Learnings from Product Managers

Facilitating Critiques from the Ground Up

Facilitating Critiques from the Ground Up

It was the first week of grad school and I was presenting a design drawn on a whiteboard to people I hardly knew. The last time I remember making anything visual was in 5th grade where the art teacher took one look at my painting and told me to stick to playing the trombone. I fumbled through a presentation of what I had made, wanting to get it over as quickly as possible. When I finished presenting, there was a long silence, and the instructor not one to mince words said, “That sucks…”


Feel familiar?

Critiques are an important part of any organization or relationship where things are made and feedback is given. Depending on how critiques are executed, they can help cultivate brillaint design solutions or completely crush the souls of everyone involved. At Handsome, we have covered this topic before, specifically looking at a method for self-critique.

There are a number of well-written blog posts (here, here, here, here and here) on what makes a great critique. However, most critique suggestions do not take into account the pragmatic and political realities of organizations where feedback is given.

The pragmatic realities pertain to the amount of control the presenter(s) in a critique have over the context of the critique, the other people involved, or the culture in which the critique takes place.

The political realities include the inherent sociocultural and power dynamics that are present when feedback is requested or given.

As an example of how political and pragmatic realities can affect critiques, I was moderating a panel at SXSWedu entitled Frameworks for Modern Day Apprenticeships and an instructor from the d.school at Stanford asked, “How do you make reviews with students more efficient?” Making some assumptions about this person’s situation, one could guess the pragmatic realities of critiques include having limited time (due to holding a full time job as well as a teaching position) to devote to many students all of whom are most likely working on projects with similar contexts and scopes. The political realities are that students are paying for wisdom and instruction that explicitly come from someone who is in a position of greater experience, authority and/or power (the instructor) and that instructor’s time is, in this situation, more valuable than the students.

Below are suggestions for critiques that were formed while taking into account pragmatic and political realities and should help make critiques more productive (and less destructive) anywhere feedback is given.

1. The onus is on the maker/designer:

Whether you’re meeting a mentor for coffee or presenting wireframes to your design director, the responsibility of a productive feedback session is on the person receiving feedback. It’s easy for people to defer to the person giving feedback especially if they are older, more experienced or more demonstrative. Don’t let that happen. If you are the maker, you are the default facilitator.

2. Facilitation is an important skill all designers need to hone:

Similar to mastering tools of design or memorizing interaction design heuristics, great designers are great at facilitating conversations that lead to decisions being made. To become a great facilitator, intentionally observe people who are great facilitators. Focus on the implicit frameworks and tactics used to facilitate conversations and ask them about why they use those tactics after they are done facilitating. If you can’t make a session where they are facilitating, ask if you could set up a camera or audio recorder so that you can observe later. I’m also told that Designing the Conversation is a great book on facilitation.

3. Set your scope immediately:

Even with informal critique, getting the people who are giving feedback quickly up to speed is critical. Answer the following questions as clearly and succinctly as possible:

  • What direction/problem were you initially given?
  • What decisions/constraints have already been put in place/made?
  • Based on that direction what did you work on and how long did you spend creating what you are about to show?
  • What are you prepared to receive feedback on?
  • What areas are you still working on and would like more directional and less specific feedback?
  • Where are you absolutely not ready to receive feedback?
  • What’s your understanding of the entire timeline before the artifact you are working on needs to be shipped?
  • At what point should people give feedback? Wait until the end or intermittently?
  • What type of feedback are you emotionally prepared for? I’ve seen plenty of train wrecks with designers who have been up for two days straight implode at feedback that could have easily been given the next morning (Thanks @CheyenneWeaver for suggesting).

4. Identify and coral out of scope comments and feedback:

If you set up the conversation appropriately, all feedback outside of the scope you initially set should be given intentionally. If a comment appears to come out of left field, try to make sure it’s worth discussing during the critique. Say something like: “I hear what you’re saying and I wasn’t expecting feedback on that. Should we discuss it now, or wait until the end to see if we have time?”

Their response will be either:

  • “You’re right let’s not talk about it now.”
  • “I think this is a potential blind spot that you need to consider.”
  • “I expected you to be further along than you actually are and we need to catch up, so we need to cover things you haven’t done yet.”
  • “I don’t care, I’m going to say what I want.”

5. For most comments, try to ask at least one clarifying question:

Asking clarifying questions communicates that you are invested in what someone has to say, it makes sure they think about the feedback they are giving and are as clear as possible with said feedback. It also fosters a collaborative environment rather than a dictatorial or combative one while still keeping you (the maker) in control.

6. Parrot back what you hear:

Fred Beecher says his favorite phrase during user research, stakeholder interviews and client meetings is, “What I’m hearing you say is…” and then followed by “is that accurate?”

In addition to being helpful in user research, this parroting technique is also immensely useful in critiques. It helps mitigate communication streams crossing, as what you hear is often not what people giving feedback are trying to communicate.

7. Resolution is not always necessary:

If you are receiving an outside perspective and the person giving feedback is not a gatekeeper for the final project, it’s oftentimes not worth trying to reach a resolution or make sure the person giving feedback understands fully what you are trying to do. If you have 30 minutes of someone’s time and after that they will never see the project again, sometimes it’s better to let them get everything they have to say out, knowing 50% of what they say is not entirely relevant.

As an anecdotal example, when designing a collaborative cooking platform a few years ago, I would try to get in front of as many smart entrepreneurs and designers as I could. However, given their busy schedules, there was no way I could give them an entire brain dump in the 30-60 minutes I had with them (and still have time for them to talk). So, I gave them as clear yet concise of context as I could and then let them go off with advice and feedback. Some of their advice was amazing. Some of it was good, just not relevant given some of the things we had already tried or learned. However, in those situations, getting them to see why I disagreed with what they were saying would have been a waste of time.

8. Take physical notes:

This is something small that communicates a great deal of respect and contributes to a less frenetic pace of conversation.

9. Be willing to apologize:

You’re not always going to take feedback well. A concise apology the day after a feedback session can help mend a relationship if you reacted harshly.

10. Explicitly conclude the feedback session:

Cover the following:

  • 30 second summary of what happened
  • 1-2 minutes why it went well, why you appreciate the feedback and what you are going to do as a result of the session and what if anything you expect from the people giving you feedback moving forward.

It’s my hope the above suggestions will help agencies, design schools, and company-side design practices cultivate a more productive practice through more effective and efficient critiques. Many thanks to everyone who was generous enough to review this post and vet my critique suggestions, they include: my parents, Cheyenne Weaver, Emily Goligoski, Fred Beecher andDiana Griffin.

Written by Jonathan Lewis, Experience Director for Handsome, @J2MyLew

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