The Scariest Design Review of My Life

Posted on March 28, 2022.

“There is nothing remotely close to anything I want to see on that piece of paper.” 

Those were the words of the executive in charge of America Online’s software products when I worked there between the years of 2003 and 2006. I was 5 years into my design career having quickly moved from basic web design to information architecture and now application design. His name was David Gang and he was notorious for his micromanagement and eye for detail. He knew every pixel and interaction on every screen and service we provided so you better know it too. 

aol cd
You’re welcome.

AOL had crested its wave of success but was continuing to make a ton of money off of legacy customers who were still, unbelievably, using dial-up internet and paying $25 a month for the pleasure of doing so. I was a UX designer working on one part of The Client – the giant piece of software that came with every CD you got in the mail from us (you’re welcome!). 

Waterfalls all the way down

Our “process” was pure, dictated-from-the-top, waterfall product development. Our job was to design and ship the executives’ vision. Often that vision came in the form of, “I saw this on a competitor’s site so we need it too.” Or, “my kids do this now so we need to support this type of behavior.” That was largely the extent of the direction that we got. This led to a series of in-person design reviews (some daily, some less frequently) where the product design and development teams brought in their best guesses as to what the executive had in mind and hoped not to get yelled at. 

I was not so lucky that day as I walked into Gang’s office. It was huge and had windows on 3 sides. The door was at least 10 meters from his desk, where he was seated when I walked in, my design printed out on an A4 sheet of paper, hands trembling. I had prepared an entire defense of my work – design choices, button placement, research-backed workflows – ready to prove my merit as a designer and user advocate. I’d barely broken the threshold of his office door when he uttered that phrase. 

I was in shock. I didn’t even get a chance to speak much less try and defend my work. By the time I got to his desk he had redlined the entire thing in his mind. As I handed him that piece of paper – perhaps not the best format for reviewing digital work – he unloaded his “critique.” This was not so much critique in the classic sense but rather an explicit detailing of the mental model he held for the work which, perhaps not surprisingly, didn’t match mine. I can still see and feel that day now, more than 15 years later. 

We shouldn’t have to defend our work – ever 

The word “defend” immediately creates an adversarial scenario. In theory, I and Gang should have been on the same team, working towards the same goals. Yet it always felt like we had to defend our work. I find that many teams face that same dynamic today. Rather than building collaborations with their leaders they are in a constant battle to validate their decisions and prove their merit. As an executive you have to ask yourself, “Why did you hire these folks if you don’t trust them to do their jobs?”

I had my story ready to defend my work in front of my boss’ boss’ boss. I never got the chance to tell it. As the viral tweet above states so clearly, our goal is to tell compelling stories. By the time we reach pixels (or paper!) we should have that story aligned. The design choices we make are our best attempt to tell that story. It should be clear how our story solves the user’s problem and why that works well for the business. If we disagree about the story, let’s solve that first. If we disagree on how to tell the story, well, that’s what our users help us do. Ultimately they get to decide what works best for them. Consider that the next time you’re in front of your team reviewing their work.