Designing The Design Critique

Knowledge / Inspiration

Designing The Design Critique

Continuous Design
UXDX Europe 2020

Does your design team share the essential feedback needed to challenge? Does your design critique add sufficient value or is it just another tick box activity?
In this session, Gianni will discuss how he rolled out a new design critique process across Zendesk, discussing the difficulties faced prior and how it has evolved into a consistently productive and enjoyable part of the design process.

  • The importance of design critiques
  • Ensuring your team puts the critique in design critique
  • How to create a process that is both systematic and dynamic
  • How to make it engaging, while ensuring value

Hello, everyone and thanks for joining me today.
My name is Gianni Clifford. I'm a Product Design Manager at Zendesk and I'm going to be talking about designing the design critique for in our case, how we redesigned our design critique. I think it’s really important design critiques but no more than now in the world we're living in which working from home and many people being remote from the office. I am going to talk about how we overhauled our design critique but if you're not doing a design critique yet, I think that the same lessons can still apply about how you get one off the ground for your team or in your office.
Thanks to the UXDX team for inviting me back. I talked last year about UX research and the talk seems to be really well received and I got lots of real positive comments and questions coming into my LinkedIn. I think the main thing I tried to do then and I'm hopefully going to be able to do again, is really pull the curtain back and show how we actually go about these things. This is really going to be a hands-on kind of step by step and hopefully there's real things that you can kind of take away from this talk and apply straight away to your team or to your design critique.
Before we start, let me just quickly introduce myself. My name is Gianni Clifford, a cinemaholic Design Manager at Zendesk. I've been here about two and a half years based in Dublin, from North Dublin - really proud of that one - and before I was in Zendesk, I had a startup called FillIt which I did for two or three years before I joined Zendesk and before that worked in many different design studios and agencies across Dublin. So, that's about me.
Let's just give you a steer by what exactly I'm going to talk about today. So, first of all, you want to just touch on why we would do a design critiquer and what a design critique is and just to give you a little bit of background, I'm going to talk about the problem that we had with our design critique. Maybe you'll see some similarities with your own team and then finally the solution that we deployed and how we kind of came over that the problem that we faced.
And so, the first thing, when I was preparing this talk, I Googled critique as a word and I found that really interesting because what came back to me was criticism and criticizing. These are the words that really stood out to me in this dictionary definition and essentially that's not good. You know what I mean? Those words come with a lot of weight with them, they don't seem to be very positive. For a design critique actually is a really positive thing and sometimes people can be uncomfortable being design critiques and it's fair to say that the process of doing it and giving critique and giving that strong feedback is a muscle and it needs to be flexed and it's not something that I'm really going to try and cover how we went about like resolving that as an issue with the team.
So, this is not what we want any office to look like even if we were back in an office. It's great for the work but it doesn't need to be this kind of fakeness. It just needs to be real. I think team members can have a radical condor as Kim Scott would say, "How do they give that feedback to each other?" And we're not even in offices anymore. A lot of people don't have immediate plans to go back to offices and I think the world looks a little bit more like this nine Giannis' working on a call but even if we're in this kind of remote world, I think it's even now more important than ever that you're getting your team together and people are giving each other feedback. People are supporting each other. People are giving that critical feedback to kind of keep the whole design work on track and to be mindful. I know Zendesk is a big multinational company. We have designers all over the world but people are in different time zones, are in different seasons, they have different personal situations. So, hopefully what we're trying to do here is this talk is not just about remote but it's about the solution that we came up with and it's a bit that solution being flexible. So, flexible in the remote world we're in now, but equally flexible that when we go back to our offices that these same solutions will apply. I think it's been a really good example for us personally that when we went into this new remote world and working from home, that our design critique didn't stall, it just continues as normal really positively because we had that kind of flexible solution in place.
So, wait a second, you're talking a lot about design critiques but I don't even know what one is. What is a design critique? Really simply, it's just an opportunity to bring your designers and team together and some cross functional people to give feedback and discuss designs. Ideally, before designs are actually built because then it's going to be too late. So, the earlier you can really do a design critique, the better but it depends. You can do a really, really early design critique where pencil and paper sketches or you can do a much later design critique and with a higher fidelity design. Those are slightly different things and you'd expect the presenter to be looking for different types of feedback in a high-fidelity design versus a low fidelity paper sketch but they're both equally valid. So, it's good that to get the feedback in early and often.
