Critique, feedback, and iteration is the blood flow of a healthy design team. It informs the design process, leads to better products and helps designers grow professionally. But despite its essential value to the design process, it’s often absent in current design practice. In most design courses in university, critique is a regular aspect of learning. I remember my senior design class at university where the entire session (on a Friday at 7 am mind you) was a critique of the work produced the previous week. Leading up to this session the studio would ebb and flow with occupants as designers would explore ways to take the previous week’s notes and build upon them before the next round while pitching reasoning and rationale to other designers in the room.
The design studio of a university or even one of todays popular boot camps is so different compared to the solitary desks of today’s tech companies where the office space is orderly and organized and the walls are covered in murals, artwork, or business accolades and not design concepts of future product releases. Those designs stay isolated within the confines of laptops, being viewed by a limited number of teammates only until “it’s ready”.
A Healthy Dose of Feedback
Something gets lost in the translation to the professional design world. Work stops happening in the open and starts being created in isolation. The creative chaos of exploring direction is replaced with polished presentations of fully baked ideas. Things stop being messy.
A messy studio, however, is an indicator of a healthy feedback process. It indicates designers are making things, presenting what they’ve made, and getting feedback that helps them see additional points of view of their work.
Healthy design teams have critiques and feedback built into their process so ideas can evolve. Work is shared with the team frequently and intentionally through design reviews, standups, and casual conversations.
Building feedback into your design process helps in many ways:
- It helps avoid spending too much time on a potentially flawed design.
- It gives multiple perspectives on a single problem.
- It keeps the team aware of project progress through regular presentation.
- It teaches designers to think more clearly about design decisions and get comfortable talking about their ideas by getting into the habit of presenting their work and giving feedback to others.
- It allows junior designers to learn from senior designers, which helps the entire team develop.
Creating a culture of feedback
There are many ways to create a culture of feedback but be patient, change won’t happen overnight. Giving and receiving feedback is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. Putting a few design review sessions on the team calendar creates the opportunity for your team to exchange feedback, but it doesn’t ensure that anyone will know how to participate beneficially.
It can be anxiety-inducing to give feedback. We don’t want to create conflict by coming across negative. And receiving feedback is even more intimidating. No one wants their work to be criticized. But when delivered properly, feedback is constructive, supportive and helps the team grow.
As a design team talks about design decisions, they will develop the language they need to deliver constructive feedback and the expectations of good design will mature. You’ll hear fewer vague observations and more constructive feedback that can improve the design. Instead of hearing, “I like the color palette you’ve chosen.”, you’ll start to notice statements like “the colors feel trendy which contradicts the project’s goal of inspiring stability in the business”. The former isn’t helpful, while the latter is instructive.
Being aware of the language used in critique can also help designers not take criticism personally. For example, by saying “the design does not meet the goals of the project,” not “you didn’t meet the goals of the project”. Always talk about, and focus on the work, not the person who made it. Establishing this and strictly enforcing it builds it into the team early on.
It’s also important to understand that good feedback develops over time and with rapport. For that reason, tempering overly critical feedback early on so people feel safe presenting their work is a good idea. Designers need to hear where they’re heading in the wrong direction but delivered with encouragement. Work your way into more direct criticism once rapport and trust have been established.
Set the Stage
Feedback happens more naturally when the right environment is created. Does your office layout allow for creative chaos and exploration or is it built for solitary work in cubicles of isolation?
By changing the space where the creative work happens you can set the stage for open feedback and collaboration. For remote and distributed teams this is even more important. By establishing a routine of dedicated time and location to share work you keep everyone connected to the progress of a project.
In person teams
The walls of the design space are incredibly important. This is where your team’s ideas can be shared, challenged, edited and celebrated. Make it clear to your team that the studio walls are not prestigious gallery space—these walls are part of the workspace.
Print out designs in progress every day and post them to the walls for scheduled design reviews and casual conversation. Yes, really print them out! This gets the work out of the computer and opens the door to the design process for all team members to observe. Designing in the open demystifies the process and opens the door to those who are outside of the design team to be involved. Which opens the door to more perspectives which improve the design of the product.
