How to manage bike-shedding in product teams

Imagine this: you’re presenting a complex, well-thought-through design (which was just updated based on feedback during a usability test). Five minutes into the presentation someone noticed that you used an old 4px border radius on a button, where he thought everyone agreed to use 5px… Half an hour later you’re still trying to steer the conversation back on track.

Sounds familiar? Apparently, this is so not uncommon that there’s a term for it: meet bike-shedding.

The term is coming from an example of (an imaginary) committee who needed to approve plans for a nuclear power plant and spent the majority of time on unimportant but trivial issues like employee bike shed while neglecting the design of the powerplant itself.

I’m hyper-aware of people’s time (including mine) and tend to get stressed when it’s not spent well, so I came up with some survival strategies.

0. Accept it is going to happen. People can’t help but have/share opinions about visual design, it might not be relevant at the moment but might help you to broaden your perspective.

Listening to opinions, though, doesn’t mean giving space for decision-making. A trivial UI issue doesn’t need that many people involved, and if it does, a separate meeting should be scheduled. Make sure people understand that.

1. Politely steer the conversation back on track, reminding why you are there and what is the goal of the meeting (get feedback on A? Make a decision about B?). It’s quite a skill to wait out enough time and see if the conversation will get back to the main topic naturally.

2. If steering doesn’t help, call bike-shedding out. This approach won’t work if used too often though as people will get defensive, but if bike-shedding is a recurring part of your product meetings, it might be an indication that something bigger is going on, which brings the next point:

3. Most importantly, treat it as a symptom, especially when reoccurring. It means people don’t know how to make progress on more complex or uncertain topics and want to focus on “tangible” instead (true story: senior team members didn’t have time to discuss product strategy but were happily engaging in a very extensive conversation about drop shadow).

This situation requires way more than advanced facilitation techniques as you and your team will need to answer the question “what do we need to move forward”. Asking the question however already helps since people are shifting from thinking about “what do we do next” (we don’t know) to how do we decide what to do next (do we need more research? more data? stakeholders support?). Find a place and time to start this discussion.

And of course not getting frustrated is the key, this is just the nature of things we do (that includes visual design) and how we do it (yay, collaboration!)



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Elena Borisova

Combining data and psychology for product and design decision-making | Head of Design at DeepL |