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Strategy, Feedback and Design Reviews

Influencing larger decisions that shape strategy starts with facilitating the smallest decisions, including how to incorporate feedback into designs.

In a previous post, I argued for the Need for Facilitation in the sense that — if designers want to influence the decisions that shape strategy — they must become skilled facilitators that respond, prod, encourage, guide, coach, and teach as they guide individuals and groups to make decisions that are critical in the business world through effective processes.

In this post, I’ll make the case that influencing more significant decisions that shape strategy starts with the smallest of decisions, including how to facilitate and incorporate feedback to designs to drive product vision forward. We will also look at best practices for articulating design decisions and how to conduct design critiques.

You will probably notice this is one of my longest posts because facilitating and incorporating feedback requires a lot of skills that are — in my opinion — underdeveloped in most organizations, like Stakeholder Management, Facilitating Good Decisions, Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, and Creating Psychological Safety.

Table Of Contents
  1. TL;DR;
  2. Feedback and Stakeholder Management
  3. The Problem with Asking for Feedback
  4. Three Kinds of feedback
  5. Why Critique is So Important
  6. What Critique Looks Like
  7. After the Critique
  8. The Right Time for Feedback and Design Reviews
  9. Recommended Reading

TL;DR;

  • The True Measure of Leadership is Influence – Nothing more, Nothing less.
  • Before you can influence product strategy decisions, the most critical thing you can do to improve communication between you and your stakeholders is to improve those relationships, earn trust, and establish rapport.
  • Feedback is an essential part of the design process, but the term itself and the way we often ask for it is very broad and can produce conversations that aren’t useful. There are three forms of feedback, all of which vary in their usefulness to us in the design process.
    • Reaction-based feedback. It happens quickly and instinctively, usually filled with passion, driven by someone’s expectationsdesires, and values. But are the people from whom you’ve asked feedback reflective of your design’s real audience?
    • Direction-based feedback. Feedback without any explanation indicates nothing about the effectiveness in meeting the design’s objectives. You will have to consider how or why the design you have is or is not effective at addressing the problem.
    • Critique. This form of feedback is the most helpful to us in understanding the impact of our design decisions.
  • No matter how difficult the criticism might be, it is better to have your preliminary work critiqued by your colleagues while we still have time to do something about it than to have the finished project torn apart by strangers in public.
  • Proper preparation for a critique session can make a world of difference in getting insights that will help improve your work.
  • Critique- like any other kind of facilitation approach- is about creating shared understanding, keeping conversations focused, negotiating perspectives, handling difficult conversations, and getting commitment to action.
  • The most crucial role a facilitator can play to ensure value capture is staying focused on the difference between signal and noise: it’s only natural that teams will stray from vision and goals, and conversations become chance — distractions.
  • Without commitment, advice giving is merely the expression of opinions. Without action, the value potential in a decision cannot be realized.
  • The mindset of deciding must embrace uncertainty; the mindset of action must replace uncertainty with the certitude of purpose: “Let’s get on with it.”

Feedback and Stakeholder Management

As I mentioned in the first post of this serieswe need a different kind of senior designer. We need designers working on user experience teams must first advance from a tactical designer to a strategic designer. They can move pixels and translate design insights into a currency that business stakeholders can understand. After that, they can get teams to paddle in the same direction.

Design ManagersDesign Strategists
Skills– Motivation and mentoring
– Internal and External communication
– Culture creative and management
– Cross-department alliances
– Budgeting
– Bi-polar: analytical and intuitive
– Thought leadership
– Empathy with corporate pressures
– Ability to produce tangible, engaging and stand-alone deliverables (e.g.: strategy blueprints, narratives, storyboards).
Collaboration– Mobilising resources / alliances across the portfolio in response to the strategy blueprints
– Internal and External communication with senior leadership
– Bringing visibility to both internal and external challenges and opportunities by looking at Strategy Blueprints across the portfolio
– Come up with recommendations / plans to address common challenges and opportunities (e.g.: user story maps, value stream maps)
Adapted from McCullagh, K., “Strategy for the Real World” in Building Design Strategy: Using Design to Achieve Key Business Objectives, Lockwood, T., Walton, T., (2014), Publisher: Allworth Press; 1 edition (November 11, 2008)

I’ve been practicing design for more than 25 years, over a decade operating in Global Teams. The difficulty of getting teams to paddle in the same direction stems from the fact that most projects in global companies are plagued with communication issues. An effective strategist will need to review and agree on stakeholder expectations continuously.

Therefore, strategist will need Stakeholder Analysis and Management skills to:

  • Mitigate issues caused by virtual, international projects
  • Find effective channels of communication
  • Ensure stakeholders are communicating effectively

Feedback and Influence

To achieve these, Strategy and Stakeholder Management must become inseparable. To that end, I found it necessary for designers to understand the correlation between communication and relationships and the importance of building trust.

An excellent way to start is to understand and identify Cultural, Social, Political, and Technical issues of working with teams and stakeholders, master collaboration, and grasp what it takes to become a Trusted Advisor.

The single most important thing you can do to improve communication between you and your stakeholders is to improve those relationships, earn trust, and establish rapport. These will speak more for you than the words that come out of your mouth in a meeting.

Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions (2020)

I couldn’t agree more with Greever (2020) when he says it’s ironic that UXers are so good at putting the user first, garnering empathy for and attempting to see the interface from the user’s perspective. Yet, we often fail to do the same thing for the people who hold the key to our success.

That involves a few key soft skills, particularly influencing without authority.

The True Measure of Leadership is Influence – Nothing more, Nothing less.

Maxwell, J.C., The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You (2007)

Be relational, not positional: barking order is positional; it assumes that your employees will rush to obey simply because you’re in charge. But remember, leadership is influence. Be tuned into their culture, background, education, etc. Then adapt your communication to them personally (“The Law of Influence” in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You, Maxwell, J.C., 2007).

Influencing starts with the smallest of decisions

I’ve met many junior designers who dreamt of great things, of having a seat on the table of leadership, of being able to tell other what to do (if that’s you, I know how you feel: we want these!). One advice I have for you is that you won’t likely be given the bigger opportunities until you are able to manage what you have in your hand.

Jesus tells us a great story in The Parable of the Talents (which referred to a monetary amount in bible times) about a master giving three of his servants different amounts of talents. To one, he gave 5, another 2, and the last 1. The first and second doubled their talents, and their master rewarded them and gave them more upon his return. The last servant, though, did not multiply his talents. No, he buried it and then gave it back to the master when he returned. In the parable, the master is furious and calls the servant wicked and lazy. Listen to what the parable says about the servant that invested the talents:

19 “After a long time their master returned from his trip and called them to give an account of how they had used his money. 20The servant to whom he had entrusted the five bags of silver came forward with five more and said, ‘Master, you gave me five bags of silver to invest, and I have earned five more.’ 21 “The master was full of praise. ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!”

Matthew 25:19-21

This parable lays out the idea that everyone is given gifts (or “talents”), and we are all responsible for making the best of what we are given. It might not seem fair that some people have this five talent starting position while others have this 2 or 1 talent starting position. But regardless, the parable encourages us to focus on what we have been given and multiply that. In the case of design and strategy, you can focus on multiplying what you’ve been given by thinking about how you handle the relationships with our stakeholders, how you help them achieve their goals through your designs, and how you can drive product vision forward by facilitating good decisions.

With that out of the way, there is another influencing principle that I want to talk about, which is sacrifice.

Influencing and Sacrifice

Many people today want to climb up the corporate ladder because they believe that freedom and power are the prizes waiting at the top. They don’t realize that the true nature of leadership is sacrifice.

A Leader Must Give up to Go Up

Maxwell, J. C., The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: Follow them and people will follow you (2007)

To become a more influential leader, are you willing to make sacrifices? Are you willing to give up your rights for the sake of the people you lead? Give it some thought, then create two lists (Maxwell, J. C., The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: Follow them and people will follow you, 2007):

  1. The things you are willing to give up in order to go up
  2. The things that you are not willing to sacrifice to advance

You might be wondering, “I’m not leading anybody.” You might not have anybody as direct reports, but — as I mentioned in previous posts — when trying to influence the decisions that drive product vision forward, you should be influencing from a position without authority.

When we recognise that we don’t have ultimate control over the final outcome, we make a mental shift that exposes just how much we need to communicate well in order to maintain the sanity of the user experience.

Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions (2020)

From that perspective, look back at the objectives your stakeholders are trying to achieve, the change you’re trying to create through the vision, and the feedback you need to hear, and think: what aspects of the design I’m willing to let go of to drive product vision forward?

One way of thinking about how to help stakeholders achieve their goals is to let go of “my designs.” So, yes — leadership is about influence — but to become the ultimate leader, you must humble yourself and become a servant first. So, I’ll draw from the Servant Leadership handbook here.

While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader (Greenleaf, R. K. The servant as leader, 1970):

A fundamental leadership quality is the ability to operate from love and care. Throughout human history, the great leaders who transformed society for the better all possessed tremendous strength along with a powerful capacity for caring.

Sisodia, R., “Servant Leadership is Conscious Leadership” in Servant Leadership in Action, (2018)

“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. (Greenleaf, R. K. The servant as leader. 1970).

Influence and Trust

Based on all the challenges of influencing Strategy and Stakeholder Management I’ve listed so far (becoming a servant leader, knowing how decisions are made, etc.), one framework I have found very useful to systematically grow your influence that works well in combination with the Servant Leadership model is the Trusted Advisor.

As David Maister puts it in The Trusted Advisor, “there is no greater source of distrust than advisors who appear to be more interested in themselves than in trying to serve the client. We must work hard to show that our self-orientation is under control.”

You might be a company’s full-time employee, in an individual contributor capacity in your function. I still think that having a “consultant” mindset while dealing with Stakeholders helped me better define the role I wanted to have in the relationships with stakeholders, and helped me think about how I could help them as “clients”.

This is yet another challenge for designers: putting clients’ interests in front of their own can be challenging for them because they’re always under tremendous pressure to deliver what their stakeholders believe is needed (e.g., “create a beautiful interface for this product that I’ve designed without a designers’ input”). 

The Trusted Advisor understands that there will be times when the client’s best interests would be better served by spending more time in the problem space at risk of impacting their self-imposed deadlines and constraints. 

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, The trusted advisor (2021)

Why Trust is Important?

Trust is not the ability of the team to predict one another’s behaviors because they’ve known each other for a long time: even the most dysfunctional teams — or families, for that matter — can learn to forecast one another’s words and actions based on observable patterns over a long period of time. When it comes to teams, trust is about vulnerability. Team members who trust one another learn to be comfortable being open — even exposed — to one another around their failures, weaknesses, and even fears. Now, if this is beginning to sound like some get-naked, touchy-feely theory, rest assured is not that it is nothing of the sort (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013).