Invest in a large format printer and get the whole team connected. The larger format allows for more detail to be viewed and room to write directly on the printout.
If your walls aren’t suited for posting work you can buy 8-foot sheets of foam core and lean them against the wall. Get some low adhesive tape that can peel off easily, and keep markers and sticky notes nearby, so anyone can easily write down some feedback and post it. Make a sign if you need to, stating that feedback is welcome and provide a format that may be useful to the team.
If you have more than one project in progress consider project bays for each project the team is working on. This creates a physical space that displays the progress of each project.
You should also know that the fidelity of the posted work can influence the feedback you get. Pixel perfect comps may convey that the work is finished, which can detract feedback. Work that is lower fidelity or that have notes written on them makes it clearer that the work is still in progress, that the team is working through ideas and is open to receiving feedback.
For Remote teams
Remote teams can have a space for feedback though numerous tools like Slack, Trello, Google Hangouts, InVision (using Freehand or Boards), Mural, and others. There are a lot of affordable options available but the key function remains the same as for in-person teams. Whatever tool is decided to be used, you should have a space to post work daily that can be commented on and discussed through regular review.
With so many affordable tools available remote teams can easily build feedback into their design process as well.
Everyone participating in the process
Once space is set up and designs are being posted, watch to see how people interact with the work. If in-person, are more people coming by to view the posted print outs? Are conversations starting in front of the work? Do you see designers staring at the wall wondering what’s been updated? If remote, are people commenting on the shared work? Are ideas being built upon and re-shared?
These are all positive signs that the culture is shifting for the better. Everyone is participating in the process.
Formalizing the Feedback Process
Designing in the open is the first step to building a culture of feedback. Your team will still need to collect feedback on their designs, sync up with their teammates to make sure progress is being made, and learn from the mistakes that come up along the way. This is a lot to do and requires different types of feedback formats to get the right type of feedback when it’s needed.
When they should happen: Early, midway, and at the end of a project
Who should be there: The designer and no more than 5 people
How it helps: Designers get the feedback they need to refine their work.
Design reviews are critiques that let designers get detailed feedback framed by the project goals. Design reviews should happen at multiple points in a project. At the beginning (low fidelity) so designers can get fresh perspectives before investing too much time in an idea that may be misguided. In the middle (mid-fidelity) and towards the end (hi-fidelity) are also good times to get input for any course correction that may be needed.
Don’t allow designers to use design reviews as the time for a big reveal. If designers are waiting until everything is polished they’ll be too invested to accept the feedback being given. Iteration is the key. Low to medium to high fidelity progress gives multiple checkpoints for course correction.
Design reviews are also a great opportunity to bring in stakeholders from other teams. Colleges from marketing, development, or even the executive team may have new perspectives to help see the problem differently. Remember though no more than 5 people in a review, too many people will make it difficult to guide the conversation.
Also, understand that design reviews are not a free-for-all. They should be operated with structure.
Use a facilitator The designer getting their work reviewed is not the best person to facilitate a conversation about their own work. They will have biases that could influence the feedback and they should be free to listen to the conversation freely. The facilitator should also write down all of the feedback and share it with the design team after the review.
A facilitator sets the rules for the conversation (I’ve shared my personal guidelines for project critiques. These however are a good place to start).
- State the time limit for the design review and set a timer. This keeps the conversation moving.
- Introduce the designer and remind everyone that feedback should not turn into committee design.
- “Jen is the designer of the work we’re reviewing today. We’ll be helping her get fresh perspectives on her work, but let’s offer feedback—not design suggestions. She will use our feedback to inform her decisions.”
- Let people know how they should give feedback.
- “Feedback should be specific and candid. Let’s point out what’s working well and what needs refinement. Remember, we’re critiquing the work, not the designer.”
Don’t rush into the review. Allow everyone some time to view the work in silence to allow them time to process their observations before the conversation begins.
Frame the problem The facilitator should give the designer the chance to frame the problem at the beginning of the review, including any customer and business goals. For example “customers want to save money more effectively, and we want to keep customers engaged by teaching them to manage money better”
Also, identify the constraints of the project. “Due to legal constraints, we have to disclose this information before the user can enroll in the program.” If reviewers are not aware of the constraints and goals of the project, their feedback could be unhelpful.
