Top tips for conducting design critiques at startups
I recently met with a founder of a software startup. He was feeling like the way design reviews happened at his startup could be more efficient and effective, but was having a hard time articulating how. Given my experience working with, and at times directing, a bunch of designers, I thought I could help improve their design process, and hopefully thereby improve their product and what they’re able to accomplish before launch. Since his situation is not an uncommon one, I thought others might benefit from the checklist I created as well.
His company is about 10 people in a large open office. At this stage, they have one designer on staff, and several others with what I call “design sensibilities,” including the two founders. Even with nominal job titles and roles, there’s inevitably overlap. And that’s generally a good thing. The trouble is that because of the informality at startups, you run the risk of: swirling and constantly going backwards, losing awesome ideas along the way, not making progress quickly enough, and the dreaded “Christmas tree design” (where everyone decorates with their favorite ornaments and the final result is a jumble of random items). Following this checklist should help lead to better outcomes.
- State upfront where you are in the process and what level of feedback you’re looking for. When you’re exploring the general look and feel of a page, it’s frustrating and unproductive to hear comments about the color of a button – and the reverse is also true.
- Show (a limited set of) options. Options give people something to choose between, and bound what they comment on. Too many options, however, and there’s no POV, feedback will be all over the map, and it’ll be harder to come to consensus.
- Diverge and then converge in an increasingly bounded space. At a high-level, the design process should be like a funnel, with design decisions becoming more and more specific. And at each stage, there should be exploration, followed by direction setting.
- Pitch it, and present the rationale for your decisions. Design is about presenting a POV. Selling it and commenting with conviction will give others more to respond to, and allow them to build upon the thoughts behind a particular execution.
- Be judgmental but positive. The team has to set direction, and is committed to creating the best product it can in the shortest amount of time. Sharp judgments are necessary. Just remember that designers are professionals, and that design is a delicate discipline with qualitative choices.
- In-person is better than remote. Design’s in the details. There’s so much subtlety to work through – the more modes you have to work with (verbal, visual, gestural, etc), the richer the dialogue will be.
- Bring in the right people at the right time. Everybody’s a critic. But that doesn’t mean everyone at the startup should be involved in every design decision. Figure out who needs to give input when, and identify a few key moments when design direction needs to be communicated to the entire team.
- Be wary of crossing the designer-critiquer streams. The more a critiquer starts sketching up his own idea in the moment, the more it can feel like he’s just favoring his own creations. It can be hard to resist, and it can be helpful in articulating one’s feedback. But it can also be disempowering to the designer.
- Crit during crits. We call them “drive-by critiques.” Someone just rolls their chair over and comments over the designer’s shoulder, or gives their two cents will walking by. These comments typically lack context, often just parrot what the designer was going to do five minutes later, and can feel out-of-left field. Better to schedule defined times to check-in and get feedback.
- Mark milestones to prevent going too far back and swirling. Reiterate and capture the decisions you made. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself making the same decisions 6 weeks later, or remembering right after launch that amazing idea everyone agreed they should have included.
Particularly with consumer-facing startups, design is crucial. At its best, it can guide decision-making, differentiate your product, and create deep connection between you and your customers. Here’s to using it wisely.