Design Critiques Part I: A Culture of Effective Feedback

This is the first article in a two-part series about design critiques and feedback at Creative Market. Part I offers a high-level overview of how we evaluated and improved our feedback culture and critique process. Part II will explain deeper behavioral insights, reasons behind the steps in our critique process, and offer a complete ready-to-use playbook.

This was posted on my Medium profile first.


Crouching Feedback, Hidden Disaster

Feedback is the wild card in your team’s design cycles. Get it wrong and projects are at risk of being delayed, producing ineffective outcomes, or even worse — blowing up or shutting down. On the other hand, effective design feedback can save the day and bond the team together. Creating a safe environment for the exchange of effective feedback and teaching everyone how to give it is one of a design team’s most important tasks. Since the rest of the company probably didn’t learn how to critique work in design school, helping everyone learn this skill is critical. It can end up paying big dividends to the company over the long haul.

So what exactly is effective feedback? I’m glad you asked.

“Effective feedback is not praise or criticism. It is carefully chosen language and actions that propel the learner forward.” — Regie Routman

We think effective feedback should:

  • Build a shared responsibility for the outcomes of the work
  • Capture diverse perspectives that improve the customer’s journey
  • Enhance all aspects of iterative collaboration and speed up the rounds
  • Support candid discussions in order to arrive at stronger solutions
  • Encourage designers to think more broadly about their approach
  • Deepen the mutual respect and alignment between team members
  • Help the team consider how the work impacts the current design system
  • Give the whole team, not just senior members, a chance to contribute
  • Help designers level-up each other’s skills over time


Critiquing Our Lack Of Critique

How meta! Over two years ago, we wanted to take a closer look at how we were exchanging feedback at Creative Market because frankly, it wasn’t going well. After each project was done, it was easy to see where things went off track. Our lack of good critique process created serious issues at all stages of the work in both written and verbal forms. Here are a few examples of what was happening:

  • Designers were playing a game of “whack-a-mole” to complete their design rounds as feedback came from different sources at different times
  • A leader would give prescriptive or critical feedback late in the process which prolonged or redirected projects
  • A team member would send conflicting or subjective feedback which would bloat timelines and make decision-making difficult
  • A few team members would take up all of the time during a review which didn’t allow the rest of the group to contribute their feedback
  • A team member would deliver destructive feedback which would create unhealthy conflict and distrust among the team
  • A team member would leave ambiguous comments on an InVision prototype which would lead to assumptions that made the work less effective
  • The team had trouble understanding what types of feedback to give, when to give it, and how
  • Designers didn’t have a clear process to resolve conflicts, end the design round, or prioritize the most important feedback to action on next

Every week, we saw the negative impacts that our lack of critique was creating in the work and team relationships. It was clear that a simple process could solve most of our issues in one fell swoop, and that process needed to feel like us and be fairly organic to how the team already operated.

We came up with these three areas of focus to improve our feedback challenges:

  • Sharing the work iteratively (multiple times a week) with the design team and project lead would create less surprises and strengthen alignment at all stages
  • Building an easy-to-use lightweight critique process and unified language for exchanging feedback would improve design review outcomes
  • Creating a path for project teams to collect, validate, and prioritize feedback, as well as resolve conflicts, would create more efficient design cycle

Next, we created a set of simple qualities that would help the team understand what makes for effective feedback and how to give it during a critique.

  • Bring your most positive, respectful self to the table
  • Start with affirmative feedback first to let the designer know what’s working
  • Then, give constructive feedback in the form of a question to clarify intention
  • Discuss what’s missing, invisible dynamics, and relevant data
  • Give feedback through the lens of the majority of users
  • Avoid being vague or subjective, focus on the “why”, explain your rationale and how it matters to the end result
  • If needed, express how strongly you feel about your feedback using the 1–10 sliding scale


Validating Our Hypothesis

After we identified our issues and built a process for improving our critiques, we decided to put it to the test. We planned a mock critique in order to validate that improving how the team exchanged feedback could make design work more effective and efficient.

Our lead product designer Noah Stokes created 3 comps of a reimagined version of our homepage. We scheduled the mock critique as a workshop during a team trip in 2015 so that the whole team would experience and participate. Noah’s work was a bit on the progressive side, because we wanted it to stir up controversy and stimulate lots of feedback. It did the trick. The team immediately experienced the value of our new critique process and ended up loving it. In the weeks that followed, the team embraced and adopted our critique process with open arms. It was all down hill from there.


So Fresh & So Clean

So, without further ado, here is a high-level overview of our new critique process. If you want to dive deeper, I’ll be posting a second article in this series soon that lays out a playbook that your team can adopt based on our groundwork and insights.

