How a Microsoft team utilizes individual strengths to make better critiques for all

Zachary Pfriem
Mar 25 · 5 min read
Image description: Two team members sit at a table and smile during a design critique.

A design critique is a focused discussion analyzing part of a design. In our previous post, Ian Kirschner outlined our design critique philosophy, which incorporates openness and inclusivity to build our culture and craft better experiences. This article shares practical tactics we use to evolve our thinking with diverse perspectives — tactics you may consider integrating into your own critiques.

Assembling the cast

In a good drama, characters create intrigue and progress the plot. This character-driven storytelling applies to a good critique as well through distinct roles in the conversation. For the most effective critique meeting, include people who fill the following roles.

The Presenter

This person or group of people leads the conversation with the work they share. They set the stage and drive the conversation forward, as they are the ones primarily benefiting from this exercise.

The Contributor

Most participants carry this role. These members of the conversation share their expertise through analyzing the work and giving feedback, usually through asking questions. To receive multiple facets of feedback and discover the best solution, contributors should be a diverse set of people.

The Sage

Depending on the content, the sage might assume different identities. Sages bring history and knowledge that inform the presenter’s work. The Sage is often a researcher or a veteran team member who holds valuable insights from research studies or past work. They answer the Presenter’s questions and hypothetical statements as well as help avoid common design pitfalls.

The Observer

Observers contribute indirectly to promote visibility across the team’s work. It’s important as a team member to know what others are working on, even if you don’t make any direct contributions. This encourages greater coherence, promoting a common design language.

The Disrupter

Usually someone in a leadership or senior role, these folks ask the hard strategic and philosophical questions. Why are you designing this? What are you solving for? Is this a business problem or a user problem? By helping you keep sight of the why and the what, disrupters help you formulate a bulletproof design to share beyond your immediate peers.

The Distiller

More of a facilitating role, Distillers compile insights and move the conversation along when it begins to swirl. They take notes, identify who made the comments, and help redirect the conversation toward the desired outcome. Distillers can be the Presenter themselves, but having someone help with this task makes critiques more efficient.

Image description: A presenting team member stands with his back to the camera, facing the critique group, and explains his project.

Setting the stage

The Presenter has gathered the cast of characters to set the stage for a good conversation. Now, they need to frame the conversation to ensure the audience is equipped to provide the best value for the critique. In the presentation:

  1. State the problem, or problems, with clear and concise statements. Include concrete insights that articulate this problem beyond bias. Put your audience in the shoes of the customer, help them relate empathetically to the problem at hand. For example, “67% of users do not complete setup upon signing up for our service. We have identified that the key moment of drop off is at step 6. This creates anxiety and a feeling of failure.” Follow this statement with a customer quote that captures these emotions to legitimize the insight.
  2. Define the current stage of the design process. Are you identifying problem spaces and doing comparative analysis? Are you sharing abstracted gray box wireframes? Are these the final visuals? This brings the audience to where you are at right now, and what they should expect in regards to fidelity and completeness.
  3. Summarize the content and goals. Set expectations for what the audience will see, specify the type of feedback desired, and mention ideas for next steps. Share this either verbally, textually, or both.
  4. Walk the audience through the proposed solution, or solutions.

Carrying the conversation

As the presenter, you carry the conversation. Here are a few tactics to make sure the critique stays on track and doesn’t dither into the chaos of ancillary topics.

Probe

Some points of feedback might be difficult to hear. After all, you are sharing something you made, and it’s easy to take comments personally. To circumvent this feeling, try digging deeper into the comment, asking for the participant to elaborate, and showing interest in their observation. This will give you time to cool down and may shed further light on the piece of feedback.

Don’t posture

Some feedback may be counter or tangential to what you are attempting to achieve in your design. This is okay, hear the feedback, take the note, and move on.

Show humility

It’s perfectly fine to not know all the answers. Say when you don’t know, ask if they have any insight on the matter, and investigate it more later. If designers knew all the answers, we wouldn’t need critiques. Lean on your design partners to help you unravel the problem — another reason to have the right people in the room.

Follow up

If some feedback is confusing or requires deeper conversation, take it offline. As you implement feedback, reach out to the team member who provided the insight to let them know you integrated their feedback. This continues dialog between team members and may open doors to new insights and collaborations, creating a vibrant feedback loop.

Share and share again

Share your designs regularly so folks can see the progress you make. This reduces the amount of time you spend framing the problem at each subsequent critique as people become familiar with your work.

Image description: A photo focusing on the hand gesture of a team member, pointing to something offscreen.

Stronger together

Critique elevates your designs. Remember, you are part of a team, just like the Avengers (yes, you are a superhero). Your collective superpowers are so much more than your individual efforts. Help your team understand the problem and empower them to contribute.

The Microsoft design culture has benefited tremendously from an open, inclusive dynamic, integrating with different disciplines throughout product creation. Design requires many considerations. The only way to successfully meet customer needs is to make time for these considerations through critique. When designers, researchers, writers, engineers, and program managers work closely together, we can approach problems holistically with obsessive empathy to empower our customers for success.

What role do you play in the critique conversation? How does your team set the stage for productive discussions? Share your struggles and solutions with us in the comments below.


To stay in-the-know with Microsoft Design, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, or join our Windows Insider program. And if you are interested in joining our team, head over to aka.ms/DesignCareers.

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

Zachary Pfriem

Written by

Designer, thinker, opinions are my own.

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

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