The journey of every high performing team starts with addressing the absence of trust (picture: a pyramid with five level, representing the five dysfunctions of teams: Absence of Trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability, and Inattention to Details).
The journey of every high performing team starts with addressing the absence of trust (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013)

Vulnerability-based trust is predicated on the simple — and practical — idea that people who aren’t afraid to admit the truth about themselves are not going to engage in the kind of political behavior that wastes everyone’s time and energy. (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013).

If building trust is important, then how does one becomes a trusted advisor?

How to Win Trust

Trust relationships are vital to the way we do business today. In fact, the level of trust in business relationships, whether internal with employees or colleagues or external with clients and partners, is the greatest determinant of success (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, The trusted advisor, 2021)

Trust must be earned and deserved. You must do something to give the other people the evidence on which they can base their decision on whether to trust you. You must be willing to give in order to get.

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, The trusted advisor (2021)
Trust at the Team Level

The key is to teach team members to get comfortable being exposed to one another, unafraid to honestly say things like “I was wrong” and “I made a mistake” and “I need help” and “I am not sure” and “you’re better than I am at that” and yes, even “I am sorry.” If team members cannot bring themselves together to readily sparks these worlds when the situation calls for it, they aren’t going to learn to trust one another. Instead, they are going to waste time and energy thinking about what they should say, and wondering about the true intentions of their peers (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2010)

Brené Brown asked thousands of people to describe vulnerability to us over the years, and these are a few of the answers that directly pierce the emotion: the first date after my divorce, talking about race with my team, trying to get pregnant after my second miscarriage, starting my own business, watching my child leave for college, apologising to a colleague about how I spoke to him in a meeting, waiting for the doctor to call back, giving feedback, getting feedback, getting fired, firing someone. Across all of her data, there is not a shred of empirical evidence that vulnerability is weakness (Brown, B., Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts, 2018):

  • Are vulnerable experiences easy? No
  • Can they make us feel anxious and uncertain? Yes
  • Do they make us want to self-protect? Always
  • Does showing up for these experiences with a whole heart and no armour require courage? Absolutely

Now, as hard as it is to achieve vulnerability-based trust, it is entirely doable. And better yet, it doesn’t have to take a lot of time. In fact, I’ve seen remarkable distrust on teams that have worked together for years and years, and I’ve seen teams that have worked together for six months develop amazing amounts of trust (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2010). 

The key ingredient to building trust is not time, is courage.

Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team (2010)

For a team to trust, team members — beginning with the leader — must be willing to take risks without a guarantee of success. They will have to be vulnerable without knowing whether vulnerability will be respected and reciprocated (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2010).

Trust at the Individual Level

The challenge is to have a conceptual framework and analytical way of evaluating and understanding trust. Without the proper framework for evaluating trust, there’s no actionable way to improve our trustworthiness (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, The trusted advisor, 2021).

The Trust Equation is now the cornerstone of our practice: a deconstructive, analytical model of trustworthiness that can be easily understood and used to help yourself and your organization. The Trust Equation uses four objective variables to measure trustworthiness. These four variables are best described as: CredibilityReliabilityIntimacy and Self-Orientation (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, The trusted advisor, 2021).

The Trust Equation uses four objective variables to measure trustworthiness. These four variables are best described as: Credibility, Reliability, Intimacy and Self-Orientation
The Trust Equation in The trusted advisor (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C., 2021)

Let’s dig into each variable a bit more (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, The trusted advisor, 2021):

  • Credibility has to do with the words we speak. In a sentence, we might say, “I can trust what she says about intellectual property; she’s very credible on the subject.”
  • Reliability has to do with actions. We might say, “If he says he’ll deliver the product tomorrow, I trust him because he’s dependable.”
  • Intimacy refers to the safety or security we feel when entrusting someone with something. We might say, “I can trust her with that information; she’s never violated my confidentiality before, and she would never embarrass me.”
  • Self-orientation refers to the person’s focus. In particular, whether the person’s focus is primarily on themself or the other person. We might say, “I can’t trust him on this deal — I don’t think he cares enough about me; he’s focused on what he gets out of it.” Or, more commonly, “I don’t trust him — I think he’s too concerned about how he’s appearing, so he’s not really paying attention.”

There are two essential things to remember about maintaining trust. First, it has to do with keeping one’s self-interest in check; second, trust can be won or lost very rapidly (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, The trusted advisor, 2021).

Learn about about influencing principles in Strategy and Stakeholder Management (Photo by Rebrand Cities on Pexels.com). Picture: group of people sitting in front of table
Learn about about influencing principles in Strategy and Stakeholder Management (Photo by Rebrand Cities on Pexels.com

With the importance of trust out of the way, let’s talk about some issues that affect core tenets of their work, like how to communicate, provide feedback, make decisions, disagree productively, and so on.

The Problem with Asking for Feedback

Feedback is a common element and activity in not just our workplace cultures, but in many social cultures, as well. “Feedback” is a word that’s become ingrained in our vocabulary. We use it all the time, à la “I’d love to get your feedback on something…” In human-to-human interactions such as the conversations we have in our projects, the feedback we receive might be nothing more than a gut reaction to whatever is being presented. And to be quite honest, even though we might not want to admit it, that’s often all it is (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design , 2015).

Feedback is an important part of the design process, but the term itself and the way we often ask for it is very broad and can produce conversations that aren’t useful.

Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design (2015)

The problem with asking for feedback is that — most times — we aren’t being specific enough in describing what we want feedback on and why we are asking for it. Sometimes, the feedback we receive might just be a gut reaction. Sometimes, we might get back a list of instructions or suggestions on what to change. Sometimes, we might get comments that describe how what we’ve designed doesn’t match what the critic would have designed. Weeding through all of that feedback to determine what’s of use to us–what will help us identify the aspects of our design that we should iterate upon–can be a struggle (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

Three Kinds of feedback

There are three forms of feedback, all of which vary in their degree of usefulness to us in the design process (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015):

  1. Reaction-based feedback. It happens quickly and instinctively, usually filled with passion, driven by someone’s expectationsdesires, and values.
  2. Direction-based feedback. Usually begins with an instruction or suggestion. The individual providing it is often looking for ways to bring the design more in line with their own expectations of what the solution should be.
  3. Critique. This form of feedback is the most helpful to us in understanding the impact of our design decisions.

Understanding these three kinds of feedback can help us understand the conversations we have with our teams and improve our won ability to react to and use feedback to strengthen our designs.

Reaction-based Feedback

Why can reaction-based feedback be an issue? At best, this kind of feedback informs us about the subconscious reaction of the viewer to what you’ve designed. We want to understand these reactions to avoid “selling” something to people who cringe at something the second they see it. But are the people from whom you’ve asked feedback reflective of your design’s actual audience? (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

Direction-based feedback

Why can direction-based feedback be an issue? Feedback without any explanation indicates nothing about the effectiveness in meeting the design’s objectives. You will have to consider how or why the design you have is or is not effective at addressing the problem — e.g., dealing with the tension between novelty and compliance, exploration vs. approval. (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

Critique

Reaction and direction are limited in their ability to help us understand if our design choices might work toward the product’s objective. Critique – a form of analysis that uses critical thinking – is the feedback that focuses on exactly that understanding (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

After working as a designer for more than 25 years, I have a few disclaimers to share with you before deep-diving into critique:

  • The first one is based on my observation of working with team members for which term first language is not English: the word “critique” might have very different connotations in their native language, including some very negative ones as — for example — for German speakers, where critique reminds them of criticism.
  • The second is based on my design background: if you’ve been trained in some form of design program — especially with a strong design studio tradition — as I have, then you’ll remember how taking criticism (while painful at first) was something that became easier and easier the more you practiced. So now look at the background of your team and — more likely than not — you will realize that most of them did not have that background! Criticism is not natural for them: neither to give nor to receive!

This is a long way of saying that — out of all the facilitation skills I’ve been sharing with you — critique is going to be the one that you’ll probably be going to spend the most energy for the longest to build the muscles and to create a team culture around it!

Why Critique is So Important

The ability to give and take criticism effectively is a crucial part of the design process. And as companies increasingly embrace design — not just as a feature, but, as a core competency — critiques have become more important than ever. In some cases, they may even be the hinge on which a product thrives or dies (Kolko, J., Want to build A culture of innovation? Master the design critique, 2018). 

A critique is an awkward conversation. If you’re seeking a critique, it puts you in a very vulnerable place. It’s difficult to hear what’s wrong with our work. However, if you’re providing a critique, you may have spent less time with the work and be reacting to your instincts without a structured goal for what the feedback is supposed to accomplish. The more a critique’s goal is clear, and the more the session is structured, the less painful and more productive that time will be (Hoffman, K. M., Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018).

It is better to have your preliminary work critiqued by your colleagues while there is still time to do something about it — no matter how difficult the criticism might be — than to have the finished project torn apart by strangers in public.

Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design (2007)

Because critique – when done well – focuses on analysing design choices against a product’s objective, it also provides the team with additional benefits, acting as a mechanism for building shared vocabulary, finding relevant consensus, and driving effective iteration (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

The ultimate goal for teams that are interested in improving conversations and collaboration with critique is not to add one more tool or type of meeting to their ever-growing toolbox. Instead, it’s to change the way we talk about what we’ve designed regardless of the type of meeting or conversation we’re in.

Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design (2015)

Beyond the benefits we get from the analysis done in critique, it
also helps teams to do the following (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015):

  • Build shared vocabularies, making communication more efficient
  • Find consensus based on product objectives when deciding between multiple design options.
  • Inform and drive iteration on aspects of a design where they are most needed.

What Critique Looks Like

There are two sides, or roles, in any critique (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015):

  • Recipient: The individual(s) receiving the critique (that is, the designer or presenter of whatever is being analyzed) who will take the perspectives and information raised during the critique, process it, and act upon it in some way.
  • Giver: The individual(s) giving the critique-_-the critics-~who are being asked to think critically about the design and provide their thoughts and perspectives.

Within both of these roles there is the discrete aspect of intention: why are we asking for/receiving/giving feedback? Intent initiates conversation and is often what separates successful critiques and feedback discussions from problematic ones (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

If we’re going to be successful at communicating with people about our designs, we must be able to answer these three questions about our work (Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions, 2020):

  • What problem does it solve?
  • How does it affect the user?
  • Why is it better than the alternative?

