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Successful Design Through Collective Intelligence: How to Get There

Julia Salameh Design Manager

Facilitating critiques for your design group is integral to creating exceptional work. Group critiques are important because we get a broader perspective on problems, use our collective experiences to address them, and build trust among our team members. At Tandem, we run a design critique weekly and protect that time, no scheduling over them. Like most design groups, we’ve tweaked our methods over time and learned what works for us, and we’re still learning.

More Brains

When addressing a problem, people often start off by seeing a situation through a narrow view. The more experienced we are with something, the more likely it is we’ve pre-determined an obvious solution. This can be defined as “functional fixedness,” a cognitive bias that limits a person to use an object in the way it is traditionally used. We fix this by bringing in people of all experience levels and professional backgrounds to the critique.

In a group setting, we can broaden our view and invite multiple biases to the discussion. We want to avoid “groupthink” where we all agree and conform to one opinion. Instead, we want to create an environment where we have strong opinions based on our individual experiences and knowledge and what we’ve learned from previous projects. Part of building trust in our team is the ability to disagree, be candid and be respectful.

Ok, so critiques are important. What are some practical ways to make the feedback we give and receive during this time useful? How do we do it?

Watch Your Language

What makes for good feedback? The language we use can be the key differentiator between helpful feedback or empty judgment. It’s important to bring curiosity to the conversation rather than judgment. Asking questions like “have you considered…” and “how might you…”help gear the conversation toward possible solutions.

It’s helpful when the presenter specifies what type of feedback they are looking for at that stage of the work. Understanding how much effort has been put in and at what level of “finished” the product is helps you frame your feedback accordingly; should we be focusing on alignment and spacing at this point or are we worried about the overall usefulness or effectiveness of the thing we are making?

Feedback should be specific and always address the problem you’re trying to solve. “I like the purple buttons,” is not very helpful. Feedback such as “Can you explain why you chose to use a ghost button and not a fill?” helps the audience understand the intention and forces the presenter to validate their design decisions. There may be a perfectly good reason, or it may spark conversation and uncover user confusion.

If you’re validating an idea, say that. The team can ask questions to make sure they fully understand the scenarios, use cases and options presented. Often, you’re so “in the jar” your team will offer feedback you had not thought of. Their collective experiences are greater than your own. Ultimately, you are not selling the idea, you are getting feedback to make it better.  At times, you’ll want to test it in the real world before completely scrapping an idea.

The Process

It’s important to share work early and often. Think of these as mini usefulness and usability tests throughout your project. The purpose of critiques is to improve on great work. The presenter gets to verbally validate their design decisions and get feedback from the whole group. Since we invite our marketing team, developers and project managers to the discussion we get ideas from different views and perspectives.The facilitator of our critique takes notes so the presenter can focus on listening. The presenter takes those notes and implements changes to their designs. Next week, we’ll get to see the progression.

Let’s Do This

If you’re striving to create exceptional work through collective wisdom, start group critiques within your team. Some team members may feel weird about sharing unfinished work and that’s totally normal. Helping them to understand how to build trust through collaboration could help. It’s important to outline expectations so the team understands this is not criticism, it is critique.

Your team makeup is unique and you’ll learn over time what works for you. But, there are some tried and tested ways to get started. Having a presenter, a facilitator and an audience is a format most people start with. In our team, we have a snack budget. One person from the group, the facilitator, brings the snacks! This keeps it interesting and fun.

What methods have you tried? Let us know!


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