Strengthen the design practice with better design critique
Product design teams can’t grow without continuous support from their peers and managers. At Devbridge, we have a diverse crew of product designers distributed across our Chicago, Toronto, London, and Atlanta offices, creating products for a myriad of unique clients. It’s important that we don’t let barriers stop us from supporting growth as individuals and as a practice.
Why design feedback matters
We find that a healthy critique system removes uncertainty and allows designers to collect expert design feedback and make faster, more confident decisions. When done well, it also becomes a foundation of trust and collaboration between designers on the team.
Fixing a broken design feedback process
Historically, the design critique structure (affectionately referred to as ‘crit’ by designers at Devbridge) included a bi-weekly meeting with six to ten designers. One to three designers presented and shared their work, giving a brief run-through of the design and intent. The remaining designers offered surface-level notes (i.e., button placement, color contrast, notes on how they might tackle things differently).
Over time, the process deteriorated. Sharing work became stressful, requiring too much time and effort to prepare. Due to competing scheduling and delivery demands, only a handful of designers regularly participated, while others passively attended or just skipped the meeting altogether. Designers often left meetings feeling like they weren’t getting the depth of feedback they needed.
Recognizing the benefits of good crit, the design team set out to unpack the problems and rebuild the process. We assembled a group of designers across the design practice to discuss why design critique was important, what was and wasn’t working, and how to build a better feedback process. After doing what we do best at Devbridge and workshopping the problem, we designed a few guiding principles to refresh the design critique structure.
The design critique checklist
The following are recommended best practices for a healthy crit process.
1. Assemble a smaller group of participants.
Invite a smaller group of 3 designers. People are less likely to skip the feedback session and more likely to reschedule should a conflict emerge when the group is small. Smaller groups also offer a more intimate setting for designers to be open, honest, and provide targeted feedback. Trust is a key component of a successful crit experience. A designer struggling with a concept or another teammate may feel more comfortable talking about their issues in a smaller setting. In contrast, it’s not likely someone would be at ease broadcasting such struggles to a broader group of peers.
2. Focus feedback on one design challenge.
Context switching within meetings can be brutal. Instead of trying to split an hour across a slew of product challenges, center the bulk of the meeting around a single design challenge. Be sure to facilitate tight, concise meetings.
At Devbridge, each meeting has the following roles. Prior to the meeting, designers elect which role they want to take on, typically via group Slack channel.
|Follow up||3 - 5 minutes||The previous session’s presenter offers a quick follow-up on how their design or problem has progressed since they last spoke.|
|Main presenter||25 minutes||The main designer presents their work and requests targeted feedback.|
|Status update||1 - 2 minutes||The third designer gives an FYI or any quick status check on their current work so that the team maintains context on their projects even when they don’t have specific work to discuss.|
3. Dedicate 30 minutes per session.
Schedule thirty minutes to meet. Alternately, meet twice weekly for thirty minutes instead of once a week for an hour. Taking an hour from someone’s day can disrupt their productivity, especially if they’re already juggling several other priorities or on a deadline. If your needs run beyond 30 minutes, you can always schedule 1-off sessions or extend the meeting with those who have availability.
Crit is one step in working better together across teams and offices. The design team should feel comfortable reaching out to one another to ask for extra time, assistance, or feedback. Likewise, senior team members should be available to help designers across the practice solve challenges.
NOTE: Do not limit the ask for support to the meeting session. Connect over slack, DM, or email to talk through the meta-issues of crit outside of the session to continue the conversation and support the design practice. Quick hits to continue the discussion help ensure that each group stays on track and that designers across the company are given healthy and actionable feedback.
4. Ensure the crit group includes a mix of designers from multiple geographies and with varied experience levels.
Assemble a group with one senior, one mid-level, and one junior designer. It’s best to include designers from different offices and projects to provide a diverse set of work and experience. Task the senior designer with owning the meeting. However, ensure all three designers are treated as equals during the session regardless of experience.
5. Give the meeting a name worthy of attention.
Crit sessions need a name. Collaborate with your team to develop your crit group’s name. I’ve held sessions with group names that run the gamut.
“I Wish I Could Crit You” for cowboy cosplayers
“Rachel Critting Married” for OG Anne Hathaway fans
“Crit Playing Games with My Heart”
“Crit On A Hot Tin Roof” if you’re feeling Tennessee Williamsy
You get the point. An added benefit, having a good time and being light promotes a healthy, light, and fun team culture.
6. Peer critique should be a conversation.
Good peer critique is a discussion. When providing feedback, focus more on asking questions than dictating what you would do differently. Everyone involved in the conversation builds a greater context for the problem being solved and collectively identifies areas for improvement.
Improve your crits and feedback process
The intent behind revamping the design feedback structure is to offer better support for our growing team. FYI: We’re hiring. See open positions. The structure helps the design practices overall by leveling up with more fulsome feedback and unpacking difficult design challenges together.
It’s important to tailor the design crit structure for the team. The output isn’t a one-size-fits all solution. Each team is a unique composition of talent, and each product has its own design and crit needs. To determine the best path forward, gather peers to workshop the problems and solutions.
I’m always happy to bounce around ideas with other designers to build and support growing talent. Feel free to ping me on LinkedIn. Supporting design growth across our industry is so important. Good crits are the perfect first step.