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Good critique is rare. Let’s change it.

Introduction

Critique is a skill that has been around since ancient greek. This shouldn’t come as a great surprise, since it was the Greeks who gave us such masters of the critique as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Although it is a skill that has been with us for a long time, still, we find trouble to learn and get comfortable with it.

It’s pretty unusual to find someone who enjoys critique. Probably one of the reasons is that we see the word ‘critique’ mainly in a negative sense and that provokes us to take it personally, Is it about me?

But if we checked the definition of this word we will see it is in fact a neutral word that raises the positive and the negative of SOMETHING, not someone.

Critique: Details analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical or political theory.

The truth is, we are confusing criticism with critique. Criticism is different.

Criticism: The ‘expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistake.

One thing to have in mind is critique aims to improve while criticism aims to cause harm.

Some examples from this article:

  • Criticism finds fault/Critique looks at structure
  • Criticism looks for what’s lacking/Critique finds what’s working
  • Criticism condemns what it doesn’t understand/Critique asks for clarification
  • Criticism is spoken with a cruel wit and sarcastic tongue/Critique’s voice is kind, honest, and objective
  • Criticism is negative/Critique is positive (even about what isn’t working)
  • Criticism is vague and general/Critique is concrete and specific
  • Criticism has no sense of humor/Critique insists on laughter, too
  • Criticism looks for flaws in the writer as well as the writing/Critique addresses only what is on the page

To say “He criticized me for being so friendly” generally means something different and less positive than “He made me think about the possible effects of being so friendly”.

A lot of design schools and universities focus more on the creative thinking side than the critique mindset. And by the time most students make it through college they have had many bad experiences that it’s a real challenge for them to enjoy the critique process.

But critique shouldn’t be a scary thing to do, we can enjoy it. And following more design critiques in our processes will help for better collaboration and a healthy culture of design critique. Critique is a life skill and it can be learned. Let me share it with you.

How the design critique should work

Before digging into the presenter and the critique roles. It’s necessary to put some rules in place so everyone is aware that whatever we are criticizing is intended to build up and improve the work as opposed to criticizing the presenter. Rules to have in place:

  • Everyone is equal
  • Be positive and constructive
  • Avoid problem-solving. At this stage, we are using a critical thinking mindset instead of creative thinking.
  • Don’t be a jerk

“Start the critique by telling your work’s story.” Sarah Gibbons

Critique would not have the same effect depending on the stage we are with our designs. A good graph to understand where it’s better to ask for feedback will be: The critique sweet-spot.

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It’s also important not to wait for feedback to come to you. Take control and ask for 5 minutes of their time, this way you get more time to think and evaluate other opinions, instead of waiting for deadlines to come as you will have less control.

The main task of the presenter is to present their work but how they start the process can make a big difference to the listeners. Following these 3 tools would help us guide our conversations to be on the same page:

  1. Before you speak, know the goals: What problem is the design trying to solve? Why is it important to solve this problem for the user? Why is it important for the business to solve this problem? These are the measurable outcomes. The clear vision of what the presenter wants feedback on.
  2. Show the persona for the designs: Who is the target user? Stay focused on what matters and be explicit.
  3. Scenarios: The short narratives that describe the context in which the product will be used.

If I don’t know what the creator is trying to achieve, how can I possibly offer any commentary that’s of value?

It’s a good idea to explain the emotions and thoughts from this persona through our presentation to help the listeners to understand how our persona feels and why.

You need to be aware you will find difficult people, following these guidelines will help to drive these people into the right track.

The intent of design critique sessions is to discuss and explore the work presented. Consider what and why to keep conversation productive. That’s why it’s important to come up with questions and suggestions that open up for conversations. When giving a critique is important to:

  • Don’t assume → We need to find out the reason behind thinking. It’s important to validate and eliminate any assumptions.
  • Balance positive feedback and negative feedback → Make sure you spend as much energy helping them to see and talk about the strengths.
  • Lead with questions → It’s important to show interest and learn more about the process used. Example: Can you tell me more about what your objectives were for X? Why did you choose this approach? What other options did you consider? This kind of question helps to make the designer more comfortable talking about their process and decisions.

It’s a good reminder to say that design critiques are not limited to designers only, we can extend the invite to other relevant people like engineers, product managers, customer service, etc. Diversity is the key.

How many times we have been in a meeting and people judge the designs with one ‘’I like or I don’t like or I think, I don’t think”. These comments, as much as they are not intentional, don’t help the conversation. Let’s see it with an example.

Instead of “ I don’t think we need that screen to be a modal window”

We could rephrase with: “ Can I ask why we decided to show that screen as a modal window”? Have you thought about other options?

To help you how to process the information this is a framework that could help you:

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Taking these 4 questions into consideration before giving your feedback is a good way to turn the meeting into a conversation that would help to iterate and improve the product.

In summary

Going back to our first question. Is it the critique about me?

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Work can be a part of you but doesn’t define you. Your character, skills, and hobbies define you. So next time, you ask for feedback or there is a critique design meeting in place, we all should remember:

Critique is about how to improve our products, projects, services. We are not our products so let’s chill, don’t take it personally, and enjoy critique.

Thank you 🙌

Written by

Product Designer ⚡️. Always hungry for new challenges and innovations ▪️ Design Systems ▪️ UI ▪️ UX ▪️ Interaction Design ▪️

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