GuidesProduct developmentHow to run a product critique session

How to run a product critique session

Last updated

23 March 2023

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

From concept, to design, to production—the ideal development cycle. This makes it sound easy, but you probably know from experience it's usually anything but.

Every creative process involves a lot of back-and-forth, fine-tuning, and strategizing. Amid all these changes, assembling key stakeholders to gather valuable feedback can be an uphill battle.

Running a product critique session can help.

Designers who conduct effective product critique sessions achieve alignment faster, collaborate more easily, and deliver compelling designs that are up to spec, every time.

In this article, you'll learn:

  • What a product critique is

  • Why a critique is important in design

  • How to build the ultimate product critique team

  • Key steps to include in your product critique session

  • Best practices and tips on how to run effective product critique sessions

Let's dive in.

What is a product critique?

Put simply, a product critique is a way of receiving structured, meaningful feedback on a product and is usually conducted internally.

It is often also used as part of the interview process for production designers, thereby serving two purposes:

  • Getting feedback on your product

  • Analyzing a candidate’s skills in analysis, design, and user experience

A product critique's main goal is to improve your customers’ or users’ product experience. It focuses on the effectiveness of the design and actionable features.

For product managers and designers, critiquing a product is a crucial skill to master. When you truly understand what makes a product great and how customers interact with the product, you'll be able to deliver exactly what your customers want.

When to carry out a product critique

Sometimes you can be too close to a problem with your product, failing to see the wood for the trees. A product critique helps you view your product from different perspectives. 

It can be used at different stages of development. If used early on, it can shine a light from different angles on the design of your product. Ultimately, the designer decides which feedback to use, and which elements to ignore.

From a team-building perspective, a product critique early on in the process:

  • Keeps everyone up to date on what's going on in the project

  • Builds team consensus by getting early buy-in from skeptical team members

  • Helps resolve design inconsistencies across the overall user experience

  • Enhances cooperation and collaboration 

  • Helps to remove destructive egos early in the process

  • Influences and improves the work of other project members further down the line, e.g. developers

Product critiques are also used as an interview technique. Using this method, a company not only assesses candidates on their design and analytical skills, but also gains valuable insight into a user’s first impressions of their product.

Building the ultimate product critique team

If you are a lone entrepreneur or a small business, you can run a simple, informal product critique session by yourself or with a small group of people. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • What are your first impressions of the design or product?

  • Is anything about the design confusing?

  • How easy is the product to use?

  • How does it make you feel?

  • Did you want to keep using it?

  • How does it compare to similar designs or products?

If you work in a larger company, you will likely need to run a more formal session. The success of your critique session depends on the people involved. If you pick the right mix of people, the critique will run smoothly and be productive.

There are several people and roles required to set up a product critique session for success:

Presenter

This is the person who presents the design or product. They are responsible for showing and explaining the design, providing all necessary context, and describing previous work (if relevant).

Facilitator

This person ensures the discussion doesn't go off topic and the atmosphere remains fruitful and positive from start to finish. Tangents can be costly to everyone's time, so the facilitator reminds the participants of the session’s objective when need be.

Note-taker

Unless you plan to wear two hats during the session, appoint a note-taker beforehand. They'll be responsible for documenting important insights and questions that arise during the meeting. If the team starts to veer off topic, they should take note of the issue for later analysis. This will reassure people that their concerns haven't been swept aside and will be addressed at a more appropriate time.

Critiquers

These people form the main audience of the critique session. Critiquers could exclusively be members of the product team—product and UX designers, developers, copywriters—or they could include business stakeholders as well. Ultimately, it's your session objective that will guide the selection of your critiquers. As a best practice, limit the number of critiques to between five and seven critiquers. Pick people from different phases of the development cycle. It's the quality that matters, not the quantity.

Five key steps for your product critique process

Depending on whether you’re running an informal product critique session as an entrepreneur, with just you and a couple of colleagues, or a larger, more formal affair as a major organization, the complexity of the steps involved will vary.

