How to run a design crit session
Design crits are an informal and an unstructured way to get feedback from your design peers as well as other disciplines such as user researchers or product managers. Most of the time it is called a design crit (which is short for critique). Design crit sessions are a way to show any work in progress, regardless of what stage it is at in the design process.
By regularly running design crit sessions within your organisation you are allowing a place where design is in the open and allows for more collaboration between designers and teams. There is a difference between a design review and a design crit, where a design review is more formal, a crit session is a short, sharp focused look at a particular problem.
Introducing design crit sessions to your organisation
Design crit sessions should be in the calendar often, depending on the size of your design team and the organisation size this could be once every two weeks or even two sessions every week. By having it often you create flexibility in which people can pick the slots that best suit them and their own calendars
People are busy with their own streams of work and priorities so those sessions should be around 20 minutes long. This is also a benefit to the person receiving critique as they can be more concise around what they are looking for, picking one topic to focus on
With that design crit in the calendar you can then have a spreadsheet, Trello board or something else that is accessible to allow people to claim their spot as well as know what is upcoming.
Preparing for the session
The first thing is try not to stress about it, we should treat design crits as a relaxed session to sense check the direction you may be going in. Next, don’t invest a huge amount of time in preparing for the session, it can be messy.
The design crit could be about a particular component or pattern looking at the micro parts of your work in progress or a more broader macro view of the direction we may want to go in and want to get some thoughts on that direction. Some ideas for the session could be:
- User flow
- Analysing competitors
- Interaction of components and patterns within a journey
Don’t involve too many people to each crit session, try to aim for somewhere between three to seven people or think you’re hosting a dinner party, what would be the maximum number of people you would feel confident hosting for before it comes unmanageable?
If you have a larger group then you can find someone to take notes, then you have the facilitator and then the critiquers
During the design crit session
During the session start by saying what you need feedback on (and what you don’t want to focus on), try and keep this concise to allow your colleagues to understand what they should be focusing on as we only have 20 minutes to get to the problem, discuss and find a resolution
Before showing the thing, if there is something to show, then allow the designers time to ask clarifying questions. This helps set any further context or understanding before you go into the situation
When you start showing your designs you may feel an urge to do it live as you’re gaining feedback, this is fine. You can do things in the moment, move things around, change content or the flow of your designs. As we’ve talked about it, this is informal, unstructured and unruly
The point is your generating ideas for yourself that you can then walk away with and continue experimenting with and open up potentially new routes
In the office
If you’re doing this in the office then it could be around your desks, at a coffee meetup place, a meeting room or a break out space, somewhere you can all gather together and centre around the design
If the design is a sketch or a low-fidelity design you may want to scan and print a few copies of it so each person can have their own copy to write their own notes on or share them between designers
For when you’re trying to compare and contrast designs and your in-person then it may be better to print out the designs and use the wall space. This is a fun exercise as it gets people on their feet and it becomes an interactive session moving around the room, leaving post-stick notes on the designs
If you’re running the session remotely this could be achieved by sharing your screen during the session but also sharing a link to the design tool if it’s in Sketch or Figma to allow people to get into the file, leave comments and do their own thing
If you’re the one giving feedback then it’s important you practise active listening and give the designer who is presented the opportunity to present their work first and then take a non-judgemental view on the situation.
You’re there to help your colleague and help get them through that problem or challenge they are stuck with. The type of questions you could ask are:
- Have you thought about this?
- Why did you choose this direction?
- What’s the rationale behind this decision?
These probing questions will help you understand the work they’ve already done.
Using the why, have and what frames the question so that it’s not a yes or no answer, for example if you asked “did you check the design system before doing this?” can be both a closed question but also a confrontational approach where’s “have you looked at this in the design system” or “what was the reason behind going with this approach differently” these are more probing and allows for a conversation
Closed questions can quickly suck the energy out of the room and hinders the productivity of the quick session so avoid these where possible. You’re not there to tell them what to do next but give inspiration through your questions and feedback to give them options going forward and to consider alternatives
Also remember that a critique can be a positive as well as suggestions on what could be improved. There is perhaps an impression that a design crit is about finding out the negatives but actually the positives can be as useful
Principles of design crit
For those that are new to design crits or if your overall organisation is still maturing with user centred design it can be useful to set and reinforce the principles of what a good design crit session looks like.
- Some principles you should adopt for your crit sessions are:
- Respect for everyone in the room including the person being critiqued
- Focus on the thing rather than the team or person in the organisation
- Constructive feedback is essential and when you provide feedback let the room know if it’s fact, an assumption or an opinion
- It is not an attack and defend situation, the presenter should not feel like they are defending their piece of work
By running design crit sessions in this way it could lead to different perspectives from people who have different backgrounds, skills and knowledge as well as improve your community of practice and improve morale.
The main thing is to run design crit sessions often and small bitesize, aim to focus on one particular problem. Even if some sessions don’t happen because there’s nothing to show then that’s fine, just keep it there as a placeholder and as soon as someone has something to show they can fill the gap.
If you’re the one gathering feedback, then relax and enjoy the session. This is one way to gather feedback and new perspectives that will unlock your work going forward.
If you’re the one providing feedback, active listening is critical. Find the positives, the questions and help the person with your knowledge and insights.
Design crits can be a real benefit to any organisation and can be done remotely, in person and a hybrid approach.
Michael Gearon is a Senior Interaction Designer at Government Digital Service (GDS) in Cardiff. Michael Gearon is one of the authors of The Tiny CSS Projects book, published by Manning Publications. Previously Mike was a product designer at the GoCo Group including GoCompare, MyVoucherCodes and WeFlip. As well working for brands in South Wales like BrandContent and HEOR.