Getting the most out of design critiques
Why do some design critiques go really well, while others go sideways and make you wish you never came to work that day?
Over the past decade I’ve presented design work hundreds of times. Some reviews left me feeling inspired and energized, ready to take the work to the next level—while others sent me back to the drawing board with my tail between my legs, confused and distressed about what to do next.
Imagine a terrible design critique. We’ve all been there. You worked so hard on the designs, but the room just stares blankly. Nobody gets it. What ensues is a frustrating 20-minute discussion that has no actual relevance to anybody. You rush to defend the design. It’s exhausting. Everybody’s time is wasted and you are left with a weird icky feeling.
Now imagine the best possible critique. Everyone is relaxed and engaged. The group is discussing tradeoffs and the designer gets to assess different inputs from the team. The designer sets context, makes sure her colleagues are focused on the right things, and guides the conversation to get the type of feedback she is looking for.
How do you have critiques that end up like the latter example? It’s not luck. Every step is intentional and designed. What helped me take my design critique and feedback game to the next level was realizing:
Critiques are successful when the feedback helps the designer understand tradeoffs and evaluate if a design is meeting its goals. The designer sets context, makes sure her colleagues are focused on the right things, and guides the conversation to get the type of feedback she is looking for.
With those goals in mind—how might we make it happen that way?
0. Who are you showing and what do you need from them?
What is your goal for sharing these designs? Always have an agenda. What, specifically, are you looking to improve? What area of the design are you the least confident about?
What level of fidelity feedback are you looking for? Is the copy finalized? Do you want input on visual design? Are you still figuring out how it works? No matter the stage you’re in, it must be communicated to your audience.
Who IS your audience? What do they know about what you’re going to share? How much background information do they need? All of these questions need to have crystal clear answers before taking a group’s time to evaluate your designs.
Once you’ve sorted out who you’re talking to and what you hope to achieve with this critique, you’re ready to craft your presentation. Here’s the mental checklist I go through every time before sharing work with teammates (especially with other designers!):
1. Set context for everyone in the room
Design critiques go really well when the room is aligned on context. This is up to you to rally the group’s attention and perspective so they are looking at the problem from along side you. Provide enough background so that you can reference it to back up your decisions or explain choices.
“In 2016 we launched v1… we learned that our customers loved X but actually had problems with Y… this research shows that the root problem is actually Z. So that’s what we’re aiming to solve with v2…”
2. List the feedback you want to receive
Before diving into designs, literally list what type of feedback you’re looking for. It’s also helpful to say what feedback you’re not looking for, so that you can avoid the conversation becoming derailed. Keep it focused!!!
I always include a visual like this to frame the conversation before showing any designs:
3. List the goals (and the non-goals)
Explain what you are trying to solve for, as concisely as possible.
Listing the “goals of the design” might seem like something out of a college class—but it is imperative to ensure that everyone is evaluating the design against the same criteria. Does it solve the goal or not? How well? What are the tradeoffs, and how do they effect secondary goals?
Another powerful technique here is to list non-goals. This helps serve as a reference if the feedback starts to get off-topic.
4. Tell the story of your design
Start at the beginning, end at the end, cover every important detail. Pause for questions if necessary, but remember to keep it focused. Ask your audience to hold their critical feedback until the end! You are driving the ship, make sure everyone is on board!
While not a requirement, a slide deck or prototype is ideal here. Scrolling around a design file is distracting. To get the most out of everyone’s time, take some of your own time beforehand to create a structured presentation.
This is where Figma comes in handy for me. I can include divider slides for context in between clickable prototype screens, all in inside of my design file. I can even leave comments directly on the designs from the prototype (more on this later in following up).
5. Shift the room into critique mode
Once you’ve finished explaining everything you need to—shift the room from ‘listening mode’ into ‘critique mode’ by guiding the team with a question.
One common mistake is, after explaining the entire design, the designer will just stop, like a deer in the headlights, and let the room bubble up with whatever they want. Anything can happen.
To keep things focused, have a few key areas to launch conversations from.
“What do you think about this (part of the design)
and how it achieves (goal of the design)…”
What to do if someone doesn’t listen
Not every critical feedback session goes perfectly. Sometimes people will zoom in on an idea that distracts them. Or worse, they can get stuck on something that is irrelevant to what you’re looking for input on, leaving you with unhelpful feedback.
If this happens, the key is to tactfully move the conversation along. Politely acknowledge that you’ll take that feedback into account and shift the discussion towards the type of feedback you want.
This one-liner goes a long way:
“I totally hear you. Thanks for the feedback… what do you think about—”
6. Timing—know when to stop
2–3x the time spent presenting should be spent on discussion—but no longer! Too long of a discussion can result in feedback that is no longer helpful or the conversation can devolve into groupthink. If you feel that the juice has been squeezed, and that you have enough feedback to effectively improve or iterate on your work, then you’re right. Call it right there. Trust your intuition.
My favorite “this meeting is over” line :
“I think I’ve got what I need for now— thank you all so much for the feedback, this has been very helpful! I’ll share an update when I’ve made revisions.”
7. Following up
So, you’ve got a bunch of feedback. Write down the main takeaways and take action to resolve or continue exploring. Make sure all of the main concerns are either solved, addressed, or considered.
Then, write a note to those present at the critique explaining the changes you’ve made and why (based on their feedback) and send out the new designs. This is important because it builds trust amongst your teammates that their feedback is heard and valuable. Actively following up in this way sets an example for the rest of your team and makes future critiques better for everyone.
“Hey team —thanks again for attending my critique today. Here’s some updated designs based on the feedback I heard :
1. feedback item one…
2. feedback item two…
Please feel free to leave comments in this file or send me additional notes. (Link to design)”
Great job—you did it!
Design critiques can be tough, but when done right they’re SO VALUABLE for the individuals seeking critique. Successful critiques can really help up-level a designer’s work, and help us all create excellent design outcomes faster than on our own. Follow some of these tips, have yourself a good ol’ critique! And when you’re done, don’t forget to give yourself some props and take a moment of reflection to make your next design critique even better.
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