How to Lead Inclusive Design Critiques

Design Dept.
Mar 5 · 6 min read

Tips for harnessing your team’s peak intelligence

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The way you lead your team’s design critiques has a significant impact on the group’s long-term cohesion and on each individual’s growth. An effective critique can be a magical thing. Teammates hone their working relationships, learn from each other, and improve their work by diving deep into the nuances — an opportunity they may rarely get during their day-to-day grinds.

Unfortunately, most crit go more like this: a team stands around some boards or a big screen; one teammate briefly presents their work, and people start blurting out feedback.

The result? The meeting ends up being dominated by the loudest, the most opinionated, or the most senior person in the room.

These conditions prevent the best ideas from percolating to the top. I’ve led critiques like this myself, and as an educator and coach, I can’t tell you how many times a design leader has told me that they’re ready to give up on finding a way to engage their entire team evenly or to get quieter designers to participate.

It’s time to rethink our approach to design critiques. Teams need an inclusive space that doesn’t privilege the most imposing voice in the room, but acknowledges neurodiversity and introversion, encourages well-rounded participation, and facilitates deep thinking. Let’s create spaces where people feel comfortable sharing their work and where everyone is heard.

Consider Google’s Project Aristotle, which found that the who of a group — the mix of people on the team — is much less important for a team’s success than the quality of group norms, or the “unwritten rules,” governing how they interact. Group norms can raise a group’s overall performance no matter the amount of individual talent, but unhealthy group norms can also dampen the performance of a talented group.

It’s a leader’s job to influence group norms during critiques by modeling behavior and creating inclusive spaces for good work to thrive.

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Principles of effective, inclusive design critiques

Pay attention to healthy discussion dynamics

A good starting point is to define the difference between feedback and critique. Feedback is a quick, one-way reaction that’s often based on opinion. Critique, on the other hand, is a two-way critical dialogue grounded in specific objectives to help us understand our design decisions.

This is why team discussion dynamics are particularly important to get right.

Research published in Science studied team intelligence, or the “collective intelligence” of a group as a whole, as opposed to that of the individuals, as well as the concept of “conversational turn-taking.” This study found that on the best-performing teams, everyone got a chance to talk in roughly the same proportion. If everyone got a turn, the team did well, but, as lead author Anita Wooley told the New York Times, “If only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.”

The best teams also had high social sensitivity and empathy. These skills, along with conversational turn-taking, all contribute to a broader sense of psychological safety. Individual team members are comfortable being themselves because there is a feeling of mutual respect and, as Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson describes it, ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.’’

We can create the foundation for psychologically safe and productive conversations by thoughtfully preparing and facilitating critiques. Take time to think about the ground rules and best practices that will suit your team. Have a designated facilitator to maintain a safe space, monitor the balance of conversation, and keep everyone focused.

Give your team processing time

On a neurodiverse team, having extra time to process information can help level the playing field and allow more people to comfortably participate.

For example, as part of your preparation and facilitation, share the agenda in advance so everyone has a chance to look it over and come to the meeting prepared to contribute.

Or, when a designer presents their work, add a pause, so everyone can digest what they’ve just heard and formulate their own reactions without any concern of being interrupted or judged. One practice I’ve seen work well is to have the team write down their thoughts or ideas on Post-its for a few minutes. When they’re done, discuss each team member’s critique one by one.

Not only do you allow for more people to process the information on their own time, you also get better articulated critique. Quick and loud responses aren’t necessarily the best responses. Letting people write down their initial reactions is a filter that helps create more deliberate dialogue.

Amplify the origin of insight or ideas

It’s extremely important to recognize contributions across your whole team. Underrepresented minorities are the most likely to be interrupted or ignored, and without a proactive strategy in place, you may discourage valuable team members from offering their insights.

This problem has been documented for decades. A study from the 1970s showed that out of 48 recorded interruptions, 46 were men interrupting women. And both men women interrupt women more than men, according to a 2014 study. Even female supreme court justices have to fight to be heard.

Amplification is one tool to address this problem. It is the deliberate practice of publicly recognizing and repeating someone’s idea and giving them credit for it. For example, women on Obama’s White House staff made a practice of amplifying one another’s contributions during meetings, to make sure they were heard and given appropriate credit.

While leading a critique, carefully observe interruptions and make sure to highlight important contributions that received dismissive treatment from other team members. Publicly showing support for these team members will instill the confidence they need to keep contributing effectively.

Build this into the culture. It might be as simple as giving everyone permission to call out interruptions — something like, “Hang on a sec, John, I want to make sure I understand Amelie’s point before we build on it.”

As a leader, modeling this yourself is so important. Google’s Project Aristotle found that team leaders can end up inadvertently reinforcing interruptions by interrupting other team members themselves. On the other hand, in groups where leaders “enforced conversational order,” group members began to do the same, politely asking everyone to wait their turn when a teammate was cut off.

These behaviors shape group norms, create safe spaces for peers, and support effective discussion of ideas.

Don’t forget about remote participants

One last tip: if you have remote participants, consider creating a method for virtual interruptions. It’s difficult for remote participants to jump in at the right time on video chat, especially if there’s a slight delay. Create a way of interjecting that’s more comfortable, like using your video conferencing tool’s “hand raise” feature or group chat. As a facilitator, you can also regularly pause the conversation to verbally check in with remote participants.

Traditional critique formats, left untethered, tend to bias toward one-way feedback from the people who are the quickest to speak up. This doesn’t usually lead to the best design outcomes. As a leader, you can structure your critiques and model behaviors that encourage voices that aren’t heard enough — and help your team reach its peak intelligence.

Design Dept.

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