Why do we do design critiques? Well, there's the obvious reasons that I kind of just touched on it's going to make the work better but I actually look at it in a slightly different way. I think there's three main areas that we get value or any team gets value from doing a design critique. First of all, expertise. Getting the people from different cross functional areas in content strategists, localization, PMs engineering, people would who are experts in accessibility. Bringing all these people together is reading on it. Pushed the boundaries of the work. No one could be an expert in all the areas. And we're a large or we have many different teams working in different locations. So, consistency is a really big and important thing for us. One person could be working in Copenhagen another person could be working in Montpellier and it's important that they are using the same kind of components and a UI tools and aware of the work each other are doing. So, consistency is a really good epic part of what we do them and finally, just getting fresh eyes. People to look at your work, making sure that you're not too close to the work and really some people to be devil's advocate to really test your design decisions before it goes forward and gets built.
Well, there's also value to the presenter who's presenting. First of all, there's value on them on upskilling and how they go about presenting, how comfortable they are bringing their work and have the confidence to speak to what they’ve just done. The storytelling aspect is a high possibility that these designers will have to take the work that presenting here to their design peers and maybe present it to senior leadership or depending on what company you're in, you could be presenting the work to clients. So, by presenting it and finessing your storytelling and your design rationale internally, it's going to really help you excel at your storytelling and finally, confidence. I know I touched on the other two areas but I just think it's such a big and important part and it really covers more than just the presenting and the storytelling. But as individual designers, this gives them the confidence that they're going about their work the right way. They're using good design thinking processes. I think it's been hugely valuable for us to see how our designers have kind of grown and gained that kind of competence.
Finally, it doesn't just stop with the presenter but the team that are giving the feedback also have a lot to gain. First of all, there's the opportunity for them to give feedback, learn how to give feedback the correct way and hear their peers, giving feedback as well and learn from how they're giving that feedback. There's knowledge to be learned. It's really important that they are learning from the other designers. They're learning how the designer who presented has made their design decisions and the process that they are carrying out. So, there's a lot of cross pollination of general learning in these sessions. And finally, there's contributing. You could be contributing to a product or an area of a product that you are a few steps removed from normally. But a design critique gives the team an opportunity to kind of weigh in and give their opinions and give their thoughts and how it can really shape and contribute to that product. So, there's a real good opportunity there for collaboration as well.
So, redesigning the design critique. I know I mentioned this already this is about also how we redesigned our design critique. But again, just to reiterate if you don't have a design critique yet, I think there's still things here that you can apply to help you get your design critique off the ground. We had the problem with design critique and essentially, I'm going to talk about all the things we had wrong in a moment but the TLDR is it was just a little stale. It was lacking organization and it just needed to be shaken up. I'm going to go into detail in the moment of all the different parts of that but that's essentially it. We were trying to think, how will we fix this problem? How will we come together? And solve the design critique. I think everyone had really wanted a good strong design critique but we didn't know at first how we would come together and solve this and it was simple. The solution was right in front of us. We would come together and do what we do best and that's apply some design thinking to solve problems.
