Tactical Design Critique (TDC)


A crucial part of honing our skill set as designers, is learning to give, receive and make best use of the invaluable learning and insight, which comes from the structured critique and feedback we can offer one another.

Whilst we seek to validate that we are ‘solving the right problem’, critiquing our work collectively, plays a key role in ensuring we always challenge ourselves and each other to ‘solve the problem right’.

With this in mind, Tactical design critique (TDC) methods are a great way of improving your personal and team skills, and ultimately making your design work, the best it can be.

“woman covering her face in front of wall” by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

But let’s be clear, regularly baring all, exposing your best efforts, and actively seeking critique and feedback is hard, VERY HARD. Let’s face it, as I sit and write this article, I already feel uncomfortable with the prospect of showing it to my colleagues for critique… (let alone the world) *gulps*. But hey, I know that the input I receive will ultimately lead to a better outcome (he says with baited breath). As such, it pays to remember that if done well, giving and receiving critique is equally as rewarding as it is challenging, and the personal, team and product gains can be huge!

“Feedback is the breakfast of champions” — Ken Blanchard

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

This rest of this article describes the TDC concept (as we see it a Huddle) & its benefits, offering a practical guide on how to run your own, including some tips and ‘gotchas’ we learned along the way…


SO WHAT EXACTLY IS A TDC?

Tactical design critiques or ‘TDC’s’ (at Huddle) are a regular touch point where the design team come together along with other members of the organisation (often front end developers) to collectively review and critique the progress we are making with our individual projects in the design/solution space.

Time is spent pitching our latest designs to the group, inviting feedback and critique on areas we have been focussing on, and offering support and guidance to one another on how to progress the designs we are critiquing.

THE GOAL?

The goal of the TDC, is to maintain an open environment that all designers feel is a safe place to discuss design progress and foster shared understanding of the problem space, in a bid to learn from one another other and better their design skills.

TDC is not so much show and tell, rather collective review and iteration discussion. The objective being to gain collective agreement on how best to move the design of the project forward.

“This Must Be The Place signage” by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

WHY TDC?

(The benefits)

Collaborative design & Shared understanding

TDC fosters collaborative design efforts and shared understanding of the various problem spaces individual designers are working on. Bringing one another along on the journey means we are all invested in the best outcome for any given project. This generally yields better outcomes.

Learning opportunity

The TDC experience means we are constantly learning and growing our skills around communication, story telling, relationship development and indeed developing our core design thinking skills.

Short feedback cycles

Working in isolation on designs means we can easily become invested, attached, entrenched even in our design efforts. With the correct cadence, TDC’s offer a regular touchpoint as a forum to check in our latest thinking sooner and gain insight into what does and does not work about our design progress, ensuring we don’t become too emotionally attached to our work!

Strength in numbers

Having the collective agreement and backing of your TDC comrades, means you can confidently refer to the due diligence that has taken place during TDC when discussing/pitching design intent with stakeholders.

Equally as important is the benefit of being able to leverage the TDC process to aid you with those difficult, compromise conversations with a product manager or stakeholder over design decisions you may feel pressured into making. Rather than it be your individual view v’s theirs in a decision, suggest that you will pitch the compromise/conflict/issue at the next TDC (heck, invite them along to join you) and return with a considered and collective response to the matter to aid your decision. Who knows, they may even be right this time! ;).



“Shared understanding is the currency of Lean UX” Jeff Gothelf

HOW TO RUN A TDC

(A practical guide)

Scheduling & Cadence

At the beginning of each week, We tend to collectively agree which projects we need to critique, consider how many sessions it may require, and schedule the required sessions based on this. The idea is that we meet regularly enough to ensure that we all remain familiar with one another’s projects, so that there are no major surprise design changes due to any huge time lapse since the last time we collectively looked at a project.

Typically we end up with around 1–2 1hr sessions per week, reviewing 1–2 projects each time.

