Introducing Design Critiques to large UX organizations
Lessons learned via experimentation and a will to be excellent
Discussing design is a vital part of our job as User Experience Designers. This discussion is necessary to improve our designs, to learn what we don’t know and to iterate towards a better user experience.
So, talking about design and arguing about design is not a strange thing to us. We, as designers love to discuss design — especially when it’s work done by others. Seeing designs immediately triggers a thought process: what’s going on and what are the pitfalls? We naturally identify the shortcomings of a particular design in seconds. It’s our innate insuppressible design critic that triggers quick opinionative reactions that amount to: “I’d have done it differently”.
This phenomenon is everywhere, simply follow the twitter hashtag #designtwitter. Maybe you’ve witnessed or engaged in the viral discussions about recent redesigns, like the new Slack logo back in the day, or the current Twitter web redesign. Twitter’s 280 characters are definitely not a format to discuss design thoroughly. Nevertheless, the reactions were overwhelming and the hashtag’s become fairly famous.
One of my first thoughts upon reading this: Put yourself in the shoes of the designer, of whom, put his best work into a design and then bravely shared his solutions with the world. How helpful is feedback as a plain reaction on a binary scale of “I like it” vs. “this is disgusting”? How likely is it that this designer will share his work a second time? Have you been in this situation?
Discussing Design at XING
We are a community of ~60 UX professionals with all sorts of background and special knowledge. We have UX designers, visual designers, product designers, user researchers, UX copywriters, design system specialists and many more awesome colleagues at all sorts of career levels. In this community we have always had a very open and good feedback culture. We discuss UX work intensively in our teams and it’s super easy to talk to fellow designers in our company. But I also observed that there was a tendency to share work that was finished. It was more the “look what I’ve done” kind of sharing. Over the last two years, I’ve learned that the essential component of ensuring a healthy and regular design discussion is a safe and comfortable environment that puts the designer at ease to share work early. The kind of work where not all questions are answered and where the user problems are not solved perfectly, yet. The phase of the design process, where suggested changes to the design are not coming too late and valuable feedback from colleagues is helping to iterate towards a better user experience. An environment where the designer knows that the feedback is not a blame game nor a subtle design direction like “do it this way”. Exactly this environment is where the “Design Critique” format is coming into play at XING.
It started for me with first feedback meetings with my close colleagues not calling it design critique back then. Doing critique I failed, learned, researched best practices and iterated my practice. In order to contribute my learnings I pitched to our UX leadership team a company-wide design critique format. I set out to define our goals, on what we wanted to achieve with a formal design critique format. I started the journey with an experiment group, considering the big UX team at XING and an expected messy start. We brought together six diverse UX professionals from different parts of the company to experiment, iterate and gather experience on a professional design critique format. After one quarter of practicing, trying moderation styles and learning what works and what does not work, we settled on our very own XING style design critique.
Our Design Critique Style
A design critique session at XING is done by a fixed group of diverse UX professionals, which meet every week for 30 minutes to give a critique on one topic. At best, there are six people in a critique session, who have different roles. There is the presenter (e.g. designer), who is sharing his work. There is a facilitator, who is moderating the discussion and there are, at best, three to four (not more) critics, who give feedback. One day before the session, the presenter shares a critique briefing with the members of the group. The presenter’s role rotates in the group, so that everyone receives a critique once every 4 to 6 weeks.
Reading this, you might have multiple questions in your head, such as, why do we do design critiques like this, and not differently? So, let’s dig deeper in some lessons learned and address some questions this particular setup may raise.
Why only UX professionals?
Of course, you can do a design critique with everybody on your team. We actually encourage our designers to facilitate design discussions in their teams with a similar setup. By using their gained facilitation skills, they constructively discuss their work in their teams. However, the formal design critique format at XING is currently done within the UX community. We set up the groups of UX professionals from various business units, clusters and teams and even across different office locations. The intention to do so, is rooted in the objective to foster a cross-business unit collaboration and knowledge transfer between different UX disciplines.
Why 30 minutes & every week?
The first thought an organizer of a design critique group might have is: “Our calendars are packed. It’s challenging to get six people at the same time in a room. So, let’s do it every other week or monthly for a full hour, or even two hours with multiple topics.” While that sounds logical from a pure scheduling perspective, it’s not a good idea for the critique and the role it plays in the design process. Design is done in an iterative process and the best outcome of design critique is happening when it’s supporting this iterative process and discusses work from an early stage up to late work. Taking that into account, we could easily increase our rhythm to twice a week for 30 minutes.
