Design critiques are a key part of just about every design culture, and one of the few consistent rituals design teams share. Done well, they can leverage the unique superpowers of your team members to raise the collective quality of each individual’s work. Critiques should leave you feeling inspired, challenged, and empowered. However, in practice, it doesn’t always pan out that way. A poorly managed critique can cause your team to feel discouraged, overwhelmed, or completely lost. Over the past year, we’ve made a lot of changes to the way we do critiques at Figma to try and avoid those pitfalls.

We often forget how much of a privilege it is to truly collaborate with talented peers. Recurring design critiques are an essential part of fostering elevated collaboration between team members. We lose sight of the potential of the meeting if they 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!

In this article, I’ll share how we use critiques at Figma, and how we worked together as a team to turn them into meetings we all enjoy, rather than fear.

Critiquing critiques

I had been helping facilitate critiques at Figma for about a year when the team decided to get together and chat about what was working and what wasn’t. We set out to “critique critiques”, if you will (?‍♂️). Turns out we had quite a large list of problems:

  • The rooms were getting overcrowded
  • Feedback was too shallow
  • Problems were too complex for a short time frame
  • Feedback was not actionable
  • There were a lot of unhelpful “group think” and “ 1s”
  • People were too “nice” rather than “honest”
  • Overall, they weren’t unblocking people or helping them move forward

We collected all of this feedback in a Figma file and organized it into themes to help us make sense of it all.

Then something interesting happened. During the meeting, people started proposing one idea after another. The energy was light and fun, yet productive. This was ironically the exact feeling we wanted to replicate during critiques themselves!

What was it about this context that allowed people to loosen up and get creative? Perhaps the stakes were lower? Or no one person felt they personally were getting critiqued? Whatever it was, we were clearly working well together, and it felt great. By identifying the positive flow of the room as it was working, and acknowledging it, we knew our target.

Recognizing we wouldn’t solve everything in one discussion and that this would be an ongoing process, we created a “#design-crit-crit” channel in Slack to keep iterating together. Especially as our team grows, and as the types of problems we work on change, we wanted to make sure our process is always evolving with the company.

Multiple screenshots of conversations in the Figma design-crit-crit Slakc channel
Ongoing suggestions in the #design-crit-crit channel


As in any good design process, we first had to align on the goals of critique. Only then could we understand and measure if our meetings were actually achieving what we needed. We decided on the following:

  1. Unblocking problems & generating ideas: Many times designers feel stuck on a problem after staring at it for too long, and find it helpful to leverage the broader team to move forward confidently. Other times you’re just getting started, and want to collect any ideas that your team may have already thought of.
  2. Elevating quality: Everything from visual design, to interaction details, or overall product direction.
  3. Encouraging consistency: We wanted to make sure we were leveraging existing patterns where possible, or flagging when there’s a need for a new one.
  4. Sharing context: Design teams are small enough to be in the unique position of having good context for what’s going on in the company. This allows people to identify overlaps and connections between projects that people in other roles might not have as much access to.

Noticeably missing from this is: “Making major product decisions” or “Determining product roadmaps.” Design critiques are not the forum for that; teams should have separate roadmapping processes to determine direction. Critiques need to remain a safe space for exploration and feedback, independent from roadmap decision making and free from stress.

Ultimately, critiques exist to help the designer/presenter — the person looking for support. In that way, it’s really up to them to utilize the best approach to accomplish that. The rest of the design team simply needs to commit to being present and ready to help.

6 critique methods

With those goals in mind, we put together six different critique methods, each with their own strengths and purposes. They are designed to take place either in a 1-hour meeting (usually 2 topics, 20-30 minutes each) or in smaller ad hoc meetings, depending on the method. With the exception of the “Paper Print-Out,” any of these should work great for remote teams as well.

Critique. What: Typical “present and critique” format. Why: Looking for something slightly formal, and exhaustive. Jam / 
Workshop. What: Brainstorms, Crazy 8’s, Affininity Diagrams, Group sketching, etc. Why: Best for the way beginning of the design process— or if you’re stuck and want to see something in new ways. Pair Design. What: Pair up in smaller groups of 2-3 rather than a big group. Why: You need deeper collaboration on a problem — flexible and hands-on. Silent Critique. What: Everyone stays silent and reviews a document and adds feedback digitally. Why: Need a mass volume of feedback, to keep people focused, or you want feedback async / remotely. Paper
Print-Out. What: Print out work and pin them up on walls or foam core. Stand or crowd around them. Why: Invite broader team collaboration. Keep an open and creative feeling, where you can see more at once. FYI. What: Give a quick heads up on a project while people are together, can chat later/async. Why: You’re not ready for discussion, but want people to know what’s going on early.

