The quality of critique sessions is a clear indicator of how well the creative process is being managed. When a design critique goes well, it can create more ideas on how to solve the problem at hand or help designers pick between a multitude of great solutions. But when a design critique goes wrong, it becomes a huge source of frustration for designers; designers who have been burned by insulting or unfocused critiques stop going to the sessions.
If you want to run design critique sessions in your organization, you should do it right.
What is a Design Critique?
Critique sessions are a meeting during which designers share their unfinished work with colleagues. The purpose of a critique is to make the design better. While critique session might sound like a brainstorm session, there’s a massive difference between two. The primary goal of a brainstorming session is to come up with new ideas, while the primary goal of a critique meeting is to evaluate the existing design approach and identify future changes.
What’s Required to Conduct a Session?
A design critique involves a small group of people (usually three to five) to discuss a design. The ideal design critique session is an informal meeting where each participant forgets about job titles or hierarchy, and instead, focuses on making the design better.
What is Considered to be a Good Outcome?
Properly conducted design critique sessions bring two major benefits:
- Useful feedback which helps improve the design;
- Motivation for designers to improve the design—designers should feel positive and excited after the session, even when they know that they’ll have a lot more work to do.
Things to do Before the Session
Establish a Clear Criteria of Design Evaluation
By establishing a clear criteria, you set a bar. While each criteria is a subjective measure by nature, having a well-defined criteria helps define a level of the quality of work. When designers come to the session, they will know that they’re going to be evaluated against clear criteria. And this knowledge will help them more easily anticipate the critique, and prepare for it.
Assign Roles to Session Participant’s
Each design critique session requires three roles:
- Presenter – the designer(s) who created the work;
- Facilitator – a person who controls discussion flow and enables the presenter to have a successful critique;
- Critiquers – other designers, developers, product managers, or stakeholders that provide feedback on the design.
The Presenter’s Role
1. Provide Context
One of the worst things presenters can do during the session is to assume that the people critiquing her work will know as much as a presenter about the design. Creating a context around your work should be the first thing you do. By setting context, you make it easier for critiques to understand the design.
To set the context a presenter might need to:
- Identify the end user—describe user personas and demonstrate the way a persona interacts with a product, sell critiques on the way the average user would look, and how the product would integrate into their daily routine;
- Share user journeys—when you present your work, don’t just show a few screens of a product that are supposed to represent some operations, share a whole user journey instead. Designers have a powerful tool in their toolkit that helps achieve this goal—storyboards, a storyboard can tie a user persona together with a design.
2. Share Your Goals for the Critique Session
Before going to the meeting, the presenter should have a definite answer to the question “What I want to learn from this session?” It’s important to share your goals with session participants. By letting people know what you want from them you create a sharp focus—critiques will provide the right type of feedback (based on your goal). Without goals, everyone will share their general ideas, and the meeting will be more of a brainstorm session than a critique session.
3. Use Dynamic Design for your Presentation
The quality of feedback you’ll receive is directly relevant to the level of fidelity and interactivity of the work you present. When presenters offer up something static, it narrows the field of possible feedback—people will have a hard time imagining everything you’re showing them. But the more your work represents the final product, the higher quality the feedback you’ll receive. When a critique has the opportunity to interact with a design, they’ll give more specific recommendations on how to improve it. A chance to play with a hi-fi prototype will put your team directly in the shoes of your user, and this gives you more relevant feedback.
4. Ask Specific Questions to Collect Specific Feedback
General questions such as “Do you think this design is good?” won’t bring valuable insights. Be specific. Define 3-5 specific questions you want to be answered, and ask them during the session. Ask those questions even if you’re pretty sure what team will tell you. By asking questions, you can spark new discussion and eventually find valuable insights.
5. Take Notes While Receiving Feedback
It’s essential to write down the most important opinions as well as your own thoughts.
The Facilitator’s Role
1. The Facilitator and the Presenter Shouldn’t be the Same Person
Combining the roles of presenter and facilitator might be tempting. But it’s better to avoid this temptation. If a person who created the design is leading the meeting and controlling the discussion, there is a high probability that she will use this power for evil—the presenter can become the victim of their own ego. Ego can make the presenter focus on feedback that makes their ideas shine, and exclude everything else. Of course, not all designers will have such problems, but it’s always better to prevent something from happening in a first place rather solving problems afterward.
2. Clearly Define the Rules
Without a basic set of rules, discussions can go in any direction and become counter-productive. It’s essential to:
- Describe roles – make it clear for everyone in the room what’s expected from them, defining the critics’ role is crucial, set the right tone for critique, preferably by example;
- Describe the criteria for design evaluation – while the criteria should be established before the session, it’s vital to remind participators about the criteria.
3. Promote Equal Participation
Critique sessions are a collaborative activity, that’s why it should be based on dialogue not monologues. Facilitator should support the idea of conversation by asking people to speak up.
4. Keep an Eye on Time
By reminding people of how much time they have to discuss something, the facilitator motivates them to work more efficiently.
5. Block Irrelevant Discussions
It’s essential to block all feedback that doesn’t help presenters reach their goals. Try to steer the conversation back to the goals the presenter set in the beginning.
The Critiquers’ Role
1. Empathize with the Presenter
It sounds pretty obvious, but all too often people give criticism without taking the time to put themselves in a presenter’s shoes. No matter how well a presenter sets the context and presents their work, a critique has unlimited opportunity to make the conversation uncomfortable.
Here are a few things that should be taken into account:
- Be positive – nobody likes toxic people, never say you hate a design;
- Identify presenters needs – when you’re giving feedback, you need to know what the presenter wants to reach, get a sense of what the objective is;
- Listen before speaking – if you take a moment to listen and understand before voicing an opinion, there’s a better chance that your feedback will be valuable;
- Offer direction, not prescription – don’t tell the designer how to fix the design, keep in mind that it’s up to the presenter to come up with a solution, you just help steer them in the right direction.
2. Be Specific When Giving Your Opinion
The feedback that sounds like “I don’t like this design” without any additional details doesn’t bring too much value. Be concrete. Say exactly what you don’t like and why. If you describe better solutions, provide visual examples of what you mean.
The same rule applies when you say something like “This won’t work in the real world.” If you’re going say something like this, be sure to back up your opinion with facts. Facts might be anything from UX best practices, studies, researches, etc.
3. Don’t Bring Personal Taste into it
The words you choose in critiques do matter. Opinions that sounds like “I don’t like this dark UI” are nothing more than a criticism based on personal preference. Often such feedback is considered as too subjective and skipped during discussions.
It’s okay to have a personal opinion, or express your own preferences, but it’s wrong to insert it as an argument in a discussion. Each argument should be given in the context of user’s needs and wants. Thus, instead of saying “I don’t like this dark UI” it’s better say “I think our users won’t appreciate a dark UI.”
4. Ask Clarifying Questions
Misconceptions and misunderstandings are something that happen all the time during discussions. It’s possible to reveal potential miscommunications by asking clarifying questions. Ask “Why?” each time you don’t understand a design decision.
5. Provide More Feedback After the Session
Quite often critiques have thoughts and ideas beyond the scope of the feedback requested. Avoid giving such feedback during the meeting. Write it down and reach presenter with this feedback after the session.
When a design critique session is appropriately conducted, it can be a great combination of vision, strategy, and technology. That’s because people who take part in this activity will be happy to share their experience and knowledge. Such critique sessions feel like informal conversations between people with the same goal—they’re all trying to find the best solution to the problem.