporating the right elements and with an unstructured team, you can fall back into the committee approach and hinder the design quality and solutions for the users.

Empower your team

Besides providing design-led parameters and setting deadlines, you need to empower your team to provide high-quality results in their given roles. Give them the tools they need to complete their duties and tasks. And establish a simple digital channel or tool to collect feedback and opinions according to project requirements so it does not clutter where the design process is taking place. 

Good leadership inspires creativity, innovation, and focus. By providing healthy guidance, facilitating the environment to passively collect ideas, and instilling confidence in teammates to execute their tasks and duties, you'll support the overall growth and design process of the platform and prevent design by committee. 

Implementing design by collaboration

Design by committee and design by collaboration are complete opposites, as they’re based on how decisions are made if the team is organized, and if everyone's opinions are equal.

With design by committee, the democratic unstructured team approach with equal opinion and no validated data or single decision-maker makes it nearly impossible to create a quality product.

In collaborative design, the teams are structured between departments, with a decision-maker implementing needs based on validated qualitative and quantitative data centered on user feedback and needs, which increases the platform's quality.


What is an example of design by committee?

An example of a design by committee is a large group of stakeholders and a team of designers trying to agree on the product design without validated data on how a user thinks, feels, or interacts with a unified goal. 

In addition, there’s a lack of a data-driven framework, making it difficult for a decision-maker and their structured team to decide on goals to guide them on what should be implemented or further tested. When this happens, they create a product that lacks coherence, consistency, and marketplace value because they didn’t center the users’ input to shape what their problems were and how they needed them to be solved. 

You can also have a platform without multiple stakeholders that doesn’t solve users’ needs because it doesn’t center the users’ opinions to say what their needs are. The difference is design by committee has more stakeholders but doesn’t organize team roles or duties or designate a decision-maker using users’ feedback and data. 

What is the difference between design by a committee and design by a dictator?

Design by committee is the process of implementing feedback from all relevant parties and finding a compromise that works for everyone, weakening the platform's output and value to its users.

Design by a dictator involves selecting opinions given, moving ideas forward that are validated, and using the most relevant feedback to improve design quality.

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