Conducting a Productive Design Critique Session

Conducting a Productive Design Critique Session

Design critique is not to critique a design

- Nidhi Rai,
11th May 2018

A design critique is a general gathering of designers, where they present their incomplete work. The purpose of these meetings is to create a scope for designers to seek feedback and evaluate whether or not the intended design accomplishes its objectives. Unlike a brainstorming session, where the purpose is to come up with ideas, a critique meeting is centered on evaluating a set of current ideas and maybe identify future courses or changes. Critiques are one of the most vital ingredients to a great design. But a dysfunctional design critique can lead to broken teams and bad product. Even when everyone is well-meaning, there are many ways a critique can go off track and hurt the designer's feelings. But with a bit of thoughtfulness and consideration, we can craft a culture of productive, passionate, and sincere critique session. Let’s see how it’s done
design critique session


Who is in the room

A critique meeting should allow a small group of people to evaluate and review many ideas quickly and informally. And you cannot be informal and intimate about ideas with more than 5 or 6 people in the room. You must keep your invite list narrowed down to the people most crucial to the design process. Forget about job titles or hierarchy, and instead, include people who are most likely to understand the creative process, and give productive, essential, and constructive feedback. A HiPPO in the meeting can be fatal. Duh! not the animal. I am sure they won't turn up even if you invite them. The other HiPPO- Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. Every non-HiPPO might wait for what they have to say and you may even get biased opinions. So be mindful of that invite list.
data driven design decisions


Conduct of a critique session

A designer first presents his design which then it is followed by a group discussion. Tip: A baton is kept in the room which is passed from person to person so that when a single member is keeping his views others are patiently listening to it. This also avoids repetitive points being made by each member. A point once captured by the designer is not repeated again in the meeting.
While having discussion of the design ideas focus on the user's goal and the ease of doing it. Do not say things like "I do not like this", “This is plain bad”, “I would never do this”. Try to put across your feedback in a constructive way so as to not hurt the designers feelings. Focus on user's problem solving and the barriers that comes with solving it.

Things to Focus on

Is there a solid justification for this choice?

Is there a simplistic approach to accomplish this?

Is this method consistent with other domains of our product?

Is this addressing the original problem?

Before presenting any designs be certain everyone clearly understands the problem you’re attempting to solve and it's context. After everyone agrees and understands the problem at hand and how you’re suggesting to solve it, only then you can have a fruitful discussion. A good way to begin it is by stating which of the choices you think works best and why. It won’t be long before others counter with disagreements, or suggest further improvements, or debate for other options that weren’t even presented.

Everyone needs to keep the meeting goals in mind. You may even receive unexpected feedback that you’re not actively looking for. For example, you might be looking for feedback on a design, but you get questioned about why you’re doing this in the first place. These are great rationality checks. Without a great answer to this question, you really should be challenging yourself whether this is a good problem to solve.


Print out your designs and stick them up on the meeting walls. It gets feedback flowing as opposed to when people are relaxed on their chairs leaning back. Adding comments and feedback becomes easier this way. Just stick post-it notes up or scribble your comments directly onto the design. There is a rationale behind why Agile teams generally have a daily ‘stand up’ meeting. Making everyone stand up not only keeps the energy level high but also the session is brief and to the point. Select a room with a lot of white boards to scribble on and ask the members to carry their notebooks to note down their concerned points and raise it with the designer in the discussion.
note taking in design decisions


Everyone is a critic

Everyone invited to the meeting is a critique and should contribute, if you have people in your session who are quiet and aren’t engaging directly ask them for feedback. Participants may be intimidated by subject matter or because they are not designers, as a result, they choose not to participate. This may lead to missing out on valuable insights, as well as potential concerns with the product.


A design critique has to be necessarily controlled by a moderator who can guide the meeting back to the agenda in case the discussion goes into another direction. One way to do that is the moderator has a bell handy in the meeting room and the moderator rings it everytime the discussion goes out of context.

For a critique to be effective, everyone has to feel open about voicing their opinions and discussing ideas. It requires a different style of leadership than running a status meeting. The moderator should be able to ask quiet people to speak up, or loud people to quiet down.

The moderator should have enough context about the subject to lead people in the right direction. A good critique meeting should feel like an informal conversation between people with the same goals, all trying to come up with an optimum solution by good thinking. It is in the capacity of the person running the meeting to set the correct tone of discussion and maintain that enthusiasm and positive vibe in the room throughout the meeting. Nevertheless, at the end, who runs the meeting is less important than the essence of the discussion, and the overall improvement ideas to the design effort.

Avoid problem-solving and design decisions

This can be very difficult as it is normal to see something that is not meeting a particular purpose and want to start figuring out how to fix it. It is essential that we remember that a critique is a form of review, if we start problem-solving we are shifting away from analysis to problem-solving, this will derail the critique process. Design critique session is not "usability testing" session, so do not focus on capturing any type of data. While it’s OK to propose a different strategy occasionally, but don’t use your design critique to solve big problems. Identify the problems, but leave it up to the individual designer to figure out the best solution.

Wrapping Up

The success of a design critique session could be measured by the resulting number of clear action items that will help the designer in enhancing the designs. The more the action items, the more productive the meeting is.

Critique is the first way a designer can get feedback for their designs. Once that strong culture of constructive feedback is built, designers will be more productive, effective, and happy. Design critiques are a lot of work. They steal time away from other important tasks but great designs don’t come by working aloof and hoping this is the right solution. The best designs spring from collaborations and you can start that by getting your team to participate in design critiques.

This is a brief overview of some of the tips and techniques for driving a productive critique. This is not a die-hard list you can always try various methods with your team and see what works best for you.
With this I hope you would have got an overview of usability testing and all the peculiarities involved. I hope you enjoyed reading this article. Thanks for your time and feel free to add your comments below and let me know your thoughts about this article.

Nidhi Rai,

I am a QA by profession with 5 years of experience on various automation technologies. I am highly passionate about experience design as an emerging field and an enthusiast to spread the importance of usability and usability testing. When I am not working I am mostly reading, writing, or traveling. I am from India but currently staying in the United States.

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