Let’s look at the main steps of a product critique session for a large organization (you can amend these for your informal session as necessary):

Step 1: Preparing for the session

A product critique is only as good as the work that happens before the session. Start by deciding on a meeting style, what stage of design or production you’re presenting, timing, and invitees.

Pick the most appropriate session style for the participants. Will your team find a structured workshop or a round-table discussion more beneficial? Consider the most suitable day and time for all attendees.

Next, decide which design, product, or part of a product will be critiqued. Is there any previous work that participants need to go through in advance? Be clear on what's in or out of scope, as this will help you to make the most of the team’s time.

Gather any user feedback that you may have already collected from other testing sessions, as this may be useful to refer to during the critique session.

It's also a good idea to establish rules and expectations beforehand, so team members and other stakeholders can fully grasp what a critique is and how it will be run. Compile this information in a succinct email and send it to the attendees.

Finally, carefully select the people to fill the various roles during the actual session (presenter, note-taker, facilitator, and critiquers). Can you use recording devices instead of note-takers? Think carefully about the best people for the job.

Send participants an invite, preferably a week or so before the session. This way, they'll have plenty of time to think about the product or design.

Remember to plan refreshments if the session is to run for more than an hour.

Step 2: Getting the session up and running

On the day of the product critique session, arrive early at the venue to fix any designs on the wall or whiteboard, hook up your laptop, and give the display system a test run. Have plenty of pens, pencils, and Post-it notes.

If you’re running a remote critique workshop, give everyone time to connect to the group presentation before starting. You'll need a sketch-sharing platform or whiteboard for your presentation, so ensure every participant can easily access it.

Someone who has been involved with arranging the session (you, a colleague, or the presenter themselves) will start by welcoming everyone and providing a quick reminder on:

  • What a product critique is

  • The ground rules for providing feedback

  • The duration of the session

  • What you expect from them

Encourage participants to jot down their feedback during the presentation without interrupting.

The presenter should begin by providing context around the specific problems the designs or products solve. They should review the schedule, customer goals, business goals, fidelity expectations (the stage of the design, e.g. wireframes, visual designs), and constraints. This part is crucial, so make sure the presenter doesn't skimp on it.

Step 3: Demonstrating use case scenarios or user journeys

Once all participants know the design or product context and the critique rules and expectations, you can move on to how it aims to achieve business goals and solve user problems.

Your session can focus on one of the following two areas:

  • Use cases and personas: Use cases are the kinds of reasons why people would use your product, and personas are typical users.

  • Problem user journeys: Issues that the users are trying to solve by using your product, or steps that a user takes while interacting with your product

The presenter will demonstrate some typical use cases or user journeys for participants to focus on in the next step.

If you’ve already run user tests against the design or product, show them during the critique to guide the discussion.

Step 4: Collecting feedback

The participants now have an opportunity to ask questions about the design and its execution and give their input. The presenter will lead this part of the process, focusing on one use case or user journey at a time.

To avoid a chaotic discussion, the facilitator should set the stage for how the presenter would like to receive feedback. Discourage off-topic and one-on-one discussions that move away from the session's main agenda. The note-taker should document feedback and concerns raised by the group.

Step 5: Synthesizing and communicating feedback

The presenter's job isn't over yet. Just as important as documenting feedback is synthesizing and communicating it. Ideally, this should happen after the workshop.

With your help (if you’re not the presenter) and depending on the session objectives, they will generate a list of captured outcomes and follow-up actions. They then share the list with all relevant stakeholders (even those that didn't attend the product critique session). This way, everyone knows exactly what the output of the session was.

How to run effective product critiques

To gather useful feedback from your product critique session, follow our top tips.

Pick the right session format

The product critique format you choose can be the difference between a free-flowing session and a derailed one. Two formats to consider are:

Roundtable discussion

Participants share their perspectives one at a time, making their way around the table. Roundtables are a common way to run product critique meetings as they allow team members to:

  • Freely exchange information

  • Collaborate on ideas

  • Solve problems

On the downside, the discussion can quickly drift off topic. Additionally, the less vocal team members don’t typically share as openly and your feedback will reflect the views of the more vocal members.