The purpose of answering these questions is more of an exercise in getting you to understand your choices than it is a prescriptive method for documenting them. Don’t worry too much about the details of how you write them down. If you can answer these three questions, you’ll be well on your way to defending your decisions with the people who have influence over your project. These answers will form the basis of your response to every stakeholder’s concerns about your designs (Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions, 2020).

As opposed to a casual conversation about a project, a Critique allows the designers to present their current solution and then express concerns or ask specific questions about it. Reviewers are invited to respond in a clear way that addresses the designers’ needs.

LUMA Institute, Innovating for People: Handbook of Human-Centered Design Methods (2012)

In the context of a structured Critique — which allows for both positive and negative feedback — people are more likely to share suggestions for improvement since the design team has formally solicited them. A good critique can be both eye-opening and inspiring (LUMA Institute, Innovating for People: Handbook of Human-Centered Design Methods, 2012).

The Structure of Critique

The structure of a good critique looks like this (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015):

  • It identifies a specific aspect of the idea or a decision in the design being analyzed.
  • It relates that aspect or decision to an objective or best practice.
  • It describes how and why the aspect or decision works to support or not support the objective or best practice.

Successful critiques help both parties learn more about the context in which work is meant to thrive. To do this successfully, a critique needs to focus on actionable problems that you can do something about. Too often, critiquing parties jump to suggesting solutions. Instead, try to avoid giving solutions in critiques. Doing that prevents the discussion from reaching a fuller understanding of what the problem is and why it matters (Hoffman, K. M., Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018).

To ensure that we uncover and include all of these details there is a simple framework of four questions that we can ask ourselves, or the other individuals participating in the critique (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015):

  • What is the objective of the design? We want to understand what we’re analyzing the design against so that we can focus our attention on things that are pertinent to the conversation and the improvement and success of the design. Try to identify the objectives that the designer was aiming to accomplish through the choices she made. What are the objectives of the product or design that have been agreed upon by the team?
  • What elements of the design are related to the objective? Next we identify the aspects and elements of the design that we believe work toward or against the objective. Whether the aspect or element is the result of a conscious choice by the designer doesn’t matter. We are analyzing the effectiveness of the whole design as it’s presented.
  • Are those elements effective in achieving the objective? Now that we are thinking about specific objectives and the aspects of the design related to them, it’s time to ask whether we think those choices will work to achieve the objective. This is the crux of critical thinking.
  • Why or why not? Finally, we need to think about the result that we think the choice will actually produce. How close is it to the actual objective? Is it completely different? Does it work counter to the objective? Maybe it won’t work to achieve the objective on its own, but in conjunction with other elements of the design it contributes to the objective.

That said, there are a few components of a strategy that are critical to setting the right context of a design critique that — in my opinion — if they are missing, should raise red flags that you might be wasting your time running critiques and should go back to the drawing board and create a good strategy. These are:

  • An Inspirational and Shared Vision
  • Good Problem Framing
  • Shared understanding around Assumptions and Hypothesis

We will cover those later in the article as part of the Setting the Context, so here is what I mentioned briefly: don’t wait for a design critique to raise these red flags! It’s better to work with stakeholders to facilitate the conversations around vision and problem framing before it’s too hard (and expensive!) to revert bad decisions because we lacked a good strategy!

Before the Critique

In my experience — which I don’t think is unique — meetings are not as productive as they should because they are not facilitated (no agenda, no-one taking notes, no decisions being recorded).

Dilbert walks into a meeting and asks, "Who called this meeting?" The male coworker replies, "We thought you did." The coworker continues, "I think we should discuss issues and assign tasks so it's not a complete waste of time." Dilbert responds, "Maybe meetings have become a lifeform capable of calling themselves and thus reproducing via human hosts." The male coworker turns to the female coworker and says, "Good issue." She replies, "Wow!"
Adams, S., “Who called this meeting?” in Dilbert (2001)

Going back to the Parable of the Talents, if you are going to focus on multiplying what you’ve been given by thinking about how you handle the relationships with our stakeholders, how do you help them achieve their goals through your designs, and how can you drive product vision forward by facilitating good decisions, then your critiques — which are just another type of structured meeting — need to be designed to do just that!

Meetings are usually not designed. They are rather used as blunt force, expensive but ill-considered tools to solve communications problems. These problems don’t always warrant such a costly, high-fidelity solution. But even when they do merit that kind of solution, insufficient intention and energy go into creating the meeting experience itself.

Hoffman, K. M., Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018

Having rules for critique helps to set expectations for others as to how the critique session should work and how feedback is going to be collected. It also helps participants by providing guidelines and boundaries to the framework for sharing their insights and having productive conversations (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A. (2015). Discussing Design (1st ed.). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.):

Proper preparation for a critique session can make a world of difference when it comes to getting the insights that will help improve what you are working on.

Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design (2015)

And — like any contact sport — if the players don’t know, understand, respect, and follow the rules of the game, all bets are off. The thing that designers need to keep in mind is that most non designers don’t even know that the game exists. (Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design, 2007).

In playing the game, it is important to keep in mind that the intended outcome is to make a decision or choice to move the design forward. This means that the resulting conversation involves making an assessment.

Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design (2007)

Furthermore, many (most?) designers are not all that aware that this game — which is part and parcel of their daily life, part of their whole ethos —  is largely foreign to those outside the profession, and it is one of the things that most distinguishes them as a culture and a profession (Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design, 2007).

The people we invite to the session–whether they are designers or
from another discipline–will have varying backgrounds and experiences with feedback and critique. Some might not be familiar with critique at all. Thus, it is important to set some expectations. (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015):

  • Who should be included? Look beyond the design team for potential attendees. Even though there will be times when we’ll want a smaller, more focused session with just the design team or people from a specific role, it’s important to remember that anyone, regardless of role, can critique.
  • Ensure that the Team knows the Critique Session format and the plans for facilitating. It’s a good ideas to begin talking with participants about the type of discussion we’re looking to have and any details about how we plan to facilitate the conversation.
  • Avoid Ta-Da Moments. The response we get is often not what we hoped for. Most people cannot help but have a gut reaction to what they are seeing, specially if they are seeing it for the first time. Critical thought takes time. If possible, get the designs that are going to be critiqued out to those participating in the meeting before the critique takes place.
  • Describe the Product’s Objectives. Be sure to remind the team of the goals, principles, scenarios, and personas that apply to the aspects of the designs being reviewed
  • Present your work quickly and effectively. Resist the urge to overexpose in the hopes that those critiquing really understand the design choices made. That approach can often slow things down and eat up the time in the meeting. Don’t explain the rationale for every decision.
  • Be careful when talking about constraints. Participants my interpret constraints as excuses or even that we’re casting blame. It’s often better to let discussion of the contrast arise through questions. Wait for someone to ask about why choices were made and, if relevant, explain the constraints.

During the Critique

When asking for critique, keep the following in mind (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design , 2015):

  • Remember the purpose. Critique is about understanding and improvement, not judgment.
  • Listen and think before responding. Do you understand what the critics are saying and why?
  • Return to the foundation. Use agreed-upon objectives as a tool to make sure feedback stays focused on objectives.
  • Participate. Critique the work alongside everyone else.

If we understand the best practices for giving and receiving critique, we also notice a few things about how we collect feedback through various platforms. The more we’re able to facilitate real-time question-and-answer sessions across the group, the better the exchange is likely to be. This is why in-person meetings and videoconferencing tend to be best. However, we can still use feedback tools and email; they just take more planning and careful facilitation.

Setting the Context

One way to make our meetings easier for stakeholders is to set the context at the beginning. That is, to start the meeting with a reminder of the goal for this project or design, where we are in our process, and the kinds of feedback they can expect to provide. We should also make it clear that the purpose of the meeting is to get their support to move forward, not necessarily for them to riff on whatever they see (Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions, 2020).

Executives may have a difficult time switching to our project from one meeting to the next. While we may spend every day thinking about these problems, they might not, and it can be incredibly difficult for them to remember why we’re here when they’re having several meetings a day, all about completely different products or designs. This is a common challenge for our stakeholders, but we can help them.

Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions (2020)

Here are a few tips to quickly bring them up to speed (Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions, 2020):

  • State the goal. The first thing you should remind them about is your previously agreed-upon goal for this project or design. This should ideally be an improved business metric or the outcome we expect, but it might also be framed as the feature or output of your work. It may also be your answer to the question, What problem does this solve Whatever the goal is, state that clearly up front before you jump into your designs.
  • Summarize the last meeting. Second, briefly remind them of the discussion you had last time or the decisions you made together. This can be a short sentence or several items, depending on the project. Either way, you Want to quickly refresh their memory of your last conversation.
  • Show a timeline. Next, create a visual that will help them understand where you are in the process of your design. Typically, you can express this as a horizontal line where the left side is the starting point (research, low- fidelity mockups) and the right side is the finished design high fidelity, ready to ship). Highlight where you are on this spectrum and the level of fidelity of designs they can expect to see.
  • Specify the feedback you need. Also, tell them the kinds of feedback that are helpful at this stage in the project and what feedback is not needed yet. For instance, you might expect feedback on the overall layout and concept, but it’s too early for them to comment on specific copy or colours. Helping them understand what feedback is most valuable will help you guide the conversation in a productive way.
  • State the goal, again. Lastly, restate the goal. It’s important that we are always on the same page about the problem we’re solving. Conversations get derailed when people fail to remember the goal or the goal has changed without us realising it. Repeating it will reinforce this and help everyone remember what we’re here to accomplish.
Having better conversations around Vision

In a previous post, I mentioned that — more often than not — it is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of the problems they are trying to solve. It has become a personal rally cry for me to help teams create shared understanding.

To make sure I’m understood: it doesn’t matter at that point if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated; the result is the same: the team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.

Shared understanding is the collective knowledge of the team that builds over time as the team works together. It’s a rich understanding of the space, the product, and the customers.

