How to Make Sure Your Design Team Gives Good Remote Feedback

Asking everyone to keep their cameras on is a good start, but leaders need to do more than focus on the technical aspects when running remote critiques.
Written by Michael Hines
September 27, 2021Updated: September 27, 2021

Design critiques are important for ensuring design teams produce the most polished work possible — and also for building critical skills. As Kahunui Foster, senior designer at Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution points out, they play a major role in a designer’s professional development.

“No one becomes a great designer without participating in design critiques — a lot of them,” Foster told Built In.

Feedback is essential for helping designers grow, which is why it’s crucial for leaders to ensure that there’s no drop-off in quality when moving in-person critiques online. This migration process is challenging in general, but it can be especially difficult for growing teams whose members have never met offline. 

Not being able to judge someone’s body language because their camera is off can obscure the actionable aspects of critical feedback. A sarcastic comment left in the meeting room chat meant to liven the mood can feel like a personal attack when people only know each other in a professional context.

Asking everyone to keep their cameras on and to think before they type helps, but according to Foster and the design leaders from Coinbase and Prefect, this is just scratching the surface when it comes to facilitating an effective remote critique. Here’s their advice for how to really do it right.

 

It’s easy to feel singled out when receiving online feedback — especially if it’s in the form of a chat message or if the person giving the assessment has their camera turned off. Given this, Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution Senior Designer Kahunui Foster said her team focuses on giving actionable feedback that clearly communicates how designers can improve their work, along with specific next steps to take.

 

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

To get constructive feedback, I find it most useful to tailor the work I cover in a review to the type of feedback I want. For example, if I want feedback on the usability of a feature, I would show it in a low-fidelity mock-up so that my reviewers know to focus on the intent of the design, not the look and feel. Feedback is integral to improving design work, and it’s sometimes just as difficult to get good feedback as it is to give it. It’s important to set yourself and your reviewers up for success by being intentional about what work you show based on the topics you’d like to discuss.
 

To get constructive feedback, I find it most useful to tailor the work I cover in a review to the type of feedback I want.”


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

As a global design team spanning a multitude of markets and time zones, my design group has been tackling the challenges of remote design collaboration for a long time. Since we work on a suite of diverse products, it’s impossible for us all to be in the same room at once for a design critique unless it happens virtually. We’ve made it a point to standardize weekly, bi-monthly and monthly meeting cadences for design critiques of different sizes — project group, team and cross-team — which creates a system for giving and receiving constructive feedback. 

Equally as important as the frequency of the feedback is that it’s of value, specifically that it’s actionable. No one feels good getting feedback telling them to just “do better.” They want feedback telling them how to do better. Especially when you can’t read a person’s body language or get to know them in person, it’s important to ensure that design feedback isn’t misconstrued. I find that giving actionable feedback ensures that reviews are as constructive as possible because those receiving it have next steps and those giving it are helping their team problem-solve.

 

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

No one becomes a great designer without participating in design critiques — a lot of them. The most successful design critiques happen when leaders create an environment where designers feel comfortable with the feedback process and understand how it contributes to their growth. Design critiques shouldn’t feel like the end of the world: They should just be another step in the design process, like wireframing or creating mock-ups. 

The quickest way to normalize design critiques is by doing them often. Reviews with executives should not be the only time leaders ask designers to share their work. It should be happening in working sessions, team reviews and cross-team share-outs. By frequently having work critiqued and seeing others’ work critiqued, you take the “fear of the unknown” out of the process and gain the ability to focus on the actual feedback.

 

Frank Yoo
VP of Design & Research

Video meeting platforms offer some advantages over gathering the whole team around a conference table. For example, Coinbase VP of Design and Research Frank Yoo noted that moderation and hand-raising functions make it easier for more reserved teammates to have their voice heard, while the ability for anyone to easily share their screen helps keep people engaged.

 

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

I like to cover a variety of topics in a design critique. It is important to share the current product and the problem you’re trying to solve. Clearly articulating the precise issue demonstrates a project has a grounded purpose with well-understood motivations for improvement. Also, what does success look like? Knowing the ideal outcome of your strategy and solution is critical to building the right product. Setting measurable goals establishes a clear finish line to keep your roadmap on track.

Show a range of explorations and a recommended direction. Even if it’s later in the process and you’re refining, don’t just show one option. While the difference might be smaller as a project nears completion, there are often multiple resolutions worth discussing in service of creating high-quality UX. Leave time for feedback and discussion, and let the room know what kind of feedback you’re seeking. This will help keep the criticism on track and the feedback focused on the most critical areas of your work.

