It’s Thursday afternoon. For two hours, a group of designers from different teams get together in one of the meeting rooms in Booking.com’s Amsterdam office to furrow their brows and drink phenomenal amounts of coffee. Once the caffeine kicks in, they get down to the meeting’s true purpose: to run a critical exploration of a presented design coming from one or two of our designers, discussing their work rigorously to explore what works, and what might be improved.
This is the ‘Design Lab,’ the essential critiquing phase of our design process at Booking.com.
These sessions allow us to give thoughtful and actionable feedback. It helps designers seeking feedback to receive it in a focused way, providing them with a clear path forward. From these sessions, designers uncover new insights that can help direct their design work through a critical exploration of their work.
At Booking.com, we’ve designed these critique sessions so that they tackle the following:
- Identify problems in our products and address these problems early on, well before it becomes too difficult to approach these problems in a different way.
- Provide designers with insights that can help them change the course of their design.
- Provide support for each other across the entire Booking.com design community.
- Improve the quality of our work over time through these sessions.
In this article, I’ll share how you can use our design critique method to achieve the same objectives in your design team or your own design work.
Make your intention known
Start by sending out a message of your intention to run a design critique session to your colleagues. Our design community has an email list, so we usually do this by sending out an email. If it is the first time you are going to have a critique session, it’s important to include the following in your communication:
- What is a design critique?
- Why are design critiques important?
- What will you cover in the design critique session?
- What is the expected outcome?
Design critiques are not limited to designers only; you could extend the invite to other relevant stakeholders, such as engineers, product managers, copywriters, etc.
The key stakeholders in a design critique session are the presenter, the moderator, and the note master:
- The presenter: This is the designer offering up their work to be critiqued. They present the problem they are trying to solve, and their proposed design solution. The presenter should come with a clear vision of what they want feedback on.
- The moderator: This is usually (but not restricted to) a senior designer who is responsible for leading and driving the critique sessions. This role requires a deep understanding of UX methods, strategy, facilitation and negotiation, and is more about facilitation than dictation.
- The note master: Since the presenter should focus on the feedback and the conversation going on during the critique session, you need the note master. Their main role is to take notes on behalf of the presenter.
Design critique is very much a collaborative effort and everyone should feel comfortable making sure that feedback is being given in the right way, and that the rules of engagement (see below) are followed. It’s worthwhile to note that you don’t want to leave it all up to the moderator to lead and facilitate. It’s up to everyone in the design critique session to call each other out when they aren’t giving the right feedback.
Find the right space
Find a day that works well for you and your colleagues. Make sure there’s at least 5 (and not more than around 15) participants for a two hour critique session. Get a venue that can accommodate all the participants comfortably. We run our critique sessions for two hours and therefore we strive to have an ambience that allows for participants to be engaged with as few distractions as possible.
On the day of the design critique, remember to throw in some snacks and refreshments — you want the participants attentive at all times. This helps minimise movement in and out of the room unless necessary.
Rules of Engagement
We have guiding rules for our design critique sessions. We call them “rules of engagement.” The rules of engagement should be shared well in advance. This prepares the participants, helps them get into the right mindset and helps manage expectations. These rules are carefully curated to enhance the smooth running of the design critique sessions and are designed to ensure we get the best out of all our time.
Rules of engagement:
- Leave opinions at the door (we’ll explain this below).
- Prescriptive solutions or ideas are avenues of thought, not direction to be taken by the designer offering up their work to be critiqued.
- All phones on silent mode, no laptops allowed.
- Candour is both welcomed and encouraged.
Run the critique session
Before starting the session, everyone in the room should agree that they will not use their mobile phones or laptops during the critique session. They should commit to staying in the room for the entirety of the session. Listening, asking questions and concentration can not be accomplished if one is constantly distracted by checking your phone or replying to email. Keeping phones away and laptop closed provides a space for discussion and ensures focus in the room.
The moderator then takes charge leading and driving the session. They start by reiterating the “rules of engagement” and stressing the importance of staying within the rules. Throughout the session, the moderator will make sure that all the participants adhere to the rules — but always remember that they (the moderator) is only there to help facilitate the session, not to dictate what comes out of it.
The presenter then takes over. The main task of the presenter at this point is to present their work while touching these two main points:
What, who, and why
- What problem is the design trying to solve?
- Who is the target user?
- Why is it important to solve this problem for the user?
- Why is it important for the business to solve this problem?
This is a clear vision of what the presenter wants feedback on. Without a vision, everyone may be working from different assumptions and the session may turn into more of a brainstorm rather than a design critique.
An example of a good objective: Obtain specific kinds of feedback from participants about a set of different design approaches for a feature/area of your website.
The participants are then allowed to run a critical exploration of the presented design by asking questions, while strictly adhering to rule number one of engagement — leave opinions at the door.
The intent of design critique sessions is discussion and exploration of the work presented. For this reason, we discourage opinions as they often close down discussion by limiting the presenter’s responses instead of opening them up.
Opinions include statements that start with “I don’t think…” or “I don’t like…” along with their counterparts, “I think…” , “I like…”, “I feel..”.
Here are some opinionated examples:
- “I don’t think you need that icon next to the second item on the left menu” or “That arrow icon on the ‘ inbox’ menu item does not look good. Use an envelope icon instead”.
On the other hand, we encourage open-ended questions to open up exploration of design. Open-ended questions provide the participants with an opportunity to gain insight on the design process and the thinking behind the design being presented.
With this in mind, instead of saying:
- “I don’t think you need that icon next to the second item on the left menu”
one could rephrase this:
- “Can I ask why the icon is placed on the second item on the left menu?”
And instead of:
- “That arrow down icon on the ‘ inbox’ menu item does not look good. Use an envelope icon instead”
one could rephrase:
- “Have you thought about using an envelope icon instead of the arrow down on the ‘inbox’ menu item?”
During the critique session, it’s best to encourage standing up. Also, participants should not be afraid of getting up close and personal with the work being presented.
While the exploration goes on, the note master writes down all the points raised by the participants. They are allowed (where necessary) to ask for clarifications. Notes should be clear enough and easy to understand.
At the end of the critique session, the presenter is given the final set of notes and returns to work with his team on moving the design forward.
The note master’s board. Notes should be legible, straight and to the point. Presenters may prefer to take a photo of the notes with them. Lastly, while exploration can often include offering up ways to solve a design problem, it’s expected that all solutions will come from the presenter, since they are the one ultimately responsible for the work. Therefore, at the end of the critique session, all prescriptive solutions or ideas that lead to specific solutions will be taken only as avenues of thought, not direction to be taken by the designer offering up their work to be critiqued.
If you run your design critique according to these guidelines, you’ll probably find that you get through it quickly, efficiently, and everyone — the presenter especially — will feel satisfied about the outcome. Taking your critiques seriously means you’re taking design seriously. And that’s always a good thing, both for your team, and your product.