Critiquing our (remote) design crits

Design critique template in FigJam

Design critiques, also called “crits”, are one of those feedback-focused design rituals that feel so essential to the design process. When done well, they help us improve our design, avoid blind spots, explore new angles, and create higher-quality work.

Creating a culture of honest critique takes time and investment, but it improves design by incorporating multiple perspectives.

Sarah Gibbons, NN Group

Most of us readily acknowledge that critiques are tremendously valuable to our work. But as simple as the concept seems, they’re surprisingly difficult to get right! Moreover, running crits in a 100% remote environment raises a few questions:

How frequently should we hold remote critiques?

How do we find a time that fits into everyone’s schedule, across 4 timezones?

Do reviewers have enough context to provide valuable feedback?

Should we provide training and guidance on facilitating crits?

Who should be present in the audience?

How long should critique sessions be?

Should we use a template?

Does everyone really feel comfortable sharing unfinished work?

Is live, synchronous the best format for crits?

(The list goes on.)

At Ceridian, our Design team is fully remote and distributed across North America, which raises challenges like the logistics of finding shared availability across multiple time zones, but also addressing core behavioural elements like vulnerability and building trust between teams in a digital creative space.

It takes a great deal of vulnerability to “embrace the uncomfortable” and put yourself, or your work out there…

As designers, we have to focus hard on not taking critique personally. When we attach ourselves and our self-worth to our work this is incredibly hard to do. Every time we put our work out there, be it a design or an idea, we take a risk. Without taking that risk, however, there can be no reward.

—Lindsay Kurbursky in “Vulnerability in Design”

Design work is just the visible “tip of the iceberg”, supported by user research, design crits, and a wave of feelings that are associated with experiencing vulnerability in creative work.
Design work is just the visible “tip of the iceberg”, supported by user research, design crits, and a wave of feelings that are associated with experiencing vulnerability in creative work.

But for all of its challenges, it’s worth it to get design critiques right — these rituals are meaningful to a design org’s culture and identity.

As Noah Levin, Director of Product Design at Figma, shares:

We lose sight of the potential of the meeting if [critiques] aren’t run well, or if the environment doesn’t feel safe. Getting them right is a critical part of your team’s design culture and identity, and makes a large impact in recruiting and retaining talent!

Critiques benefit the quality of our products, as well as our people and our culture. It’s a practice that helps shift our culture from one that is siloed and closed off, to one that is open and conversational.

With an enthusiastic background in this space, Olivia Lalsin and I — Manager, Design Ops and Design Program Manager, respectively — are asking ourselves:

“How might we set teams up for success by making design critiques more flexible and accessible to their workflow?”

Our approach: try something first — and in classic design-thinking fashion, create a feedback loop to drive iteration and improvement.

It’s been 10 months since we first rolled out weekly design critiques across our design organization — a practice to get our designers in the habit of sharing their work (including WIP!) early and often, as well as increase the visibility of their design work across teams.

Example of feedback provided on Career intelligence mobile designs during design critiques.
Example of feedback provided on Career intelligence mobile designs during design critiques.

Since launching crits, our design organization has grown significantly. A lot of new design teams were formed and new work was being created — a wonderful growing pain to have! — but that also meant new constraints and product areas that people didn’t know about.

More time was needed to explain context. As people got busy, attendance dwindled. Many new designers joining us didn’t have previous experience with design critiques.

In the midst of these challenges, we saw an opportunity to create education, strengthen team culture, and leverage continuous feedback from the Design team.

Even though things started off well, about 10 months after launching crits, the signs were obvious: low attendance, disengagement and inconsistent structure to times.

Concerned, a UX researcher took the initiative to reach out to me directly to discuss how we might improve crits. Off the bat, using our observations from these sessions, we quickly identified a few areas for improvement: facilitation, timeboxing, asking for specific feedback, and synthesizing action items/next steps.

Our Ops team realized we needed to hear from more designers at Ceridian about what was working and what wasn’t, to introduce changes to crits that made sense to our team.

