Dissent is a necessary part of the design process. Intuitive and accessible products that offer real value are born out of healthy tension between people with multiple perspectives. And that's a good thing!
Which brings us to a type of meeting that works best (in our opinion) when done synchronously: design review meetings. This is a space where teams can engage in dissent and questioning that's productive and respectful.
Here's a quick guide to running awesome design review (or "crit") meetings.
What are design review meetings?
Design review meetings are product development check-ins led by the design team that happen after ideation and planning. Their ultimate purpose is to gather feedback on prototypes from decision makers, so that your product design achieves its goal of solving the problems your team identified for your end user.
You’ll likely have many design reviews for any given project, but they may be smaller or larger depending on the stage. Some common types of design review meetings are:
Conceptual design review: Gather feedback on storyboards and scenarios
User interface (UI) design review: Gather feedback on prototypes, wireframes, and user flow
Visual design review: Gather feedback on screen mockups, color palette, icons, graphic and logos
During any of these meetings, you could discuss:
No matter what kind of design review meeting you’re running, you’ll be able to make better use of it with certain principles that encourage ownership, clarity, and focus. If you’ve ever had a design review meeting go off the rails, this eight-step process is for you.
(p.s. Just want the design review meeting template? Get that here.)
Step 1: Decide who owns the meeting
One person from the design team should be a facilitator and own the design review meeting. When multiple people own the meeting, you run the risk of confusion and certain tasks may not get done. (You may want to collaborate on note taking, but more on that later.)
Design leads or product designers with skin in the game are the best candidates to own your design review meeting. They're responsible for:
Scheduling the meeting
Canceling the meeting when there isn’t a lot to review
Creating and sharing the agenda
Sharing work ahead of time (with links to Figma files, for example)
Following up on action items
Step 2: Set operating principles and ground rules
Your design review owner is also responsible for setting operating principles and ground rules — and enforcing them when your team meeting is deviating.
Sticking to your design review principles takes practice, and it’s easy to forget about them when a meeting goes haywire because of a few vocal participants. This is why it’s important to communicate principles and ground rules ahead of time, and push attendees to take them seriously during the meeting. Your design review will be more productive for it.
Here at Vowel, we keep a feedback reminder pinned to the top of the design review meeting agenda, so everyone can see it and is reminded of it each time.
Keep in mind that your design review meeting owner will need to be empowered to enforce your principles and ground rules. If you’re in a leadership position and you’ve entrusted your meeting to a junior designer, you may need to speak up during the meeting and help get everything back on track.
If you need some help establishing principles and ground rules, here are some sample statements for an effective meeting.
Common design review meeting principles and ground rules
Always review the agenda and design work ahead of the meeting.
Be present for the meeting — set your phone aside.
Always listen to the designer’s presentation in full before asking questions or offering feedback.
It’s better to ask more questions than express opinions.
If you like any aspect of the design, say it out loud! Positive feedback is encouraging.
Always center the end user’s experience when offering feedback.
Offer clear, helpful, and actionable feedback that’s focused on the problems you’re trying to solve for the user.
If you’re someone who tends to speak a lot during meetings, offer the floor to people who tend to speak less.
Step 3: Limit attendance
The expression “too many cooks in the kitchen” could have been crafted for the design review meeting. One of the most common mistakes product teams make is inviting too many stakeholders to the design review meeting. More opinions aren’t necessarily better … it’s just more.
Limit your design review’s attendance to two types of people:
Decision makers: Leaders who need to sign off
Consultants: Department representatives who offer valuable perspective
For design reviews, this usually means inviting:
Product marketing (optional consultant)
Project manager (optional consultant)
Front-end engineer (optional consultant)
Other leadership (optional consultant)
If you can keep your meeting small, you’ll be able to move more quickly through the decision-making process. But if your meeting needs to grow, aim for diversity over quantity for the sake of it. A group of attendees who all come from varied backgrounds, lived experiences, and geographies come up with better solutions than a homogenous one.
