5 Modes of Critique to Improve Design Reviews

Feedback plays a crucial role in any successful outcome, but not all feedback is constructive. Poorly structured design reviews and poor team dynamics can have equally significant destructive outcomes. If conversations are unfocused and intentions not aligned, the feedback becomes less direct, less actionable, and the work suffers.

A design review (or “design critique”) is a collaborative feedback session intended to assess and improve upon the current state of a piece of work. When consistently performed well, design reviews are critical interdisciplinary activities that can provide as much guidance as you need to solicit the specific feedback you want — direct, thoughtful, insightful, generative, actionable.

In this article, I will be sharing design review practices introducing a variety of modes of critique, and how together they can improve individual- and team-based outcomes whether you identify as a designer or not. Here’s what this article covers:

But hold on, Jon, I’m not a designer! If you or a client team member are contributing to the strategy, design, or delivery of a software product, you are part of the design process and your work will benefit from frequent reviews, e.g.:

  • Business models
  • Marketing communication plans
  • Product or service team models
  • Hardware and software engineering prototypes

I refer to these as interdisciplinary design reviews, opportunities to benefit from different perspectives to address a shared problem.

The industrial design of a product, its integrated software, and business model might all have their own specialized needs and functions. However, they all need to work in concert with one another to achieve the intended experience. How they overlap can dramatically influence the customer experience, and interdisciplinary reviews are uniquely suited to convene these overlapping perspectives.

Benefits of Design Reviews

Although they do require preparation in advance, design reviews should not be seen as counterproductive, unnecessarily time-consuming activities. In fact, they’re quite the opposite, and significantly contribute to successful outcomes.

They also can serve different purposes for individuals seeking to improve their own work or for assessing the current state of work across several teams.

Building Up Versus Tearing Down

Successful design reviews are those that “build up” rather than “tear down” the individual and the work being shared.

This is important not only for the success of the work, but also for the influence this has on the culture within your team and/or organization. Consistent reviews that “build up” not surprisingly improve the work while also establishing a trusting culture of critique and supportive design dialogue. Allowing others to comment on your work is a wonderful act of openness and vulnerability that “building up” reinforces.

“Tear down” reviews, on the other hand, focus solely on pointing out flaws in a nongenerative, unsupportive, and cynical manner. They instantly halt or stall out the work and erode trust among colleagues, leading to a toxic creative culture.

Benefits For Individuals

For individual team members, a design review is a valuable source of information that will improve their work and increase their confidence (in both sharing their work and the directions they might be considering).

Questions answered during design reviews can include:

  • Does the work
    • unlock a new possibility?
    • introduce a new or inspiring perspective on how to address the challenge?
    • address the needs of the target audience?
  • What might be missing?

“What might be missing?” is one of my favorite questions to ask (as well as hear from colleagues) because of its inclusivity — by asking others this question you are inviting them into the discussion and indicating their perspective is important to you.

Benefits For Teams

As a team (or team lead), interdisciplinary design reviews are great opportunities to observe and track progress and identify and assess those important overlaps across different work streams that are integral to the success of your product/service.

  1. Immediately gain visibility into the status of the work, which can minimize surprises later on.
    1. Do all the directions appear to be addressing the same objective? Or are some veering away?
    2. Are there noticeable examples of progress or is the room/Zoom filled with text-heavy Post-its about ideas versus visual representations of them?
  2. Ensure design directions are understood across the team, especially if there are multiple streams of work that need to integrate or act as cohesive components across a system.
    1. How close are the levels of fidelity of each stream of work (e.g., hardware, software, service, marketing communication, etc.)?
      1. Are the streams with higher fidelity making certain assumptions that need to be shared with others to ensure they can be supported?
      2. Or, are the streams at a lower fidelity simply in need of additional time or additional support?
  3. Gauge whether the team is struggling or stalling out versus thriving and being prolific.
    1. Are teams equally exploring multiple directions or are some still struggling to identify where to begin?
    2. Or is one team focusing too much time in a single direction versus identifying other possibilities?

When to Host a Design Review

Design reviews should be a frequent and common occurrence among teams and individuals. Don’t wait until the work is done or “perfect” before you put it in front of others.

