20 ways to make your design critiques more effective

Cats at a design review

Design critiques are a critical part of the iterative design process, but all too often they are poorly thought out, poorly structured and poorly run. Whether you’re running an internal critique, or a key show and tell with the client, there is an awful lot to think about. Here are 20 simple ways to make your design critiques more effective.

1. Call it a design review, not a critique

My first tip is to call your design critiques by a different name – ‘design reviews’. Although strictly speaking a critique is simply a forum for discussion and evaluation, in my experience people tend to associate critiques with the more negative side of things (perhaps because critique is quite similar to critical). Calling them design reviews is a good way of avoiding that negative connotation.

2. Schedule regular critiques

Rather than scheduling adhoc critiques (I’m going to continue calling them critiques for the sake of narrative consistency – just so you know!) it’s a good idea to schedule a regular time and place for critiques. For example, every Wednesday afternoon at 15:00. This helps attendees to schedule them into their busy diary and helps to establish a good cadence of sessions. This also encourages regular critiques and feedback. You simply review what you and the team has come Wednesday afternoon, rather than waiting until the design is perfect before the big reveal.

3. Keep numbers to no more than 8

Too many cooks spoil and broth and too many attendees certainly spoil the design critique. It’s generally best to keep numbers to no more than 8, otherwise critiques can become a little bit unwieldy (only attempt larger numbers with very well oiled teams). The always insightful Jeff Patton talks about a dinner party size. In other words, if your numbers are more student party than dinner party then you’re inviting too many people.

4. Invite a mixed crowd

In my experience you often get more insightful feedback from a mixed crowed, rather than just fellow designers (something about sheep mentality). When I say mixed crowd, I don’t mean a random selection of people you found on the street but designers, researchers, developers, testers, product owners, subject experts and so on. If you’ve got a sizeable design team then perhaps run a designers design critique, and then a more mixed design critique to get a wider range of perspectives.

5. Be wary of HiPPOs

Hippos can be dangerous. Very dangerous. I’m not talking about the big leathery beasts with the giant teeth (who of course can also be very dangerous) but the Highest Paid Persons Opinion. Invite a hippo to your design critique and watch others fall silent as they wait for what the hippo will say. Having very senior stakeholders at a critique can significantly change the dynamics, so be mindful of who you invite. Perhaps run a separate safari themed critique session with any hippos, you know, to maintain peace and harmony in the Universe.

Hippos in water

Be wary of those Hippos (highest paid person’s opinion)

6. Keep critiques short and sharp

Design critiques can sometimes be somewhat long and drawn out affairs. This is bad, because like an endless Peter Jackson movie, after a while people get tired and grouchy (at least I do) and levels of engagement drop. Try to keep critiques to certainly no more than 45 mins. If you can get your critique finished in under 20 mins, then all the better. If a discussion is going on and on, don’t be afraid to park it for now and remind people that you’re not there to solve every problem. It’s OK to say that we’ll come back to something at a later point.

7. Share designs beforehand

Sharing designs before a critique is a great way of making best use of the time you have available. By sending out a link to a prototype, to sketches or perhaps wireframes you can at least prime people and spend more time getting feedback, rather than just walking through the design. Be warned though. If a design needs a fair bit of explanation, such as an early concept, then sharing designs beforehand can sometimes be counter-productive, because you’re more likely to just confuse people. In these instances it’s best to wait until you can properly walk through the design in the critique.

8. Print out and stick up designs on walls

Rather than walking through designs on a big screen, or even worse huddling around a tiny laptop screen, it can be a great idea to instead print designs out and stick them up on walls. Not only does it make you feel like an FBI agent going through your evidence (or is that just me?) it gets people up and moving as they crowd around and discuss the designs. It also makes adding comments and feedback dead easy. You just stick post-it notes up (it’s not a UX meeting without post-it notes) or scribble comments directly onto the design.

Wireframe pintouts on the wall

Decimating a small forest was a small price to pay for displaying all the designs

9. Set ground rules upfront

Like any meeting it’s important to set the ground rules for a design critique upfront. Don’t read everyone the riot act, but do let them know what is going to be reviewed and remind them that you want candour (i.e. open, honest feedback) not conflict. Ask everyone to try to consider the design from the user’s perspective and remind them that whilst possible solutions to problems identified are great to share, you’re not going to be able to find solutions to everything during the session.

