The Power of the “Critboss”
Why having effective design critiques makes you a better designer
I went to a girl’s grammar school where you were encouraged to be anything you wanted to be, nothing was too ambitious. Astrophysicist? Definitely. Brain surgeon? No brainer. The person who would single-handedly cure cancer, end climate change and eradicate world poverty? They would be disappointed if you weren’t. In short, criticism or critique did not exist. So, when I packed my bag and skipped off to university, where it was dished out on the regular, I had the shock of a lifetime.
The worst critique I can remember was in my final year. The entire class had pinned their book cover designs to the wall and were awaiting the tutor’s feedback. After giving a few pointers to my fellow classmates, she made her way to my book cover, snatched it off the wall, and ripped it in half. The whole class took a collective gasp as she looked me in the eye before saying, “You can do better than that, Kelly”. It wasn’t one of my best days in the academic office.
Since ‘book cover-gate’, it’s been important for me to work with teams that adopt supportive ways of giving constructive design critique. I’ve worked with some exceptional teams so far, but I think Gousto is paving the way for gold standard design critique. Here’s why…
What is a design critique?
Despite what you just read, being part of a design critique is not as scary as I make it sound. As NN Group describe it, “A design critique refers to analysing a design, and giving feedback on whether it meets its objectives. It usually manifests as a group conversation with the ultimate goal of improving a design. It does not mean simply judging a design.”
The evolution of Gousto’s product design critique sessions
Our product design team has a dedicated hour each week (3–4pm on a Tuesday in case you’d like to pop by) to run a design critique. We’re respectful of this slot in our calendars, and actively try not to book anything else over this dedicated time.
Previously, Product Design Manager Teri would rally the troops ahead of the session. She would ask if anyone had anything they’d like to bring to the table. The hour would be split into four 15-minute slots and the format was fairly free-flowing. However, we noticed a slight drop in engagement by always using this regimented way of critiquing, so decided to shake things up. This is where “Critboss” comes in.
Rather than leaving the heavy lifting down to one member of the team, we now have a wheel of fortune with everybody’s name on. If the wheel lands on your name, you’re in charge of the critique session.
Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. The designer in charge of the critique session (The Critboss as we like to call them) can do whatever they think will work best in the hour. The combination of owning and leading the session as well as trying out new critiquing methods has elevated our engagement levels. It pushes individuals to be creative about how to get information out of people in the most effective way. If that wasn’t enough, we’ve even made Critboss stickers that we hand out every time someone runs a successful session because who doesn’t get an instant sense of gratitude when they get a sticker for their efforts?
Three alternative critique techniques we’ve tried so far
Elsa’s note-taking facilitation
One takeaway we’ve had as a design team during critique sessions is that it’s difficult to capture all the juicy nuggets of feedback that are flying in from all angles in a succinct way. When Elsa was Critboss, she allocated 15-minute slots per designer, and during their time in the spotlight, they were asked to:
1. Give context about the problem they were trying to solve
2. Be explicit about exactly what needs critiquing (UI, research plans, journey maps) to ensure laser-sharp focus
3. Open up the floor for discussion
But the stand out part of this session was how wisely Elsa used her facilitation time in writing up feedback as each discussion was taking place. She then sent this to the relevant designers to take away, meaning nothing slipped through the cracks.
The pros of this approach are that designers do not have to frantically find a way to jot down feedback in the moment. This lends itself to a more conversational discussion and the ability to absorb and challenge what others are saying. The downside is that the facilitator will often struggle to come up for air when they are submerged in transcribing.
Ajays breakout rooms
When it was Ajay’s turn to put on the Critboss shoes, he shook things up by introducing us to breakout rooms. Each designer in need of a review would spend around five minutes giving the whole group some context around the problem. Then, using Google Meet, Ajay created the same number of breakout rooms as those who needed a review. In our case, there were two designers (myself and Alessia), so two breakout rooms were ready to go.
The team split evenly across rooms and spent 15 minutes in each room, giving detailed feedback to each problem. After 15 minutes were up, all the critiquers played musical chairs (well, musical breakout rooms) and rotated.
