Design critiques create space to improve designs and allow participants to gain confidence presenting work and articulating design rationales. Despite being an undeniably useful ritual, often they fail because the process stays the same while the team and project evolve.
At Google Health, we’ve learned that taking a more collaborative and iterative approach to critique can make it more meaningful and enjoyable long term. Here are a few steps we’ve applied that we hope can be helpful to you and your team.
Step 1. Understand team motivation and concerns
One of the challenges we faced with our critiques in the past was keeping them relevant when both the UX team and the project’s complexity started to grow — fast. It became tough to keep everyone up to speed on larger consumer journeys. Often, people would leave meetings feeling drained, overwhelmed, and frustrated that they weren’t able to provide meaningful feedback.
When we decided to restart the process, it was clear that first we needed to understand what had gone wrong in the past to enable us to address these challenges early on.
So, before launching your crit practice, have a conversation with the designers on your team to better understand their motivations, concerns, past experiences, and expectations.
Helpful questions to ask:
- What was your worst critique? What was bad about it?
- What was your best critique? What was good about it?
- What will make this meeting worth your time?
- What will make it a waste of your time?
This step is important to not only understand the needs around feedback sessions, but also to send a signal to your team that this is a shared practice everyone can shape and influence. Thus, when you schedule a kickoff meeting, designers will come with the right mindset, eager to co-create the critique together.
Step 2. Collaboratively define goals and principles
Once you’ve identified potential challenges, it’s time to bring everyone together around a common purpose, and get excited about future critiques. Holding a kickoff meeting is a great way to do this!
The kickoff will ensure that everyone has an opportunity to speak and that you’re all aligned in shared goals and approach. It provides a space to acknowledge struggles and begin developing a shared vision.
Here’s a sample plan for a kickoff meeting:
1. Generate ideas
Map out common needs for each of the following questions:
- Why do I want a critique?
- What is important for me as a presenter?
- What is important for me as a participant?
- What worries me?
2. Develop guiding principles
Guiding principles show how your worries and vision will be addressed in the critique format. How will you make sure that the presenter and participants get value from this meeting?
For example, one of the biggest worries of our team was the high overhead involved in preparing for a meeting. In the past, some designers had to follow rigid requirements and create a one-pager describing their project. To address this issue, we agreed that one of our principles is:
“Minimal preparation or none at all. Show what you already have!”
Another worry was that the presenter may be afraid to show weaknesses or uncertainty, so we agreed that we will establish a culture of psychological safety and learn how to deliver and receive feedback respectfully.
3. Map out logistics
Agree on the schedule and pace, and find two brave individuals to sign up for the first and second time slots. It can help to connect the critique to another routine so it is easier for folks to prioritize this meeting. With my team, we schedule it right before our weekly “Studio” — a team hang that everyone already loves and usually attends.
Create a signup document (we use Google Sheets), and assign someone to make sure that the upcoming time slot is claimed. In most cases, this will only require reminding designers to sign up. However, sometimes they will have to reach out to folks and together brainstorm on what project may benefit from feedback and help to prepare. Over time, you won’t need to remind them anymore, but at the beginning a little bit of encouragement is absolutely crucial.
We use the same signup document to capture our purpose, principles, rules, and notes. This document becomes the one-stop-shop for everything related to the critique, so it is easy to recollect what our primary guidelines are and make sure they are still true for our team’s needs.
Step 3. Critique your critiques
One of the tenets of our critiques is “Never established” — meaning that everything about this meeting is subject to change. We should continue to experiment with the format, tools, and feedback strategies.
As your team, projects, and company are always in flux, you need to keep your approach flexible as well. Your practices may perfectly suit your team’s needs and styles today, but what if things suddenly change? Say, if you all find yourselves working from home, you’ll have to find ways to run remote sketching sessions. And if a new designer joins the team, you’ll have to re-establish that environment of trust and safety.
For that same reason, it’s important to always have a way for your team to express their concerns and share ideas on what they want critiques to be. We achieve this by sending out a short survey after each session, and having a retrospective meeting after every tenth.
The following are examples of survey questions:
- Was the last meeting a good use of your time?
- What are your suggestions for future presenters?
- What are your suggestions for future participants?
- What would make our next one even better?
It takes time and requires commitment from the whole team to build a successful design critique culture. Don’t stop if you don’t get it right the first time!
Keep restating the purpose, and build continual improvement into your process so that everyone on your team feels invested in it. Before you know it, your critique practice will become an essential part of your design culture.
Many thanks to Abi Jones, Rebecca Ackermann and Sara Gabriele for providing helpful feedback on the article before publication!