“Creating Shared Understanding” in Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve userexperience, Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J. (2021)

Goals and vision support decisions to resource projects as well as onboard new team members. However, as north stars, teams must reference goals and vision on a continual basis to take advantage of the alignment they provide. Revisit and reference goals and vision at every opportunity, especially to evaluate options and rationalize project decisions. For example (Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design, 2019):

  • Reference the Project Goals and Vision at the beginning of every discussion or review: North stars aid navigation only when referenced. When the team comes together to share learnings and work, display the goals and vision at the beginning of the discussion. When evaluating options, reference goals to support decisions. Although goals and vision should not change during the project, they are difficult to articulate. As the team works on specific project parts, you may discover the initial goals and vision were incorrect. Every time you use goals and vision to rationalize a decision, you provide the opportunity to gather feedback and adjust the goals and vision and to improve them and make them more accurate.
  • Start with Goals and Vision when speaking with Stakeholders: When you review material with others outside of the project, start with the goals and vision. When you begin with the project goals and vision, you give managers and executives the opportunity to review your north star and make sure you’re still on track. If the team is off, the stake- holder will tell you. When you share the vision, it creates a context for any project-related discussion, so stakeholders understand what you are trying to do. Prioritized project goals describe your decision framework, so stakeholders know how to evaluate and respond to everything you share.
A great way to sort and filter feedback is to look at it from the lens of product vision (picture: beach bench boardwalk bridge)
Learn more about creating product vision in Strategy and The Importance of Vision (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)
Having better conversations around Problem Framing

Teams that attain a shared understanding are far more likely to get a great design than those teams who fail to develop a common perception of the project’s goals and outcome (Jared Spool, “Attaining a Collaborative Shared Understanding” in Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design, 2019).

When teams share an understanding, everyone knows what they’re working on, why it’s important, and what the outcome will look like.

Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design (2019)

It’s very easy to verify if the team lacks understanding around the problem the team is trying to solve. Just ask some fundamental questions in your next meeting, like “what is the problem we are trying to solve”? “And for whom”?”

If you get different answers from key stakeholders, it is probably a good indication that you should jump in and help facilitate the discussion that will help the team to align.

Collaboration means shift from thinking big ideas alone and moving into the real-mess of thinking with others.

Van Der Meulen, M., Counterintuitivity: Making Meaningful Innovation (2019)

Changing the behaviour to a “we think together” model is the central activity of collaboration. Because thinking together closes a gap; people can now act without checking back in because there were there when the decision was made. They’ve already had the debates about all the trade-offs that actually make something work. This may appear a case of “when all was said and done, a lot more was said than done.” However, time needs to be spent in the messy and time-consuming front loaded process of thinking through possibilities in order to inform the decisions that needs to be made (Van Der Meulen, M., Counterintuitivity: Making Meaningful Innovation, 2019).

Problem Framing is about a shared understanding, team alignment, and defining a strategy for the future, so the stakeholders need to pay equal attention to both the business need as well as to the customer’s problem (Design Sprint Academy, What is problem Framing, 2019):

  1. Contextualize the problem: By using different frames, stakeholders review their understanding of the problem as well as the business context, state their assumptions, and align around a point of view.
  2. Justify the business need: Stakeholders link the design sprint challenge to overarching business goals/metrics and align on the core strategy to follow.
  3. Understand the customer: Stakeholders empathize with the user/customer by interacting with research insights and mapping the customer journey.
  4. Find the opportunity and commit: Once stakeholders can connect the customer’s problems to the business goals/strategy and the entire business context of the product/service/organization, they decide on the core opportunity to pursue.
A great way to sort and filter feedback is to ensure that we are all in the same page about the problems we are trying to solve (picture: yellow letter tiles)
Learn more about problem framing techniques that can help you get team alignment by creating clarity of what problems they are trying to solve in Problem Framing for Strategic Design (Photo by Ann H on Pexels.com)
Having better conversations around Requirements

In the current environment that most technology companies in which words like “requirements” might sound so old-fashioned and not “agile”, I feel strongly the unintended consequence in attempting to create autonomous teams was that we’ve traded good stewardship principles of project management (like requirements managements, scoping, risk analysis) by complete chaos.

That said, we do need to acknowledge the limitations of requirement thinking.

Requirements assume we know exactly what we need to build. Ideally, they come from engineering rigor. But in software, they usually don’t have the rigor behind them. Still, they are taken at face value based on their author’s credibility or organizational title.

Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience (2021)

So what should we do? We need to recognize that most requirements are simply assumptions expressed with authority. If we remove the authority, overconfidence, and arrogance from the conversation, we’re left with someone’s best guess about how to best achieve a user goal or solve a business problem. We are makers of digital products, so humbly admitting that these are indeed our best guesses or assumptions immediately and explicitly creates the space for product discovery and Lean UX to take place (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience, 2021).

If we understand as a team that the work we’re undertaking is risky exactly because we can’t predict human behavior, we know that part of our work will have to include experimentation, research, and rework.

Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience (2021)

We reduce our attachment to the ideas and create a team culture that is more willing to adjust course–even to stop working on an idea that continues to prove unviable (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience, 2021).

There are plenty of traditional techniques that can be drawn from Project Management to make sure that feedback matches project goals (picture: blue printer paper)
There are some Project Management skills that will prove invaluable for the effectiveness of design strategists (Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com)
Having better conversations around Assumptions and Hypothesis

Every project begins with assumptions. There’s not getting around this fact. We assume we know out customers (and whom our future customers will be). We assume we know what the competition is doing and where our industry is headed. These assumptions are predicated on our ability to predict the future. (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Sense and respond, 2017).

If we accept that we’re always starting with assumptions, the real question becomes, what do we do about the risk of being wrong?

Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Sense and respond (2017).

Many companies try to deal with complexity with analytical firepower and sophisticated mathematics. That is unfortunate, since the most essential elements of creating a hypothesis can typically be communicated through simple pencil-and-paper sketches (Govindarajan, V., & Trimble, C., The other side of innovation: Solving the execution challenge, 2010).

The key to dealing with complexity is to focus on having good conversations about assumptions.

Break Down the Hypothesis in The other side of innovation: Solving the execution challenge, Govindarajan, V., & Trimble, C., (2010)

That said, flawed assumptions are one of the worst barriers to innovation. They’re invisible, chronic and insidious, and we’re all ruled by them in one situation or another. How do they hold us back? (Griffiths, C., & Costi, M., The Creative Thinking Handbook: Your step-by-step guide to problem solving in business, 2019):

  • They lead us to think we know all the facts when we really don’t. Assumptions such as We have to launch a new range of products every year to keep up with competitors’ should be checked for validity.
  • They cause us to become trapped by our own self-imposed limits and specialisations, for example Xerox’s failure to capture the personal computing market by limiting itself to making better copiers.
  • Rules, like assumptions, keep us stuck in outdated patterns. The more entrenched the rule is, the greater the chance that it’s no longer valid. Sometimes, we need to shake up or reverse our existing patterns to stand out from everyone else.

Usually, we want to start with the biggest questions and work our way down into the details. Typically, you would start with questions like these (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Sense and respond, 2017):

  • Does the business problem exist?
  • Does the customer need exist?
  • How do we know whether this feature or service will address that need?
A great way to sort and filter feedback is to map it to assumptions.
Help teams with facilitating investment discussions with Assumptions Mapping in Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A., Testing business ideas (2020)

As you sit down with your teams to plan out your next initiative, ask them these questions (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Sense and respond. 2017):

  • What is the most important thing (or things) we need to learn first?
  • What is the fastest, most efficient way to learn that?
A great way to sort and filter feedback is to ensure it addresses that hypothesis we want to test and the things we want to learn about the problem (picture: crop laboratory technician examining interaction of chemicals in practical test modern lab)
Testing Business Ideas throughly, regardless of how great they may seem in theory, is a way to mitigate risks of your viability hypothesis being wrong (Photo by RF._.studio on Pexels.com)

Context, Hypothesis and Design Briefs

In my experience as both Creative Director and Design Manager, I’ve found the easiest (and fastest) way to set context is to ground everyone on the problems we are trying to solve with a Design Briefs.

This simple design brief combines traditional stakeholder presentations techniques, like Elevator Pitches and Key Problems with Lean UX methods, like Hypothesis in order to set context for feedback collection.
I’ve created a simple design brief by combining traditional stakeholder presentations techniques, like Elevator Pitches and Key Problems with Lean UX methods, like Hypothesis.

Anticipate Reactions

Based on what you know about the people you’re working with, you
should be able to anticipate how they will react to your designs. If you’ve done the homework of Stakeholder Analysis, you should have identified the influencers on our projects and some of their values and motivations (Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions, 2020).

There are five importance principles to follow to grow your business relationships (Baugh, A., Stakeholder engagement: The game changer for program management, 2015) that will be particular helpful when building a reputation that will pay off during critiques:

  • Do what you say you are going to do: looking at the big picture, one of the biggest mistakes a program manager can make is to overcommit. It is desirable in most cases to set aggressive goals, but those goals have to be realistically achievable. You might tick off your stakeholder a little bit up front, but it is always better to “disappoint” up front than it is to commute to something that is impossible and fail in the end.
  • Try to make sure there are no surprises: Nothing de-rails a business relationship like surprise. If there is an issue that is likely to get escalated, get in front of it, then get in front of your stakeholders. Ideally, you should have a place in place to address the issue and be able to communicate to your stakeholders what that plan is. By doing this — if someone brings the issue up to them in a meeting — they are familiar with the issue and may speak to the anticipated solution.
  • Create a mutually beneficial business relationship: there are people out there — both in business and in your personal life — who always take and never give back in return. Do not be one of these people. “Pay it forward” whenever you can, and when you are in the situation when’re you are the person needing help, make sure you do the same for others when an opportunity comes up to do so (remember the Servant Leader principle)
  • Remember that executives and customers are people, too: whether is the janitor, and administrative assistant, a middle-level manager, or the CEO, everyone goes home somewhere and goes about his or her everyday life at the end of day. Making a connection to the human side of people helps tremendously in establishing and maintaining business relationships. You cannot force a personal connection, but you can look for similarities. Be genuine (Do not ask about their family, for example, if you hate kids and really do not care); Be aware (Watch body language. Some people are just more private and do not want to share anything about their personal lives. Do not push it. With these types, maybe stick to something more generic, such as sports). Be smart (Do not ever ask about taboo topics such as religion or politics. This can be offensive to some and may get you in trouble with human resources, which is never a good thing).
  • Alway show respect: more often than not, your program sponsor and other key stakeholders and subject matter experts have more experience than you and a full of invaluable information. As a program manager / strategist / consultant to a project, one of the positives is that you bring in a new perspective. At the same time, it is important to couch that with a good dose of humility. Always show respect, and to take special care to listen to those more tenured that you. Showing that you care enough to really understand their perspective goes a long way in securing trust, and at the same time provides you with invaluable information

The good news is that most people are fairly predictable. That is, they tend to obsess over and react to the same kinds of things every single time. If you’ve met with them before, anticipating their reaction becomes much easier.

Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions (2020)

It will take a few meetings to really hone in on how people are wired, but I’ve found that anticipating reactions is much more predictable than you might expect (Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions, 2020).

