Journey to Crit: EY Design Studio NY Takeaways

Sheridan Baker | 09/21/2022

Setting the scene: design purgatory

You’ve been working on the same design for days. It’s shaping up well, but there are a few nagging points that don’t seem quite right. The longer you stare, the further you feel from getting to the right solution. All those tabs open — the unfinished Figma frames are staring back at you, mockingly. You’re at the point of setting your laptop on fire.

If this scene feels familiar to you (and if not … well, I don’t believe you), then you already know firsthand the necessity of soliciting feedback as part of the design process.

To help address this problem, eight months ago, our studio transitioned from holding “design office hours” to a more formalized forum for design critique (aka “crit”). We began asking ourselves (or more importantly, our colleagues):

  • What are the characteristics of high-quality feedback?
  • How can we make critique sessions interactive and engaging in a virtual format?
  • What are the needs and expectations of people giving feedback vs. people who are asking for it?

Our vision was to create an ecosystem where anyone in need of a critique outside of their engagement teams could have a place to share their work and receive high-quality feedback. We also wanted to make it easier for folks to learn about projects happening outside of their own engagements and offer their expertise and unique perspective. In doing so, we hoped to foster a culture of individual growth through team collaboration.

We began with a pilot hourlong virtual design crit. After ample tweaking and soliciting feedback on those initial sessions (we get the irony), here’s where we’re at and what we’ve learned.

More opportunities for interactivity = more participation

After talking to some of our crit presenters, we discovered that feedback quality is directly related to audience engagement. Though perhaps an obvious statement, the challenge of driving participation did not immediately have a clear solution.

In the absence of a physical space for collaborative whiteboarding and note taking, we found that conversations could quickly become stagnant, to the detriment of both presenter and participant. As a solution, we created a collaborative space online for participants to interact with screen shots of the presenter’s work and be able to leave comments with their thoughts, observations and suggestions. Giving crit participants the freedom to explore presenters’ work on their own time led to more targeted questions. (This little hack was inspired by the Philly Design Studio!)

Example of a collaborative online space

Balancing context and brevity builds focus for discussion

Actionable feedback requires a certain level of context. For example, participants may need to understand a designer or a project’s specific constraints, target level of fidelity and/or user and business goals. However, if too much context is provided about their design dilemma, a presenter risks losing the attention and focus of participants. Not to mention, it’s time-consuming. The challenge became how to give participants the right balance of information about the design scenario, specificity of the task, etc., to provide helpful feedback.

To address this issue, we put together a guideline for feedback presenters to help them get the most out of the time allotted for each crit. We found that preparing feedback presenters in this way led to more productive conversations and targeted feedback.

List of feedback guidelines

Keep the format flexible, and aim for cozy group conversations

We quickly found that the difference between a lively crit and a passive one often depended on the number of people in the (virtual) room. Having more voices is theoretically great, because it means more individuals are bringing their insight and expertise to the conversation. However, we found that after a critical mass (around 5-6 people) it becomes difficult for everyone to have the airtime they need to be part of the discussion.

That’s why we next decided to host crits in parallel virtual rooms consisting of small groups. Fewer people helped these sessions feel more like intimate conversations. Participants were also more compelled to speak up in a smaller group — sparing presenters the agony of radio silence.

While our format tweaks sometimes led to an engaging crit, we also had some sessions where there weren’t enough participants. We also occasionally found that having people switch to virtual breakout rooms could hinder the flow of conversation.

As time went on, we decided to try a hybrid approach to crit that would blend in-person and virtual participation. After a few successful sessions of this new approach, and through trial and error, we have realized the importance of continually adapting to participant preferences.

Pic of the group working together looking at a big screen

What next?

As we work to keep growing and improving design crit, we asked some of our presenters and participants, “What drives you to attend design crit?” and “How do you want to see crit evolve?”

Initial ideas we’ve discussed include building better channels to keep both in-person and virtual audiences equally engaged (good audio is key!), encouraging interactive whiteboarding, and making space in crit to use the time creatively (e.g., A/B testing, share-outs, presenting personal projects).

So, to all of the designers out there, the next time you’re thinking about throwing your laptop in the fire, it might just be time for some design crit. 😉

Header image by Niki Non