If you want a hug, just ask
One of the very best designers I've ever worked with was known to get into the office early, print off multiple versions of his design work, and scatter them around the office accompanied by a note that simply asked “How can I make this better?” He would actively, and gleefully, seek out constructive peer critique to make his design work better.
Do not seek praise. Seek criticism. [..] If, instead of seeking approval, you ask, ‘What’s wrong with it? How can I make it better?’, you are more likely to get a truthful, critical answer — Paul Arden
This ability to seek out critical feedback on your own design work is unfortunately an increasingly rare trait. It can be uncomfortable. The need for approval and validation is a deep seated psychological drive for most of us. When we feel our work doesn't meet with the approval of our peers, we can feel challenged, unsafe, and unprotected. The myth of the genius lone designer has not helped. Expecting a lone designer to understand all possible interactions, emerging design trends, cross-product dependencies and impacts of their product is unrealistic and places unfair expectations on designers to design amazing solutions in isolation.
The good news is the ability to seek out critical feedback can be learnt and practiced, and with the support of a great team, it is something that can help take your own design work to another level.
“Don’t ask for critique if you only want validation. If you want a hug, just ask.” — Adam Connor
Critique as a team game
When you make a commitment as a designer to join a design team, you make a commitment to design as part of a whole, to share your knowledge, to leverage the knowledge and experience of others, and to design solutions that fit seamlessly with the work of others. Moments of individual genius can, and do, still occur, but more often the collaborative whole plays a very important part in shaping the end solution. The ability to give and receive critique, with the right intent, can be the difference between a team of designers and a great design team.
You cannot have great design, without great feedback — Scott Berkun
Key to a great design critique is ensuring you approach a critique with the right mindset; you need to be prepared to embrace critical feedback, but you also need to set your reviewers up to provide you with useful feedback.
If the intent behind giving critique is to empower the designer with the right information, so they can make better choices after the critique, then the ability to quickly establish the type of critique you require, aligned with the stage of the project that you are at, is as important to getting great feedback as coming with the right mindset.
30 Percent Feedback
At SEEK, the design team has embraced the 30 percent feedback philosophy so well articulated by Jason Freedman of 42 Floors. Sharing work when 30% complete has dual benefits to the team - designers can get feedback and direction when it is of most benefit, while the broader team stays across emerging work. It has also given us a shared language to ensure every time someone asks for feedback, the person reviewing the work knows exactly what stage of the process the work is at.
If the work is 90 percent done, then expect to receive feedback on every little detail, if the work is just 30 percent done, then feedback focuses more on the big picture stuff, and may even send you off in a totally new direction. A simple framework and a simple trick to make sure all designers, and key stakeholders, are geared up at the start of the conversation to present the right level of detail back to the designer.
The logical extension of this framework for our team was to add a sense of urgency to the discussions to ensure critique given helped the designer move forward with their work. Setting up a Design Critique using phrases such as “This work is 30 percent complete, but I need it finished today” or “This is at the 30 percent stage, and I have two weeks to flesh it out” gives the team the right context in which to provide critique, while also ensuring the designer gets the input they need to make great design decisions.
Challenges for the modern design tool
Different designers work differently. Some are very quick at using tools to create multiple options of a solution and iterate very quickly, while others prefer to draw. Those who draw can produce solutions that look like they are at the 30 percent stage, even when they are 90 percent complete. Meanwhile some designers using modern tools such as Sketch can quickly churn out a 30 percent solution that looks like it is at the 90 percent stage. This can be a challenge for designers because it can be difficult at times to focus reviewers on 30 percent-type feedback if the solution looks 90 percent complete. Another argument for low fidelity early design work perhaps?
A Work In Progress
The results for our team so far have been encouraging. Having a shared language around what stage of the design process we’re at, and hence what type of feedback we’re requesting has helped the team evolve our internal critique process, and given team members confidence to show their emerging design work earlier than ever before. We've still got some work to do, particularly in encouraging all team members to proffer work at 30 percent, and also remembering to position it at the start of every critique conversation, but we’re a long way further progressed that we were this time last year.