Beyond critique—fostering a culture around it

Get out of your comfort zone and break team silos

Co-written by Maui Francis and Alex Swain

Let’s face it, the word “critique” gives most people flashbacks of professors or other leads at some point ripping your work apart that made you question whether or not you were truly cut out to be in the profession. Those kind of negative experiences can shape our perception of critiques more so than positive ones, as we would rather avoid the potential to be judged or feel insulted.

However, we should all be aware of how critique should be a foundational part of your design process and all the benefits it provides, so why aren’t people doing it more? We noticed quite a few teams at IBM didn’t regularly do crits or would tell us how it was never useful. So we asked…

How can we make it better?

We knew we weren’t pioneering some never done before effort of trying to tackle the issue of critique. So we began by speaking with those that have gone down that road before and the lessons they learned.

What we learned is that everyone had great ideas and methods of structuring a critique with rules and guidelines in order to be more useful, but what we found is there was a missing element…

The human connection of wanting to share

As large as IBM is and the many design teams across different organizations, it was crucial to understand why people were hesitant to share and connect outside of their respective teams, even when they were less than 10ft away.

So what did we do? We held a workshop and invited not only design leads and designers, but others across different design groups who normally don’t interact with each other.

Our main goal was to get a sense of why teams or individuals were hesitant to engage with other teams, reluctant to participate in design shares or critiques, what about those activities make them uncomfortable, and what ideas would make them better whether they were in a small or large environment.

Some of the workshop activities we utilized:

  • Hopes and fears
  • As-is experience(s)
  • To-be ideas
That X-Factor feeling of being judged

What we learned

The workshop fostered a lot of great discussion and perspectives along with some excellent ideas, but these are some of the main themes:

  • The “X-Factor” feel of being on stage with leadership front and center, judging them and the work which was uncomfortable and felt formal.
  • Designers weren’t getting any benefit from critiques due to the lack of structure, rules of how to conduct them, and feedback wasn’t useful.
  • Lack of insight to what other teams are working on or who to ask and if they don’t know anyone on the team, they’re more reluctant to engage.
  • Lack of a voice, don’t want to provide feedback that contradicts with more vocal members and leads.

Putting it all together

After the workshop, we began to synthesize the insights which started to paint a picture of not only the components that needed to be in place for meaningful conversations to be had, it also surfaced the lack of excitement to want to participate, which is key to building a community.

One thing we didn’t want to do is reinvent what was already out there in relation to rules and guides for how to conduct crits, but we did see a need to supplement them with guiding principles around what we identified as the four phases of critique:

01. Excitement & Expectations (Preparing the session)

Crits don’t have to be all business, share your personalities with pecha kuchas, external projects, or work you found that was cool on occasion. Utilize different locations outside the conference room to change things up and share your work along with setting expectations on what kind of feedback you’re looking for beforehand.

02. Honesty and Structure (Conducting the session)

Create a judgement free environment, have a neutral guide/facilitator that helps keeps the session focused and define the type of conversation (formal / informal) with guidelines to keep the dialogue meaningful. Build trust, not resentment as a way to elevate your designs.

03. Equality & Empathy (Participating in the session)

Have empathy for the designer and the goals they are trying to achieve. To make the conversation comfortable, leave the org structure at the door, everyone should have an equal voice.

04. Empowerment & Connectivity (After the session)

This is your opportunity to digest the feedback provided and either react, ignore, or follow up with questions. Know that you are empowered to make the decision to do with any feedback as you see fit, you decide your path. Follow up with individuals that participated and those that may have made an impact and thank them to help build the community through outreach.

With the above principles coupled with prescriptive critique rules and guidelines, it helped provide a base for the teams to use in order to address a lot of the issues we found across teams. However, we still needed to break down the silos and make it feel more like a community.

Making it happen

With the principles in place, they needed to be followed by actions, and actions usually need planning. It’s like coordinating family members for the holidays.

We needed a plan that could get teams to spark that desire to connect and share with their respective teams since they normally work on multiple projects concurrently and may not be fully aware of who is doing what and also with others teams for better awareness of what they are working on or already solved.

To make it happen, we came up with three methods to share and critique, which include:

Team Jams
The smallest in scale for sharing and critique. It’s an opportunity for a team to meet in a consistent cadence and share the current state of work and/or look for feedback regarding anything that needs another set of eyes on.

Block Party
A way to get to know your neighbors. Block Parties help to get to know other teams (informally) and share patterns or provide critique from others with a fresh perspective. These are for two or more teams get together once a month, that may work on similar problems or completely different areas of focus. This should be coordinated by the leads beforehand to determine what the goal /benefit is and the structure.

A family affair where we can gather with the entire design group as a community once a month or every quarter over the course of a few hours and voluntarily share our passions, interests, and work. It can’t be work all the time, so this allows everyone to share cool things they’ve seen, created for work, or personally that others may find interesting or would benefit from. This needs a bit of planning to provide coordination / structure and the programming.

* Critniks have nothing to do with critique, it was coined from combining Critique and Picnics (we provide food for these events), but we liked the name and it was catchy, so it stuck. :)

Doing the things

Creating a new culture of critique within your design group is not easy, there’s some work involved and unless people understand and witness the value of it, it will feel forced and will never be embraced. This was key in how we approached developing a method that worked for us, by listening to the hopes and fears of designers in regards to critique and what they wanted to get out of it.

This approach worked for us to help address most of the issues we identified, but may not work for you unless there are similarities to the issues we learned our design group had. I would encourage you to do your own research and see what kind of possibilities you come up with and share it out once you determine what does work. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work right away, treat it like any other experience and continually iterate on better solutions — the benefits are worth the effort!

Go out and share!