Tip: If some team members are pushing to know what’s going on but they don’t clearly belong as either a decision marker or consultant, offer transparency by recording the meeting, isolating the highlights, and sending it to them for asynchronous viewing.
Step 4: Keep a tight structure
Meeting length matters. If your design review runs more than an hour, the quality of the feedback will begin to suffer.
Prevent burnout by limiting the scope of your meeting. When it comes to design reviews, it’s better to have more short meetings than fewer long ones (with some asynchronous feedback thrown in to limit meeting time per week). Here are some ways to make the most of your meeting:
Draft a focused problem statement as part of your agenda and stick to it.
Limit the number of designs during the presentation. Only show work that solves the problem(s) identified in your statement.
Set agenda timers to keep each portion of the meeting on track.
Note when a design review went long and cut back on the number of designs to show next time.
The ideal meeting length for a design review is 45-60 minutes. Feel free to end a meeting early if you get the chance.
Step 5: Create a repeatable (but flexible) agenda
Consistency is your best friend when you want to get better at following your operating principles and ground rules. Put this into practice with a repeatable, but flexible, agenda.
A good design review agenda has two parts: an overview and meeting sections. Your overview will contain links to research, project specifications, and the design work you’ll present, while your sections will consist of your design presentation, feedback time, and action item review.
Tip: If your meeting is virtual, post your agenda on screen and use it as a template for taking notes. Use this design review meeting template to get started.
Step 6: Share work ahead of time
You’ll send design work as part of your agenda, but it’s worth being explicit about the importance of review ahead of the meeting.
At least three days before the meeting, share links to only the design work you’ll be presenting (nothing more, so as not to overwhelm participants). If you’ve put together a slide deck, however, it’s best to share that. This way all meeting participants will have access to:
Commentary and rationale
Make sure to share your presentation as “view only” so attendees wait until they’ve seen your presentation before offering feedback.
Step 7: Capture feedback
The moment you’ve been waiting for — feedback on your project. To capture great feedback, ask the following questions:
Are we meeting the requirements of the project?
Which option (A, B, or C) is better for the user?
Are all parts of the design feasible to build?
Does the experience for the user flow well?
Was there anything about the design you didn’t immediately understand?
But capturing feedback is more than just answering questions. There’s an art to capturing high-quality feedback, and you may need to be proactive to get what you need during the actual design review — as opposed to weeks later, after you’re deep into the project. Here’s how:
✅ Encourage feedback from everyone in attendance. Express how much you value everyone’s participation, and don’t be afraid to call on people who haven’t contributed feedback.
✅ Record and transcribe the meeting. You’ll want to take notes during the meeting, but real-time transcription is a way to make sure nothing is missed.
✅ Use shared notes to write feedback and questions that require follow-up. When everyone is able to jot down notes in one place, you’ll be less likely to miss someone’s feedback — which prevents mistakes down the line.
Step 8: Outline clear next steps
Dedicate a section of your shared notes to questions and action items. Assign roles to each action item, and list when it’s expected to get done. Assign roles to questions, and try to answer each as soon as possible, especially if your team needs those answers to complete action items.
Your design review meeting owner is responsible for following up on all action items to keep your project moving forward. If you have access to a project manager, however, they may be responsible for this.
How to run better design review meetings on Vowel
Design review meetings feel personal because your creative work is personal. Here’s how Vowel can help you have design reviews that reflect this reality:
Set a collaborative agenda with timers so you can live your principles and ground rules without emotions running high.
Auto-transcribe your meetings so you don’t need to worry about missed feedback veering a project off track later on.
Take collaborative meeting notes with all team members so you’re capturing everyone’s opinion, not just the ones from the loudest people.
Use emoji reactions to get positive feedback when someone likes your design.
Use talk time tracking so you can see someone’s share of voice in real-time and encourage people with less to speak up.
Access a playback folder to review past meetings — and model your next meeting after a successful one (here's what ours looks like!)
Your best design reviews are ahead of you. Try Vowel for free with your Google account and see how you can better plan, host, and act on your meetings.