So, the first thing we needed to do is to understand what was broke and why it was broke. So, this is where I'll go into some detail around the solving of the problem. So, the first thing we did and I kind of touched on it in my talk last year was we did a really quick retro stop, start, continue. For those of you who aren't familiar with this process, really simply, it's a way to collect posters from your broader team, asking them things that they'd like to stop with the current process. The things they'd like to start to improve in the current process and the things that are working well that they'd like to continue with the current process. This gives us a good idea what's working well. What's not working well and also captures ideas from the team to improve. The next thing we did was had some interviews. Now, the interviews are really just chats because this is our internal team and we all kind of came together. Sometimes it was one on one discussions would be and some of the designers, sometimes we would have multiple designers in the room together and we'll all kind of talk about how we could kind of improve on the situation that we had. And with that we got this list: first of all, structure. Essentially, the design critique we had lacked structure. Secondly, prep time was far too long. Designers were spending a lot of time preparing to design critique on stuff that they didn't really need to spend time on. They were creating fancy decks and that really isn't what a design critique is about. It's about being kind of scrappier and focusing on the work. The frequency, it was erratic. We weren't rigid and off with our schedule. There wasn't enough transparent there. Insular were a room of designers and the doors were closed and this is never a good thing. Critical feedback is something that's vitally important to a design critique without it, people are just going to be patting each other on the back and the work's not going to be improved. So, it's really important that people learn how to give critical feedback and do it in these sessions. Last feedback, even when people gave the write up the feedback, sometimes it just got lost. We weren't documenting well enough. Confidence. People were afraid to present. People were afraid to contribute. People were afraid to give feedback all because they weren't doing it frequently enough. There wasn't enough of a structure in place. And finally, this kind of captures all of the things, it was just a little bit stale and needed to be reassessed. It needed to be shaken.
So, what we did is we took these things. These were the takeaways from the retro, the stop starts, and continue and the interviews and chats we had with the team. And we decided to try and solve them one by one.
I'm going to show what we did. So, first of all, let's have a look. Structure: when we looked at the structure, it's quite easy. We just needed some guiding principles put in place that would help us figure out all the other things. Without these guiding principles, these core areas, all the other things are going to be on unsteady ground. So, first of all, we wanted to make sure that everything we did was going to be easy. Easy for people to contribute, easy for people to present, easy for people to know what's happening, know what it is. All those things. Just make sure it's easy. Don't make things too complicated. They don't need to be. Dynamic, this needs to work for everyone. Like I said, it needs to work in a working from home world or remote world as much as it does in the office. Even before we broke we had designers from many different countries on the same design critique. So, it really needs to be dynamic for the different presenters’ styles and the different types of work people may want to present.
Collaborative everyone needs to be involved. If it's not a discussion, it's not a design critique. It's just someone presenting their work with nothing coming back. It needs to be a conversation. Everyone needs to be able to get involved and finally, energized. If it's not energized, it's going to quickly go stale again. You're going to spend a lot of time trying to fix it. It's got to go one way and that's not the right way. So, we want to get people excited about it, encouraged about it, wanting to be involved in the process, essentially. Next, prep time. As I mentioned, people were spending way too much time preparing fancy presentations and decks which is really not what a design critique is about. It's purely about the work, the rationale, the background and this large prep time is a huge blocker is designers are saying, "Oh, we don't have time for a design critique." Or they were spending the time and it was wasted time, time that they could spend trying to solve the design problems they're trying to solve. So, what we needed to do is replace that with something that was simple, flexible and scrappy and that's a template. And we decided to go with a Miro which is essentially like a digital white boarding tool and it's really great. And one important thing about Miro is it's not perfect. It feels scrappy that encourages people to be scrappy and dropping screen grabs drop in the work that they have, the pencil sketches, screen grabs from desk research. Not at all in there. It doesn't need to be perfect. What needs to be then is the background and these things are more important. So, we just created a really simple, Miro template capturing things like the problem space and the background and some area for research and the actual work itself and making sure that people know they can mix and match these different sections. They can add more sections. Some of the sections can be bigger and smaller. Know that this is just a loose template and people can just drop things into it. This has saved a huge amount of time for our team.
Next, the frequency. We've had issues with frequency. This is probably one of the easiest things that we have to solve and it's just by having a schedule. There’re no major brainwaves here. There's no completely new thinking. What we just had is a schedule that everyone could see. It was consistent in people's calendars. We do at the same time every week. It's always in the calendars. It's always there and the schedule is there for upcoming weeks. So, people can book themselves in even if the schedule is filled up for the next three weeks, they can book in and the week after it's there for all to see, it keeps us all honest. This is a super, super simple thing but the impact that it’s had has allowed us to be consistent with how frequent we do our design critiques.
