Mastering Design Critiques
Checklists, framework and learnings about running Design Critique over 60+ designers.
Por Jonny Czar
Critique is not a trivial thing
Getting design feedback isn’t a simple task. Designers in small teams struggle due lack of structure, maturity, and time in product development sprint.
Designers in large teams struggle with silos, disconnected projects, and bureaucracy. By applying Design Critique in our design roadmap, it was possible to connect projects, improve design quality and handoff, and empower a positive feedback culture in the team.
I led the Design Critique sessions at Itaú, working side by side the Design Team. But it’d be unfair to say that I’m the only responsible for this, since the team has actively participated in the sessions and we went through this journey together.
So, I wrote down this article to tell you how we ran effective Design Critique in Itaú’s Design team, sharing framework, experiences and learnings.
In this article we will go over
- What’s Design Critique
- What’s not Design Critique
- Why you should run Design Critique
- How to do it: Roles and Schedule
- How to measure it
I gathered my experience with some nice articles: Scott Gibbons — Design Critiques: Encourage Positive Culture to Improve Products, Suelyn Yu- The practical guide to effective design critiques and Braden Kowitz — GV Guide to Design Critique. If you need to dig in into the subject, just read those materials. It’s all there.
What’s Design Critique?
It’s the process of giving feedback, improving and bringing expert insight into interfaces, prototypes, brands, services, user journeys or even technical difficulties in implementing a design. It’s usually run by a group of 3 to 7 people and can involve designers, developers, marketing analysts or businesses.
“You could focus purely on branding elements, ease of use concepts, or even engineering feasibility, it’s up to whoever leads. The important thing is someone does lead the discussion, define what questions should be discussed and facilitate the conversation.” Scott Berkun
What’s not Design Critique?
We’re not trying to restrict a Design Critique scope, but after running a few sessions and focusing on more productive discussions, we’ve learned that it’s important to distinguish it from other practices.
It’s not a brainstorming session
1 Unlike a Brainstorming session, which purpose is to diverge and open the scope for new ideas, a Design Critique is focused on evaluating and converging under the perspective of the design that has already been brought, directing specific paths and changes.
“Instead of hoping informal discussions will resolve hard issues, it’s worth setting up a specific critique to drive a design forward.” Scott Berkun
It’s not usability testing
2 A usability test evaluates a product or service by testing it with actual customers. Users complete (or try to) tasks while observers record, listen, and learn about interface or flow issues. Design Critique, on the other hand, helps the project lead anticipate problems and stress solutions before reaching the end user.
So, Design Critique doesn’t take over a usability test. They’re complementary techniques to improve product quality.
It’s not user research
3 If you need ethnographic or behavioral research about your user, there are other methodologies that ensure accuracy and avoid bias. Design critique isn’t the best one for that.
Why should I run a Design Critique session?
The culture of providing and receiving feedback, when framed and handled in the right way, enhances the team in different aspects:
1 Developers code better if they understand the project in depth. Marketers improve acquisition channels when they understand product value proposition and connect with the product from get to go. A Data Scientist could provide insights that would be overlooked by other team members. All of that to say that professionals from different backgrounds contribute to a better product from end to end.
“Multiple designers who work on different parts of a big project can pick up possible inconsistencies across the overall user experience when they all participate in early critiques of each other’s draft designs.” Sarah Gibbons
Likewise, gathering designers with different skills, whether they focus on branding, service design, information architecture or even Industrial design, ties up learnings and experiences that would hardly connect in any other case.
2 Product development process isn’t fail-proof, as it’s impossible to cover 100% of errors and bugs in the process, but having different perspectives — or acting on different phases of the project — increases the chance of success.
Questioning, therefore, the technical feasibility, product and design decisions before launch reduces the waste of time and money.
Build team confidence
3 In the long term, getting the team involved in Design Critique helps to lower anxieties, ensures buy-in — once everyone follows the process of product development and iteration — and builds confidence and consensus.
“Over time, this practice creates team trust and prevents any destructive egos from causing too much damage to a project.” Sarah Gibbons
How to run effective Design Critique?
We tried different approaches to get insights from the presented design. The first point we understood was that it’d be sooo confusing to conduct a session with so many people if the roles and responsibilities were not clear and established.