1. Standard

Standard format. Present context, receive feedback.

Left: Photos of three people talking at a table. Right: Photo of three people looking at toward a screen in a critique.

Best when: You want people to understand the context behind the project, and to walk them through your thinking. You’re ok with some discussion, and ideally, have specific feedback you’re looking for.

Step 0: Set-up

Before or as people are walking in, set up sticky notes and pens at each chair to encourage people to write down ideas throughout the meeting.

Step 1: Sharing context & internalizing feedback (~10-15m)

Start the meeting by explaining the context of the project (if people aren’t already familiar with it). Why is it important? What are the goals? The project goals are the foundation of the project, and if people miss that part, their feedback will be misdirected. Decide if you want people to interrupt with questions, or wait until you’re done sharing, and let them know which you prefer. Include a slide dedicated to “Here’s the feedback I am looking for,” and conversely, “Here’s what I’m NOT looking for” to keep the discussion focused. Remind them to write down their thoughts as you’re going through the content.

Rather than present on a big screen, we often send everyone a Figma link and have them jump into Observation Mode. We find it much easier to see details this way, it works great for remote participants, is more reliable connectivity-wise, and better for high frame-rates than most screen-sharing software. You run the small risk of people wandering in the file rather than observing, but we’ve found that can also sometimes be a good thing if someone missed something but didn’t want to stop the full group for it.

Step 2: Clarifying questions (~2-5m)

After you finish presenting, take a few minutes to allow anyone to jump in with clarifying questions. This is important because if one person is confused, it is likely others are as well. You want questions clarified before folks jump in with feedback to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Step 3: Receiving feedback (10m )

We have two very different approaches to receiving feedback from the room. We’ve branded them to make them easier for the facilitator/presenter to request which form they prefer to receive feedback in:

  • Round-The-Room (RTR ?) — Go one at a time around the room, and give everyone a chance to voice their feedback. Try to keep it to two minutes per person. No “interruptions” from others — if they have a pressing thought, encourage them to write it down for their turn. It’s important to go one at a time and give space for the person speaking to help folks who may not normally feel comfortable speaking up in groups. Having a structured format to receive feedback like this enables us to be more inclusive of different people and preferences. Allow people to “pass” if they have nothing to add, or if they’d like to think more and provide feedback later.
  • Popcorn (?) — Freeform discussion. It’s called Popcorn because comments pop up from all over the place unpredictably. This is more improvisational and helpful for flowing conversation where people can jump in with “Yes, and…” We often use Popcorn if we’re short on time and preface it with, “Any one have any critical things you feel the need to share?” Then we’ll document any other comments later. However, please note that this method can be dangerous for inclusion as it can reward the “loudest voice.” To combat this, I’d encourage the group to call on people who haven’t spoken (if they’re comfortable with that), or moderate the conversation a bit if it’s getting lopsided.

As you’re receiving feedback, try not to get defensive and justify everything. It’s best to model good behavior by simply thanking people for their feedback. You don’t need to respond immediately to everyone’s points. It’s ok to take time to consider what they’re after and get back to them later.

Step 4: Thanks & follow-ups (1m)

Don’t forget to thank everyone, and let people know how best to send you feedback if they think of anything else. Should they send it via Slack? In a notes document somewhere? In the Figma file? Are you free to meet with them individually? If so, when? You could also put the work on them to find time with you, which can filter out people who felt strongly enough to do that. More often I prefer to make it as easy for people to contribute as their ideas are usually quite helpful.

2. Jams/Workshops

Brainstorms, Crazy 8’s, Mood boarding, Sketching, etc.

Left: Photos of hand sketching on paper. Right: Photo of computer screen with Figma file open.

Best when: You’re very early on in a project. Maybe you’re looking to soak in as much as you can from other people about what they may have already thought about or explored in the past. Maybe you just want a kick-start to be as divergent and exploratory as possible before starting to narrow in. Your design team brings together so many different perspectives and skills that involving them early can often inspire entirely new concepts, and help avoid tunnel-vision.