10. Ask for more objective than subjective feedback

As part of the ground rules it’s a good idea to re-iterate that whilst subjective feedback is great, more objective feedback is even better. Of course personal opinion matters, but like a judge instructing the jury, ask people to try to take personal opinion aside and consider any data and facts when giving their feedback. For example, “this is different from how most other websites do this”, or, “this goes against what we know users need” is better than simply, “I don’t like it”.

11. Don’t just capture what isn’t working, capture what is as well

Critiques don’t generally have a problem capturing what isn’t working, but some forget to capture what is working as well. Capturing both the good, and the bad helps to give a more balanced feel to critiques and highlights areas of a design that should be retained. After all, you don’t want to make changes that might harm parts of a design that currently work really well.

12. Use a simple template for feedback

A bit like the much used (and mis-used) user story template (i.e. As a… I want to… so that ….) it can be a nice idea to introduce a simple template for capturing feedback. For example:

[Audience] might [love / hate / struggle] using [feature / design element] because [reason]

An example of this template being used might be:

Registered users might struggle using the login screen because they might forget their username.

13. Don’t let people sit down

This might sound like some cruel variation of musical chairs, but there’s a good reason why Agile teams often have a ‘stand up’, rather than a ‘sit down’ daily meeting. Making everyone stand up can not only help to keep the energy levels high, but also the session short and sweet.

Group removing chairs

Ditch those chairs and get energy levels up, up, up!

14. Be sure to explain the design rationale

When walking through a design, be sure to explain (or at least try to explain) the design rationale. Not only does this encourage good design thinking (after all, you don’t want to have to tell people that there wasn’t a good reason for doing something) it also arms people with the knowledge of why the design is the way it is. What people see is really just the tip of the design iceberg and it’s important to make a lot of that design thinking below the surface a bit more visible. This is why it’s important to ensure that the lead designer is present. Even better that he or she runs the session.

15. Set the scene

Along with explaining the design rationale, it’s also important to set the scene for a design. Who are going to be using it? What will they be trying to do? Where will the design be used? By giving people the design context, they will be better placed to critique the design. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post (You’re not a great designer unless you’re also a great storyteller) storytelling is a great way to do this. Storyboards, scenarios or even roleplaying could be used to help set the scene and communicate the design context.

16. Use a talking stick

A talking stick is not a stick that talks, but instead a stick that signifies that the holder is the only one allowed within a group to speak. They were historically used by tribes to ensure that everyone got to have their say at social gatherings. Using a talking stick is a great way to ensure that no one person dominates a critique, and that everyone has a chance to say their piece. Of course strictly speaking you don’t need to use a stick. Talking banana costume anyone?

Woman in banana costume

Jane tried out the banana costume prior to the critique

17. Collate feedback individually before going through as a group

Just like within a brainstorming session a great way to capture lots of feedback is to ask everyone to submit their feedback separately and then go through it all as a group. For example, if you’ve printed off the design conduct a design walk-though and then ask everyone to spend 10 minutes adding their feedback on post-it notes and sticking them up on the print outs. This quickly collects lots of feedback and ensures that everyone gets their say.

18. Use probing questions to explore feedback

Often within a critique feedback will come back like, “users will hate this”, or “I don’t think that this will work”. It’s important to delve below the surface and find out not just what the feedback is, but why. Why do you think users will hate this? Why don’t you think this will work? Like an inquisitive four year old, use probing questions to explore feedback and encourage attendees to not only give feedback, but also their reasoning as well.

19. Don’t try to solve all the problems in the critique

Whilst it’s great to capture ideas and possible solutions during a critique, make it clear that you’re not there to solve all the problems identified in one go. Critiques are not really the best forum and approach for problem solving, and it’s often better to capture feedback, review this feedback and then think about solutions, than attempt to do the two together.

20. Share feedback after the session and ask for more

Following the critique it’s a good idea to share the feedback captured with all the attendees and also to give everyone the opportunity to provide further feedback. Even in the most supportive of critiques you’ll find that some people are more comfortable submitting feedback separately, so it’s important to give them the opportunity to do this. Sharing feedback also shows that feedback is being recorded, and provides an opportunity to communicate and delegate any follow up actions.

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