How To Run A Product Design Playback: A User-Centered Perspective

Last week I had the great pleasure of launching the MVP of a product whose design I've been leading at Peak Democracy. Peak Democracy is a 10-year-old Bay Area company on a mission to build trust between local governments and their residents.

Every week, I’ve been meeting with James Box, my mentor and good friend who is the Director of UX Design at Clearleft. In this week’s session, we critiqued the MVP and also touched a bit on running successful playbacks.


James suggested that playbacks should:

  • Frame the problem we as a team are trying to solve
  • Introduce the users for who experience the problem
  • Present the product journey from the user’s perspective

Frame The Problem

He provided a link to Ben Holliday’s article about ‘Asking the right questions to frame the problem’ where he opens by saying "Framing the problem is vital for designers. We need to be relentlessly talking about the core benefits that a product or service, and why.”

He goes on to list five useful quests that he asks people to help with this:

  1. Why are we doing this work?
  2. Who are our users?
  3. What outcome will users get from this service?
  4. What outcome are we looking for?
  5. What are our key metrics?

Introduce Your Users

When I first started showing James the MVP, I launched into a product demo as if I was selling something. I went straight into the flow, the features and the design rationale.

He stopped me in my tracks (thankfully) and asked me to step back and introduce the users, their problems and how this product proposes to solve them. Time and time again James provides this calibrating user-centered perspective and I couldn’t be more grateful.

It’s so easy to go on a tangent, but the most important thing is to remember your users: their goals, behaviors and motivations. I restarted by introducing the product’s users, the insights I’d gained from research, and the funny thing was I actually started getting more excited about the product.

Remembering who I was designing for gave a fresh injection of motivation—even after the end of an intense product sprint…

Present The Product From The User’s Perspective

For the rest of my session with James, we talked about the product from a single real user’s perspective: Ann. We asked questions about Ann’s environment, context and expectations. We analyzed the product functionality from Ann’s eyes as opposed to our own.

It made the biggest difference: an otherwise subjective conversation suddenly became objective. Did this work for Ann?

Thankfully, I’ve been able to recruit a good base of users at Peak Democracy from government staff members who are willing to speak with me to help improve our product. As a result, I have an increasingly strong understanding of Peak Democracy’s users and their needs which gives me all the raw material I need to design initial interactions before testing with users again.


When running a playback, make sure you spend time framing your problem, introduce your users and present the entire product from their perspective. You’ll be amazed at how the conversation changes. You’ll suddenly move from ‘I’m not so sure about this page/component’ to ‘How would Ann expect to complete this task?’

If you’ve done your research and have performed any amount of usability testing, you should have growing certainty about how Ann would expect to complete that very task. Hopefully you’ve validated your designs and now you’ve got a working product to put into Ann’s hands to test again.

This is the beauty of modern product design: Users are in the driver seat. Our role as designers is to listen to their needs, observe their behaviors and use the tools at our disposal to create possible solutions to their problems. Then we test those possible solutions to see if they work with real users in their natural environment. Learn. Repeat…

I’m starting to feel more like a scientist.