How: There are lots of methods out there for brainstorming. If you’re using paper, personally I love the Crazy 8’s method. Our favorite way of doing these, however, is inside of Figma itself. In particular, one recent fun example was when one of our design interns, Andrew Shen, got a bunch of us in a room to research his summer project, “Comments in Figma.”

All Andrew had to do was drop us a Figma file with a few prompting questions for us to jam on. Things like, “What are the biggest problems with comments today?” “What commenting experiences do we like?” “Any ideas on how they should behave?” “Should they be more like email or like Slack?”

Then we were off to the races — we went heads down for 30 minutes and started dropping in references, snippets of texts, and anything else we could to get our ideas across. This quickly became much deeper than just a survey or a poll because you could see others’ ideas in real-time, and start to riff off of them together. After going heads down, we went around the room and discussed each other’s ideas, adding any clarification where needed. In just a single hour, Andrew had leveraged the collective brainpower of six people, and had tons of material to work from when starting to sketch out some ideas.

Representation of a brainstorm using a Figma file
Andrew’s Figma file for us didn’t require much prep or even facilitation — just a few empty frames with questions in them and we were off to the races.

3. Pair design

Work in small groups of 2-3.

Three photos of people working in pairs
Note: the person second from the far left is a customer, not a Figma employee

Best when: The problem may require more context and deep work. It’s hard to get a big room thinking about everything all at once, so organizing participants into small groups is much more productive

Perhaps our most popular alternative method so far, pair designing has become a staple in our process at Figma. So much so that for a little while, once a week we dedicated one of the critiques to strictly using this method. We’d start each meeting by dividing people up into groups of no more than three people to tackle problems.

We’ve since moved away from requiring this once a week because it didn’t feel right to force people to use a method if they weren’t ready for it. Instead, we’ve started encouraging people to plan these meetings ad hoc. Now, people simply shout out in the design channel on Slack, “Hey, anyone free to pair?” — then they schedule a separate time together.

Another way to encourage frequent pair designing is by assigning a “co-pilot” to any lead designer working a project. At a start up like Figma, we’re a small team so there aren’t enough designers to have multiple people on the same problem full-time. We found that by assigning a partner even just part-time, it can make a big difference in feeling less alone while solving a problem. It hasn’t been perfect or consistent; for many projects we forget to assign a co-pilot or people simply get too busy. But as we grow, we hope to formalize this further.

It’s worth noting that pair designing is not a new concept. Engineers have been pair programming for years to help debug problems and catch mistakes. Going back even further, as far back as 10-220 CE, Rabbis used to urge students to acquire study partners under a process called Havruta; an approach to Talmudic study where small groups analyze and debate text together:

Professor Nathaniel Deutsch gave a pretty cool lecture about the benefits of practicing in pairs from this historical context if you’re curious to learn more about it.

And if you’d like to continue discussing pair design in general, I’d recommend reaching out to Stephanie Engle who’s been thinking a lot about this as she’s found pair sessions particularly helpful during her time working at Cruise and at Facebook.

4. Silent critiques

Everyone stays silent and reviews a document and adds feedback digitally. Similar to art gallery, except context may actually be given, and there’s no verbal discussion.

Left: Photo of a screen with a Figma file open on it. Right: Photo of hands typing on a laptop taking notes

Best when: You’re looking for a large volume of feedback, or you’re remote.

It seems funny at first to imagine a group of people in a meeting room, completely silent for an entire hour. But bear with us. We first got the idea to try this after Niko, one of our designers, read the Silent Meetings Manifesto. In it, the author, David Gasca, laments his frustrations for typical corporate meetings, and offers a unique alternative:

The basic idea is that verbal communication in a group setting only allows for one line of conversation at a time. You have a speaker, and a bunch of listeners. By not relying on speaking, a “Silent Meeting” can instead offer multiple conversation threads simultaneously, allowing for a greater volume of feedback to be received in a shorter period of time.

For the givers, it allows the inclusive opportunity to more deeply internalize the work, and write thoughtful responses by being able to move at their own pace. For the receiver, it can be exhilarating and exhausting, but also very rewarding. Niko, for example, works remotely from Germany and often finds himself needing half a day to process the avalanche of feedback. And although it can feel overwhelming at first, it can spark so many new ideas over time.

