Facilitating Design Critique

May 4th, 2010
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May 4th, 2010

Websites are distributed services that aren’t owned or used by any one person. Therefore, soliciting feedback from a variety of users throughout the design process is essential. Shared ownership isn’t a skill designers are taught, however. It can be emotionally challenging to separate negative feedback from outright rejection.

To break down these barriers, we need to facilitate design feedback—constructive criticism from team members that’s helpful for each design phase. Whether we seek to offer or receive design feedback, it’s important that critiques be both specific and actionable; clarity avoids wasting everyone’s time. Next, be sure to provide reasonable deadlines for the requested changes.

All feedback should also be contextual. It should be obvious what each suggestion means within the website’s “big picture.” Next, when providing feedback ensure that the changes requested are technically feasible: don’t ask for something that you know is beyond your designer’s (or your engineer’s) skill–level. For maximum clarity, break down your feedback into as small, actionable chunks as possible.

Lastly, make sure your feedback isn’t discouraging, but rather makes the team feel empowered. Vacuous remarks that undermine the team’s enthusiasm serve no one. If a design flaw is substantial enough that it can’t be addressed in front of the entire team at once, schedule private conversations with the parties responsible.

Applying design critique principles to specific deliverables

Let’s explore how to apply these critiquing principals to three typical design deliverables:

  1. Sketches

    Because sketches are an exploratory part of the design process, be sure that any critique of them doesn’t shut down design directions before they’ve taken shape. If you’re soliciting feedback, ask broad, open-ended questions that encourage equally broad responses. After you’re done sketching ideas, ask others to contribute theirs.

    If you’re providing feedback, build off the designer’s sketches with visual suggestions. Consider positing “what if” scenarios to get the team’s creative juices flowing. Don’t be afraid to suggest novel approaches—you’ll likely hit upon something no one has thought of yet.

  2. Wireframes

    Wireframes narrow the team’s focus by illustrating more resolute solutions. To obtain feedback, highlight specific areas. Clearly enumerated statements about the functionality of your interface explains your design methodology; highlighting elements helps the customer understand your design solution.

    When asked to provide feedback on wireframes, offer suggestions in reply to specific highlighted areas. If possible, present examples of how something should be modified. Make sure to direct the team’s next steps with a visible goal in order to make sure everyone’s thoughts are aligned.

  3. Visual Design

    Visual Design is an extremely subjective part of the design process. Therefore, examining things with a critical eye and offering specific feedback will really make things sing. Here, don’t ask open-ended questions; rather, make them definitive. Explain the benefits of your suggestions, and justify design decision by clearly articulating why a visual element works/doesn’t.

    When providing visual design feedback, be sure to begin by praising areas that work well. Next, mention specific areas (or suggest visual examples) that can be improved. Offer an ordered list of items that can be individually addressed and invite pushback.

Tools for feedback

When you’re ready for critique, the method you choose is almost as important as what it is you say. Here are three ways to aid the feedback process:

  1. Email

    Email makes it easy to articulate your thoughts because writing things down forces the person giving feedback to think through her suggestions. Written feedback also serves as a great historical reference so you can recall what your team said in years past. Digital feedback is also terrific for keeping things brief and succinct—no need for endless conversations that go on and on. It’s also asynchronous and doesn’t rely on matching schedules or hard-to-plan meetings.

  2. In-person meetings

    Though email may seem like the easiest method for useful feedback sessions, face-to-face meetings can often provide much better insight. For instance, body language and tone of voice are very revealing. You’ll get a sense of how comfortable the feedback-giver is with what they’re saying and his tone of voice can help you better understand the scope of the discussion.

    Feeling the intent of the feedback can also give you enough insight to get the point of the directive. Don’t overlook the power an in-person meeting can have toward building and creating momentum based on positive reinforcement. After all, digital feedback can seem rather critical all the way around, but both positive and negative feedback can be easier to appreciate in person.

  3. Digitally enhanced feedback

    These days, there’s computer- or web-based software out there to address the needs of nearly every professional situation, and feedback sessions are no different.

    Our team’s feedback tool, Notable, is designed to facilitate responsible, actionable feedback. Using Notable, team members can provide specific, contextual design feedback. Team members and clients can capture webpages in several different ways, and then add their annotations. It’s easy to track who’s leaving and viewing feedback, as well as assign permissions to allow only certain people to see specific elements as they’re under development.

Giving and receiving feedback is arguably one of the least desirable parts of the design process. However, with a solid understanding of how to give and receive suggestions and some idea of how to apply the concepts to specific design phases, the process can go a lot more smoothly than anyone anticipates.

About the Author

ZURB is a close-knit team of interaction designers and strategists that help companies design better products & services through consulting, products, education, books, training and events. Since 1998 ZURB has helped over 75+ clients including: Facebook, eBay, NYSE, Zazzle, Playlist, Britney Spears, Yahoo, Facebook, among others.