Improving Design With Critique

Issue 21

Adventures in UX Design is a newsletter helping you navigate UX roadblocks

It is always easier to find the flaws than it is to offer solutions. Many of us have gotten so used to looking for the fly in the ointment that we’ve narrowed our field of vision down to identifying error over opportunity.

This is the difference between delivering criticism, and critique, creating an environment that isolates and one that fosters collaboration. Understanding that difference can improve your team’s designs, the way you work, how you communicate with each other, and how you influence the way others communicate. Often misunderstood, critique is a technique, along with tools that foster collaboration and consensus that can raise your design game.

So, what do we mean by critique and why does it matter?

If design is the rendering of intent, then critique is the open exploration and discussion of that intent and the choices made to reach the designer’s objectives. Where have those choices succeeded, why were they made, and what can we learn from them? Where have they failed, and how can we improve upon them? Critique removes the element of personal opinion from the discussion and focuses instead on objectives and the choices made to reach them.

Criticism is the act of analyzing and judging a piece of work from one’s perspective. It is a process of finding flaws and delivering often negative feedback. Constructive criticism makes an effort to convey both the strengths and the weaknesses of a work.

Critique is an analysis that begins and is grounded by the design objectives. With critique, we weigh the work against the goals and objectives to be met and explore why choices were made and how effective (or not) they are in the context of the work. It creates a dialogue that extends far beyond formal reviews and helps teams focus and reach consensus. It delivers constructive, specific feedback to move designs forward, and it helps designers grow in their craft.

In this issue, we explore techniques design teams can use to introduce critique, encourage collaboration, team alignment, and consensus around their work.

1. Improve Design Using Critique

The search for the right solution to a problem evolves out of the way we think about it: How decisions are made to meet specific goals and objectives, and why we made them. With critique, designers are able to explain the thinking behind the choices they’ve made and get feedback on those choices. It can help them refocus their work in areas that fall short, and bring to light those areas that shine (and why).

When we begin by focusing on the goals, and whether the design has met them, we move the conversation away from personal opinion. Critique is a balance between reviewing what works and what doesn’t in the context of the design.

Good critique, explains designers Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry, draws from the strengths of a given design decision to shed light on solutions for the weaker parts.

Over time, critique creates a more collaborative work environment, where teams feel comfortable discussing their designs in spontaneous and casual conversations, with less reliance on formal reviews. The practice helps teams relax into the process of giving and receiving feedback, and reaching a shared understanding of design problems to be solved.

Adam and Aaron break down the difference between critique and criticism a bit further.

When using critique, we try to:

  • Identify the objectives we think the creator is trying to reach
  • Understand those goals and objectives
  • Discuss the choices made to achieve goals and objectives
  • Review how effective design choices are in meeting their objectives
  • Identify strengths, potential challenges that arise from the choices made, and possibly missed opportunities

How can you integrate critique into your design practice? Both Adam and Aaron agree that starting small and casual is the best approach. Critique can be used in standalone reviews, design reviews, and collaborative activities. They suggest that teams consider the following:

  • Introduce critique into your process by starting small and informal, talking about designs in an analytical way
  • The more you communicate, the more natural critique will become a part of your language

Choose whom you critique with carefully and look for people who communicate well. (You’ll recognize who is less inclined toward the practice, such as some managers and executives who are generally part of larger design reviews.)

LISTEN: Building Consensus in Critiques and Design Studios with Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry

2. A Framework For Using Critique

Critique is a practice that helps designers communicate and think more critically around the choices they have made to solve design problems and achieve specific objectives. When done well, the practice improves the communication skills of teams and how they work together.

Designers Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry use critique in their practice and offer some general ground rules that work well in their approach:

Avoid problem solving during critique

Critique is analysis of the design in front of you. It’s not about finding solutions as it is exploring what works and doesn’t in the design in front of you.

Create an equal playing field

No matter what your position is, all opinions carry equal weight in design critiques.

Focus on the things that matter

Use scenarios, personas, goals, objectives, mini creative briefs — all to facilitate, inform, frame and augment the discussion during critique.

Practice active listening skills

The best critiques are a dialogue between participants.

Focus the conversation

Make sure everyone is looking at things from the same lens.

Use round robins

Get people to think about commenting and involve everyone.

At its heart, critique is about improving work through iteration. Yeah, there will be difficult people who don’t take to the practice, and both Aaron and Adam have tips for dealing with them, as well as using critique in everything from one-on-ones to design reviews and brainstorming sessions.

WATCH: Discuss Design Without Losing Your Mind with Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry

3. Build Consensus in Design Studios

Design Studio workshops are part of a larger strategy that designers can use to engage teams and stakeholders, gather ideas, and explore possibilities. We all know great ideas don’t materialize out of thin air by virtue of having great minds gathered in a room. How you structure and organize your design studio is as important as who you’ll bring to it.

Adam Connor shares a three-step process for preparing your design studio in a way that can set the group up to explore new ideas and find consensus.

1. Research

Everyone in the room should understand the problems you are trying to solve in your design studio. Talk to stakeholders. Bring user research that uncovers behaviors, attitudes, and values. Identify those user behaviors you are designing for.

  • Personas: Who are we solving for, what are their behaviors, attitudes and values.
  • Scenarios: Look for scenarios that feature functions or challenges that will make up the core of the product, and get agreement from the team on those scenarios before going into the workshop.
  • Business Goals: Use well defined and measurable goals.
  • Design Principles: Identify characteristics of the solution.

2. Experience Visioning

Explain what you are going to build: the story you want to tell, the steps you want people to take, and the feelings you want them to have. Journey maps and scenarios are incredibly useful for this.

3. Concept and Detailed Design

In this step, we explore what we want the experience to look like, based on what we’ve learned: the content within it, the interactions and screens. This is a cyclical process of diagraming, observing, evaluating, creating and refining.

In planning your design studio, make sure that the problem you’ll be exploring is clearly defined, and that your team and stakeholders are already on the same page about what that problem is. The design studio shouldn’t be the first time they are hearing about it.

Design studios offer a unique opportunity to build consensus across teams naturally as you come together to sketch, present, and critique ideas.

WATCH: Building Design Consensus early in your process with Adam Connor

You need to start improving the conversations you have around design. To do that you’ll want to spend a day in this amazing UX Immersion: Interactions workshop with Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry. Adam and Aaron have been discussing design critique for many years and are authors of the book Discussing Design, which is exactly why you want to learn about Consensus and Critique from them.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.