As more companies pull design functions in-house, knowing how to properly execute a good product design critique is becoming a core competency for development teams. That’s according to Jon Kolko, the founder and director of the Austin Center for Design. In an article for Fast Company, Kolko outlines a structure for improving the critique process, demonstrates how a good design process can foster team collaboration, and argues why critiques matter in the first place.
The Problem with Product Design Critiques
Kolko points out that for years, companies outsourced their design functions. Outsourcing allowed businesses with some amount of distance from the product design process and made the design firm a “garbage dump,” he writes. “If a company didn’t like the design firm’s ideas or the ideas didn’t gain traction, the company could simply fault the designers — and the in-house team could feel vindicated, as if the problem were not their responsibility.”
But as companies bring design functions in-house, people who are not traditionally associated with creative functions have to learn a whole new skillset — one that doesn’t come naturally for most people.
Product design itself is one thing. Product and business experts have the knowledge and expertise to provoke innovation in the design phase of product development. But often, these “experience owners” have not developed the skills necessary to critique design — or to receive the critique themselves. In an environment where there is no robust culture or language of critique, product design teams have no proper means to course correct when ideas languish or suffer from poor delivery.
Key Ingredients: Trust and Team Collaboration
In an environment where the experts responsible for the design phase of product development — product managers, marketers, engineers, developers, etc. — have little or no previous experience giving or receiving design critique, working to create a culture of healthy critique isn’t just a nice thing to have, Kolko considers it an imperative. “Critique is one of the pillars of a successful design team,” he writes. “It walks hand in hand with execution and craft. And it’s evidence of a high-performing team, because it externalizes one of the most important parts of creative execution: trust.”
Kolko quotes Rachel Hinman, product design manager at StitchFix: “If you don’t have that trust in the team, it’s really difficult to have a productive critique. It’s either people don’t say the hard things because they don’t want to deal with the confrontation because they aren’t sure how somebody will react, or they do say those things and it becomes a passive-aggressive competition almost.”
He also quotes Ben Fullerton, vice president of design at OpenTable, who says that part of maturing as a designer is detaching from the work and becoming willing to receive feedback from others with the understanding that the intent is to move the work forward and make it better.
In order to build the kind of trust and team collaboration that result in good product design and execution, design teams need to actively foster a culture of healthy critique — one that opens the door to real market disruption and innovation.
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Qualities of a Healthy Product Design Critique
In his courses at Austin Center for Design, Kolko conducts critiques as frequently as possible and rarely waits until a project is “done” before asking the student to offer it up for critique. “Design is iterative and is never done, and if a student starts to treat his work as ‘finished,’ he will be reluctant to change it even when confronted with a better solution,” he writes.
The same is true in the design phase of product development. If those responsible for design hold their ideas too closely to vest or resist critique until the design is “finished,” there is little to no opportunity for team collaboration or for others to improve the product — and, as it turns out, little opportunity to build trust.
Trust is only built when it’s given the opportunity to grow, and the only way for trust to grow is to intentionally stimulate it through exercises such as the design critique.
Kolko defines a critique as a process that “emphasizes the negative in order to help designers improve their work. During critique, designers present their work to a group. The group identifies places where the work can improve. They discuss alternative solutions, sketch those solutions, and work collaboratively to explore which changes will benefit the work the most.”
For product design teams to develop a good critique process, there are several elements that Kolko recommends based on his classroom experience:
- “Pin up” the work. Displaying the work on a wall or in some physical manner gives the entire team the opportunity to see the work the same way in the same format. It gives a baseline that allows the group to see a full narrative context. And it gives the designer the opportunity to learn how to best present the work to an audience.
- Ask the designer to set boundaries for the critique, then step back. Kolko tells designers to only offer parameters for critique, but not to offer explanations. For instance, a designer might ask for specific feedback on certain elements of design or tell the audience to avoid giving feedback on a particular element. This process establishes boundaries, but then requires the designer to detach from the design as feedback is offered.
- Note feedback directly on the design. As team members offer feedback, Kolko recommends that they also annotate their recommendations directly on the designer’s work. This forces a degree of specificity in the critique and reduces unhelpful feedback.
- Critique the critique if things get personal. Part of establishing trust is learning to avoid personal attacks — real or perceived. If the critique starts to get personal, Kolko stops and conducts a critique of the critique, often brainstorming ways to avoid similar personal reactions in the future.
- Summarize comments with the designer. After the critique, Kolko makes sure the designer has everything necessary to make changes for future iterations.
When properly conducted, product design critiques have tremendous potential to not only produce better products, but also to unleash a creative spirit. When trust and team collaboration are established and fostered, teams have a safe environment to push forward truly innovative solutions.
To learn more about the relationship between rising product complexity and effective requirements management, download the full report: “Design Teams: Requirements Management & Product Complexity.”
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