When it comes to design, UX professionals are acutely aware of the importance of empathy. Understanding the pain points for the end user is key to creating the products that will serve their needs. Increased empathy ensures that a true view of those pain points is attained and there are many tools and best practices that enable this. But there is a blind spot that has grown out of all this goodness, which is forgetting to apply that very same principle to our colleagues, stakeholders and peers. 

Creative tension between cross-functional teams can be a positive thing but only if we understand one another’s goals and know how to critique work and receive criticism in a constructive way. In short, we can be tough on ideas, while being kind to our colleagues. Being able to retain the ability to assess and reassess our work as designers for the good of our craft and our customers, while enhancing trust and respect within our teams, is good for business. To help you get the best out of critique workshops, here’s my top tips for creating an effective and robust review framework. 

1. Define a framework for feedback sessions

In my 20 years of experience, I’ve learned that setting the scene for feedback sessions is essential for getting the most out of all involved. Not only does it provide clear boundaries for criticism, it also ensures that there is a natural progression that aligns with a product roadmap, resulting in a deployable solution when the sessions are done. My tried and trusted trio of feedback stages are as follows:

Session one: Where are we directionally? 

The first session or design sprint should focus on whether the initial brief has been captured. It’s not about what buttons should do or what icons should look like. It’s a simple assessment from key stakeholders that should determine whether we have begun designing against the core business objectives for the solution. The result of this session should be an emphatic green light that allows us to begin the journey towards a minimal viable product. 

Session two: Is everything functionally there? 

This session has to focus on the key requirements of the solution. We’re still not thinking about the aesthetic minutiae, but rather ensuring that the functional components of the solution, i.e. core features, are in place. We have to ensure nothing has been neglected at this stage.  

Session three: Let’s get detailed 

Now we can begin to drill down into text changes, icons, buttons and menus. This is the stage to painstakingly pore over details and dig deep into why we feel the way we do about the smallest of design choices, then fine-tune some more.

The point of the three stages is to avoid an infinite review loop. Once a session is done, and a direction agreed upon, we move on. If feedback that fits the context of session one is given in session three, we are simply too far along our roadmap to go and back to the drawing board. This is why it is essential that all stakeholders are represented at each stage.

2. Avoid feedback pitfalls

There are three main errors we can make when it comes to feedback. Firstly, we can seek to progress our design without asking for feedback at all. This is undoubtably the most damaging approach, as if we don’t take the initiative to ask for feedback, we miss a huge opportunity. We can’t assume that we’ve designed the perfect solution so we must take advantage of colleagues’ experience and expertise to inform our decisions. Remember that all of us are better than any one of us. 

Secondly, we can ask for feedback without listening. Sometimes, review sessions can be looked on as a box-ticking exercise, especially when we feel that those giving the feedback are not close enough to our work to understand the desired outcomes or reasoning behind our design choices. Going into feedback sessions with this mindset is a fatal mistake. By not listening to colleagues, we miss valuable insights that can improve our designs. Those invited to critique our work will also likely pick up on our disinterest and will not feel comfortable sharing their thoughts. 

Lastly, we can ask for feedback to receive praise or validation when we feel we have done a good job. No matter how valid the points, this approach ensures that we are not in the proper mindset to hear them, which can lead to key flaws being missed and, crucially, failure to fulfill customer requirements. 

3. Embrace criticism and increase your value 

We need to remember that there is an essential business case for identifying flaws at the earliest possible opportunity. The earlier we discover them, the easier and cheaper they are to fix. Discovering an error at the design stage is far less costly than when a solution is in development, where remediation is around 15 times more expensive. The cost also scales with each progression along the product roadmap. For example, a flaw that is only realized when a solution reaches production can be 100 times more costly to fix than one surfaced at the design stage, as this will require significant re-work and integration by engineers.  

One of the best tools in our toolbox for catching design errors are design peer reviews at critical points in the product development lifecycle. Putting time into making these as effective as possible is not only important for efficiency gains, but they are also an essential component in raising an organization’s bottom line. 

4. Use data to back up design decisions

Before beginning our design work, we will have workshopped ideas, undertaken user testing and followed UX best-practice in gathering feedback. At this stage, it is essential that we accurately record feedback data, as this will be our ultimate ally when we are challenged on our design decisions. 

Data allows us to address concerns with empathy, rather than taking them personally, and the confidence to show why the decisions we made were right, or at least taken in accordance with customer requirements. Each design of a feature does not need to be backed up by data when there are well-understood design paradigms that inform it. For example, an application with multiple menus does not require us to justify the design of each menu when we know that a certain style meets functional requirements for 99% of users. 

If a challenge surfaces an unprecedented issue, then we have to be open to the possibility that an oversight has occurred. In this instance, we need to spin up a basic prototype and present it to users along with the original design for some AB testing to gather fast feedback. 

This is where an agile approach is essential. Adopting this approach means that we are not scared of failure, which is essential for innovation. We need to try things out when there is a case for doing so but fail early and fail fast when we do, which is why effective feedback is so essential for businesses.