Design Reviews vs. Design Critique

In the time that Aaron and I have been sharing our thoughts on critique, we’ve had a lot of opportunities to speak with designers, developers, project managers, etc. about their organizations and how they’ve incorporated critique (or haven’t) as a part of their process.

In those conversations, the topic of Design Reviews often comes up. We hear from a lot of people who are frustrated because they feel like reviews are the point in their process where critique is or should be happening and for one reason or another it isn’t working.

Now the term, “Design Review” is itself vague and organizations we’ve spoken with have used it differently. But in talking more with people, we’ve identified some common attributes present in a lot of these review meetings that conflict with the purposes of critique and lie at the root of the frustration people are feeling.

That’s not to say that all Design Reviews are problematic for critique. We’ve also heard from some groups where the meetings they’re calling Design Reviews are a perfect match for critique.

The challenges:

Reviews are about approval, not improvement.

Design Reviews tend to be used as a means of getting everyone’s ok in order to move on to some next step in the process, whether that be some brick in the wireframe->prototype->build waterfall, turning focus to another area or feature in the design, or whatever is next on the to-do list.

Critique on the other hand is not about approval at all, it is always about improvement. The conversations that take place during a critique are not about reaching some point where it’s ok to do something else, they are about the goals and principles you’ve set out to accomplish and how well your designs address them.

It can seem easy, and almost logical, to extend this to the notion that achieving what you’ve set out to means approval, and not achieving it is rejection, but in reality, it is and should be, more of a grey area. When holding critiques, designers should always have the expectation that they will be taking their new understanding and applying it to iterate on their designs.

Growing out of this, we find some secondary characteristics that also contribute to conflicts between reviews and critiques…

The timing is dictated by the project timeline.

Critique is a great tool for collaborative environments and helps contribute to team-members having a shared understanding of the project, the problems it’s addressing and the way it’s solving them. But more important than that, critique is a design tool. It is a tool that a designer can put to use whenever he or she feels they are at a point where stepping away from the work they’ve done and analyzing it will help them in determining what kinds of adjustments they might make.

In order to be most effective, it requires time for iteration.  The link between critique and iteration is key. That is to say, it requires that the designer have the necessary time to take what they learn about their design and make informed decisions about what they will change.

The timing of design reviews often doesn’t permit this. When approval is not reached in a review, any time that comes after a review is often looked at with the lens of, “hurry up and get the changes people asked for made so we can get their ok.”

The outcome is often a list of changes.

The people we’ve talked to have said that they often go into design reviews with the expectation that one of two things will happen:

  • Maybe they’ll get lucky and get everyone’s OK so that they can move on to the next task.
  • If approval isn’t received, they expect to leave with a list of changes to be made that, hopefully, once complete will satisfy the approver’s needs so that they’ll give their OK.

This essentially means that during the review there was a decent amount of problem solving happening. We’ve talked before about avoiding problem solving during critique, not because it’s not important to the design, but because jumping right into problem solving can obscure a real understanding of why the original design isn’t sufficiently achieving a goal. And that’s a main tenet of good critique. Participants should leave a critique with an understanding of how and why a design is or isn’t achieving its goals.

There are too many people.

I personally have been in Design Reviews with over 20 people in attendance. And I’ve heard horror stories about reviews with 50+ people. How on earth is that even functional?

Good critique comes in the form of a balanced conversation and it’s hard to have that with too many people. Consider what it’s like to go out for dinner or drinks with friends. About how many people do you think you could include in a single conversation before side conversations start splinter off? In my observations it’s about 6 total, including myself. With too many people, voices get lost and people lose focus or get confused because they’re trying to follow numerous conversations that are going on in the room.

Participants have the wrong intent.

Back (again) to the aspect of approval that tends to be the objective of Design Reviews, the participants are often there with the wrong intent. These meetings can be seen as one of the few chances they’ll have to get whatever they want into the design. It isn’t about helping the designer understand the impact of the design decisions they’ve made so far and if they help achieve the agreed upon goals for the project. It isn’t necessarily about improvement of the product. And to be quite honest, in some situations it can get to be completely selfish.

So what can you do?

If any of this sounds like the design reviews you’re used to, and you’ve been frustrated as to why more productive critiques haven’t been a part of them, there are a few things you can do to help improve the situation.

Try to take as much control as possible.

This shouldn’t be a turf war, but you need to try and get in front of this. Can you be the one who schedules and calls the meeting. Can you be the one who kicks it off and serves as the facilitator/leader? If you can, you may have a chance at putting the review at a more opportune time in the project or in guiding the conversation.

Kick it off right.

Start by reviewing the agreed upon goals, principles, scenarios, etc. Setting the right foundation for critique is a hugely important step. Having a common, agreed upon platform from which your designs will be based is important. Often teams struggle, lose momentum, and argue because different members have different objectives or goals for the project.

If your organization isn’t currently working to set a solid foundation for your projects, like getting members and stakeholders to agree on a concise set of goals and principles, look for ways to start building this into your process.

Facilitate.

If you’ve got the chance to lead, you can use your facilitation skills to help keep discussions closer to one that resembles critique rather than one that looks like a collection of to-dos. Rephrase what people are telling you and ask if you’re understanding them correctly. Question why people are asking for things to be included or removed. Refer back to the project’s goals, personas, etc. Use the 5 whys.

Don’t rely on them for critique.

At the end of the day, the challenges underpinning why critique just isn’t working in your design reviews may be beyond what you can immediately influence. Don’t be afraid to take matters into your own hands and pull together critique sessions on your own. You can call people together for a formal session when you feel like it would be useful to take a step back from your design before iterating a bit further. Or you can just grab the person next to you when you catch them watching cat videos again and get their thoughts.

Are Design Reviews needed?

None of this is to say Design Reviews aren’t necessary. In many organizations having a dedicated time at which the team decides it’s time to move forward to a next step can be important with regard to progress and productivity.

But it is also important to understand how that purpose separates it from critique and to not confuse the two. And to use that understanding, in combination with an understanding of your own organization’s culture and process to determine how best to incorporate critique into your practice.

About Adam Connor

Adam is a Design Director at Mad Pow, Dad, Husband, Illustrator, Speaker, and lover of good beer. You can follow adam on the twitters at @adamconnor.

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