The why and how of effective design critiques
Elevate your product, elevate your team
Critiques are a time-proven way of pushing design ideas forward. Art and design schools have used them as key teaching venues for decades. And while common in corporate teams, I suspect they’re often underutilized.
To start, it’s worth pointing that critiques ("crits"):
- Are not generative sessions (divergent, idea generation meetings). These tend to involve different project stakeholders and happen early in the design process.
- Are not evaluative sessions (convergent, approval-oriented meetings). These focus on making a decision, and by definition happen later in the process.
Critiques are iterative sessions, where the design team comes together to comment on work in progress. It’s an opportunity to enrich solutions between the divergent/generative beginning and the convergent/decisive end of a design cycle.
Some of the advantages of having critiques sessions are obvious.
“Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”
First of all, you get better results. The more capable, dedicated people look at a problem, better the chances of finding an elegant solution.
Critiques also increase the chance of cross-pollination. When designers from different sub-teams or who are tackling different problems meet, they create opportunities to spot patterns in their problems and solutions and to rethink their approaches based on the big picture. Along the same lines, critiques allow organic consistency to emerge: if your product lacks a comprehensive style guide, they help ensure consistent patterns are used.
But what excites me the most about crits are how they can help a design team grow, both as a group and as individuals.
By having to quickly articulate a problem, its constraints and proposed solutions, designers exercise their presentation skills. By doing so regularly and in a safe space, they get better at it. And since crits are about gathering feedback, designers must be able to effectively articulate what feedback is valuable and handle it well.
Designers often feel frustrated by seemingly off-topic or untimely feedback when presenting to other functions (product, engineering, marketing, etc). What they often don’t realize is that it’s their own fault. It’s a designers responsibility to set up the conversation so the scope of feedback is valuable to them at a given point in time. Critiques force designers to do so, but in a safer space than an evaluative presentation.
It can also be hard to handle criticism in cross-functional presentations, especially after spending tons of energy. Critiques can help designers foresee objections, strengthening their designs, and develop the ability to handle them with grace.
How to Run a Critique session
It would be silly to say there’s one best way of running critiques. The art school model tends to be pretty brutal, and to promote growth through negative reinforcement. Some teams love rules, some teams less so. But I’ve observed over time that successful critiques share a few attribute, which I recommend here.
- Design-team only. Critiques should be a safe space where people can be themselves, present incomplete work and discuss minutiae which could be deemed irrelevant by other functions. That’s why I believe attendance should be limited to members of the design team (which in my definition would include UX Researchers, writers, etc).
- In terms of numbers, 4 people seem to be the critical mass for a session to flow. Large groups (15+) can derail the conversation — or just not fit in the allotted time. You can work around that issue by breaking sessions into multiple meetings on different days.
- It’s also important to appoint a facilitator, whose role is to balance the more and less vocal people and ensure the session’s fluidity. They don’t have to be a team lead, and the role can be on a rotation. And while the facilitator should be encouraged to also provide feedback, their thoughts don’t count any more or less than the other participants’.
- Make sure your critiques are regular and frequent. They should be part of the team’s routine. One hour once a week seems to be a favorite. Many teams also formalize a number of slots (say 3 slots, 20 minutes each) which can be booked ahead, so sessions are fully scheduled ahead of time.
- If they’re not, the facilitator should prepare an agenda beforehand, calling for presenters. You may want to have a fixed presenter rotation, but ideally your critiquess are so valuable (and fun!) that presenters volunteer by themselves.
- Presenters should make it clear if they’d rather hear feedback or questions during their presentation or afterward. It’s up to personal preference, but I see much better results when it comes at the end: many questions are organically answered during the presentation and it allows the presenter to control the timing.
- Present unfinished work. The rougher the better — there’s more room for new ideas to make it in. That’s why it’s so important to create a safe space: designers should be comfortable sharing incomplete ideas and low fidelity mocks with no fear of judgement.
- While a presenter is speaking, participants should write their thoughts on sticky notes, and read from them later. This avoids interruptions, forgotten comments and saves on note-taking: presenters can just take all sticky notes back to their desk to process after the meeting. It also forces participants to articulate their ideas in writing or, better yet, sketches.
- It might seem random, but I’ve noticed that when everyone stands up during the course of the meeting, feedback flows best. The passive, evaluative posture of leaning back on conference room chairs seems to lead to less participation.
A note on distributed teams
Critiques surely work best when the entire team is in the same room, standing up, looking at the same screen or print-out. It’s hard to recreate that same dynamic for distributed teams, especially across time zones.
One definite requirement is a great video-conferencing system and screens large enough for people’s expressions to be captured. Good cameras where sticky notes can be shown are also important. And facilitators must pay extra attention to ensure everyone participates especially if there’s a significant difference in number of people between HQ and other locations.
To summarize, my recommendations are to:
- Make crits regular and frequent
- Make them exclusive to the design-team
- Appoint a facilitator
- Collect an agenda beforehand
- Present unfinished work
- Ensure presenters are clear about what feedback is valuable
- Write feedback on sticky notes
- Stand up if you can
And treat critiques like any design project: ideate, test, iterate. Don’t settle for this model, and don’t give up if things don’t flow right away. Find the model which works for your team, and you’ll be harvesting benefits for a long time.