Tips For Facilitating Productive Critiques

Adam and I talk a lot about the various aspects of critique, facilitation, and how to improve the conversation surrounding design in presentations and workshops at conferences and for companies. As a result we have picked up some helpful tips and techniques to keep handy while making critique a part of your process.

Rules for critique…

Everyone is equal.
Regardless of titles, or managerial hierarchy within your company, everyone is equal in critique. No one person’s input or feedback is valued higher simply because of their status within the company, good ideas and insights can come from anywhere. This rule can be tough if you work in larger organizations or on teams that have very strong personalities, so you may need to reiterate this rule and remind the team that the focus of the critique is on the product and ensuring that it is meeting goals.

Everyone is a critic.
Just as everyone is equal, everyone should also be a critic especially the designer. When we as designers join in critiquing our work with others, we take the focus off of us and put the focus on the product. Everyone in the critique session should contribute, if you have people in your session that are quiet and aren’t participating ask them for feedback directly, we suggest this for a couple of reasons.

  1. Participants can often be intimidated by subject matter or because they are not designers, as a result they choose not to participate. When this happens valuable insights can be missed, as well as possible concerns with the product.
  2. By asking participants for feedback directly you avoid surprises later on in the process. Nothing is worse than getting an email weeks after a critique session expressing concerns about the product design, disrupting the process, when they could have been expressed and addressed earlier.

Avoid problem solving and design decisions.
This can be very tough as it is natural to see something that is not meeting a specific goal and want to start figuring out how to fix it. It is important to remember that critique is a form of analysis, if we start problem solving we are switching away from analysis to problem solving, this usually always derails the critique process.

You may have five things to critique in the session and on item two you starting problem solving, the chances are slim to none that you will make it to the other three points before your allotted time for the critique session has run out. Avoiding problem solving in critique keeps you on track.

The designer is responsible for follow up and decisions.
Critique is about analysis, measuring designs against goals, scenarios, and personas to ensure that the product is on the right path. In the session the designer gathers insights and feedback, and then should be able to go back take time to look at the information gathered and make decisions based on the aforementioned goals, personas, scenarios.

This approach helps to keep problem solving out of the critique session, and allows the designer set aside time to evaluate the feedback and follow up with those who provided feedback as needed.

** Read Adam’s recent post for more information on the importance of goals, scenarios, and personas in the critique process.

Attendees may not be familiar with these rules so we suggest posting these rules in the room so that everyone in the session is reminded of them, and they can be referred to as needed while facilitating the critique.

Preparation and Kickoff…

When making critique a part of your process preparation is one of the most important components. We have said in the past that critique is a process, not just feedback based on a gut reaction to work that is being reviewed. So it is crucial to get the preparation and kick off set, so that the critique is easier to facilitate, here is what we recommend;

  1. Send out your materials ahead of time, this allows for participants to see the designs and have some time to review them against the product goals, personas, and scenarios. If participants in your critique session are seeing designs for the first time all they can give you is a gut reaction as they haven’t been allowed the time to think things through.
  2. When you send out the email with the materials make sure to clearly describe the goals of the product but not how it is intended to meet them. Doing this allows those attending the critique to have all of the info needed to prepare insights and feedback before coming to the critique. I would also include the goals for the critique session, and any rules for the critique to ensure everyone is ready to go come meeting time.
  3. When kicking off the meeting make sure to remind everyone of the session goals, rules, and share a mini creative brief if you have one. This sets the tone for the meeting and helps give context to anyone who may not have had much time to read the email you sent out leading up to the critique.
  4. Present quickly, share the work being critiqued, dont get caught up in tons of details, this leaves more time for actual critique.
  5. Avoid discussing constraints, stakeholders more times than not will see this as an excuse as to why things aren’t getting done. If you have valid concerns about constraints follow up with the right people after the session.


 Tools and Techniques

Once you have the session started you are going to want to keep things moving. Facilitation is a big part of getting the most out of your critique. Here are some techniques you can use to keep the conversation moving in a productive manner.

Active listening, question for clarity
Make sure to restate the feedback/insights that participants are share, and never hesitate to ask for clarity if you are unsure. You really want to avoid communication break downs down the road.

Round Robin
Use round robin to keep things moving, simply go around the room one person at a time asking them to provide feedback.

Direct Inquiry
I mentioned this early when talking about everyone being a critic, you can use this technique (along with round robin) to simply go person to person in whatever order you prefer to make sure that everyone contributes and you stay in control of the meeting flow.

Give participants quotas (share 2 positive things, and one area of concern) to help facilitate getting feedback. This is very helpful in providing structure for those who may not be familiar with giving critique, and to provide a framework that makes it easier all participants to share their feedback and insights.

Six Thinking Hats
This is an excellent tool created by Edward de Bono in his book Six Thinking Hats. Six Thinking Hats is a tool used to analyze something from a number of perspectives. Each perspective is represented by a different color hat. This tool is great for facilitating critique and gathering useful feedback as it provides a solid framework for analyzing designs from different angles.

This article has a more in depth look at the Six Thinking Hats.

This is a tricky one… While we don’t necessarily endorse using a facilitator as you are putting control of the critique session in their hands, we do think that if you are just starting to work critique into your process it can be helpful until you feel comfortable to handle the facilitation yourself.


Following Up Tools and Techniques.

So we have looked at preparation and kick off tools, and talked about techniques to use during critique sessions to keep things moving, but it doesn’t end there. Following up after the critique is crucial to keep the critique process moving in the right direction. Here are some things we suggest.

Take note of how people participated.
This is important as you think about who to invite to the next session. If certain people were uninterested or just flat out difficult to deal with consider not inviting them to the next session (if possible). You will also want to note how people participated and what they responded to and use that information to help refine your approach in the coming session.

Document any observations and open questions and share them.
As you progress through the critique make sure to document open questions, and then follow up with the right team members to make sure those questions get answered, and nothing slips through the cracks.

Follow up with individuals to explore design solutions.
As you come back from the critique with insights and feedback follow up with specific individuals to share and explore the design solutions. This is also a great time to share any constraints that you have come up against.

Communicate next steps: what activities will occur prior to the next critique.
Critique isn’t a one time event, it is a continual process that spans the life of a product. To help keep the critique process moving forward I suggest send an e-mail out after the session that thanks everyone for participating, outlines the next steps and when the next critique will take place. If you don’t have a set date for the next critique mention a general time frame and follow up as soon as you can nail down something specific.


Wrapping Up

This is a brief overview of some of the tips and techniques that we suggest for facilitating productive critiques. The information here is not necessarily prescriptive, we suggest that you take these tips and techniques and see how they fit in the context of your teams and organization, try different things and see what works best. Jared Spool recently wrote a similar post that is definitely worth reading on conducting great critiques.

If there are specific areas you would like to know more about or have questions on please use the comments below to start a conversation, or drop us a line.

Adam and I will be presenting a workshop and 90min presentation on Leading Collaborative Critiques and Design Studios at the upcoming UI17 conference. Use code SPK3DAY – $300 off the full conference.

About Aaron Irizarry

Aaron is a Product Designer for Nasdaq OMX. Aaron combines a background in visual design with a passion and deep understanding of experience design to create well rounded product experiences. He is also a lover of heavy metal, a foodie, and a master of BBQ arts.

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