Silent critiques do require more preparation work as they effectively need to work asynchronously; the audience needs to be able to gather all the context necessary inside the document to offer feedback. Another reason this works particularly well for remote designers, is that they often have time and interest for exercises that get the most out of their limited interactions with headquarters.

These Silent critiques can also be done completely asynchronously by sending out a prompt in a Slack channel. But we found that the main advantage of scheduling a set time or doing in person is to ensure people actually take the time to review the work.

Timelapse of a recent Silent Critique we ran at Figma
Timelapse of a recent Silent critique we ran at Figma

5. Paper (“Print-out”) Critiques

Print out work on paper and hang it up around the room.

Left: Woman presenting paper print outs. Center: Three people looking at print outs. Right: Man standing and speaking in front of print outs.

Best when: You have a wide set of ideas that are hard to navigate in a single file, or you want to inspire people to not feel so limited by the pixels themselves.

Believe it or not, there was a time where designers didn’t have computers to run critiques. Crazy, right? Sometimes I think we forget how valuable it was then to get the chance to work with physical materials. We’re so used to staring at screens all day that we assume meetings have to run this way too. Actually encouraging people to get up and move around has a ton of benefits. Ideas may flow more freely, and the change in context can be helpful for not feeling so limited by pixels.

If you went to design school like I did, you might have had the profoundly memorable experience where professors would hang up all of the students work on foam core or cork walls and teach everyone how to critique it together. Sometimes they’d take a big red pen and annotate all over it. The class would surround the work, one at a time, and talk through what was working and what wasn’t. In my nearly 10 years designing products since then, I can only remember a small handful of times the design teams I worked on tried this method. Instead, we most often pointed at a screen on one side of the room, some of the time sitting nearly 20 feet (~6 meters) away from it!

Jenny, Rasmus, and Marcin, three of our product designers at Figma, have been particularly big proponents of getting us out of our chairs and back to the basics. The meeting can be run the same way as a “standard critique,” except we’re all gathering around the print outs, and attaching sticky notes as feedback.

Given that this method doesn’t work well for remote attendees, we combat this by assigning a note taker, recording the meeting, and taking photos. If the attendee can join in real-time, we’ll often have a complementary Figma file (which doesn’t take much extra effort to make since you already needed to make one for printing), which lets them have their own “digital wall” if they’d like to try and follow along and add comments that way. If you really wanted to, you could even have the note taker try and transcribe their digital notes into physical ones to keep them together.

We end up doing this no more than once a month simply because of the overhead, and the reality of needing to put this feedback back in digitally. But once in a while, it’s a real treat to change up our day-to-day and goes a long way in opening up the conversation.

Bonus: A great side-effect of this is method is that it doubles as an amazing and lightweight way to share context or spark discussions with people from other functions in the office. If you’re able to, consider leaving the work up in the room even after the meeting, or even better if it’s on foam core that you can move it out to a more visible space in the office. The next time you see someone standing there, talk to them and ask them what they’re thinking! This fosters random cross-contamination, increases the context, and can increase the chance of serendipitous moments.

6. FYI

Sharing quick context on a project. No feedback necessary.

Left: Man talking in meeting. Right: Two men talking, on with a laptop open.

Best when: You’re not sure people are actually reading your “New Project! Heads up!” Slack message, and want to take advantage of the attention in the room to let people know about something you’re working on.

This is admittedly the least common method for us of the six, but sometimes we’ll carve out five minutes for someone to share something they’re working on as an “FYI.” With these, you don’t usually need feedback yet, but you want to put feelers out for ideas that have been explored before, or get a better sense for other designers who may be interested in chatting about it later. It’s a great simple way to solve for the first of the four critique goals, “Sharing context.”

10 tips for running effective critiques

We have lots more to learn, but here are a few tips that have worked well for us while running any of the critique methods listed above:

