sImoN Yee
Product Design

•Running eFfecTivE Design crIts •Wit•H remOte Teams

Or, how in-person and online crits are basically the same thing

This is taken from an interview I did with Built In SF. I've made some minor edits to make my answers more clear and intelligible. The original piece is linked in the footer.

If stock photos of designers at work are any indication, white boards, sticky notes and people physically sharing conference rooms are key to the design process. Of course, the ongoing pandemic has forced many teams to remain remote, which begs the question: How do you run an effective remote design critique? What changes are required to ensure designers log off of Zoom or Google Meet with the feedback they need to get unstuck and move forward?

Simon Yee has spent nearly a decade working as a product designer and has a few ideas about how to run an effective remote design critique. Yee, a product design manager at Wish, told Built In that when it comes to remote critiques, the focus should be less on the online dynamic and more on the underlying critique process.

“I don’t necessarily think the remote setting changes the dynamics of a critique session all that much,” Yee told Built In. “If the critique was well-structured prior to the proliferation of remote work, then that same structure should scale reasonably well.”

To Yee, the biggest hang-ups with remote design critiques aren’t connectivity issues, managing cross-talk or assigning breakout rooms. Rather, the danger comes in trying to move and scale a process that was less-than-effective in the office to the world of online work. Put another way, when it comes to running an effective remote design critique, it’s important to focus on the fundamentals. Here’s what Yee recommends.

Q: What are the main topics you’re looking to cover during a design critique, and why are they important?

The topics we cover depend on the type of project being presented and the stage it is in. Some projects require more early-stage definition or helping the designer get unstuck. In these instances, a brainstorm session is an effective way of finding a resolution. If the project is in the later stages and has already gone through several rounds of feedback, then a silent critique can be an appropriate method for soliciting a large amount of feedback without having to spend too much time on UX alignment.

What’s important for the designer is understanding the type of feedback they are specifically looking for, communicating that to their peers, and identifying which method is most conducive to getting it. For example, it wouldn't be helpful to ask for purely visual design feedback when there are still outstanding UX issues in the design. In instances where the designer is unsure what stage their project is at, asking another designer or a manager for a pair review can help them determine the type of feedback to solicit from the larger team.

Q: How do you ensure that feedback is given and received in a constructive spirit when some or all participants are remote?

I don’t necessarily think the remote setting changes the dynamics of a critique session all that much. If the critique was well-structured prior to the proliferation of remote work, then that same structure should scale reasonably well. In some ways, being remote has provided us with opportunities to be even more structured, such as using the “raise hand” feature in video chat programs, which helps keep things orderly and provides equal opportunity for everyone to participate.

Being able to create breakout rooms has also enabled us to accommodate larger groups with multiple presenters so that nobody feels rushed to finish their session prematurely.

Q: What is the general tone of your design critiques, and how do leaders set that tone at the outset?

At Wish, leaders are aligned on the objective of the design critique — to create an open space that empowers designers to show their progress and gather insights from their peers to optimize their designs. I like to approach this by keeping things super light from the start: I ask innocuous questions about weekend plans or discuss whatever the topic du jour is. It helps everyone feel immediately comfortable and puts the team in a conversational mood so that their minds don’t have to go from zero to a hundred during the critique itself. And no matter what was discussed in the crit, or how intense it was, I similarly make sure to end the meeting on a lighthearted note to ease whatever tension may have been generated.

It’s important that design leaders create an environment where everyone feels their input is valued. One of the easiest ways to do this is for us to talk less and speak last. The feedback from senior+ designers typically covers 90% of the design issues, which leaves very little room for other designers to provide input. Speaking last allows space for designers to find solutions on their own and reduces the dynamic of design leaders of always having the “right” answer.

Further reading:
Michael Hines, Best Practices for Running an Effective Remote Design Critique for Built In SF