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I've heard it a hundred times. "I love it. It's so... clean". It's a mildly frustrating response. When it comes to design review with stakeholders, the word "clean" is the equivalent to the word 'awesome' in modern English.

I have two questions:

What are some good synonyms for "clean"?

Is it possible to define, perhaps in the short list of words, what people are really trying to communicate when they say a design is "clean"?

What are some good questions to help people past this crutch word?

Beyond asking "Can you expand on that a bit more?" or "What about the design seems clean to you?", what are some good questions or techniques that can help non-designers unpack that word and provide more value in these sessions?

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I read an article once that made an interesting point. I'm sorry, I was 90% sure it was on smashing, but I couldn't find it. However, the takeaway for me was to set ground rules before starting a review. The first rule was to relay a set of words that were considered "out-of-bounds". Basically a list of words that could not be used during the session. I believe I could fairly assume the first word on your list would be "clean".

The second thing I would do is go back to my design criteria. I would write questions based on the criteria listed. For example, "does my main call-to-action inspire the appropriate response", "is the brand accurately reflected", etc..

The third thing I would do is evaluate a list of standard design criteria, like this one, and write questions that would make sense to the evaluating group or person.

To sum it up, you never want to go into a review cold. Have a plan, if you have the time, send over the review questions with the rules and design. Give the intended reviewer a chance to think about the questions. I would limit your questions to 10, anything more than that is too much for your average person.

If you don't want to send anything ahead of time, be sure to at least send and agenda stating the how you plan to approach the design. For example one of my standards would be: Introductions (if need be), review of the process so far (or how we got here, which would include the agreed upon requirements), guidelines (rules sounds restricting), then the actual design review, (during which I would read the questions and take notes, lots and lots of notes)

  • I'm not a big fan of making certain words off limits. It seems artificial and not necessary. Still, +1 for some very good advice. – user31143 Oct 21 '14 at 16:18
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    @dan1111 I concur, what I incorporated was setting the guidelines. I actually do this for stakeholder interviews and focus groups as well. What I tell people is, "as long the comments are respectful it's all good". – Johnny UX Oct 21 '14 at 18:00
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    Thanks for the input and discussion. This talk of review guidelines is reminding me that I have a technique I use and want to share but can't work out the right venue. It's the "Found Wireframes" (or "Found Designs") approach. The idea is to imagine we don't know where the designs being reviewed came from. We just found them, so we can't ask about the intentions of the designer -"Why did you use a dropdown?" - and forces the conversation to be more goal-based - "Does a dropdown help the user achieve their goal here?". – dennislees Oct 24 '14 at 16:28
  • @dennislees I like that. It removes the personal nature from the review process and allows people to focus on the business at hand. – Johnny UX Oct 24 '14 at 19:59
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I don't think "clean" is meaningless. It refers to an uncluttered, elegant, simple design. If you hear that a lot, it is probably because this characterizes most good design.

As for what to do, if stakeholders think your design is great, that is a win. Don't get too worried about it!

I'm not sure that it is worth a lot of effort to get more detail about their feelings of the general design. You could ask them to name specific things that they like. But ultimately, many people just instinctively like a design (or don't like it) without really knowing why. They aren't designers, so--unlike you--they don't necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a design good.

Asking about specific features and functions that may interest the stakeholders is likely to be more fruitful.

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To me, when a client is saying that my work is "clean" during a review session, it either means that they aren't clear what they're reviewing, or I spent way too much time on a design prettying it up.

Here's my thinking. As a UX designer, I'm generally not looking for feedback on the visual design. (We have a visual design team that handles that, and they do a good job.) What I'm actually looking for is whether or not the solution I'm proposing would solve their problem. That is, there's a business problem, and I need to check that what I've designed will solve it. If they're saying a design is "clean", it usually means they're focusing on the visual aspects of the design, rather than the deeper concepts.

Another issue may be that you're over designing. When you stick to low-fi tools like pencil and paper, people know that it's a concept. Concept validation will be a lot easier. On the other hand, if you're presenting conceptual work with a glossy illustrator file or something, your stakeholders will be getting the wrong impression. They'll think you're at the point of visual design. If this is the case, try presenting them with something sketchier like balsamiq or a pencil sketch. Their feedback will instantly shift to focus on the concept not the visual design.

Now, if you are at the point of visual design, having stakeholders say the design is "clean" is generally a good thing. (I've never heard someone say a design is "dirty", but I assume it would be a bad thing.) If this is the case, I'd say just roll with it. In the end, the stakeholders personal opinion of a design won't reflect the effectiveness of what you've come up with. It just reflects their personal aesthetic.

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