Design review means asking questions

As design leaders/managers, our tendency during design reviews is to express our opinion of the work. This seems logical enough, as our opinion of the work can be—and for experienced design leaders, often is—relevant, depending on the context and the reviewer’s experience.

Even so, it can be helpful to be mindful of this tendency, and just hold off on it for a bit. If we just observe first, what do we see? What can be observed and judged, but expressed without the judgement?

Expressing an observation and holding off one’s view can allow the designer to consider the observation. They’ll either have a proper explanation for it, and then we can talk about that, or they might have not even seen what we noticed. Having seen it, they’re still free to explore what their revision might be, and the only “critique” that has taken place is their own.

A template for questioning design choices

Expressing observations can be done by asking questions. I’ve distilled the types of questions I tend to ask down to a template. It can be useful as a starting point to discussion (and follow-up questions):

“I notice [observation]. Can you tell me more about that design choice?”

This seems simple, but there are some powerful things happening. First, there’s no direct judgement, but there’s still an implication of judgement. This observation—without being explicit about the judgement—encourages the designer to start thinking on their own about what possible issues there might be related to the observation. This might already be enough. Secondly, we’re emphasising the fact that what’s been observed is the result of a choice. We don’t yet know if it was the designer’s own choice, but they probably know if it was. Calling out choice means:

  • If it was their choice, they can either explain it or reconsider it
  • If it was someone else’s choice (e.g. a technical constraint), it can be discussed or challenged.

Focus on choice encourages ownership and emphasises agency. You’re not telling the designer what to do, but you are asking about the origin of their choices. This also underscores the fact that there is a large pool of possible choices, and they simply used one of them. This helps create distance between the designer and the result of their choices, which can lead to a more fruitful review since they’re less likely to take things personally. It’s just about the work.

Be yourself

Don’t take the template too literally. The wording should be natural and can be changed to avoid sounding like you’re reading a script, but the parts should be there. Here’s slightly different wording with the same effect:

“I see that [observation]. What led you to choose to solve it that way?”

and in practice it might sound like:

(Smiling) “I see you’ve used a hot pink background. Now you know I’m curious about that one! What led you to that choice?”

Please note that generally, designs violating brand standards or design systems are no-brainers. But you should still be curious about those design choices! Maybe the system needs improvement. Maybe the designer found a new edge case. Maybe they saw something you didn’t, or know something you don’t.

Often, you’ll need to follow up with more questions. “What happens if [x]?”, “Have you considered [y]?”, “What effect would this have on [z]?”

This will usually be enough to allow the designer to start suggesting revisions to address the issue. Of course, when they don’t see it, or don’t get it, that’s when we can help out by providing our own explicit view of the work. Just try to guide toward the solution. Don’t dictate it. If you find yourself repeatedly having to dictate design solutions to a particular designer, one of you needs to improve in their work.

Questioning beats answering

The above approach is most useful when the purpose of the critique is as much on learning as it is about improving the work (which should be always, I think). In some rare cases, it can be useful to get straight to the criticism. But in many cases, asking questions empowers designers to grow and discover possible improvements on their own. You might be responsible for the design direction, but allow them the fun part of design: coming up with the specific answers within the space that the design direction affords them.