  1. Match methods to problems: Have a variety of methods in your toolbelt, and name them for easier recall. Think ahead of time which ones will be most effective for the problem at hand. Stuck on a problem or a particular UI puzzle? Consider a “Jam session.” Kicking off a new project? Try out a “Workshop.” Reviewing a bunch of options? Try a “Standing critique.” Working on something particularly complex? Try “Pair design” to get deeper into the problem.
  2. Schedule topics early: Schedule critiques ahead of time on Monday mornings, and update your calendar events to reflect the topics. This helps create mini-deadlines for designers, and also helps plan ahead for which guests you feel are most important to attend.
  3. Use smaller rooms: We’ve found smaller rooms create more cozy environments. Out of conference room space? Just huddle around someone’s computer or form a circle of chairs. Find a coffee shop. Avoid large rooms that incite a “corporate board room” feeling.
  4. Buy a timer and keep diligent time: We use this simple 60m timer. Try it out to make sure you are prompt with timing for each topic. As a facilitator, do your best to take note of how long topics are taking, to plan better for future topics. As you’d expect, topics always take at least 10 minutes more than people think they will. We’ve recently started only allowing a maximum of two topics per one hour critique because of this.
  5. Take notes: We’ve tried different ways of including people who can’t attend (be it time-zones, vacation, sick leave, or anything else). For example, we tried automatic transcription features on our recordings with Zoom, but that turned out to be too much unfiltered content to consume. Our best results have come from pairing this recording with an assigned note taker in the room summarize the notes to hit the right spot between exhaustive but digestible.
  6. Think about what you need from the room: Time is precious, respect others’ time by planning 30 minutes beforehand to decide what you want help with. If you’re collecting feedback inside of Figma, be sure to leave ample space around your file, and perhaps a few sticky notes if you’d like people to annotate on the canvas.
  7. Consider HOW you deliver feedback: There are all kinds of frameworks for giving valuable feedback from radical candor, to the playing cards method, to this critique chart. Niko created a nice guide to remind ourselves how feedback can take so many different forms, and to always strive to give “elevating feedback.”.
  1. Be vulnerable: There are lots of ways to improve psychological safety and trust on teams, which is critical if you want your team to feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback. Adam Grant has a great podcast called WorkLife, and I recommend listening to the episode about The Daily Show that talks about how Trevor Noah sets an example of vulnerability by sharing embarrassing stories in the beginning of each meeting to set the tone of “It’s ok to mess up.” Jon Bell also offers a fun concept with The McDonald’s Theory, which you could use to help break the ice if you’re noticing a particularly shy room.
  2. Remember to critique OUTSIDE of weekly meetings: You don’t need to wait for once or twice a week to receive feedback. Reach out to your team and schedule “pair design” sessions, or “offline critiques” to make sure you’re never waiting when you’re ready for feedback.
  3. Experiment and iterate: Feel comfortable experimenting and iterating constantly. Just as design is never done, you should treat design processes the same way. By framing improvements as experiments, your team may be more open to change. Consider starting your own #design-crit-crit channel to keep the discussion going.

Further Reading

There’s a ton of great resources out there on feedback and critique. Here are a few of our favorites:


Thanks for taking the time to read about our critique process. We hope you found it useful. Please let us know if you try any of these methods or tips — and share your own!

We want to share more about the design team processes at Figma. What are you interested in? Have an idea? Send us a note on Twitter.

Finally, we’re thinking about inviting guests to our critiques (remotely or in person in San Francisco) in the interest of being more open with our design process. We’d also be super interested in joining your team’s crits. If you and your team would like to attend one, would like to invite us to yours, or want to just stay in touch about critiques in general, please fill out this form and we’ll see what we can do! #CritiqueSwap ?

P.S. The best way to participate in our critiques would be to just join our design team! We’re hiring for multiple roles, and would love to hear from you you.


(Photo by Antenna via Unsplash)

Giving each other helpful feedback is one of the most important parts of being a team. But many teams struggle to give each other feedback in productive ways. Thankfully, the design community has been absolutely obsessed with how to give each other feedback since the start of time.

You can use hard-won lessons from designers to improve how your team gives and receives feedback.

Designers love feedback because they often need to find solutions in situations where there is little data. What font should we use? Should that blue be a little darker? How should we communicate this concept to customers? There are often no hard metrics available to back up design decisions. So in the absence of data, designers turn to critique as a method to improve their work based on the collective wisdom of a group.

If you want a deeper look into how to build a culture of productive feedback, I highly recommend Creativity Inc... In the book, Ed Catmull outlines the process that Pixar uses to critique their films. The team at Pixar must make thousands of critical decisions that shape each film. And there’s no way to measure if those decisions are right, except when the film is finally released. Their only way to check progress along the way is through critique.

You’re probably not working on a feature film. But if you have to make important decisions that are hard to measure, you should build critique into your team’s culture.

There is no script

There are many articles on the web about how to run a design critique, and they’ll all give you a glimpse into the world of what the design community has figured out. But they’re often little more than a script to follow.