Using this technique, the designer asking for help receives a constant stream of focused, detailed feedback from everyone in a small-sized group, which promotes more granular discussion. This format also reduces both the impact of louder voices dominating conversations as well as reducing bias, as smaller groups allow for less conformity in opinion.
We did notice a few drawbacks to this method. You don’t get feedback from the other designers who are also after critique, as they are staying in their own breakout rooms. It also only works when you have enough people to rotate, so make sure you’ve got at least six people involved. The biggest con we found was the abrupt nature of breakout rooms, which meant you’d likely be cut off mid-sentence as it throws you into a new room. This can be frustrating if you’re mid-discussion, so we suggest you keep an eye on that countdown timer!
Oli’s 5 minutes of silence
No, nobody in the design team has passed away. This was, in fact, another extremely useful way to review our work. As mentioned before in a previous blog, the product design crew are a chatty bunch and this can sometimes be overwhelming during feedback sessions. Oli put on his Critboss hat and whipped up a format that counteracted this by temporarily taking away the ability to verbally critique. He asked the designers who needed help to give some context to their problem, and then set a five-minute timer for everyone to silently write down their thoughts. After the five minutes were up, each designer then verbally expanded on their notes.
Evidently this method has been successful, as we’ve noticed the team frequently wandering back to this style of critique by default. Oli’s five minutes of silence approach is great for structuring feedback in a more cohesive way. Those who are writing are forced to think deeper about the points they want to get across, as opposed to speaking off the cuff. It also means we can keep all the useful feedback inside the Figma file, which is handy for the designer to contextually return back to after the session. Lastly, it catches who’s paying attention, as more often than not a handful of us will have similar points to make, which we try not to repeat.
The benefits of having critique sessions
1. Protects designers from working in silos:
The team structure at Gousto follows a well-known agile squad formation. This means there is usually one designer per squad who will be working on an initiative. As helpful as it is for a designer to gather different perspectives from disciplines such as product management, engineering and data science, sometimes you might need a fellow designer’s eye to give you a creative nudge in the right direction. By gathering all designers from different squads and regularly discussing each other’s work, this allows us to bounce ideas off others. It also prevents the mental block that can sometimes come from being a solo designer in your squad.
2. Catches inconsistencies:
Working in a squad formation means there is almost certainly going to be overlap across different streams of work. For example, Ajay from the Beetroots squad (yes, our squads are all named after different veggies, did you expect anything less from a company who obsesses over food?) might be looking at improving our basket, while Elsa from the Radishes squad might be looking at ways we can help users add sides to the basket. The common denominator is that both members of our design team are approaching the same space from different angles. It is important for them to attend critique sessions to improve the quality of their designs, and also to build an even better experience collaboratively, iron out any inconsistencies and make the end-to-end journey of the product a more joined-up experience.
3. Exposure to different initiatives
We’ve got a lot of exciting plates spinning at Gousto, from improving how users customise their recipes, to helping menu planners select the perfect ingredients to create a menu full of variety. When weeks whizz by and calendars are full of meetings, it’s easy to forget to take a peek at what else is going on around you. Carving out time each week to analyse what others are working on will help you be a more well-rounded designer, and it could be helpful information to understand for future work within your squad.
4. Help improve the way you give and receive feedback
It is a skill in itself to give feedback in a constructive and effective manner. The more opportunities you have to put this skill into practice, the better you will be at articulating what you want to get across. This then has a knock-on effect on how someone receives feedback too, and how they intend to action it. The stronger you can make this cycle, the higher quality your designs will become.
We’ve learnt a lot about critique in the product design team since the Critboss entered our lives. Being exposed to different methods has allowed us to trial various techniques whilst keeping our sessions fresh and exciting. The rotating responsibility of Critboss has also pushed us to be better facilitators — a transferable skill that designers can put into practice when running workshops with cross-discipline squads.
The most important takeaway we’ve found is to make sure to carve out a regular, structured space for the team to come together and review, with emphasis on constructive and considered feedback. This winning formula is guaranteed to improve designs and make for more well-rounded designers. We’ve even got the stickers to prove it.