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How we conduct design reviews at Abstract

Facilitating participation, engagement, and feedback in remote design reviews
How we conduct design reviews at Abstract

At Abstract, design reviews are the backbone of our creative process. Getting feedback from stakeholders and holding discussions about what we want our work to achieve not only helps us all do our jobs better, but it ultimately helps us deliver a better product to Abstract customers. 

As the company has grown and adapted to the world around us, our design review process has evolved, as well. While most of our team has always worked remotely, transitioning this year to a fully distributed workforce changed things for us yet again. We’ve had to carefully steer our design review process in a direction that prioritizes participation, engagement, and proper facilitation of feedback. 

We’ve learned a lot from our continued quest to perfect the design review process, and here some key insights that we hope can help other design teams:

It’s a review, not a critique

What we call things matters. It may seem like a subtle difference, but calling it a design review — rather than a critique — was an important distinction for us to make. The word “critique” carries with it an expectation that work will be criticized rather than discussed. The goal is to facilitate a conversation through these meetings.

The word ‘critique’ carries with it an expectation that work will be criticized rather than discussed. The goal is to facilitate a conversation through these meetings.

Calling it a design review puts designers at ease from the outset. It opens up the format, allowing the team to use their time in whatever way makes the most sense for them. Sometimes a design review can be a forum for giving feedback to works in progress. In other situations, all you may need is a 10-minute brainstorm to work out an issue with different stakeholders. It depends on what your goals are for that particular meeting. 

About those goals...

The objective of these meetings is to give our designers valuable, relevant, and concrete feedback they can take away and use to improve their work. But what else are we trying to do? There are definitely some specific goals we want to achieve:

Open up the silos

Giving our design and product teams a regular cadence for discussion is extremely important. While we always stress collaboration at Abstract, it’s still possible for work to get siloed and go off-task if it’s not checked back against the original goal. 

It’s important for us to use these discussions to allow designers to hear the product team’s thoughts about what they’re trying to achieve and whether the current design work reaches those goals, all in an environment that encourages open and honest feedback.

Encourage iteration 

Creating a collaborative setting allows a space where teams can talk through their ideas. It’s not uncommon for a designer to bring a few ideas for the same design problem to get a discussion going. Ultimately, this leads to better solutions; our final products are almost always ones we’ve considered from several angles.

Committing to a final design/direction

As any designer will tell you, their work is never truly finished. There’s always something to tweak or iterate further. But design reviews are an excellent forum for reaching a collective agreement on whether something is done enough.

Design reviews are an excellent forum for reaching a collective agreement on whether something is done enough.

These meetings offer an opportunity to revisit the initial goals of a design initiative and check them against your outputs. 

What a design review should not be

We’ve established what we want to achieve through our design reviews, but there are also some specific things we try to avoid.

Prescriptive feedback

Ultimately, the designer is responsible for their design. Keeping this in mind, we stay away from any feedback that feels like a directive. We want to give feedback our designers can use as a thought-starter. This kind of feedback allows our team to think about their work, which can be done very effectively by asking the right questions.

When design decisions come down to a matter of personal opinion, it’s easy to lose sight of the original goal.

Uneven participation

In the era of virtual meetings, it’s more challenging to ensure balanced participation. It can be too easy to let one person dominate the conversation and others (whose opinions are just as valid) to go silent without their own window to provide feedback. It’s crucial to encourage participation from everyone attending the review, and it’s up to the person leading the meeting to give each team member an opportunity to speak.

If you’re struggling to get people talking, you could also try a round-robin approach, which we’ve done on many occasions. This involves calling on each design review participant one at a time to see if they have feedback they want to relay. If you’re finding that participation is uneven, this is an effective way to hear everyone’s opinion or at least give everyone the option of having their opinion heard.

Asking to see more options without clear reasoning

Scope-creep is an ever-present threat for creatives. But it’s also easily avoidable. We try to encourage anyone asking for more revisions to tie their reasoning back to the project’s original goals. If they can’t, it’s a no-go.

Consistency is crucial

While the actual content of your design reviews can change from week to week, there are a few things you’ll want to establish as constants. 

Keep a regular schedule

Holding your review sessions at the same time each week lets everyone know what to expect and gives people a deadline to keep front-of-mind. This enables designers to know where they should be with their work, and other organizational stakeholders can look forward to getting updates and thinking about questions. 

You must establish a consistent process. At Abstract, we’ve set up a Slack channel where we post a schedule on design review day, so everybody knows exactly what to expect.

We also try to have a well-rounded and relatively constant group of stakeholders in attendance for each meeting. This could include product directors and managers, project managers, marketing team representatives, and customer success folks—anyone who can and should influence the design process.

Appoint a facilitator or moderator 

We always encourage a lively discussion, but it’s what our designers take away from a review session that determines how — or whether — they will improve on their work. 

We never want a designer to leave a review feeling like they’re unsure about what their next steps should be. To avoid this, we have found that assigning someone to take notes, track feedback, and record action items is extremely helpful. Having this sort of facilitator allows presenters to focus on sharing their work and being engaged in the conversation. 

One tip is to make sure your moderator is relatively close to the design problems so that they can take relevant notes that are actionable for the design team.

Establish rules of engagement

At Abstract, presenters open their review time by providing some background information on what they’re working on, what stage they’re at with the project in question, and what kind of feedback they need. This helps give context to everyone in attendance and keeps the conversation from getting derailed.

We’ve also had to rethink how we invite and encourage questions. Now that we all work remotely, it can be feast or famine — either too much dead air or too many people trying to talk at once. We’ve started a process where people can ask a question in the chat, and then there’s a 20-second lag before anyone can answer. This gives people time to consider their responses. We also sometimes ask participants to use the “raise hand” feature before they ask a question. Both of these methods introduce some order to the discussion process and help us stay on task.

What makes a useful design review? 

We all know design review is essential, but what are the metrics for success? In other words, how do you know your design reviews are effective? Here are a few clues you can look out for. 

Increased engagement

We mentioned that engagement is something you can try to improve in design reviews. And while it’s not something you can measure with data, it is something you can accurately gauge through observation and asking the right questions. Be sure to check in with your design review participants to ask how they feel about your design review meetings and where there might be room for improvement. 

Next steps are clear

Feedback is just one part of the design review process. If designers don’t leave the meeting with a clear idea of what they need to do next, you may need to reform your meeting structure.

Similarly, if stakeholders leave the meeting with conflicting ideas of what needs to be done, you need to improve at reaching and communicating a consensus during the meeting. It helps end each review item with a clear statement of the next steps and who is responsible for them.

A good design review process is always evolving

While we’ve shared many tools that work for us, the truth is there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for conducting an effective design review. Just like each organization has its own unique culture, each design team will find its own mix of guidelines and devices that will lead to the best possible outcome.

If you’re looking for a more in-depth read on how to approach design reviews, our team found the book Discussing Design very helpful. But whichever way you decide to structure your design review format, it should be iterative and continually evolving — our team checks in about once a month to talk about how the reviews are going. We always look to brainstorm ways we could make the process better for everyone. In fact, if you’d like to tell us about the best practices you’ve adopted for your own team’s design reviews, we’d love to hear about it. Find me on Twitter at @dainal and tag @goabstract in your tweet.