Group Crits: A Primer, Part I: #goals

Specifically, the crits I facilitate.

Hello, students of UXA! New and old! Students in general! Or to anyone who happens to be reading this for some reason! I’m Robbin and I run design critiques for Designlab’s UX Academy program on the weekends, and I love this gig. It is my hope that you’ll find the hour we have together useful.

This series of articles will tell you the goals of the group crit, what you can expect from me, a handy list of questions to ask in crits, what I expect from you, and why I do certain things in my crits.

Goals of the Group Crit

The main goal of the group crit in Designlab is to get designers prepped for real-world design critiques. They have a great list on how to get the most of feedback and critiques. I model mine closely to what we do at work (called the Design Review). However, I realize that students may be at many different levels, so I also tailor each session based on who attends and blend it with that Design Review feel as each person presents and gives feedback. Thus, you’ll find that each session differs depending on who is present. Here are the things I consider when assessing who’s in the group that day.

Who are you, and where are you in respect to design?

  • If you’re new to design in all aspects: First and foremost, the goal is to get you comfortable with presenting your work. You may not know what to say. You may not know what is useful. But we can only work on this stuff once you’re okay with just talking about the work you did.
  • If you’re transitioning from another design role: I’ve been taught by several mentors — senior designers, design directors, design recruiters — to look for specific qualities of a product design candidate. If you’re used to graphic design roles, the goal is to get you to talk heavily about the process and the decisions you made in your designs.
  • If you’re transitioning from a related field: I’m talking about front-end developers and PMs, mainly. I live with a front-end engineer and I work with engineers and PMs all day. The goal differs depending on your field. For example, PMs tend to be very good at early stages of production (planning, prioritization, etc.), and front-end devs have the advantage of knowing what is feasible when they create designs.

Things I hope everyone will goal towards

  • Understand your career path: I want you to remember that UX design is the physical culmination of critical thinking. As you go through the program, whether you’re in Phase I or Phase II, think about what you want to achieve. Did you love research? Do you want to improve your process? Was it synthesizing the findings that called to you? Or was it the end part of making that high-fidelity wireframe that tickled your fancy? In other words, what part of UXA would you love doing as a career? Knowing this will help you ask for the feedback that will help you succeed in the subject you want to know best.
  • Feel comfortable with asking for actionable feedback: Honestly, I was going to put “receiving feedback”, but most students I’ve seen have no problem with it. What I’ve noticed is that people want feedback, but don’t know how to ask for it, or what part of their project to ask about. Ideally, you should be able to remember what questions and explorations helped you before and then use that same thinking to help the others in the crit. That’s what it’s for. Did you see someone frantically writing stuff down as you gave feedback? Listen to why they said it was helpful.
  • Reach out to each other: I asked one of my coworkers what she looked for when interviewing candidates. She couldn’t put her finger on a single aspect of the good stuff, but she did say that one of the things she definitely felt was a red flag were the designers who worked in a bubble without consulting others. These are the people whose case studies don’t mention anyone else. It is not a weakness to mention others. It is a strength. Being able to say you have worked with other designers, engineers, PMs, etc., is incredibly powerful. When I ask you what you feel your strengths are, I do this so you can reach out to others who have a different strength. Someone with strong graphic design skills paired with a mindful UX researcher can make a damn good product. You have so many people you can talk to in the Slack channel. Take advantage of that. It’s one of the biggest assets you can give yourself.
  • Asking questions about the process, and not just the visuals: I get the sense that folks assume that they must have something visual to show in crits. This is not true. If you’ve been in my crits before, you know that I will 100% ask you about your research if you haven’t had a chance to speak yet. Ask your colleagues why they decided to go with a low-fidelity wireframe. Or even before that: ask why they chose to do a user flow before working on wireframes. (Yes, if you’re in a course, the answer is simply ‘it was what I had to turn in’, but that doesn’t sound so great in an interview. As you go onto your Phase 2 capstones, you do have the choice of thinking outside of the process as long as you can explain why you used each tool when you did.)
  • Be an advocate for your design: Design is just half of it. As Tiffany Eaton says: UX is grounded in rationale. Having a lot of pretty slides for your prototype may be impressive, but if you cannot explain why you created all of them, then you’re going to have to explain to your stakeholder why you spent 20 hours on a prototype that wasn’t testing the original problem you were trying to solve. Be able to explain that. Be able to confidently say that you did all of this work to come up with the solution to this specific problem, and that’s why we should try it.
  • Remember that design is a process: You should be able to stay humble and take critical feedback into account. Try not to get too attached to your visual assets. It’s terribly easy to do that. It’s then very easy to think, “Oh no…am I about to throw away all this work because so-and-so had ~OPINIONS~ about it?” And that’s how irrational arguments come out of hiding. Don’t let that happen to you. A senior designer I respect recently told me: “If a designer thinks that they have the perfect solution to the problem, they’re doing something terribly wrong.” This is a process. You won’t get the answer in one try. It will never be perfect, but each iteration will get you a step or two in the right direction.
S Club 7 could have been in UX design.

I’ll be there to give you that 10 Seconds of Awkward Silence before jumping in with a focused question. I’ll be there to prompt you with options of what you can talk about that week. I’ll be there to seed the discussion with open questions if no one can think of what to say. But in the end, this is your design review. You get what you put into it. And when you get a job, it’s not just your design review anymore — it’s your team’s design review. A silent design critique gets your team nowhere. Speak up.

About Me
I’m Robbin, and I was on the full-time track in the Ive cohort of UX Academy. I work at Udemy, an online education marketplace. I’ve been here for four years, starting in support, and I worked on several projects utilizing design techniques to improve everything from support process flows to understanding and improving work flows between remote and home teams. The work I do focuses on how information is shared and developing efficiency. I’m also doing part-time work with the product design team, where I do pretty much everything I’ve learned in Designlab and support (plus a little more) to get user-facing and internal projects to a point where they can be tested live.
On weekends I run design crits with Designlab, and I am also about to start an internship with UXBeginner as a content strategist and UX writer. I know a lot of designers, and I have plans to start a podcast aimed specifically at students in the UX field who don’t know how to navigate the waters, as well as people who are considering a UX career but don’t know much about it.