How an Open Critique Culture Improves User Experience Design

On the benefits of making open critique part of the UX design process.

If you’re a designer, you may remember fondly the good old days of art school, when you were often expected to put your work up for review by instructors and peers alike. For many of us, this was the most worrisome of all tests. Our work was being analyzed by the most savvy of audiences. Poor choices were immediately brought to light in a way that none of your non-designer associates could see or adequately explain — but so were your successes. Sometimes you felt great when the critique was over and sometimes you didn’t, but that was the crucible in which your skill as a designer was truly forged.

After design school, this changed for a lot of us. You still had someone to explain your designs to, but your non-client audience was probably an art director, a creative director or members of your project team. And that wasn’t a bad thing, but it wasn’t the same either. Those people were all as close to your project as you were and, being so close, prone to being attached to its direction or potentially slow to recognize what was going well or going wrong. At the end of a project, maybe you were left thinking, “I feel like this could be better, but I can’t put my finger on it and I’ve run out of time to figure it out.” For a designer, this is a horrible feeling, and one that can stick with you for as long as the design exists in the wild.

We were recently discussing this in a design team meeting, and we figured out this doesn’t really need to be the case. We all know working in silos isn’t the answer, so why should we limit our critical thinking to only the projects we are working on? Why can’t we return to the old ways of art school and actively solicit feedback from everyone? We decided we could still have that sense of community in our design, and that we would even enjoy it. So we went for it.

We set aside one of our many big whiteboards and invited project groups to print out their work and tape it up on the board. Without the need to call a meeting and cut into anyone’s day, designers passing by could stop and write comments about the designs on the whiteboard as they had the time. The original designer wouldn’t be around to defend it (which sounded scary at first), but after a few days they could collect all that feedback and see if their design was what they believed it to be.

And it works. It totally still works.

Weaknesses were quickly surfaced. Strengths were identified. New ideas were generated. Doubt was eliminated and confidence was fostered in a way that could only happen in an open critique, because these other designers weren’t drinking the project Kool-Aid and they weren’t under pressure. It was just like art school — everything was illuminated.

There is no doubt that making the open critique activities part of our culture and UX design process is going to be a tremendous value-add, not just to our clients, but internally at EffectiveUI as well.

Recently, during an executive presentation to one of our clients, we informed them that the final designs were coming to them thoroughly whetted by the trained eyes of about 45 of our designers. The very idea of having the input of several designers — not just the dedicated team working on that project — was extremely appealing and reassuring to them, and was received very positively.

Internally, we see the open critique activities evolving into an essential design tool serving multiple purposes, including:

  • Providing designers an opportunity to have input on multiple projects, which is great from a learning standpoint.
  • Helping break away from any potential monotony working on just one project for an extended period, especially if you’ve been on it for some time. Variety can help foster creativity!
  • Providing an opportunity to learn from and be inspired by your peers.
  • Fostering the team spirit within the company. Some of the most daunting design challenges have a better chance to be solved — even very elegantly — with a joint team effort.

So what started as an experiment reminiscent of the good old days of art school has resulted in a significant cultural shift. We are getting so much more out of this effort than we hoped and it’s getting better every day. So if you’re feeling angst as a designer who has become too close to your work and you wonder if the other people attached to your project have the same doubts, then we hope you’ll consider a culture of open critique. Relive the feeling of being in school again every day in all the most positive ways.

About the Authors

Harsh Agrawal has more than 20 years of experience in the software industry and over a decade dedicated to UX work. His expertise spans across several UX disciplines to include UX Strategy and related Thought Leadership, Product Design, Product Strategy, Product road-mapping, Customer Insight/Research & Analysis, Information Architecture, Usability Testing, Front-end UI Development, wire-frame concepting, Visual Design, Interaction Design, Project Planning and definitionand QA methodologies. Harsh is a Lead Experience Architect at EffectiveUI. Outside of work, his passions include photography, architecture, anything related to design, music, travel, cooking and hiking.

Patrick Vinson is a product manager and marketer turned user experience designer. As a manager of interface-centric products, he developed a passion for exceptional user experience, the sense of delight it can add to everyday life, and the competitive differentiation it provides in business. Patrick soon turned his career over completely to design, working at first as an interface designer and art director consultant for both business and agency clients before most recently joining EffectiveUI in their Denver offices as a UX Designer. Outside of design, Patrick is an avid outdoorsman and enjoys taking advantage of Colorado’s beautiful state and national parks.

About EffectiveUI

This article first appeared on the EffectiveUI blog.

EffectiveUI is the go-to UX partner for high-technology companies, including industry leaders within aerospace and aviation, biotech and healthcare, consumer and industrial electronics, defense, energy, financial services, software and telecom. In making technology more useful, useable and desirable, we help our clients reinvent significant aspects of their business — from the experience they provide to customers, to the tools used to streamline operations, to the products brought to market. We work collaboratively with clients to solve complex business problems and drive transformation through four tightly integrated areas of expertise: user research and insight, digital strategy, UX design and UI development and integration. Learn more at effectiveui.com.