When starting a new product design engagement, I recommend teams schedule a weekly design review at minimum as part of the project plan. Once it’s on the project calendar, it has the greatest likelihood of happening; and after a couple weeks, it quickly becomes part of the team’s routine.

From a cultural standpoint, after the first few weeks, it’s important for the team to have worked out its cultural kinks and arrive at a point where they trust each others’ input. Frequent and intentional reviews (that “build up”) help foster a trusting and supportive team, and establish a shared design language through consistent practice.

Modes of Critique: Choosing the Type of Design Review You Need

As your work progresses over time, the type of feedback you require changes. Therefore, it’s important to be able to identify these needs and determine what type of design review, or mode of critique, is most appropriate at that moment.

I’d like to introduce five modes of critique that former design director colleagues and I applied and evolved with our teams at the design and innovation consultancy IDEO. I continue to find these modes to be very effective in assessing the range in levels of fidelity of work across the product life cycle (from strategy through design and delivery to market).

  • Inspire
  • Provoke
  • Clarify
  • Nudge
  • Nip & Tuck

Inspire

The Inspire mode of critique is effective during the early stages of the creative process and is useful when: …

  • You know little about a specific topic and are seeking greater knowledge from subject matter experts or inspiration from analogous experiences
  • You are looking for new ways to approach your particular challenge
  • You want to inject some new energy from other perspectives into your efforts

Questions that solicit inspirational answers include:

  • Have you seen similar types of challenges out in the world that might serve as inspiration?
  • What other resources might be worth looking into? Are there specific people who come to mind to research or potentially speak with who are experts in this space?
  • Are there specific activities that might inspire different ways of solving this challenge?

Provoke

The Provoke mode of critique is useful when …

  • You step back and look at the work and believe it’s just kind of “meh”
  • You need help seeing and exploring opportunities that are outside the constraints of the particular problem space
  • You are interested in a completely different direction altogether

Questions that solicit provocative answers include:

  • How might you push the edges of this work?
  • Where are there gaps? What else needs to be considered?
  • What might an extreme version of this direction look like?

Clarify

The Clarify mode of critique is useful when …

  • You have a variety of solid ideas and potential directions, but you’re unsure which direction to go with
  • You are trying to express too many ideas at once and need to do some serious editing
  • You are at a crossroads of different yet equally compelling directions and simply need help to make the hard decision to stop one and go with the other

Questions that solicit clarifying answers include:

  • Where should the focus be and what might make it stronger?
  • Is there a direction that stands out as best aligned with the objective? Conversely, what directions are least aligned with the objective?
  • Are there any directions that might be stronger if they were combined?

Nudge

The Nudge mode of critique is useful when you want to …

  • Take the work up a notch
  • Identify a topic area or component in the work that could be pushed just a little bit further
  • Spot certain details that should be elevated, and/or others that should be played down

Questions that solicit answers to nudge the work further include:

  • Does the work communicate the intended outcome? Otherwise, where might it be pushed further?
  • What aspects can be improved or removed to make the overall outcome stronger?
  • What areas would benefit from higher fidelity? Or lower fidelity?
  • How could the work be improved to better address the needs and values of the target audience?

Nip & Tuck

The Nip & Tuck mode of critique is useful when you’re approaching a major milestone and ready to apply the finishing touches to make the work as strong as possible.

Questions that solicit nip-and-tuck answers include:

  • If the deadline could be extended by one day, what would make the work better? What if it were extended a week?
  • Are there any tweaks that could be made to ensure the work achieves the intended result?
  • Are there any parts that could be removed to make it stronger?
  • Is there anything still missing?

Preparing for a Design Review

A lack of preparation is the main reason design reviews fail to build up others and improve their work. Some of the common signs a design review wasn’t set up for success include:

  • Unsolicited personal opinions being expressed that are not grounded in the objectives of the work or the target audience.
  • Feedback that wanders across all the modes of critique, ranging at all levels of fidelity (provoking new directions when the team hosting the design review is at the point of putting finishing touches on the work for a final presentation tomorrow).
  • The discussion goes extremely long, with several participants no longer engaged.