Next is it is Insular, we had a room full of designers, that's not what we want. It's important that we have our cross functional partners there. It's important that we have experts in different areas to also give us feedback of our designs that are in progress. And again, like the schedule, this didn't take a whole lot of genius to the figure but it was just to open our doors to our peers. This allowed us to get in order designers from different areas. Make sure we have content strategists to give us feedback on the words and make sure that we have research localization, engineering and PMs all in the room together and the pulling of different people and depending on what's being presented. Sometime if the work is really, really early we may not have engineering. Sometimes what's being presented has a heavier lean towards research, maybe we have more researchers in the room. Again, it's about being flexible, making sure we have a dynamic and a mix of people in the room. And knowing who to pull in each week and making sure it's not just designers in the room.
Critical feedback. This is probably the beast. This is probably one of the biggest areas that we had problems with and maybe some of you are watching this talk and thinking as somebody who gives feedback, I need to learn more about this or my team have an area with this. So, hopefully what we rolled out here and will be able to help your team but what we did is we used the De Bono Hats. Edward de Bono was a Maltese physician and he came up with this notion of having six hats and I think by bringing these six hats principal. We were able to have a lot of fun in our design critiques and we didn't physically wear hats. It made for a lot of good gags. So, essentially, Edward de Bono had these six hats. First of all, the white hat and that stood for facts. So, anyone who is dedicated with a white hat that week would try and get feedback focused on facts. The blue hat was trying to be objective. Their role each week was to keep the session running, try to be neutral, try to understand what's happening and to keep the time moving, making sure everyone's getting their comments. If there were any big disputes, keep things moving. Try to be that objective person in the room. The black hat was a difficult role for many people to play but that's exactly what we are dedicated to different people every week and that is to give negative feedback and negative, again, like the word criticism can be negative but it doesn't necessarily, it's just about being really critical on the work and those kind of critical feedbacks that black hat feedback is essential. That's what's going to push it forward. That's going to be the radical comment that the presenter is going to want to hear. The red hat was the intuition. They went with their goals. The green hat was creative and the yellow hat went kind of the opposite to the black app. It was positive. Because a lot of things in the designs can be really positive and it's really important that those things are called in. Celebrate what's working really well and call it in. Not just pat the person on the back but to make sure that they don't then remove that from the design. Something that could be working well in the design could get removed, if it's not called out.
So, with these six hats, essentially, we would dedicate a different hat to everyone in the room at the start of the group. Well, we normally have more than six people in the room plus the presenter. So, sometimes there'll be two people wearing a white hats or black hats or yellow hats but we do use an online tool to randomize who gets which hat each week and we'd make sure that every different hat is going to be represented by the feedback.
We didn't want to do this forever. So, after six months of doing this, we started to really see a clear trend that people were getting very comfortable in giving feedback in all these different areas and also hearing that feedback and not taking offense to getting that feedback. So, then we reduce it to just these two hats and the black hats being sometimes the most difficult to get feedback on and then the yellow hat as well just to offset that. We run these two hats for another two months until we felt that we didn't need the hats at all and then we run it with no hats. We feel our team are still giving feedback at all these different areas and that was being such a big win for us.
Of all the things I'm talking about today, this has probably been one of the most powerful things that we rolled out on our design critique. Next is loss feedback. And again, like some of the things before schedule and inviting our peers in. The solution was very simple and Miro was the tool again to allow us to do this. It's just having a little bit more process and how we captured those notes. So, this was essentially what our template looked once it has some content in it and we just allowed people to leave their feedback on comments directly in the board. Something that was particularly powerful for us was when we were able to use the same color-coding, we did on the De Bono hats to apply onto our comments. So, when the presenter went back to the Miro board after the critique, they go through all the feedback again. They had all the notes there in front of them with the hat color tied to it. This also gave the person leaving the common that confidence, the presenter would know what kind of feedback they're trying to give here. We also make sure that our sessions are always recorded and we document them really well in with the board. So, the presenter can go back and watch the video, hear any detailed playback and don't have to worry about note taking or anything in the time. They can just be involved in presenting their work, being part of a discussion about that work.
