Some considerations for presenting design work
Great design critiques will elevate the work and take it in directions the designer couldn’t have otherwise on their own. Bad critiques can leave everyone in the room feeling exhausted and demoralized, and the project in limbo. But the person who can make the biggest difference in the outcome of a critique is the one presenting the work. I’ve even seen great presenters steer hostile and aggressive audiences into constructive attendees giving valuable feedback. There’s a number of things that I’ve seen work well over the years that usually result in net positive outcomes for the work:
Decide what you need to improve the work
“Everyone knows ‘feedback’ is essential to the design process, but too often the whole exercise goes off the rails because of the lack of parameters or clarity. Never, ever just ask ‘What do you think?’ Feedback is a response within established parameters and guidelines. Input is a substantive contribution to the solution. Critique is challenging the idea or the process itself to identify weaknesses and ensure quality.” —via Erika Hall.
It’s important to know when to ask for help, and ideally what kind of help you need to move forward. Are you stuck? Run a brainstorm. Can’t think of an icon to use? Ask for the group to sketch. Having trouble interpreting data or research? Invite the group to synthesize with you. Are you stuck and don’t know what you need to move forward? Just say that. Your mentors, manager, and team can help unblock you and you can employ a wide variety of techniques to get what you need.
Take notes or assign a note-taker
Notes help you recall detailed feedback. You’ll miss important points to consider later in your process without them. But it’s difficult to meaningfully capture feedback while presenting work clearly. If you’re a part of a group, ask someone in the group to take some high level notes covering the major points of feedback. If you’re presenting solo, take the time to capture notes within the exact context of your work (comments, post-its, etc). It will be easier to process them later.
Set the right context
Assume your audience knows nothing about what you’re going to present unless they’ve been explicitly involved at every stage. You’ve likely spend hours/days on this work, but they’re seeing it for the first time. Give them enough color so they can properly provide feedback. Share work ahead of time if it needs a lot of context.
Establish your credibility
What research/data do you have that proves that this is a problem or that your proposed solutions are the right ones? Have you prototyped or tested any approaches yet? Don’t fake it by masking a business problem as a user problem. Designers are especially good at seeing right through this and compromises you and your work’s credibility.
Choose the right medium
You don’t always need to share from Figma, Sketch, or Google Slides. It’s better to get some input than none at all at every step of the design process to avoid getting stuck and to maintain momentum. If it’s easier to see and share the work on wall, print it out using a plotter. If you’re still in the sketching phase, bring in your sketches to share.
Use your time wisely
Use your audience’s time effectively and be considerate to others who want to present work if you’re sharing your time slot with others. Leave enough time to set up the context, walk through the problem, discuss, and capture feedback.
Consider your audience
For large groups of designers from multiple teams, you have the opportunity to collect a lot of diverse feedback. Take advantage of this by calling out where you could use feedback from specific platform or design specialists. Don’t assume everyone is going to speak up if you don’t call on them. Conversely, if you only need feedback from a specific team, set up time outside the group critique to have a more focused discussion.
Outline approaches objectively / Express preference subjectively
As you walk through your work and the approaches you’re considering, talk about the pros and cons and what data supports or refutes each of them. Then share your preferred approach given your experience, intuition, and the information you have made available. Establishing the objective strengths and weaknesses of each approach shows that you’ve thoughtfully considered many angles and explored the full range of possible options. It helps others relate to your work without ego or attachment. But you’re in this job because of your experience, intuition, and skill. Use them as a compass to assert your preferred approach, but stay open to other possibilities.
Be mindful of your ego
You’ll receive a wide range of good and bad feedback in your career as a designer. Harsh and toxic feedback can hit hard when you’ve poured a lot of time and energy in to the work. But be mindful of feeling defensive, wanting to argue points/suggestions, or feeling like the review is going well or not. These are signs of your ego being strongly in play and excess attachment. Your work is being critiqued, not you. If someone is having an emotional or negative reaction to your work, take a second to breathe, then take the high road. Ask clarifying questions to try and get to the root of what they’re reacting to.
Replay what you heard
Use the time at the end of a review to summarize what you heard from everyone both for yourself and to acknowledge and make your audience feel like their feedback was valued. It can also be a useful time to get feedback on your next steps given everything you’ve heard, whether that’s more iterations, research, or even going back to the drawing board.