I'm often asked how to help organizations, web design, and development agencies—anyone, really—make better design decisions as a team. I asked Yellow Pencil, a fabulous Canadian web agency, if I could repost an updated version of an article I wrote for them on The Art of Design Critique back in mid 2012. They generously said yes.
I love being a designer. Every day I have the opportunity to make the world a better place by finding solutions to problems, but I don’t do that alone. It is essential for every designer to have others dig in and critique their work so we can discover better and better solutions.
Back in 2012, I attended a stellar webinar on design critique produced by UIE and run by Aaron Irizarry and Adam Connor. They took us through their approach. Design critique is an important part any design project, and I’d like to share some of the gems I took away from their webinar.
Tips for giving critique
- Use a filter. Gather initial thoughts and reactions, revisit them in the right context.
- Don't Assume. Find out the reason behind thinking, constraints, etc.
- Don't invite yourself. Get in touch and ask to chat about the design.
- Lead with questions. Show an interest in their process; how they got to where they are.
- Don't forget to also focus on the goals that were met and how. The good and the bad.
Tips For Receiving Critique
Receiving Critique Takes Humility and Meekness
- Remember the purpose. It's about understanding and improvement, not judgement.
- Listen and think before you talk back. Understand what the critics are saying.
- Refer to the goals. Is the feedback pertinent to the goals you're trying to achieve?
- Participate. Analyze your proposed solution with everyone else.
Making critique part of your process
A great way to set up for helpful feedback is with a critique session. Stand alone sessions are the best, but not the only option or always possible. Consider these three possibilities:
Stand Alone Critique Session
- An introduction to people unfamiliar with critique.
- A safer place to practice giving and receiving feedback.
- Focus feedback on specific goals, topics, etc.
- Can be impromptu or scheduled.
- Take control as much as possible. Keep people focused.
- Recap goals and principles of the design.
- Use the same tools as you would for difficult people.
- Don't rely on them for critique. Focused sessions are still good to have.
Brainstorms and Collaborative Activities
- Stay focused.
- Stay goal oriented.
Who should you invite?
- Critique with groups that are small enough to have a cohesive conversation. Six at a max.
- Relate the audience to the goals. Are you critiquing development? Visual Design? User patterns/flow?
- Any time, for anything. Just choose the critique group accordingly.
- Avoid problem solving and design decisions. Focus on analyzing work so far.
- The designer is responsible for follow up and decisions. No design decisions while critiquing.
- Everyone in the room is equal.
- Everyone's a critic. Everyone needs to be engaged and participating.
- Critique is a skill. You get better with practice.
- Start small. Casual discussions and conversations are a great starting point.
- Think before you speak. Important on both sides.
- Choose who you critique with carefully.
- Project goals are critical for successful critique.
- Personas and scenarios are very useful to put people in a frame of mind to critique different experiences.
- Session goals are also important to keep the critique on track.
- A critique is a conversation.
Tools and Techniques
- Active listening, question for clarity.
- Round robin. Simple but great for inclusion and structure.
- Direct questions. If people are quiet or someone is the right person for the topic.
- Design explanation should be quick.
- Don’t explain the restraints regarding your design decisions, as it sounds defensive.
- Don’t explain how your design meets the goals, that will happen with the discussion.
- Send out design before critique to allow people to soak it in beforehand.
- Six Thinking Hats.
Success techniques for interacting with all
- Set expectations at the beginning.
- Make sure everyone understand critique and the goals.
- Ask quiet people for feedback directly.
- Refer back to personas, goals and principles.
- Use laddering (Whyyyyyy?)
- Critique with people individually ahead of time.
- How did people react?
- Document all the questions and concerns.
- Follow up with individuals after the critique.
- Make sure to communicate the next steps with the people involved.
It's crucial to remember that a design critique is not about solutions, but about evaluating the current state of the design based on the project goals and pointing out what isn't working. Following that, the designer or design team should take away the critique and come back with the solution. This is one of the best steps towards a successful design system.
If you're looking for more about design critique, Jared Spool wrote a great article that you should check it out.