Say what is needed The designer should state what they need from the design review. “I’m trying to determine if this workflow is intuitive”, this helps keep the feedback focused and prevent the group from getting into unproductive conversations. Be sure to reinforce the review rules if the conversation is.
Don’t pitch, listen. The designer should not pitch their idea or over-explain the designs. Once the designer frames the problem and states their needs, they should be listening to the feedback. Design review is not the time for ideation. It’s time to review the work that is presented in-order-to move forward.
When they should happen: Daily if possible
Who should be there: everyone on the design team
How it helps: The team gets the chance to sync up on projects.
Design standups are short daily check-ins that help the team stay aware of the work being done.
On a standup, each team members answers 3 questions
- What did you do yesterday?
- What will you do today?
- Are there any blockers in your way?
While most teams usually choose to conduct standups in the morning, consider conducting them after lunch. This gives designers the morning to focus on the production of creative work.
Be careful not to let standups turn into design critiques though. If someone needs immediate design feedback, hold that request until after the standup. Standups should be a short check-in focused on project progress.
When they should happen: After a project is launched/deployed or a sprint is completed.
Who should be there: everyone who worked on the project.
How it helps: The team will internalize lessons from each project.
Every project is an opportunity to learn. But if you don’t take a moment to review how it went, valuable lessons slip by without acknowledgment. After you’ve deployed a project or completed a sprint take some time to review what went well, what was confusing, and what didn’t go well. This could be a recurring day after deployment meeting that gets added to the schedule. Give your team the room to speak freely and follow up with questions to get a better understanding.
Send out a pre-retrospective survey to capture each person’s perspective individually. Ask the team to rate their performance both as a group and as individuals on a scale of 1-5. If team members give widely spread ratings ask them to share their views in the meeting. This promotes transparency and honesty.
Discussion in retrospective meetings is centered around 3 questions:
- What worked well for us?
- What didn’t work well for us?
- What can we do to improve our process?
The honest conversation about each of these questions can start out difficult, but does become easier with the cultivation of trust through the team and plenty of practice facilitating retrospective meetings.
When they should happen: After a project has gone poorly.
Who should be there: everyone who worked on the project plus an impartial facilitator.
How it helps: The team will learn from their mistakes and find a way forward.
Not all projects go well. Some go horribly wrong and require the team to come together and learn from the mistakes that were made and consider ways to move forward.
Here’s how postmortems can be run:
- Before the meeting
- Ask the team to identify key moments in the project timeline. These will be used to construct a collective timeline of events. By focusing on events you shift the focus away from personal blame and finger-pointing
- Utilize a facilitator
- This person should not have been on the project and can guide the conversation impartially.
- Set the ground rules
- This is not to be a blame session, it’s a conversation about the shortcomings of a process.
- Present the facts
- The facilitator can help the team agree upon the events that happened so lessons can be extracted. Establishing a collective timeline can help identify where the process broke down.
- Identify key lessons and takeaways
- As lessons are identified they should be written down for all to see. Actions required to address the issues should also be identified, assigned to an owner and given a clear deadline.
- After the meeting
- The lessons identified should be shared out to the entire team along with the next steps and deadlines of completion.
Postmortem can be an uncomfortable experience but they are better than repeating the same mistakes on future projects. In the end, postmortems are a powerful way for the team to learn and improve processes.
Putting a feedback process into practice
Building a culture of feedback takes time, but these are simple steps to help you get started to create change in your organization:
Rethink your design space: Create room for work to be posted to spark design discussion. Embrace the messiness of exploration. Scribble on comps, add sticky notes, post different fidelities of the same concept. Just get the work visible to everyone.
Stay in sync: schedule short daily standup meetings for the team to sync up on projects. It may be best to schedule them after lunch or at the end of the day so you don’t block when the team is the most productive.
Make time for feedback: Schedule in design reviews for every project. They should be frequent enough for designers to get the feedback they need before they go too far down the wrong path.
Learn and grow: schedule retrospectives after every project to capture lessons learned. When things go wrong, conducting a postmortem meeting will help the team learn from mistakes without pointing fingers.