We drafted a simple survey and partnered with a senior UX researcher who vetted our questions and provided great feedback.

Collecting anonymous feedback from our design team about design critiques at Ceridian, in June 2022.
Collecting anonymous feedback from our design team about design critiques at Ceridian, in June 2022.

Following up on the survey sent out in June 2022, a team of awesome Ops folks, designers and researchers at Ceridian — ”the Design Critique Crew” — analyzed the data and developed a few key themes for improving our design critiques.

Aggregated feedback from our designers and researchers, clustered into insights laddering into larger themes.
Aggregated feedback from our designers and researchers on key areas of improvement for our design critiques.
Survey data clustered into insights laddering into larger themes
Survey data clustered into insights laddering into larger themes.

In October 2022, thanks to the Design Critique Crew’s work, we rolled out a new and improved version of remote design crits at Ceridian.

Our improvements were pegged to the four key themes that emerged from the survey results gathered in June 2022.

UX researcher Carmela Lopriore walking the design team through the new design crit improvements and changes.
UX researcher Carmela Lopriore walking the design team through the new design crit improvements and changes.

1. Education

What they said: 44% of respondents shared that they had no experience leading or participating in design critiques prior to joining Ceridian.

What we did: We committed to provide more education and communication around the value of critiques, including how to conduct a design critique in various roles (facilitator, presenter, listener, etc.)

2. Pod structure and audience

What they said: Many researchers and designers shared that, in the short weekly time allocation, it was difficult to cover all the context required to share their work to an audience that was unfamiliar with their product area.

What we did: We rearranged and realigned the design critique pods so that folks were placed in groups that were more familiar with their respective product areas.

3. Critique template

What they said: Designers felt the old critique template in Figma was rigid and didn’t lend well to sharing and critiquing their work.

What we did: We designed a new design critique template format in FigJam that is easier to use, more flexible, and also allows for silent feedback.

4. Frequency and length

What they said: Designers felt the weekly time commitment of 1.5 hours every week to synchronously critique design together was too long.

What we did: We reduced weekly design critiques to 1 hour, allowing two people to present each week using the new format. We kept it in the same time slot on Wednesday afternoon because most of the team said that was still the best fit for their schedules.

As an Ops lead, I regularly facilitate these team rituals, and have already noticed a significant uptick in: designer engagement, punctuality, and the quality of communications around design critique content and scheduling. In attendance alone, we went from an average of ~7 designers attending design critiques every week prior to June 2022, to ~20 designers following the re-launch in October 2022 — more than a 2x increase in our team participating in these ceremonies to elevate the quality of our research and design work!

Although we just shipped an improved version of design crits, the work is far from done. To echo Daina Lightfoot from Abstract:

“A good design review process is always evolving”.

Along that same vein, one important mindset we’re introducing to the Design team is that of continuous iteration — and that applies to both the way we design our product, as well as the way we design how we do design.

To that end, our design critiques (like our other design ceremonies and rituals) are going to be openly reviewed every 60 days with our design team’s input.

Group shot of the growing Design team at Ceridian
Group shot of the growing Design team at Ceridian

On the Design Ops team, we’re constantly driving the operationalization of our team’s diverse perspectives into a cycle of iterative improvements around our design rituals and ceremonies.

Having grown from just 8 designers to over 60 in a year, the Design team at Ceridian is constantly evolving — as is our way of figuring out how to work together remotely.

By building a culture of sharing our work openly through design critiques, we’re also creating trust across teams, and ultimately, supporting our designers to improve the quality of what gets built in production.

Zachary Pfriem sums it up well in “Making the most of design critiques”:

Design requires many considerations. The only way to successfully meet customer needs is to make time for these considerations through critique. When designers, researchers, writers, engineers, and program managers work closely together, we can approach problems holistically with obsessive empathy to empower our customers for success.

There are so many wonderful articles out there about design critiques and the importance of feedback. Here are a few that I’ve found insightful:

Categorized as UX

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