Why is it a fixed group?
Keeping the members in the group settled by refraining from switching participants regularly is justified by the aim to create a safe environment. As with all groups of people, the design critique group also goes through the famous stages of group development (forming, storming, norming, performing). With multiple sessions over time, the members learn who in the group is arguing in which style, who has special points of view and can therefore be referred to for special kinds of feedback. For example, someone in a user research role gives different feedback than that of a visual designer or an interaction designer. Even though there is a knowledge sharing component in doing design critiques, we currently prioritize the group forming and safe environment higher than the broader knowledge transfer.
Why only one topic?
A focused discussion on design over 30 minutes is intense and sometimes exhausting. The presenter concentrates on listening to the feedback. The critics concentrate on following the arguments of others and contribute their feedback. The facilitator takes notes and keeps the discussion on-topic and on-time. On top of this, the group has to get up to speed on a topic they are not familiar with, in every detail, because they are working in a different team on a different product and/or are located in a different location. And so, we pretty quickly learned that one topic per session is enough. Focusing on a single topic also benefits the critics. For them, the real benefit is in the thinking that occurs after the session, when they’re able to apply their new knowledge to their own design work — this is the point where learning has real impact.
Why do we need a facilitator?
It’s not a surprise that a discussion is more efficient when there is a facilitator moderating. This is very true for design critiques as well. One might say, we’re all professionals and we know what we are up to, but even if all people in the group are experienced in discussing design, sometimes the arguments and feedback goes wild and loses its focus. For the designer who is presenting, every feedback is interesting to hear in the first place, so they are often not eager to interrupt. Facilitating a critique needs training, skill and courage to cut off feedback that is not on track, because it might feel rude to interrupt. Another reason to have a facilitator is the fact that, without this role the designer presenting might feel unsupported: in a hot seat and under fire with a room full of critics. The facilitator’s role is to support the designer and help them focus on listening and discussing. It’s the facilitator, who is taking notes openly, so the designer is not multitasking on listening and writing. And of course, the facilitator keeps time and tries to ensure the whole group stays engaged by encouraging more quiet people to speak up and more loud and enthusiastic people to slow down.
Why are there max. 3–4 critics in a session?
In order to streamline the session to a 30 minutes discussion and keep the discussion focused, three to four critics in a session is optimal. We experimented with different amounts of critics and learned that too many critics (>5) will lead to a never-ending discussion. It’s almost impossible to have all feedback of all people on the table in 30 minutes. With five or more critics, our sessions took up to 60 minutes and the valuable outcome was not scaling proportionally with more time and opinions. On the other side, when there is only one or two critics, the discussion is not as engaging nor thorough. And so, we learned that the right number is 3–4 critics. This ensures that the interactive flow of an argument/question leads to additional inputs from varying points of view.
What is this critique briefing all about?
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, when designers — more so humans — see a new design for the first time, reactions like, “that’s nice” or “I don’t get it” are dominating our thought process. We can’t turn that off. We need some time to digest what we see. We try to make sense of what we see, as well as reflect on the objectives and type of feedback the designer is looking for. Without sharing the design briefing in advance, the critique will be dominated by reactive feedback and less on analyzing the strengths and weaknesses against the design objectives.
As UX designers, we are operating in the sweet spot of business goals and user needs. Specifying what type of feedback you want as a result of the critique is important for the critics and facilitator and mostly for the designer, to ensure the discussion is focused and the feedback is helpful in supporting the next step in the design process. Altogether, with artwork to be discussed, the template is short and easy to use. Preparing a design critique should be a simple effort of 10 minutes, and consuming a briefing doesn’t take much longer. This is by intention, so the roadblock to go into a critique is as low as possible.
So, this is our current setup, a peek into how we do design critique at XING and what we’ve learned along the way. Naturally, we’ll keep iterating and improving as we continue to roll out design critiques to the full UX organization.
If you’re interested in how a design critique is done in detail, I highly recommend the book Discussing Design by Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry. There is a lot of content out there and you can do webinars and trainings on design critique, too. My best advice to everyone who wants to do critique is: Start practicing tomorrow! Don’t wait, just do it!
Just like Marc Twain said:
“The secret to getting ahead is getting started”
PS: Yes, we also do design critique in a remote session. The setup is basically the same, we just have to introduce and adapt to video conferencing and collaboration tools. All our learnings on remote design critique are also quite interesting, but that’s a story for another post. 🙂
Credit for the beautiful illustrations in this article go to my awesome colleagues Thuy Vo, Jessica Loest and Nicolas Zimmel.