So, we adapted the experience brought by Suelyn Yu in the article A practical guide to running effective design critiques and organized who should present, analyze, and conduct the session.
Throughout the sessions, however, we felt that designers responsible for presenting the project were overburdened by having to present the work, spelling out about their choices and taking notes feedback and insights.
With that in mind, we shipped the duty of taking notes from the Presenter and created the role of Note Taker, as someone who’d be responsible for following the discussions and writing down the insights that came up. In the end we got:
4. Note taker
1 The presenter is the designer responsible for the project. This person has followed the whole process of designing the interface and is supplied with data and a rational explanation.
This person’s role is to grant enough context and information for Critiquers to feel comfortable in giving feedback. He or she can also share the project goals as well as walk through the interfaces pointing out each step of the flow.
“Start the critique by telling your work’s story.” Sarah Gibbons
The checklist Presenters must keep in mind:
1. What’s the project?
2. Who are we designing for?
3. Main concerns and user questions
4. What’s the rationale behind the solution?
5. What is our goal?
Presenters can also send the interfaces in advance if they understand that Critiquers need more time to analyze or they can choose to collect the perceptions at the time of the session.
2 Critiquers are responsible for pointing out what needs to be improved, the questions sparked and what stands out. The key point, in fact, is to choose very well who will compose the critiquers group depending on your project’s needs.
“Instead, you must narrow down your invite list to the people most critical to the design process. Try to forget about job titles or hierarchy, and instead, focus on the people who are most likely to understand the creative process, and give useful and meaningful feedback, both positive and negative.” Scott Berkun
For example, in Itaú’s Design Team, we believe that bringing together designers with different skills creates richer feedback sessions. In this way, we encourage industrial, branding, service and digital designers to join in every session.
When we figure out that the design needs even wider visions and perspective, we invite team members from other areas to sum up the discussion, like Product Owner for example.
“Think about inviting someone with a different background or from a different department on a rotating basis. Critique helps create a common foundation by bringing together different perspectives.” Sarah Gibbons
In addition, it’s important to ensure that Critiquers give clear feedback and avoid personal bias such as “Hell yeah, I just love this interface” ; or “Oh, this interface is so cluttered” ; Driving concise and direct feedback is crucial to not demotivate the designers involved in the whole process, to boost a productive discussion. The critiquers should present constructive criticism with a strong background.
“Make points referent to the goals of the design. Bad example: “This sucks and it’s ugly”. Good: “Well, if the goal is to make this feel friendly, black and flaming red doesn’t convey that to me”. Bad: “How could anyone figure that out?” Good: “I think there’s something missing between step 3 and 4. It’s not clear to me what the sequence of operations is. How do you expect people to know where to click?” Scott Berkun
Below, the checklist we use to identify whether feedback is constructive:
1. Is it rational?
2. Is it objective?
3. Is it actionable?
If the feedbacks begin to go down an irrelevant path, it’s up to the Facilitator to intervene.
4 The Facilitator has three responsibilities: The first is to define the team that makes the most sense to participate in the Design critique session; in addition to uncover, in collaboration with the Presenter, the main hypotheses and questions about the design that will be brought to discussion.
This step is very important, because it helps us to establish criterias to put an end in irrelevant discussion in case it pops up during the session.
“Establish rules and expectations beforehand, to make sure that participants know what a critique is and how it is run.” Sarah Gibbons
The second is to ensure that the group understands their role and how the session will flow. In our sessions, we remember the activity framework and roles every time we meet with a new Presenter, and at the day of the session with the whole group.
“The person running the meeting has the responsibility of setting the right tone for this, preferably by example, and doing everything in their power to maintain that attitude and spirit in the room throughout the meeting.” Scott Berkun
“The facilitator enables the presenter to have a successful critique by enforcing the guidelines.” Suelyn Yu
The third is to Time Keep the session. It is very easy for the discussions to get extended, so having someone responsible for time is critical.
“Facilitators’ responsibilities will vary, but likely will include time boxing, keeping conversation on track, and negotiating any tension.” Sarah Gibbons
The Note Taker
5 Note takers need to register all the insights and suggestions brought in the discussions, They can take place at any time to dig up more information from the suggestions or some clarification.