I’ve seen so many teams follow guidelines, attempt to run a critique, and then have the whole session fall apart. And I’ve seen other teams break all the rules and have incredible feedback sessions. What gives!

Running a great critique is more than a simple process. It’s a deep cultural attitude and a set of skills that your team needs to build over time.

That may sound hard, but once you understand the foundations that lead to a great critique, you can nurture those capabilities in your teams. You can use the foundations as a map to troubleshoot a wide variety of situations that involve people giving feedback to each other.

Critique Fundamental #1:

Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is the core of what it means to be a team. There are many things groups can do together that don’t involve feeling safe, but being a team is not one of them. If you don’t feel safe, you can’t be vulnerable and share where you’re struggling. And if you can’t ask for help from one another, you’re not a team.

Core question: Can this team be vulnerable with each other?

Critique issues related to psychological safety:

  • Reluctance to share work in critique
  • Waiting until work is “done” before bringing it to review

You might think that to improve psychological safety you should focus on trust. But that’s not quite right. As it turns out, vulnerability leads to trust, not the other way around. So to get your team to give each other better feedback, you need to first find ways to help them show vulnerability around each other.

Ways to build psychological safety:

Critique Fundamental #2:

Growth Mindset

High-functioning teams approach critique with the belief that their work can be better, and that they can grow their abilities over time. However, some people loose track of the growth mindset. For them, critique of work can feel like a deep personal challenge of their character.

Core question: Is a fixed mindset getting in the way of hearing feedback?

When people hold a fixed mindset, they see their own abilities as fixed, and never changing. In this mindset, your work is a reflection of not just your skills, but a reflection of your character. So if you criticize the work of someone with a fixed mindset, they can receive that feedback as a deeply personal attack on their own self worth. If that happens, productive critique has no chance.

Critique issues related to growth mindset:

  • Becoming defensive when work is under critique.
  • Avoiding taking action based on feedback received.
  • Showing work, but never asking for feedback from the group.

Thankfully, there are interventions that have been shown to help people switch their mindset and approach challenges with more resilience.

Ways to build a growth mindset:

  • Read the excellent book, Mindset, by Carol Dweck.
  • Share experiences of growth and learning on the team.
  • Be mindful of your language. For example, prefer “challenge” to “problem” and prefer “lessons” to “mistakes”.
  • Praise the work, not the person. For example, don’t say “Dana is a great writer.” Instead, say “Dana worked hard on this piece of writing and it came out great.”

Critique Fundamental #3:

Radical Candor

Kim Scott has one of the best frameworks for understanding how to give feedback in a productive way. She focuses on two axes that must be present for feedback to work: caring deeply and challenging directly.

Critique issues related to radical candor:

  • Critiques are overly harsh or even toxic. (Obnoxious aggression)
  • People are hesitant to share feedback. (Artificial harmony)

The principle of caring deeply is very close to psychological safety. In order to care deeply, you must help people feel like they belong on the team. You have to say, “I believe in you. I know you can succeed here.” And you must constantly renew these belonging cues so that people feel safe. That lays the groundwork for people to be able to hear the feedback they receive.

If you are offering critique without caring about the person, you’re not going to get anywhere.

Honestly, it’s rare that I see toxic teams that really don’t care about each other. Instead, it’s much more common to find teams that care so deeply about each other that they become hesitant to share any feedback! They worry that by challenging each other it might disrupt the harmony of the group.

But keeping all your feedback and thoughts locked inside isn’t going to help anyone. All those little nagging issues will seep out somewhere. Instead of bringing up feedback to a colleague directly, you might end up talking about their work behind their back. And that leads to even more problems. In order to have a productive critique, the team needs to understand that challenging directly is the most respectful way to share feedback with each other.

Core question: Are we caring deeply? Are we challenging directly?

Ways to build radical candor:

  • Together with your team, read and discuss Radical Candor by Kim Scott.
  • If you are feeling like your team is overly critical, return focus to psychological safety, and work on making recognition and praise more common.
  • Find ways to give your team permission to challenge directly. For example, have someone with high-status specifically ask for candid feedback and model the behavior.

Critique Fundamental #4:

Clarity of Purpose

Now it’s time to get more into the mechanics of what it means to run a feedback session or critique. One big reason critiques go poorly is because the team is not aligned on either the purpose of the conversation or the purpose of the project.