Confidence. As I mentioned that the start of what we have to gain the confidence is a big thing not just for the presenter but also for the people who are contributing to the crits. Every week, we can only really have one presenter unless we do multiple quits in one week, of course, but in every crits that can only be one presenter. So, we looked at ways that we can kind of build people's confidence, excuse me, in different ways. So, of course, the hats really helped with that and making sure that each hat was contributing each week but another thing that we did was hosting and what we do is we have a rotating host each week that means that the MC who welcomes everyone, introduces the presenter, keeps us honest with time and brings the whole thing together is on a rotation and given that we're all remote, we've had some really nice touches by presenters of late. For example, we've most recently been running on this day. So, while we're waiting for everyone to join the zoom, the presenter normally brings some facts that happened on this day or my colleague Magic, he won't mind me saying he's big for animal facts. He always used it when he was the host. He always used to bring some animal facts. So, it just starts the whole thing off on a light foot and it really helps share that MC role, gives everyone the confidence to present this bigger audience. So, it's a small thing but an important thing nonetheless.
And finally, as I said, stale. There's not one single or fixed for this area. There’re multiple fixes for being stale and you need to be constantly on your toes about looking, how can you improve? How can you make your design critique better? Because the things that we have in place now, maybe in another year, they're totally stale. So, we're always trying to stay sharp on our toes. Let's just keeping it fresh some things that we do is we do regular surveys with the team, ask everyone what they think is working well, just a Google form, send it to the team ask for feedback, ask them to rate some of the things. If they have any ideas. Do bring them back to the crit and we'll try and improve on it. People have used their critiques to share user testing sessions that they done and for the whole design critique audience to contribute on top of the feedback that the customer has given also experts and testing sessions. So, using one of the designers or PM's the group to do a live testing session and for everyone else to leave a feedback as notes as we progress those comments. People have used a design critique to present their background, presents some of their research and then get the broader team to do some rapid sketching or crazy aide sketching and people I've even done some rapid wireframing just a bit of form. Normally doesn't take up the full allotted time would get eight or 10 different designers in different parts of Europe all coming together and doing rapid prototypes and seeing if they can kind of solve things together. These things are exercising that people really look forward to and the presenters normally get a lot to synthesize afterwards. A lot of great ideas and they can obviously pick up any discussions with any designer, whoever played the wireframes afterwards. As I said, we're always looking for new ways to keep a fresh, these are just some of the things that we've done recently but I think as a team, we're all focused on keeping it fresh, always pushing it forward.
So to recap on the different things that we had, we have structure, we added guiding principles; when prep time was too much, we created a template that was flexible for all different presenters’ stars, a different work at different stages but also had structure to allow people to be able to pull it together a lot quicker. With frequency, we added a schedule. Being insular, we invited our peers. Lacking critical feedback, we introduced the De Bono hats and got everyone learned and trained up and exercising and giving the different types of feedback. Excuse me, we lost feedback. We introduced more of a process in recording the sessions and leaving comments on the board with confidence. We enable people to be hosts. We have a rotating host. We also use the hats to enabled competence too and then with the stale, as I just touched on. We're always trying to keep a fresh for all of us and after this talk, if anyone has any suggestions, I would love to hear them to get them over to me.
This is a topic that I'm passionate about. I'd love to talk on it. So, if you've got great ideas of what you do in your company, I'd love to hear them. And our goal is not just to create one really good crit one week. It's not to create two but it's to create many, many critiques and this is a real screen grab of our critique board in Zendesk EMEA. It's obviously really far zoom date. So, you can kind of see the bigger picture. We have one Miro board that has all the design critiques cataloged together chronologically and I think if you look at this board, one of the biggest takeaways, well, we redesigned our design critique it was in 2019, close to the start of the year and the real success for me has been the number of design critiques that we've been able to do in 2020 with a remote world where to working from home world. We've nearly doubled the number that we did in 2019, and we still have four months or so, or last of the year. And that's been really, really positive for our team. People enjoy doing the design critique. People are confident about bringing work from pencil sketches to high-fidelity work and everything in between and people are confident in giving feedback and learning from others. All those things are really, really positive for any design team.
Thank you very much. My name is Gianni. Hopefully I'll be able to answer some questions on this topic and as I said do app me or get me on LinkedIn, if you're really interested in design critiques as well and you'd like to share some ideas or chat about it. I'd love to hear. Thanks again to the team at UXDX and I really hope this talk has been of valued to some. Thanks very much. Cheers.