Facilitating Decisions by Creating Great Choices

The effectiveness of the team in making good decision by picking the right choices depends on their ability of generating alternatives.

Design is about exploring and comparing merits of alternatives. There is not just one path, and at any given time or any given question, there may be numerous different alternatives being considered, only one of which will eventually find itself in the product.

Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design (2007)

Without multiple solutions to any question, the process is highly vulnerable. Without the ability to see all the work at once, spread out, relationships will be missed, and the conversation and subsequent designs will suffer. (Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design, 2007).

Your decision can be no better than your best alternative.

“Create imaginative alternatives in Smart choices: A practical guide to making better decisions, Hammond, J. S., Keeney, R. L., & Raiffa, H. (2015)

In our decisions, we select alternatives with the greatest value as we see it. Thus, to reach decision quality, the list of alternatives should be large and varied enough to include a full range of possibilities. They should be good alternatives, meaning they are (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016):

  • Creative. The decision should include creative alternatives that are not immediately obvious or in line with conventional thinking. They are outside the box. Creative thinking often uncovers alternatives with enormous and unexpected potential value.
  • Significantly different. Alternatives should not be minor variations but significantly different from one another in ways that truly matter. A significantly different alternative challenges current ways of thinking and approaches the problem in a novel way.
  • Representative of a broad range of choices. Two alternatives are seldom sufficient. Alternatives should cover the full range of possible choices because one never knows in advance where the greatest source of value may be hidden.
  • Reasonable contenders for selection. Each alternative should be one that could actually be selected. In a good set of alternatives, there is no place for decoys, patently inferior alternatives which serve no purpose but to make some other alternative look good by comparison. Nor is there a place for outlandish alternatives that will surely be rejected. However, we shouldn’t be too quick in dis missing an alternative just because we assume it will be vetoed. An alternative that is logical, represents real value, and is properly presented may be competitive with other options.
  • Compelling. Every alternative should represent enough potential value that it will generate interest and excitement. An alternative is compelling when it inspires at least one person to say, “We really should take a careful look at this.”
  • Feasible. A feasible (doable or actionable) alternative is one that can actually be implemented. If it isn’t feasible, it doesn’t belong on the alternatives list. That said, half-baked alternatives should not be dismissed too early before feasibility has been explored appropriately.
  • Manageable in number. Three alternatives are generally better than two, and four are likely to be better than three. It doesn’t follow, however, that 20 alternatives are better than 4. As we’ll see later, each alternative must be analyzed, evaluated, and compared with other choices. What we need is a manageable set of alternatives one that covers the range of distinctly different choices while being within our ability to analyze and compare. In relatively simple decision problems, three or four alternatives may be enough, whereas more complex decision problems may require four to seven, or more.

That said, good decision makers examine problems as a whole, taking note of the complexities that exist and — instead of picking the “best” alternative — they embrace the tension between opposing ideas to create new alternatives that take advantage of many possible solutions (Riel, J., & Martin, R. L., Creating great choices. 2017).

A great way to sort and filter feedback is to ask questions and embrace the tension between ideas (picture: aisle architecture building business)
Learn more about how to create great choices in Strategy and the Art of Creating Choices (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Creating Great Choices with Facilitation Tools

There is no substitute for a good set of alternatives. Before a decision is made, the alternatives should be rated at 100%, meaning it’s not worth doing more work on them. How can we be certain we’ve achieved that goal? In judging the quality of alternatives in a complex situation, a skilled decision maker checks the alternative set against the definition of good alternatives and probes further (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).

This is where facilitation methods come in. Here are a few of my favorites.

Feedback Grid

Get early feedback from users, stakeholders, experts and have a structured approach to derive learnings and insights. The beauty of this method is it’s simplicity!

Gather and organize feedback from users, team members, or stakeholders with a feedback grid
Gather and organize feedback from users, team members, or stakeholders with a Feedback Grid (IBM Enterprise Design Thinking, 2018)

Here are the instructions (IBM Enterprise Design Thinking, Feedback Grid, 2018)

  1. Set up the activity: Draw the grid and its four quadrants: “Things that worked,” “Needs to change,” “New ideas to try,” and “Questions we still have”
  2. Evaluate ideas: Fill in each quadrant with sticky notes. Use the Feedback Grid to capture ideas in real-time during a meeting or workshop, or immediately following a Playback. Be specific and give constructive criticism.
  3. Cluster similar ideas and discuss. Search for patterns and themes. Take action directly after the activity. Use the “Questions we still have” quadrant to inform an Assumptions and Questions activity, “New ideas to try” to begin making Storyboards, or “Needs to change” as a basis for action items.

Rapid Critique

In the speed critique, you and your team will discuss each solution sketch and make note of standout ideas. The conversation will follow a structure- and a time limit (Knapp, J., Zeratsky, J., & Kowitz, B., Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days, 2016):

  • During the speed critique, the Facilitator is going to be very busy; so someone needs to volunteer to help by being the Scribe.
  • As you review the sketches on the wall, the Scribe will write down standout ideas on sticky notes.
  • The Scribe’s notes serve several purposes. The notes give everyone a common vocabulary to describe solutions. They help everyone on the team to feel heard, which speeds up the discussion. And they organize the team’s observations, making it easier to place your votes in the next step.

The first time you do it, it might feel uncomfortable and rushed, and it might be hard to keep track of all the steps. But it won’t take long to get the hang of it. Once you do, your team will have a powerful tool for analysing ideas, and you may find yourselves using it in other meetings.

Knapp, J., Zeratsky, J., & Kowitz, B., Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days (2016)

Here’s how the speed critique works (Knapp, J., Zeratsky, J., & Kowitz, B., Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days, 2016):

  1. Gather around a solution sketch.
  2. Set a timer for three minutes.
  3. The Facilitator narrates the sketch. (“Here it looks like a customer is clicking to play a video, and then clicking over to the details page …”)
  4. The Facilitator calls out standout ideas that have clusters of stickers by them. (“Lots of dots by the animated video …”)
  5. The team calls out standout ideas that the Facilitator missed.
  6. The Scribe writes standout ideas on sticky notes and sticks them above the sketch. Give each idea a simple name, like ‘”Animated Video” or “One-Step Signup.”
  7. Review concerns and questions.
  8. The creator of the sketch remains silent until the end. (“Creator, reveal your identity and tell us what we missed!”)
  9. The creator explains any missed ideas that the team failed to spot, and answers any questions.
  10. Move to the next sketch and repeat.
The proud inventor of the solution in the spotlight doesn't get to speak up until the end of the critique. This unusual practice saves time, removes redundancy, and allows for the most honest discussion: if the inventor pitched his or her idea, the rest of the team would have a harder time being critical or negative (Knapp, J., Zeratsky, J., & Kowitz, B., Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days, 2016)
The proud inventor of the solution in the spotlight doesn’t get to speak up until the end of the critique. This unusual practice saves time, removes redundancy, and allows for the most honest discussion: if the inventor pitched his or her idea, the rest of the team would have a harder time being critical or negative (Knapp, J., Zeratsky, J., & Kowitz, B., Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days, 2016)

Round Robin

Round Robin allows for the generation of fresh ideas by providing a format for group authorship. As an idea is passed from person to person, it can grow and change in unexpected ways to uncover some wonderfully original concepts (LUMA Institute, Innovating for People: Handbook of Human-Centered Design Methods, 2012).

As an ideation method, Round Robin is a superb way to get a small team of people to create a collection of atypical ideas around a particular challenge, because it requires that participants inherit and build upon each other’s ideas.

LUMA Institute, Innovating for People: Handbook of Human-Centered Design Methods (2012)

The power of this method is that ideas emerge from collective input–everyone takes a turn. As you inherit another’s idea, think critically about what you’re given but don’t let it limit your own thinking. Even if the idea seems strange or impossible, it may contain the seed of a successful conceptual direction. The best result is a set of ideas that no single person could have imagined on her own. Here is how (LUMA Institute, Innovating for People: Handbook of Human-Centered Design Methods, 2012):

  • Identify a design challenge in need of fresh ideas.
  • Make a worksheet folded into four parts.
  • Form teams with 4-5 people. Hand out worksheets.
  • Instruct each person to write down the challenge.
  • Ask them to write down an unconventional solution
  • Instruct everyone to pass each worksheet to the left.
  • Ask them to write a reason why the proposal will fail
  • Instruct everyone to pass each worksheet again.
  • Ask them to write down a way to resolve the critiqu
Group of people using Round Robin to build on each others ideas and provide feedback.
This example shows a team working on a new marketing campaign for an international book and music retailer. Their concepts improved with each pass of the paper (LUMA Institute, Innovating for People: Handbook of Human-Centered Design Methods, 2012)

Six Thinking Hats

The Six Thinking Hats — a concept articulated by Edward de Bono — is a powerful tool for brainstorming and innovation. Breaking down thoughts into six “parallel” or “lateral” areas allows a spectrum of thought, from gut feeling to data analysis, to be discussed separately. By using these six types of thinking in a structured way, groups can more effectively approach problem-solving (de Bono, E., Six Thinking Hats, 1999).

If you’re interested in exploring creativity techniques like lateral thinking, please check out my lecture on Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats for the MA Integrated Design at Köln International School of Design.

A great way to sort and filter feedback is to use a structured facilitation method like Six Thinking Hats
“Six Thinking Hats Workshop” Lecture for the Design Designing Interactions / Experiences module at the MA Integrated module I’m teaching at Köln International School of Design of the Cologne University of Applied Sciences

Design Studio

Jim Ungar and Jeff White took the sketching methodology mentioned above and merge it with agile teams development practices into something that is now know as the design studio (Ungar, J., White, J., Agile user centered design: enter the design studio — a case study. In: Proceedings of ACM CHI 2008 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2008).

A great way to sort and filter feedback is to use a structured facilitation method like Design Studio (“User Interface Design in an Agile Environment: Enter the Design Studio” - Jeff White and Jim Ungar)
To learn more about Design Studio, check out User Interface Design in an Agile Environment: Enter the Design Studio with Jeff White and Jim Ungar at IxDA’s Interaction Conference 2008.

Design studios provide a creative problem-solving method, where designers, developers, and key stakeholders create and explore design alternatives by offering these advantages (Sullivan, B. K.,  The design studio method, 2017):

  • Design studios are fast: in most cases, design studios can done in a few hours or days. This method is ideas for aggressive deadlines. Plus design studios fit nicely into rapid development processes, such as Agile Scrum or Extreme Programming.
  • Design Studios allow you to share knowledge: you should include a cross-functional team of people with different background and experiences. Concepts get discussed from multiple point of views, which enrich and strengthen the final design.
  • Design Studios promote team cohesiveness: by spending time together, participants create a shared vision for the final design. Their commitment will be based upon their effort spent creating and evaluating the different concepts.
  • Design Studios help you get early commitment on design direction: When a design studio ends, the project team should know its design direction. As you move to production, the design will continue to refine, but he design direction should be set.