Critique issues related to clarity of purpose:

  • Presenters are selling their work instead of looking for ways to improve their work.
  • Feedback frequently goes off-track, into unimportant or unrelated issues.
  • Feedback is often conflicting, with no easy resolution.
  • Problem solving happens in the moment, rather than deferring to the presenter to solve an identified issue.

I find that feedback sessions tend to lie on a spectrum of purpose. One one end of the spectrum is the pure critique. The purpose of a critique is to use the knowledge in the room to help someone improve their work. On the other side of the spectrum is the pure approval. The purpose of an approval meeting is to pitch a great idea, not to improve the work.

Core question: Why are we having this conversation? Is it for approval or critique?

This is such an important distinction because when we’re pitching or selling an idea, we’re not that open to hearing feedback. And when people are acting as approvers, it can set up an adversarial relationship that prevents great feedback from happening.

There are plenty of great reasons to hold approval meetings. But your team shouldn’t expect to get great feedback (and be able to hear it) in the setting of an approval meeting. So you should try as much as possible to separate your meetings into either approvals or critiques.

Core question: Why are we working on this project? What are we hoping to achieve?

The other common misalignment tends to be when people have different ideas of why the project is happening in the first place. I’m sure you’ve experienced this before, because I’ve seen it in all contexts. An engineer might ask for a code review, and the reviewer goes off on a tangent. Or a designer might show a screen, and then get a bunch of feedback that’s off topic.

Ways to build clarity of purpose:

  • Start every meeting by stating the purpose of the conversation.
  • Separate out “critique” from “approval” meetings as much as possible.
  • Ask teammates to reiterate the purpose of their project and related context at the start of any request for feedback.
  • Begin feedback sessions with a short “questions only” period where teammates can only ask clarifying questions to better understand the work under critique.

Critique Fundamental #5:

Building Rituals

Rituals are a core part of what it means to be human. From when we brush our teeth in the morning to how we commute to work, rituals put a whole host of activities on automatic. Once you’ve built a strong habit for a behavior, it’s sort of magical how easily it happens without even thinking about it.

Critique issues related to building rituals:

  • High variability: some critiques run well, while others feel broken.
  • Outsiders visiting a critique throw the discussion off-course.

In the context of work, we build processes, which are just repeated actions. And once those actions repeat over and over again, they become habits. The collection of habits and assumptions that a group of people has built … well, that’s just another way of describing the group’s culture. So if you need to shape the culture of how feedback happens on your team, process can be a powerful tool.

Core question: What behaviors do we want on automatic? What behaviors shouldn’t be automatic? Do our rituals support these goals?

If you have project managers or design producers at your company, they will make amazing allies for setting up the rituals that encourage helpful critique.

Ways to build rituals of critique:

  • Ban outsiders. Keep the set of people reviewing work consistent until you build a strong culture of helpful critique with at least a small group.
  • Clarify roles in a critique: presenter, facilitator, note taker, feedback-giver, etc.
  • Develop guide rails for the presenter. For example, a template that helps them prepare for the critique with questions.
    • What decisions do I need to make next?
    • Where would feedback be most helpful?
    • What does the audience need to know in order to provide helpful feedback?
  • Develop guide rails for reviewers who are providing feedback.
    • Start each critique meeting by restating the purpose of the conversation.
    • Institute a rule like round robin feedback to shape the group dynamic. Once a rule becomes habitual, remove or change it to shape the dynamic further.
  • Build continual improvement into your critique process by reflecting on each session and what could have gone better.

There’s plenty more advice out there for rules and rituals for running productive feedback sessions. A Google search for “design critique guide” will serve you well.

Use these 5 fundamentals to debug your feedback challenges

Now that you have these 5 points in mind, you can use them as map to fix many problems you might be having with feedback on your team. Here’s how to do that:

  1. List out all the challenges your team has with giving each other feedback.
  2. For every challenge, consider which of the 5 fundamentals are underlying the problem.
  3. Take steps to strengthen your fundamentals. If you get stuck, try reading some of the books suggested above.

I hope this article has been helpful to you! I’d love to hear your experiences putting these ideas into action. You can find me on Twitter: @kowitz

And if you’re serious about improving psychological safety on your team, please learn more about Range. We hear from teams all the time that Range has helped them get to know each other and feel more like a team. I bet we can help your team, too.