Preparing for a design review should not be arduous or overly time consuming. It should help ground you in your objective, bring awareness to the areas you would like to improve, and focus your mindset to put you in the best position to receive feedback to improve the work. With a bit of upfront preparation, you will also get more from the review in less time.

Setting up a design review for success in three steps:

1. Preparing the Work

The work intended for the discussion should be ready at the time of the review (printed out or onscreen).

2. System Components and Past Iterations

It’s also important to consider components to be considered as part of a larger service or platform be presented for review in that manner vs. individually reviewed out of context. If context and continuity from past iterations of the work will help inform the review, have these references available as well.

3. Identifying Participants

The number of participants can be as small as one-on-one’s or extended to include a broader range of colleagues and perspectives (e.g. 5-8). Productive reviews can be achieved in 15 minutes or less depending upon the amount of work being reviewed, how constrained the feedback needs to be, and how familiar the participants are of the work. It’s also important to keep in mind that the larger the group, the longer the review tends to last (more voices = more time). Therefore, for larger groups it’s doubly important to have a set time limit and targeted questions to help control the discussion and respect everyone's time.

Leading the Design Review

Once you have your work prepared and eager participants ready to share their perspectives, you’re ready to lead the review!

  1. Start by articulating the objective of the project. This is most important for when you have participants unfamiliar with the work (or would benefit from a reminder).
  2. Provide your participants with a brief summary of the target audience of your work. This is an easily missed step and extremely important to ensure your review participants are better prepared to answer your questions with the interests of the audience in mind vs. their own personal opinions (and biases).
  3. Situate the work within the overall project timeline (i.e. are you at the beginning, middle, or end).
  4. Identify and define the mode of critique you would like to engage in: inspire, provoke, clarify, nudge, or nip & tuck.
  5. Describe the work that will be the focus of the review (and remind everyone how long the review will be).
  6. Begin the review by engaging everyone with specific questions for them to help answer, for example, I am interested in learning how effectively this particular section communicates the benefits of the product to the target audience.”
  7. Regroup at the end with your team to reflect upon what you learned and immediately prioritize what feedback should be incorporated into the next iteration of work.

Being a Participant

Engaged design review participants greatly influence their colleagues, the work being reviewed, and the broader culture of critique. Here are a few feedback-giving best practices to review prior to the review:

  • Avoid the “swoop and 💩!” – Your role is to assess and improve upon your colleagues work vs. swooping in to drop negative comments and then fly away. As mentioned earlier, successful design reviews are those that “build up” vs. “tear down” the individual and the work being shared.
  • Try to avoid short subjective statements such as, “I like it,” or “I don’t like it,” without also communicating the “why” in support of the specific feedback your colleague is looking for. HINT: If it’s hard to get passed, “I like it”, try a combination of: “I like it because …” + “I wish …” + “What if …?”
  • Be as concise, clear, and tangible as possible and consider sharing examples to help further communicate what you are suggesting. Sometimes it’s best to add your ideas directly to the work (e.g. visualizing your idea via a sketch or possibly coding it alongside your colleague) which also serves as a helpful reference for the team after the review.
  • Ensure your feedback is grounded in the context for the particular review, especially:
    • The target audience
    • The mode of critique
    • Answering the specific feedback questions being asked (or within the same intended context)

Conclusion

Integrating the 5 modes of critique into frequent and consistent design reviews will not only improve your work, but also team dynamics through direct, thoughtful, generative, and actionable feedback. Here are a few reminders to revisit as you evolve your design review practices:

  • A design review is a collaborative feedback session intended to assess and improve upon the current state of a piece of work.
  • Design reviews should be effective for everyone, regardless of what phase the project is in or expertise.
  • Be intentional and prepared to have an efficient and effective review.
  • Identify the focus areas and questions you want to review with your team.
  • Determine the mode of critique (Inspire, Provoke, Clarify, Nudge, or Nip & Tuck).
  • When giving feedback, keep the target audience in mind and be as clear, concise, and tangible as possible.
  • Don’t forget to recap and reflect upon the learning from the review to then build upon during your next one.
Jon Wettersten, Head of Design

Jon Wettersten is Head of Design at 8th Light.

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