The activities conducted during a design studio can be adapted for timelines, group dynamics and environments in a variety of ways. Most sketching session in design studio workshop consist on variations of the following (Kaplan, K., Facilitating an Effective Design Studio Workshop, 2017):

  1. Sketch: Each attendee brainstorms several individual ideas in order to generate a wide set of concepts. (This is the divergent part of the process.)
  2. Present and critique: Studio participants present their ideas to each other, and then have a chance to offer feedback and critique each other’s ideas, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of those ideas.
  3. Converge: Together, the group sketches a collaborative idea, making modifications or combining the strength of several ideas.
  4. Prioritize: Participants identify common themes or elements and determine which ideas are highly valuable.
A great way to sort and filter feedback is to use a structure ideation method like Crazy 8's
Crazy 8’s is a sketching activity composed of three rounds that enables individual participants to generate ideas during brainstorming sessions (Kaplan, K., Facilitating an Effective Design Studio Workshop, 2017)

Critiquing with Distributed Teams and Remote Team Members

Nothing is ever fun as being in the same room with someone, but when that is not an option, the quality of collaborative activity and critiques does not need to suffer. There can be equally effective critique sessions with team members both in-office and remotely. It really comes dozens to having a shared understanding of critique’s importance in the process and the mindset to make it work (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

Many people still view Telecommuting and geographically separated teams as a kiss-of-death to any hope of good collaboration or communication. But collaboration is a mindset, not a by-product of co-location.

Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design (2015)

So long as that mindset is present, with a few tricks and the right tools, remote team members can contribute to collaborative activities just as well as the teammate sitting in the room with us (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015):

  • Overcoming the lack of nonverbal communication: Hearing someone’s voice let us know what someone is saying, but we miss so much of the informant that comes from seeing the person say it. The solution to this is pretty easy: video chat. This technology goes long way toward giving us the nonverbal information  we need to collaborate. With it, we can see facial expressions, gestures, posture, all the things we would pick up if you were in the same room with the individual.
  • Negotiating perspectives through shared artifacts: Screen sharing makes it possible for us to focus a group’s attention on a single artifact or visual, something very important to collaborative activities. In a critique, we can share documents in a format such as PDF and then. Using Adobe Acrobat, add comments directly on the page using the commenting feature. Or we can use a program such as InVision with which we can share and comment as we talk through designs with our teams. For instances in which we need more freeform visualising and capturing of ideas, like the kind of freedom we get from a nice clean whiteboard, a fresh pack of dry eraser makers, and a pile of sticky note pads, try using tools as BoardThing, StormBoard, and document cameras in conjunction with screen sharing.

More important than the tools we use, however, is our approach. For remote collaboration to work, the individuals involved have to want to make it work. They have to believe in the importance of collaboration, be conscious of the differences being remorse poses, and address them together. So long as our team is dedicated to making critique and collaboration work in remote settings, we will find a way (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

Feedback and Negotiation

I’ve noticed in my own experience — but also observing how junior designers conduct themselves — is that we usually tend to bargain over positions (e.g.: “from a user experience perspective, this works best because….”), thinking that if we bring enough knowledge to the table or make strong enough arguments, designers would convince the team about the way to move forward. This idea of “Bargaining over positions” (through persuasion) comes with shortcomings that we are – more often than not – not even aware of since most of us were not trained with the emotional intelligence it takes to deal with conflict in a healthy way.

We can only change two things: our own minds and our own behavior.

Benson, B., Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement (2019)

As we argue our position, we often fail to question one crucial assumption upon which our whole stance in the conversation is build: I am right, you are wrong. This simple assumption causes endless grief (Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations, 2011).

Difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values. They are not about what the contract states, but what the contract means.

Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations (2011)

The important question to explore during difficult conversations are not about who is right and who is wrong, but about interpretation and judgment. Determining who is right or wrong is a dead end (Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations, 2011).

Moving away from the truth assumption frees us to shift our purpose from proving we are right to understanding the perceptions, interpretations, and values of both sides. It allows to move away from delivering messages and toward asking questions, exploring how each person is making sense of the world. And to offer our views as perceptions, interpretations and values — not as “truth.”

Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations (2011)

From that perspective, another challenge that arises while negotiating comes from the fact that the way most negotiation strategies fail because they start arguing over positions (Fisher, R., & Ury, W., Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in, 2012):

  • Arguing over positions produces unwise outcomes: we tend to lock ourselves in those positions. The more you clarify your position and defend it against attacks, the more committed you become to it. The more you try to convince “the other side” of the impossibility of changing your position, the more difficult it becomes to do so.
  • Arguing over positions endangers an ongoing relationship: positional bargaining becomes a contest of will. Each side tries through sheer willpower to force the other to change its position. Anger and resentment often results as one side sees itself bending to the rigid will of the other while its own legitimate concerns go undressed. Positional bargaining thus strains and sometimes shatters the relationship between the parties.
  • Where there are many parties, positional bargaining is even worse: although it is convenient to discuss in terms of two persons, you and the “other side”, in fact, almost every negotiation involves more than two persons. The more people involved in the negotiation, the more serious the drawbacks of positional bargaining.
  • Being nice is no answer: many people recognise the high costs of hard positional bargaining, particularly on the parties and their relationship. They hope to avoid them by following a more gentle style of negotiation. Instead of seeing the other side as adversaries, they prefer to see them as friends. Rather than emphasising a goal of victory, they emphasise the necessity of reaching agreement. In a soft negotiating game the standard move are to make offers and concessions, to trust the other side, to be friendly, and to yield as necessary to avoid confrontation. Pursuing a soft and friendly form of positional bargaining makes you vulnerable to someone who plays a hard game.
Becoming aware of conflict management styles can help you address strategic collaboration issues (A visualization of Conflict Management Styles in Organizational Behavior and Human Relations in two axis of "importance of achieving a goal" and "importance of relationship")
“Conflict Management Styles” in Organizational Behavior and Human Relations
William Ury's 'The walk from
Watch William Ury’s The walk from “no” to “yes” talk at TED

One approach to get more constructive conflict handling is to change the game from arguing over positions to negotiating on merits (Fisher, R., & Ury, W., Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in, 2012):

  • Principled: participants are problem-solvers whose goal is a wise outcomes reached efficiently and amicable.
  • Separate the people from the problem: be soft on the people, hard on the problem; proceed independent of trust
  • Focus on interests, not positions: explore interests, avoid having a bottom line.
  • Invent options for mutual gain: generate alternatives to choose from; decide later.
  • Insist on using objective criteria: try to reach a result based on stands independent of will; reason and be open to reason; yield to principle, not pressure.

As negotiators, different people will have different interests and styles of communication. Different things may be persuasive to them, and they may have different ways of making decisions. How should we accommodate such similarities and differences in negotiating with different people? Here are some suggested guidelines (Fisher, R., & Ury, W., Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in, 2012):

  • Get in step. In any negotiation it is highly desirable to be sensitive to the values, perceptions, concerns, norms of behavior, and mood of those with whom you are dealing. Adapt your behavior accordingly. If you are negotiating with someone, it is that person whom you are trying to affect. The more successfully you can get in step with that person’s way of thinking, the more likely you are to be able to work out an agreement.
  • Adapt this general advice to the specific situation. These guidelines offer general advice. It will not apply in the same way in every circumstance with every person. But the basic propositions are generally applicable. Absent a compelling reason to do otherwise, we advise crafting your specific approach to every negotiation around them. The best way to implement these general principles will depend on the specific context. Consider where you are, with whom you are dealing, customs of the industry, past experience with this negotiator, and so on, in crafting an approach to fit the situation.
  • Pay attention to differences of belief and custom, but avoid stereotyping individuals. Different groups and places have different customs and beliefs. Know and respect them, but beware of making assumptions about individuals. The attitudes, interests, and other characteristics of an individual are often quite different from those of a group to which they may belong. Making assumptions about someone based on their group characteristics is insulting, as well as factually risky. It denies that person his or her individuality. We do not assume that our beliefs and habits are dictated by the groups in which we happen to fit; to imply as much of others is demeaning. Each of us is affected by myriad aspects of our environment and upbringing, our culture and group identity, but in no individually predictable way.
  • Question your assumptions; listen actively. Whatever assumption you make about others -whether you assume they are just like you or totally different – question it. Be open to learning that they are quite unlike what you expected. The wide variations among cultures provide clues as to the kind of differences for which you should be looking, but remember that all of us have special interests and qualities that do not fit any standard mold.
black and white people bar men
Conflict is natural to organizations and can never be completely eliminated. Without intentional facilitation for conflict resolution, it can be dysfunctional and lead to undesirable consequences, such as hostility, lack of cooperation, and even violence (Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com)

Moving away from bargaining positions to negotiate on merits is pretty much aligned with two important skills that designers must master:

  • Create Great Choices: the effectiveness of the team in making good decision depends on their ability of generating alternatives.
  • Facilitate Critique: when well done, critique focuses on analysing design choices against a product’s objective.

Feedback and Dealing with Changes

There is something about presenting design work to non-designers that seem to elicit subjective opinions from everyone, as if we were providing a platform to suggest changes. As a result, people show up to meetings (call them “design reviews”, “feedback sessions”, etc) with the expectation that telling us something to change is the entire purpose of the meeting! If there are no changes, there’b be no point ot the meeting, right? (Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions (2020).

It’s been my experience that — left to chance — it’s only natural that teams will stray from vision and goals. Helping teams paddle in the same direction requires not only good vision and goals, but also leadership, and intentional facilitation: the structure to keep conversations focused and separating signal from noise.

Signals versus noise  

Let’s be honest: our events create a lot of noise. Our job is not to find the shortest path from A to B but to open up a world of possibilities and help the people we’re facilitating to converge on a very small number of those possibilities. We then help them dissect the surviving ideas and draft them into road maps that might sketch out the way towards creating value. That journey is full of dead ends and blind alleys. A lot of great ideas have to fall away in order to reveal the even better idea that is worth pursuing once the event is over. As the noise gets louder and louder, we help the participants identify the signal – the gem of potential value – that lies within (Newman, D., & Klein, B., Facilitating collaboration: Notes on facilitation for experienced collaborators, 2018).