1. Running a Critique

a) Prepare the Way

  • Determine the level of critique and time needed for it depending on the project scope and stage of the work
  • Prepare the work for review and share it at least 4 hours in advance with the context the team needs about it

b) Kick It Off

  • The presenter shares a link to the design work and related documents in Slack 5 minutes before critique begins
  • The group starts by identifying roles (presenter, facilitator, recorder), project goals, context of users engage with it, state of the work being reviewed, types of desired feedback (visual, interactive, etc.), and how the time will be spent
  • The recorder opens a document and starts taking notes

c) Shhh: It’s Quiet Time

  • Everyone spends 5–10 minutes experiencing the work objectively
  • This helps everyone organize their thoughts about the work in the form of writing before they deliver it
  • Each participant writes down 1–3 pieces of affirmative feedback and constructive feedback respectively per a comp/page state (if less than 5 deliverables are present)
  • If there are more than 5 deliverables, participants are encouraged to capture high-level feedback and only give specific feedback that’s high-value or important to the success of the project

d) Give Affirmative via Round-Robin Approach

  • The facilitator picks a participant to share their affirmative feedback on each comp or page state, then the rest of the group goes before any leadership present until everyone has shared their insights

e) Give Constructive via Round-Robin Approach

  • The facilitator follows the same sequence of participants to share their constructive feedback
  • Participants should use phrases like “Have you considered” (e.g. “Have you considered another color besides blue for the next button that might resonate with our audience and lead them to conversion?” instead of “I don’t like that blue button.”)
  • Participants shouldn’t offer solutions or design (by committee) in the meeting since that’s the designer’s job
  • The presenter should respond to questions with concise answers that clarify intent and thinking
  • If conflicting feedback or challenging issues occurs, the facilitator flags them for discussion at the end of the review (or if they’re complex, as a separate follow-up meeting)

f) Presenter Takes the Stand Mic

  • The presenter delivers a walkthrough of the work and explains their thinking about design decisions behind each page state or comp that weren’t revealed during the constructive feedback round-robin phase
  • The presenter should not be defending the work or selling it to the team
  • The facilitator guides the group in any discussions that arise during or after the walkthrough

g) Discuss Flagged Topics

  • The facilitator determines which points are critical to answer now pending how much time is left
  • They should help the team navigate each discussion point with integrity and speed

h) End with Next Steps

  • If anyone has a lot of ideas or feedback, set up a separate time to discuss it with the project lead and designer
  • The facilitator summarizes next steps and ends the meeting

2. Validating Feedback

a) Closing the Round

  • The project lead makes sure all verbal and written feedback has been submitted and then closes the design round

b) Collecting Feedback

  • The project lead and designer collate all input into a single document

c) Validating Feedback
The project lead and designer sort all feedback into three buckets in order to assess clarify and validate each piece of feedback

  • Approved: Feedback that will be implemented as-is or with clearly defined minor adjustments
  • Flagged: Feedback that requires discussion to approve or reject
  • Rejected: Feedback that won’t be implemented in the next round

d) Resolving Conflicts
The project lead and designer evaluate flagged feedback and consider the following dynamics as they decide what to do with each piece:

  • Potential impact on users and the actions we want them to take
  • Passion levels given by team members
  • Supportive evidence from user-generated feedback that represents majority
  • Maintaining scope/timeline of the project
  • Multiple team members gave the same healthy perspective
  • Potential impact on the project’s primary and secondary metrics
  • Impact on resource time to implement
  • The level of intentionality in the decision
  • Impact to the UI/UX design system
  • Alignment with industry best practices backed by data

e) Prioritizing Feedback

  • The project lead and designer decide what order the approved feedback should be implemented and create a checklist
  • The designer steps away from the work to recharge and regain objectivity

Last but not least, here’s a quick summary of the different types of feedback:

  • Affirmative: Positive feedback that’s given before constructive feedback. It lets the designer know what’s working and what they shouldn’t change.
  • Constructive: Critical feedback that’s given in the form of a question after affirmative feedback. It should help the designer think through the complexities of user, system, and business dynamics.
  • Unproductive: Feedback that is ineffective, subjective, destructive, or out of scope. These types should be avoided at all costs.
  • Conflicting: Affirmative or constructive feedback that counters a peer’s feedback or the current direction of the project. Project lead should help the group resolve conflicts.
  • User-Generated: Evaluative qualitative or quantitive feedback given by your users that needs be weighed in the mix related to this project.


Wrapping Up

So, there you have it! That’s the flow for our new critique and feedback processes. We rinse and repeat these steps for each design cycle in our brand and product work. We scale up to the full critique process for larger projects with complexities and run multiple reviews during those projects. We minimize the process for smaller tasks and might run a “mini-crit” as a design team.

Since rolling out this new process, the team has built more trust and common ground through critiquing the work. The more we practice the critique process, the more it becomes second nature. The critiques start to move faster and more fluid, while still retaining their effectiveness.

We’ve also seen that as the team iterates and collaborates with greater transparency, the less they have to follow the full version of our critique process. Everyone’s up to speed and aligned at all stages of the project, so critiques end up being most useful at the beginning stages of project scoping or the first round of design work.

Next, I’ll be posting part II of this series if you want to take the red pill and dig into the nuances of our system and copy our critique playbook. There’s enough here in Part I to run our process, but Part II will explain the rationale and dynamics in depth to make sure your team gets it right. I think it can help make your critique process and collaboration over the design work soar to greater heights, just like it did for us.


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