Finally, capture action items and assign owners to ensure feedback from the critique is addressed, even if the team decides not to act on some of it. This ensures every decision and response is intentional.
 

Leaders must stay vigilant of meeting hygiene and always strive to make the best use of people’s time.”


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

It helps to have the cameras on for all participants so that you can see expressions and body language. Seeing people can help your team pick up on subtle cues and nuances, which can be lost with pure audio or text-based exchanges. Even light-hearted sarcasm might otherwise be taken at face value when you only have audio to go by.

Something else we like to do is ensure teammates who are less inclined to jump into animated debate or tend to be more introverted have the opportunity to chime in and add their perspective. In some ways this is easier in virtual settings because the tools enable a more equitable meeting environment. The product we use has some moderator features and virtual hand-raising functions. Everyone has the same size video box, which means each person occupies the same amount of visual real estate in the meeting. It’s also pretty easy to share your screen to present a visual aid, so you can easily take the floor and display an artifact that offers some helpful context that can further engage your audience.

 

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

We strive to keep things energetic and positive. For larger meetings, we might start off with some music or a fun YouTube video, while in others we’ll use the in-meeting chat feature to ask folks to share a personal win or fun detail from their weekend. We’re heavy users of the in-meeting chat to shout people out in real time with encouraging words, emoji stacks and fire symbols.

Leaders set the tone by helping orient the group on meeting expectations, ensuring agendas are shared ahead of the meeting and encouraging the presenting team to distribute a “pre-read” artifact to meeting attendees 24 hours in advance. They also help rein in conversations headed for unproductive rat holes and divert any tangents to asynchronous follow-ups with fewer people. Leaders must stay vigilant of meeting hygiene and always strive to make the best use of people’s time.

 

Bill Palombi
Senior Technical Product Manager

When running a remote design critique, Prefect Senior Technical Product Manager Bill Palombi said he advises leaders to think about how their team culture influences the way feedback is received. For Palombi, the goal is to foster trust among his team so when critical feedback is shared, they know it comes from a place of “positive intent.” This trust is formed in part during social events where teammates get to know each other as people, not just professionals.

 

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

We’re a small — but growing — team and there are few enough of us that we can maintain a great deal of shared context across the team. Accordingly, we don’t have much ceremony around our design critique sessions. We are very deliberate about the objectives, framed in terms of user stories, that designs are meant to achieve.

Often, the most important part of a design critique is the least well-defined: What is the design for? Clear, well-documented user stories are the foundation of a design and, correspondingly, of a design critique. That said, our team is less structured in our approach to constraints. We experiment with adding and removing constraints throughout the design process in order to explore the impacts on the design. We leave plenty of unstructured time in our sessions to allow these explorations to unfold.
 

If an idea doesn’t quite work, rather than shutting it down, ask,  What would need to be true for this idea to work?’”


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

Creating a constructive context for discussion goes well beyond the scope of any single design critique session itself. It’s grounded in how we work together as a team and a company. Team members must know and trust each other, and remote work presents not just challenges, but also opportunities to create an environment of trust. We create ample time and space, in the form of happy hours, impromptu catch-ups and common forums, to get to know each other as people. When we share feedback, we do so in the context of trust that the feedback is motivated by a common goal of building the best possible product.

When it comes to the design critique itself, there are a few heuristics that participants can adhere to ensure feedback is exchanged constructively. For the reviewer, it’s important to start by seeking to understand the information and process that informed the designer’s decision by asking how and why a decision was made. For the designer, it’s important to assume positive intent. When feedback feels unduly critical, ask, “What is the most generous interpretation of this feedback?”

 

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

“Yes, and…” This rule of thumb from improv has become a bit of a trope but for good reason! Design critique sessions are an opportunity to explore the problem and design space and potentially revisit constraints and assumptions. If an idea doesn’t quite work, rather than shutting it down, ask,  “What would need to be true for this idea to work?” Oftentimes, that curiosity won’t lead anywhere productive, but sometimes it will, and when it does, it’s worth it.

The most effective way that leaders can encourage this sort of tone is not through preamble but by example. The leader should be a model of the behavior they want to see from participants. If the tone of the conversation veers from that model, it’s the leader’s responsibility to course correct. If necessary, that might involve calling a conversation early and revisiting it at another time.

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