The single most important role a facilitator can play to ensure value capture is to stay focused on the difference between signal and noise; between capture the ideas and insights that could have potential long-term value and other observations that cloud the vision of those charged with implementation the event’s outcomes.

Newman, D., & Klein, B., Facilitating collaboration: Notes on facilitation for experienced collaborators (2018).

Law of triviality is C. Northcote Parkinson‘s 1957 argument that people within an organization commonly or typically give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.[1] Parkinson provides the example of a fictional committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant spending the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important and a far more difficult and complex task.

Feedback and How to Avoid Distractions

This is when re-emphasizing the need for facilitating the feedback sessions: whenever we let the conversations stray away from answering the 3 key critique questions (What problem does it solve? How does it affect the user? Why is it better than the alternative?), conversations quickly create noise, turning into distractions. 

Avoiding Distractions through Clarity of Purpose

  • Have a clear purpose
  • Invite the right people
  • Appoint a decision Maker
  • Set clear parameters

Avoiding Distractions through Process Awareness

In my experience, the biggest disconnect between the work designers need to do and the mindset of every other team member in a team is usually about how quickly we tend — when not facilitated — to jump to solutions instead of contemplate and explore the problem space a little longer.

I’m of the opinion that designers — instead of complaining that everyone else is jumping too quickly into solutions — should facilitate the discussions and help others raise the awareness around the creative and problem solving process.

Learn more about how to become a skilled facilitator (Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com)

From that perspective, I find it incredibly important that designers need to ask good questions that foster divergent thinkingexplore multiple solutions, and — probably the most critical — help teams converge and align on the direction they should go (Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J., “What is a Game?” in Gamestorming, 2010).

A great way to sort and filter feedback is to be aware of what phase of the ideation process we are: divergent, emergent, convergent.
Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J., “What is a Game?” in Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers (2010)

While facilitating divergent thinking, remind people to be open-minded. Divergent activities include making lists, having open-ended discussion, and collecting perspectives. During divergent thinking, it’s the facilitator’s job to remind the group to suspend judgment. At some point, the facilitator should turn the boat around and switch the focus to convergence. The facilitator should help the group decide if one tangent is better than another (Hoffman, K. M.,  Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018).

At some point, the facilitator should turn the boat around and switch the focus to convergence. The facilitator should help the group decide if one tangent is better than another. Where divergent thinking is about being OK with disagreement, convergent thinking is about eliminating excess, or the least likely stuff to succeed.

Hoffman, K. M.,  Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone (2018)

Once the corner has been turned, the facilitator helps the group “closing”: summarise the essence of each approach to decide what’s worth keeping and how to act upon it (Hoffman, K. M.,  Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018).

Knowing when the team should be diverging, when they should be exploring, and when they should closing will help ensure they get the best out of their collective brainstorming and multiple perspectives’ power and keep the team engaged.

A great way to sort and filter feedback is to know when teams to be diverging or converging (picture: turned on pendant lamp)
Learn more about how to ask questions that ensure teams are making good decisions in Strategy, Facilitation, and the Art of Asking Questions (Photo by Burak K on Pexels.com)

Having better conversations about changes

Being asked to make changes we disagree with is the very thing we are trying to avoid. If they still disagree or insist that we make a change – after all the facilitation described above – what are the reasons why?

  1. Is there a misunderstanding?
  2. Are your designs not the best solution?
  3. Do they have a need that isn’t being met?
  4. Are they being completely unreasonable?
  5. Do they want to know they are being heard?

Feedback and Commitment to Action

At some point in the decision making process, we know what we should do. We have clear intention, but that is not the same as doing it. Without action, the value of the best alternative is nothing more than potential value. Converting potential value into real value requires action (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).

Without commitment, advice giving is merely the expression of opinions.

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C., “Commitment” in The trusted advisor, 2021

A decision isn’t truly made until resources have been irrevocably allocated to its execution. And so we need a commitment to action and a mental shift from thinking to doing. Thinking and doing are two different mindsets. If a business decision has the potential for a bad outcome (as nearly all of them do), a leader may hesitate in committing to action. It can even be financially risky for a decision maker to act, since incentives generally reward good outcomes rather than good decisions (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).

Without action, the value potential in a decision cannot be realised.

Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions (2016)

Shifting between the two mindsets is especially difficult for action-oriented executives and managers who get bogged down in the complexities and uncertainties of decision making. But to be effective, they must learn to operate in both modes — deciding and executing-moving rapidly from one mode to the other. A shift from thought to action can be emotional and may require courage. It also requires a shift from one skill set to another. During the decision-making process, conflict is fuel, encouraging a diverse set of alternatives, values, and perspectives. When it is time for action, we need alignment and buy-in (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).

The mindset of deciding must embrace uncertainty; the mindset of action must replace uncertainty with certitude of purpose: “Let’s get on with it.”

Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions (2016)

Shifting between the two mindsets is especially difficult for action-oriented executives and managers who get bogged down in the complexities and uncertainties of decision making. But to be effective, they must learn to operate in both modes–deciding and executing-moving rapidly from one mode to the other. Unlike the rapid action of detailed operational adjustments, strategy decisions involve less detail, have long delays before the outcome is observed, and may be very expensive or impossible to adjust once execution is launched (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).

Overcoming Lack of Commitment

Like trust, conflict is important not in and of itself but because it enables a team to overcome the next dysfunction: the lack of commitment. Teams that commit to decisions and standards do so because they know how to embrace two separate but related concepts: buy-in and clarity. (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators, 2010).

The lack of clarity and/or buy-in prevents team members from making decisions they stick to.

Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, enhanced edition: A leadership fable (2013)

And like the other four dysfunctions, commitment needs to be correctly defined before it can be achieved. Buy-in is the achievement of honest emotional support; Clarity is the removal of assumptions and ambiguity from a situation (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators, 2010):

  • Buy-In: Commitment is not consensus. Waiting for everyone on a team to agree intellectually on a decision is a good recipe for mediocrity, delay, and frustration, which is why it amazes me that so many of the teams I work with still seem determined to achieve consensus. Ironically, commitment is something of the opposite. It’s about a  group of intelligent, driven individuals buying in to a decision precisely when they don’t naturally agree. In other words, it’s the ability to defy a lack of consensus.
  • Clarity: Unfortunately, even when teams master this ability to “disagree and commit” (this is something that the folks at Intel came up with years ago), they can still fail to benefit from their commitment. That’s because many teams fail to achieve clarity and alignment around a decision. Instead, they make well-intentioned assumptions about what they’ve agreed to, and they end up creating confusion and frustration among employees who wonder whether their leaders are even talking to one another. I’ve seen this happen often and it’s worth describing.

This problem with failing to align around commitments can easily be avoided by using two simple techniques Patrick Lencione calls Commitment Clarification and Cascading Communication. Here’s how they work (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators, 2010):

Commitment Clarification

With five minutes to go at the end of a meeting — any type of meeting — the leader of the team needs to call a question: What exactly have we decided here today? At the white board, the leader writes down the decisions that the group thinks it has made.

In many cases, team members see what the leader is writing on the board and react. “Wait a second. That’s not what I thought we agreed on.” And so the group dives back into the conversation until everyone is clear.

It is amazing to me how a group of intelligent, highly educated adults, all of whom speak the same language, can sit in a room for two hours of discussion, and then leave the room under the false impression that everyone is on the same page.

Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators (2010)

In any case, by being extremely explicit about what has been agreed upon, a team will be able to identify discrepancies before a decision has been announced. Now, you might be wondering, “But maybe team members are purposefully sitting back and allowing for ambiguity, preferring to later ask for forgiveness rather than permission.”

Cascading Communication

To avoid that situation, the leader must also engage in cascading communication. That means demanding that the team go back and communicate the decisions to their staff members within twenty-four hours of the meeting. And not by e-mail or voice mail but either live in person or on the phone, thus giving employees a chance to ask questions for clarification.

Even the most passive executives will call out their concerns about a decision if they know they’ll be expected to go out and communicate it publicly.

Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators (2010)

Of course, this assumes that if they don’t communicate decisions to their people, the leader of the team will hold them accountable.

At some point, we should be moving away from collecting feedback and help teams commit to action (picture: make banking business checklist)commerce
Learn more about getting commitment to action in Facilitating Good Decisions (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)
Commitment through Participation and Ownership

Commitment to action is built on participation and ownership. Organizations and business scholars have long puzzled over how to incentivize this sense of ownership, which is central to building commitment to action. Stock ownership plans, performance-based pay, and related schemes have all been tried. These have merit, but in the end, monetary rewards matter less to individuals than participating in the decisions that they are asked to implement (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).

Participation engenders a sense of ownership that results in commitment and effectiveness during implementation

Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions (2016)

Simply put, a quality decision requires commitment from two Parties: the people who have the power to decide, allocate resources, and support their choices; and those who will lead the implementation. Both parties must have the opportunity to participate in the decision process (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).

Opportunities to create shared understanding are lost when decisions are simply tossed over the wall for implementation. By working together, decision makers and implementers build a foundation for mutual respect and effective collaboration.

Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions (2016)

It takes skill to manage the natural conflict between the mindsets of strategists and implementers. Nonetheless having both in the decision process creates the benefit of a deep understanding of the decision and a sense of ownership by the implementation leaders, which may prevent many of the downstream failures. Many, if not most, implementation failures are not really implementation failures at all. Rather, they are the result of an incomplete decision process-one that fails on the requirement for decision quality: true commitment to action by both the individuals that can make the decision stick, and the individuals who will lead the effort to make it happen (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).

Difficult Meetings and Psychological Safety

No one will ask questions or welcome challenges in places where they don’t feel questions will be well-received nor they don’t feel their questions will help the team address real problems.

In psychologically unsafe environments, team members protect themselves from embarrassment and other possible threats by remaining silent when they don’t feel safe. The team doesn’t engage in collective learning behaviours and that results in poor team performance (Mastrogiacomo, S., Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T., High-impact tools for teams, 2021):

  • Low common ground: the team’s shared understanding is not updated. Perception gaps increase between team members and the team relies on outdated information.
  • Low team learning: habitual or automatic behaviours keep being repeated, despited changes in context.
  • Low team performance: Assumptions are not received and lans are not correct. The work performed is not in line with the actual situation and the delivered outcomes become inadequate.