Attendees

Keep numbers small, 4 is pretty optimal to keep things manageable, remember the goal of the TDC is for the attendees to support the designer by offering constructive actionable feedback that the group collectively agree will benefit the design. As such, having 6,7,8+ opinions in the room can easily dissolve the core objective to collectively reach consensus.

Having guests from product, sales, customer support, engineering (insert business function here) can also be hugely beneficial, giving you a view from another angle. Inviting others in is also a great way to promote your design process within the business ;)

Structure & Format

Where possible, we adhere to the following structure per TDC item:

5 Minute pitch

To kick things off, the designer spends around 5 minutes pitching the design they would like to show un-interrupted, framing the problem space and proposed solution they would like to have critiqued, making it clear to the group what they do and do not want feedback on for this session.

Tip: Save questions for the end of the pitch to avoid deviations and throwing the pitcher of course, but do allow for clarifications if participants are unclear on what they are being shown and asked to critique.

10–20 Minutes critique & discussion

Once the pitcher has finished, work around the group, 1 item at a time, holding an open discussion on each feedback point. Ideally keep the whole thing inside of 15/20 mins per design item to keep things under control and time bound, alleviate dwelling too heavily on minutiae details, and getting lost in ‘rabbit hole’ discussions.

Tip: If the group feel there is much more to be discussed on any one item and cannot reach a productive round of actionable feedback, consider if it would be best to organise a separate session for the group to dedicate time to the item in question.

Document any actions

Nominate someone in the group (ideally not the pitcher) to take notes and summarise them as you round up. The pitcher will ideally clarify what he or she intends to do with the critique they have received and agree some actions (if applicable) which can be discussed at the next TDC.

Tip: If possible revisit the notes and actions you made in the last session to recap on what was discussed before reviewing any further progress on a design.

“good vibes only text” by MARK ADRIANE on Unsplash

GIVING GOOD CRITIQUE

Consider the love sandwich… hmm

Critiquing someone else’s work is something of an artform, but one approach is to sandwich the feedback with love :) . If you think of your critique as a sandwich, the bread would be what you “love” about the work and the middle, (the filling) would be what you would like to challenge.

Begin by telling your fellow designer what aspects you like about the design they are showing. Be descriptive. Instead of just saying “I like it”, explain why you like it, using specific examples from the design whenever possible.

Next, move onto the constructive criticism. If you think certain parts of a design aren’t working, try to describe why, offering suggestions on how they may be improved. Asking questions may help the designer to see problems in the execution of the design that they may not have seen on their own.

Consider limiting your use of personal pronouns, like “you,” where possible, to ensure sure your critique is about the design work and not about the designer themselves. By virtue of what we do as designers, we easily become emotionally attached to the designs we work on, so during a critique it’s best to separate the person from the design.

Once you have delivered and discussed your constructive feedback/critique, don’t forget to repeat and re affirm what it was you liked about the design, so that the critique ends positively.


LESSONS LEARNED?

(Gotchas)

Plan ahead & keep it regular

Decide each week what you want to TDC and book in the time required, to ensure long gaps between TDC’s don’t lead to you all falling out of sync with what each other are working on.

Beware of Rabbit holes

Watch out for rabbit holes and going off topic, be as strict with this as possible, keeping it focussed means it will always be a more productive session.

The Designer holds sway

Ideally the designer/owner holds sway over any final decision to ensure satisfaction, ownership and accountability. Be mindful that they may have more knowledge than you on a project as often it has had more of their focussed attention.

Critique, not tear down..

Be kind and supportive. Critiquing should always be about making the design the best it can be, but be structured and diplomatic in your feedback, consider the ‘love sandwich’ approach for tricky feedback, don’t let it turn into design tear down, this benefits nobody.

Leave your ego at the door

TDC is no place to be a rockstar and have your ego stroked. To truly benefit and grow as a designer from the input and feedback you will get, be receptive and open to the ideas of others and use them to your advantage ;)

… Effective TDC’s WILL make you a better designer :)