It can be challenging for people who work in completely different product areas to join a cross-functional design critique on a weekly basis to provide helpful feedback if the narrative is not precise. What sets a valuable critique apart is the story we tell and how we engage with our audience.
In this interview, our guest Cintia Romero, Product Designer at Pinterest on the Design Systems team shares her methods and experience to communicate effectively using storytelling when leading a design critique.
Cintia is also a speaker & Mentor in RETHINK Mentorship Program: Storytelling To Influence Change where she teaches a workshop about how to perform a design critique by refining your storytelling skills. Learn applicable methods for how to use words purposefully to help you make your crits. more effective.
See program details and apply here
Welcome Cintia! Glad to have you here!
Could you share with our readers a bit about your story as a product designer and your experience with facilitating design critiques?
I began my journey into design about 11 years ago, starting with Graphic Design. I soon transitioned from Graphic Design to E-learning, Web Design, Visual Design, UX, and finally landed on Product Design. Today, I work as a Product Designer on Design Systems at Pinterest.
A considerable part of my job in the last few years has been to enhance the design experience through a Design System, and a design crit (short for critique) is an essential part of it.
As a designer who works in a cross-functional environment, I need constant feedback from our users (designers, engineers, and stakeholders) to improve their experience and enhance our product. At Pinterest, I have been working on updating the format of our Design System crits to be more inclusive and engaging, enabling a safe space for collaboration and creativity where everyone has an opportunity to tell a story.
A Design System is about connections, and design crits help us connect with people by learning stories from the users of our products who share similar values, concerns, and challenges. An appropriate design crit process allows everyone to share their thoughts, promoting consistency while getting everyone invested in the design process. And when everyone is invested in the process, the work gets more effective for everyone.
What is the most difficult part for you when telling stories in a design critique?
It is pretty easy to get lost in details when telling a story because the audience has the ability to ask multiple questions and make tangential comments. One of the challenges to overcoming this is to emphasize the most relevant piece of my story and keep my narrative simple without getting out of scope.
I’ve learned to stick with my narrative and still answer those questions, by always linking these questions back to my main narrative. And if needed, I can continuously address them individually by keeping a list and following up with my audience.
What are some of the skills required in order to tell better stories in a design critique?
I suggest concentrating on these three skills:
- Empathy: Understanding your audience will help you frame the problem better; allowing you to consider different product needs and content types that have the most impact. Being empathetic when telling stories will help build an inclusive language that others will relate to and connect better with you. As I said, design crits are about connections and telling stories.
- Strategic thinking: Having strategic thinking skills can help you anticipate the long-term impact of your design solutions and business. Consider your business goals when framing your problem and giving prompts to your audience. Define the goals you are trying to achieve, and use the feedback you get as data to shape your action items.
- Timing: Time management skills are essential when conducting a design crit. Knowing when to introduce specific topics, tell your story in the proper time sequence, and conduct explorations can boost the impact and effectiveness of your design crit. You must know the right time to dive into an important subject, and also when to move on to the next topic, respecting the audience's time.
What are some of your tactics for unblocking problems & generating ideas – enabling cross-functional collaboration and diverse perspectives in a design critique?
First, have a clear structure for your story
There are multiple ways of conducting a design crit, but every story you will tell should have a beginning, a middle, and an end - whether it is an article, a presentation, or a design crit.
I aim to ensure that my audience knows the problem I am trying to solve, the feedback I seek, and also the help I need. Then I present the action items taking into consideration all of the feedback. Being transparent about your next steps helps to build trust with your partners.
Second, welcome conflicts
Just like in a novel, conflicts will appear as your narrative evolves. By knowing my audience and the product teams represented in my crits, I feel prepared to answer their questions and address any constraints regarding their surface. If I don't know the answer, I offer my support to figure it out together, involving collaboration and communication.
Third, embrace diversity
I firmly believe that the diversity of contributors attending a design crit helps us unblock problems and generate new ideas. People with different cultures and experiences can help set different expectations for the roles of the storyteller and listener. In addition, it creates new ways of interacting. A design crit should be cross-functional. As designers, we must ensure that everyone can understand what we present, despite their background, knowledge base, or ability.
What methods have you found valuable for using words purposefully to keep a design critique on track and effective?
Start with a prompt
Before framing the problem, I provide a prompt to spark a dialogue within the group. I like to start with a fun non-crit-related prompt (for example, What did you eat for breakfast today?) to warm up the audience, so everyone has at least one chance to be a part of the story. Then, I bring the crit-related prompts to the conversation.
Crit and Jam
For me, it is essential to create space for exploration. I like to combine the traditional crit (contextual presentation and feedback) with a “jam crit” style. I like to define Jam as a collaborative crit style, similar to a workshop that gradually mixes diverse people and disciplines to combine hybrid ideas. This type of crit is very productive when looking for new ideas, business models, or explorations because some folks feel more comfortable writing or practicing interactive activities than speaking out loud. I want to ensure I'm providing space for all forms of feedback, and it makes the design crit more effective.
Time your crits
Keeping track of time will allow me to run the crit effectively. I want to be mindful of everyone's time, including myself. In addition, respecting the audience's time helps create a pleasant environment, and people will want to return. And by noting how long each topic takes to cover, I can improve my timing for future crits. Our design system crits at Pinterest usually take one hour, allowing a maximum of two topics per crit; it works very well for my team.
What storytelling methods do you use in a design critique to have constructive dialogue when feedback is not clear or contradictory?
I believe that being mindful of my audience and the language I use is essential to telling compelling stories and providing space for constructive dialogue. With that in mind, here are some pieces of advice and the methods I use during crits:
Practice inclusive language before telling a story
I do my best to be mindful of my audience. Speak respectfully, and respect cultural differences and diverse backgrounds. The words we use are essential to creating a safe, inclusive, and welcoming space where people will feel comfortable sharing their insights and providing valuable feedback without judgments. Also, consider sharing accessible content. I try not to rely on audio-only, providing slides, notes, and contextual design files (usually a Figma file and a Coda file). It isn't the case in my current role, but I also have had someone perform sign language to meet my audience's needs in the past. I found that inclusive language sets the tone for finding the correct answers we are looking for.
Avoid overload of acronyms when telling your story
A new audience (for example, new hires attending a design crit) can struggle to understand the meanings of acronyms. In addition, an excess of acronyms can create cognitive barriers, resulting in poor engagement.
Iterate and invite the audience to tell a story as well
Everyone has a chance to speak if they want to, and if time is short, they can provide feedback and iterate through the design files. The story can also go beyond the design crit session. Consider starting a #design-crit Slack channel to keep the discussion going. I started it out on Pinterest, and the experience has been positive so far.
If you enjoyed this interview with Cintia you may want to join her workshop at Storytelling to Influence Change. Learn applicable methods for how to use words purposefully to help you make your crits. more effective. See program details and apply here.
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