Teamwork in Psychologically Safe Climates

Team members are not afraid to speak up when the climate is psychologically safe. Team members engage in a productive dialog that fosters the proactive learning behaviours required to understand the environments and the clients and solve problems together efficiently (Mastrogiacomo, S., Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T., High-impact tools for teams, 2021):

  • High Common Ground: the team’ shared understanding is regularly updated with new and fresh information.
  • High team learning: new information helps the team learn and adapt. Learning behaviours help the team make changes in assumptions and plans.
  • High team performance: open communications help the team coordinate effectively. Constant integration of learning and adaptation to changes in the context results in relevant work.
Team members are not going to speak up and provide useful when the climate is not psychologically safe.
“Psychological Safety and Business Performance” in How to create a learning organization (Rudolfsson, F., 2017)

Creating Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is the belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. That one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes (Edmondson, A. C., The fearless organization, 2018).

Conflict arises in every team, but psychological safety makes it possible to channel that energy into productive interaction, that is, constructive disagreement, and an open exchange of ideas, and learning from different points of view.

Edmondson, A. C., The fearless organization (2018)

Creating psychological safety is not about being nice to each other or reducing performance standards, but rather about creating a culture of openness where teammates can share learning, be direct, take risks, admit they “screwed up,” and are willing to ask for help when they’re in over their head (Mastrogiacomo, S., Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T., High-impact tools for teams, 2021).

Psychological Safety and Feedback to Others

Understanding the perspectives of the people you interact with will help you adjust what you say and how you collaborate. The goal is not to persuade others to adopt your intentions. The goal is to let empathy affect your own approach. Additionally, be conscious of what you say to people. Remember the first rule of critique: If you want to say something negative, make yourself say something positive first. The neutral mindset will help you acknowledge each person’s intentions and work to improve the relationship—not necessarily toward the direction of liking each other, but toward the direction of being able to capitalize upon each other’s input to the work. (Young, I., Practical Empathy, 2019).

Psychological Safety and Non-Violent Communication

There are two basic skills in using NVC: expressing yourself and hearing others. Expressing yourself is intended to help the other person understand you without them hearing any blame. Let’s say you find yourself in a simple workplace conflict: someone has drunk the decaffeinated coffee you brewed. The four components of expressing yourself under NVC are:

  • Observations without judgments: “When I see you drinking my decaf” would be better than “When you steal the coffee.”
  • Feelings without attribution: “I’m frustrated” is better than “You’re annoying me deliberately.”
  • Express universal human needs: “I’d like some consideration” is more appropriate than “That is my coffee to consume.”
  • Make a clear, positive request, not a negative demand: “Could you ask me when you want some?” is more productive than “You cannot have it.”

Ground Rules for Psychological Safety 

Ground rules during conflicted meetings my include the following (Smutny, M., Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Include Meetings. 2019:

  • One person speaks at a time.
  • We will use “I” statements to express what we think and feel
  • We will listen to one another and empathise with the other person’s point of view
  • We will ponder our thoughts and feelings before we speak
  • We will keep confidences unless the group agrees to share selected information beyond the group
  • We will attack issues, not people
  • We will trust that we discover great truth by hearing multiple points of view
Psychological safety is a prerequisite for creating shared understanding through earnest feedback (picture: woman placing her finger between her lips)
Learn more about how psychological safety is a prerequisite for creating shared understanding (Photo by Kat Smith on Pexels.com)

After the Critique

The time immediately after the meeting is a great opportunity to hear to what people really think (Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions, 2020).

The faster you follow up, the more you communicate urgency, value and decisiveness. Do it now!

Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions (2020)

It times of COVID, it’s not like we can hang around after the meeting on the way out of a room, so I’m curious about how the dynamics have changed for you while conducting design critiques.

The Right Time for Feedback and Design Reviews

Any time you’re looking to take something you’ve done or created and improve upon it, you have an opportunity for collecting feedback with critiques. Although that’s true in general, when we’re talking about the practicalities and logistics of team collaboration and project timelines, the real answer becomes a bit more nuanced (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design , 2015):

  • We need to be able to clearly communicate the idea to others.
  • We need to have the time to process the feedback we receive from the critique and use it to iterate on our idea.

Pixar has an interesting rule for critiquing “dailies”: the presented work should be at least 25% done and no more than 75% completed. It should be a solid work-in-progress (Spool, J. M., Goods, bads, and dailies: Lessons for conducting great critiques, 2012).

  • When the work is less than 25% completed, it’s too early and most decisions haven’t been made yet. The session is too likely to turn into group brainstorming and design-by-committee, which everyone wants to avoid. (Brainstorming is great, but not in a daily, where the session is about receiving feedback on what’s been done so far.)
  • When the work is too close to completion, it’s hard to take in the criticism and feedback. At that point, there’s just not enough wiggle room for changes. Instead, Pixar wants to find their work-in-progress sweet spot—that place where the direction can change and new ideas are easy to take in
facilitate collect feedback with critiques within the Pixar's Sweet Spot
I’ve been coaching designers to facilitate collect feedback with critiques within the Pixar’s Sweet Spot

Without knowing what kind of team set up you have, and what kinds of processes you run in your organization, it’s hard to know when is too early to communicate ideas to others or too close to completion, so the best I can do is to map all of the techniques above the the Double Diamond framework.

The Double Diamond Framework

Design Council’s Double Diamond clearly conveys a design process to designers and non-designers alike. The two diamonds represent a process of exploring an issue more widely or deeply (divergent thinking) and then taking focused action (convergent thinking).  

  • Discover. The first diamond helps people understand, rather than simply assume, what the problem is. It involves speaking to and spending time with people who are affected by the issues.
  • Define. The insights gathered from the discovery phase can help you to define the challenge in a different way.
  • Develop. The second diamond encourages people to give different answers to the clearly defined problem, seeking inspiration from elsewhere and co-designing with a range of different people.
  • Deliver. Delivery involves testing out different solutions at small-scale, rejecting those that will not work and improving the ones that will.
Design Council’s framework for innovation also includes the key principles and design methods that designers and non-designers need to take, and the ideal working culture needed, to achieve significant and long-lasting positive change.
A clear, comprehensive and visual description of the design process in What is the framework for innovation? (Design Council, 2015)

My colleagues Edmund Azigi and Patrick Ashamalla have created a great set of questions and a cheatsheet that maps which questions are more appropriate for different phases of the product development lifecycle. So the following set of activities is inspired in their cheat sheet.

Map of Quantifying and Qualifying Activities that can help with Facilitating Investment Discussions in the Double Diamond (Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver)

Collecting Feedback and Facilitating Critiques during “Discover”

The gist is that at this early stage, we still need to develop our thoughts around the solution a bit more. If we tried to share them with others so that we could get their critique, we’d likely confuse the heck out of them because the design idea itself isn’t clear enough even to ourselves at this point. As soon as the first person asked us to clarify things, all we would be able to answer with is “I don’t know.” (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design , 2015).

To be able to critique, we first need to have enough of our own clarity around the idea so that we can clearly communicate it to others. Before it, critique is premature.

Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design , 2015

This phase has the highest level of ambiguity, so creating shared understanding is really critical. That’s why I suggest designers- when asked to “work on mockups”- take a step back and help the team move to clarity faster by working on a strong shared vision, good problem framing, and testing business ideas instead of design concepts.

Here are my recommendations of activities and methods that will provide the clarity required before you can create designs for critiques:

A great way to sort and filter feedback is to ensure it addresses that hypothesis we want to test and the things we want to learn about the problem (picture: crop laboratory technician examining interaction of chemicals in practical test modern lab)
Testing Business Ideas throughly, regardless of how great they may seem in theory, is a way to mitigate risks of your viability hypothesis being wrong (Photo by RF._.studio on Pexels.com)

Collecting Feedback and Facilitating Critiques during “Define”

In this phase, we should see the level of ambiguity diminishing, and collecting feedback through facilitating critiques have the highest payoff in helping the team make good decisions by creating great choices. Clarity of priorities defined through outcomes instead of outputs is super important to help designers avoid spending time on explorations that will not lead to implementation. Here is also when critiques can create good team collaboration and co-creation opportunities.

Here are my recommendations of activities and methods:

pen calendar to do checklist
Learn more about Prioritisation in Strategy and Prioritisation (Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com)

Collecting Feedback and Facilitating Critiques during “Develop”

In this phase, we are going to a point where the cost of changing your mind increases rapidly as time passes. So the team’s discussions should move away from design exploration (at this point, we should be confident!) and move towards answering questions if we should pivot, persevere, or stop with our strategy.

Here are my recommendations for activities and methods that will support good design decisions:

people playing poker
Learn more about what methods, tools or techniques are available for pivot and risk mitigation, and what signals we need capture in order to know if we should Persevere, Pivot or Stop (Photo by Javon Swaby on Pexels.com)

Collecting Feedback and Facilitating Critiques during “Deliver”

In this phase is too late to be talking about design changes. The best you can do is to collect data from actual customer usage of your product for visibility and traceability and make hard choices about pivot, persevere, or stop the product’s next iteration.

Thinking in practical terms, we know that there is a point at which we have to let something go and allow it to be built with whatever details specified at that point in time. Then, we wait for the chance to work on it again and take it further–the next iteration or phase, if you will. Some processes and methodologies such as Lean and Agile work to minimize the time between and maximize the frequency of iterations. But that point, that “time to let it go, even if just for a bit,” is always there (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design , 2015).

Here are my recommendations for activities and methods that will support good design decisions:

close up photo of survey spreadsheet
Learn more about the visibility and traceability aspects of the execution of an idea/approach (Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com)

Becoming better Facilitators

I think designers should facilitate the discussions and help others raise awareness around the creative and problem-solving process instead of complaining that everyone else is jumping into solutions too quickly.

I’ll argue for the Need for Facilitation in the sense that — if designers want to influence the decisions that shape strategy — they must step up to the plate and become skilled facilitators that respond, prod, encourage, guide, coach, and teach as they guide individuals and groups to make decisions that are critical in the business world through effective processes.

That said, my opinion is that facilitation here does not only means “facilitate workshops”, but facilitate the decisions regardless of what kinds of activities are required.

Designers and strategists can quickly learn the skills to help teams with facilitating investment discussions (photo of people near wooden table)
Learn more about how to help teams with facilitating investment discussions by becoming a skilled facilitator (Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com)

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By Itamar Medeiros

Originally from Brazil, Itamar Medeiros currently lives in Germany, where he works as Director of Design Strategy at SAP.

Working in the Information Technology industry since 1998, Itamar has helped truly global companies in multiple continents create great user experience through advocating Design and Innovation principles. During his 7 years in China, he promoted the User Experience Design discipline as User Experience Manager at Autodesk and Local Coordinator of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in Shanghai.

Itamar holds a MA in Design Practice from Northumbria University (Newcastle, UK), for which he received a Distinction Award for his thesis Creating Innovative Design Software Solutions within Collaborative/Distributed Design Environments.

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