In addition, it’s the choice of the Note taker to document feedbacks by interface, the flow end to end, or sum up crucial points. The checklist we use to make sure nothing goes overlooked is as follows:
1. What worked?
2. What should be better?
3. What inspirations came up?
Having someone to write down the feedback in real time is important because it makes it easier to categorize suggestions later and turn them into relevant backlog items once they’re well documented.
Sarah, in her article, also documents the feedback in a spreadsheet in a more collaborative way. Responsibility is still with the Note taker, but Critiquers can take part in writing their own notes. This grants more autonomy and agility to the process.
Above, we have an example of how to use the spreadsheet to track the outcome of the critique session.
The Design Critique session is split into two talks. The first — what we call the Pre-Work Meeting, is focused on understanding what kind of feedback the Presenter expects; and the second, when the Critique Design Session actually happens with the project presentation and feedbacks.
1. Pre-work meeting
3. Answering Questions
4. Writing down feedbacks
5. Present feedbacks
Day 1 — Pre Work Metting
30 minutes. Define with the Team Presenter and gather the main hypotheses and questions about the design presented.
1. What are the hypothesis and the biggest uncertainties about the project?
2. Which people are key to answering those questions?
Day 2 — Presentation
10 minutes. Quick explanation of what the project is, as well as its goals for users and for business, eg. “We want to create a conversational environment for our on-boarding process.” Personas, User Pain Points, User Flows are also welcomed.
The initial step of Design Critique follows the roadmap below:
1. Design Critique framework presentation.
2. Roles and responsibilities presentation.
3. Project Presentation.
10 minutes. Time dedicated for Critiquers to get questions that impact their feedback and connect more to the project before suggestions begin.
Writing down feedbacks
15 minutes. We provide small circular stickers for critiquers to attach to the interface or project signaling what worked well, and what should be improved:
60 minutes. It’s time to expose the points flagged beforehand. It’s up to the Facilitator to move from sticker to sticker by asking critiquers to comment on.
It’s likely that some of the assumptions raised in Pre-Work will come up in the course of the session. If not, the Facilitator can trigger the Critiquers to discuss about the subject to gather insights and suggestions.
10 minutes. It’s up to the Note-taker to keep record of the insights for each interface or to make a wrap-up with general suggestions.
Remember that the more detailed the transcript, the easier the items prioritization in the backlog in the future.
How we measure it
After each session, we set a time slot for people to make suggestions to improve the Design Critique itself. They could speak openly or respond to a quick survey at the end, anonymously.
That was important for mapping the relevance of the session to the project, how much we covered the concerns raised in the pre-work, and how much the members were actively collaborating.
The survey questions then were:
1. How useful was the Design Critique session for the project?
2. Were the questions and hypotheses raised in the pre-work answered?
3. How much did the present team collaborate with the project?
4. On a scale of 0 to 10, how would you recommend the Design Session Critique for other projects?
5. Do you have any suggestions to make it better?
Since the first session, we’ve been iterating to shape a safe environment for people to share ideas, design, projects and get inspired based on diverse points of view and experiences.
After running Design Critique over +20 projects and receiving feedback for more than 60 designers, we identify ways to encourage collaboration, gather insights and structure thinking for the good of the team.
“Creating a culture of honest critique takes time and investment, but it improves design by incorporating multiple perspectives.” Sarah Gibbons
And you, what do you think? Does this framework make sense? Is there something you consider also important to know when you’re sharing feedback with other designers?
- Special thanks to Juliana Arthuso for translating this article.
- Thanks to Manuela Doerr, Victor Rosato, Matheus Bueno, Gislene Freitas, Rodrigo Silva, Flávia Goulart, Rodrigo Esch, Gabriela Abinajm, Nuria Nossabeih, Marcela Coutinho, David Hülle, Tom Oliveira, Silvio Senne, Mari Iamaguti, Gustavo Borges, Glauco Lima, Patrícia Bello, Otavio Gomes, Renata Campos, Nayara Santos, Rafael Morroni, Bruna Daniele, Eric Duran, Míriam Nogueira, Mariano Dantas, Nicole Ramos, Pablo Moura, William Spiga, Clayton Moura, Alex Guazzelli.
- If you want to know more about my word, head to jonnyczar.com :)
Cheers! Please don’t forget to leave your claps.