There’s an interesting article over at UsabilityWorks from a little while ago, essentially about design by committee. Situations where a consensus is needed for even the most minor decision are very difficult — particularly when everyone has a different (sometimes political) agenda.

This sort of environment leads to two main things happening: either 1) decisions end up being taken in a hurry by some random person who it falls to in the end, because “we’re hitting a deadline now and we just haven’t been able to get everyone in a room to point at the same bit of paper” (just for the record, I’m a BIG fan of everyone pointing at the same bit of paper) or 2) decisions not being taken at all, potentially critical issues not being addressed because achieving consensus is just too difficult.

What often occurs in these situations is as Matthew predicts: “the person who speaks first/loudest is the authority”. For some this is a fantastic opportunity and they build their career on the great decisions they have made at critical moments. For others it is disastrous — they are not the right person to make the decision, due to lack of experience, misunderstanding of the issues, etc. Projects driven on consensus and designed by committee are made or broken in those critical moments when someone without authority (for essentially no one has authority) makes a decision. The person who speaks loudest is not necessarily the best person to make the decision, as the guys at OK/Cancel have previously illustrated.

Admittedly, sometimes this setup is needed. If you have a number of stakeholders, each representing a given role/viewpoint, then everyone being involved in the design may be essential. It often falls over, however, when those involved have not clearly declared their roles and discussions become fights because no-one understands where anyone else is coming from. The real problem is when you have a team which is not a team at all — it is possible for a team to design something, even a group can do so. But never a committee.

As Elly previously touched upon, what you end up with is a situation where any idea that doesn’t cause a fight is a Good Idea ™. There is a similar concept in Software Engineering called Groupthink — where any idea the group comes up with is by definition great, because the group came up with it (yes, ladies & gents, psychosis and circles all in one concept…).

Now, the question really crystallizes down to the following: do we want to design “OK” things? Surely any critical design decision should evoke some sort of emotion from people? I think this is where Apple have got the right idea. They design beautiful things, things that people feel strongly about. You don’t just buy an iPod or a Powerbook. You WANT one. If you’re Simon then you lust after one for months and it is a major event when you finally order one.

I want to design things that people love, hate, adore, detest, recommend, ignore. I’d rather the strength of feeling were there than just mindless acceptance or apathy. Maybe I’m not the only one, but you wouldn’t know to look at a lot of the things produced out there.