Feedback workshop

Each participant writes their concerns and questions on Post-it notes and places them on a whiteboard for the rest of the group to see.

The facilitator reviews the notes and asks attendees to share feedback on the points raised. This meeting format brings structure and rhythm to the critique.

If you can find a way to combine the strengths of these two meeting formats, you'll be one step closer to knocking your critique goals out of the park.

Ask the right set of questions

Rigid, one-directional questions won't serve the goals of your critique. Steer clear of questions like “Do you like this design?” and instead ask specific questions such as:

  • Where do you feel the design is lacking and why?

  • Does this design solve the user’s problem and is the user able to effectively achieve their goal?

  • Can you give me an example of how this design could be improved?

  • How does this design make it easier for the user to accomplish the task efficiently?

  • What do you particularly like about this design?

  • Are there concerns about feasibility we should consider?

  • Are there opportunities we haven’t leveraged that could improve this design?

If you notice some comments and feedback sound directive ("I wouldn't have put it there!") and opinionated ("This is too vague!"), act quickly to reformulate them. Make sure the feedback is exhaustive, clarifying, and in line with the context previously described.

Unhelpful feedback: Yikes, that button is misplaced!

Reformulated feedback: If the goal is to have the user complete payments quickly, I'm concerned we’re placing emphasis on the wrong elements and hiding the primary task by making the button difficult to spot.

Set and enforce ground rules beforehand

We’ve already mentioned setting rules early on in your product critique session. If you're struggling to lay down the law, this tip is for you.

The rules should be succinct, scannable, and easy to understand at a glance. The first slide of the presentation could include:

  • The four Rs of critique (see below)

  • Ground rules for providing feedback

If this is your first time running a product critique, here are the four seminal Rs of critique:

  • Respect: We can differ in our opinions, but let's do it respectfully

  • Responsibility: We are co-owners of our product, so let's stay mindful of our shared responsibility

  • Right intention: We intend to make things better for the end user

  • Reflection: Let's reflect on the problem we wish to solve, not make it about personal likes/dislikes

Maintain a warm, constructive tone throughout

Advise people to be mindful of the tone of their feedback, questions, or comments. Tone can either be constructive and encouraging or rigid and judgmental. For instance, consider the tone of the following two comments:

  • "I'm not sure why you placed this primary button there. Full-page designs should have the primary button on the left-hand side."

  • "Would you help me understand why you placed this primary button here? I wonder if it would make a bigger impact on the left side of the page?”

The first question has a disparaging, dismissive tone. It questions the intelligence of the designer and evokes a sense of finality. The tone of the second question, while making the speaker’s preference crystal clear, leaves room for an open discussion and explanation.

Getting designs one step closer to actual products

Product critique sessions that focus on design are key to finalizing a design that eventually leads to a successful product. They allow all the stakeholders involved in the process to assess the design in its current state while addressing pertinent concerns and carving out areas for improvement.

Take the points and best practices discussed in this article as a base and apply them to your own process. If you do it faithfully, your product critique meetings will be easier to plan and execute, not to mention productive.

FAQs

How do you critique a product design?

Critiquing a product design is a multi-step process that entails selecting the right team, conducting an all-action critique session, as well as collecting, synthesizing, and communicating feedback. No two critique sessions are the same, and the successful outcome of your session will depend on its facilitator just as much as its attendees.

How do you critique an app?

Critiquing an app involves evaluating an app's design components against the notes and adjustments from any user feedback already carried out and providing unbiased, constructive feedback on them.

What is meant by constructive criticism?

In the context of a product critique, constructive criticism has a positive, encouraging tone. It offers positive feedback as well as negative and leaves the door open for honest, fruitful discussions.

What is destructive feedback?

Destructive feedback comes from a place of judgment and self-elevation. It dismisses the other person’s viewpoint and is disrespectful. If not discouraged, destructive feedback has the potential to destroy an entire critique team's morale, which can have a negative impact on the product, and ultimately, the user experience.

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