What Goes into a Well-Done Critique

by Jared M. Spool

Receiving a critique is probably one of the hardest things we’ll do in our work. Giving one is equally as difficult. It’s hard to do well and easy to do poorly. As we’ve been working with teams over the last 20 years, we’ve accumulated an understanding of what goes into a successful critique. Here’s what we’ve found.

What a Well-Done Critique Is (and Is Not)

You can tell a critique has been successful when everyone involved—the design owner, the critic, and the rest of the team—have all learned something to make them better designers. A well-done critique is a way to step away from the specifics of the design process and better understand how to create great designs. We do this by starting with the current design and asking “What is it we’re really trying to do here?” and “How close are we to doing it?”

A critique is different from ‘proofing’ the design. When we proof, we’re looking for those little details, like typos and inconsistencies, that distract us from reaching perfection. Proofing is about polishing, whereas critiquing is about reaching understanding.

A critique is also different from common usability techniques, such as heuristic evaluations, cognitive walkthroughs, inspections, and usability tests. These, when done well, look at the design from the perspective of the user. Instead, critique looks at it from the perspective of experience and viewpoint of another designer. Both perspectives are invaluable to successful designs, but they should not be confused.

The most successful teams have everyone in the role of a critic at some point. Some do it through regularly scheduled studio sessions. Some make it part of their overall design process. When everyone knows they’ll be on both the receiving and delivering end of a critique, they tend to be more in tune with the overall goals.

Four Elements of a Well-Done Critique

As we observe teams involved in critiques, we’ve seen some patterns emerge. The teams that benefit most from the critique process share four basic elements: respect for the hard work and experience, a dispassionate approach, recognition that the critic lacks authority, and justifications for the discussion points.

Element #1: Respect

In the best critiques, the critic, when delivering their advice and criticism, understands and acknowledges the hard work the design owner has put into the design. The critic knows it’s taken a lot to get to this point, and they reflect that understanding in their dialogue.

The critic also knows how difficult it is for any design owner to receive a critique. This means going beyond basic cordiality and politeness. A skilled critic will understand the design owner is invested and works to reduce the ‘attacking’ feeling that is a natural reaction to any criticism.

Respect comes in small ways, such as only providing a critique when the design owner is ready to receive it. Anyone who has been ‘ambushed’ by an unsolicited critique knows that the element of surprise does not enhance their receptiveness to the advice and criticism.

Element #2: Dispassionate

When done well, everyone can step away from the design. The design owner understands they aren’t being judged.They’re helping the team see the journey they’ve taken to get here. The critic, who sees the design at its current state, uses the critique to explore different design directions. The critique becomes a learning opportunity for the entire team by spreading expertise, vision, and skills.

Element #3: Lacking Authority

The seasoned critic knows the harsh truth: nothing they say will directly change the design in any way. The only way the design can change is if the design owner does it.

In the best critiques we’ve seen, the critics never made a single recommendation. Instead, they asked questions and guided discussion. They talked about the significance of design rationale as it pertained to a bigger philosophy and vision for the design.

For example, instead of saying, “While I think those flyout menus are slick, I recommend you nuke them and put the links in the center of the page,” the critic might ask, “What alternatives did you consider for the flyout menus?” By moving the conversation to talk about the bigger picture, everyone can discuss how this element (the flyout menus) is contributing to the total experience.

Element #4: Justified Impressions and Concerns

In any well-done critique, we see two themes that run concurrently: the positive impressions the design leaves on the critic and the concerns the critic has about the design’s direction. This balances hard-to-hear criticism with the good things the design owner did. In both cases, the critic goes beyond a simple statement and provides a good justification for their thinking.

We’ve observed the skilled critics avoid hollow compliments, such as “I’m liking the direction you’re going in.” (Or worse, the half-compliment: “I like this, but…”) Instead, they take it further, sharing specifics on what they like and how it supports the direction of the design. The detail not only helps the design owner feel good about what they’ve done, it connects the vision and philosophy to the design itself.

Similarly, when offering criticism, we’ve seen the seasoned critics stay on solid ground by justifying their concerns and showing alternative examples. The team can then discuss the merits of the justifications, instead of making it a battle of opinions about taste. By comparing design alternatives, the team looks at the essence of the design issues. While, in any project, practical constraints often win out, discussing the higher level concepts help the design owner (and other team members) make better decisions going forward.

Questions for the Well-Groomed Critic

Thinking about improving your critiquing skills? Here’s one way to approach the process. Just ask yourself these questions during your critique:

  • What did I enjoy about this design and why?
  • What concerns me about this design and why?
  • What does this design remind me of and why?

Ideally, you can keep all three questions in balance, ensuring you have as many positive comments about the design as criticisms. (Some of the more seasoned critics we interviewed told us they try to have two positives to every negative in their critiques.)

When delivering the critique, the skilled critics told us they rank the criticisms in priority order, ensuring that the most critical comments come first. Each point they raise is about moving the conversation forward. “Have you considered…” is a great way to start an important criticism, since it gives the design owner a chance to say, “I did, but I chose this direction because…” Now, the team can talk about the bigger issues behind the rationale instead of nitpicking the design details.

Critique-Safe Environments

As we talked to teams, another pattern emerged: the teams that felt they got the most out of their critiques also were the teams that conducted them the most. We learned that regularly scheduled studio sessions, where the team reviewed one or two designs each time, had several interesting benefits.

One benefit that jumped out at us was that critiquing skills improve with each session. As each team member took their turn to conduct a serious, wholehearted critique, they got better at it. Sitting in the design owner’s hot seat also improved the skills for receiving criticism and thinking more broadly about their own work.

Another benefit came from seeing a design evolve. Later critiques would have better background knowledge on the goals and history, showing how both the design and the designer have matured through the process.

Well-Done Critiques

Critique is an essential part of the design process, but it’s not something most UX professionals are taught. Like many important skills, it’s hard to do well and easy to do poorly. Improving your critiquing skills makes you more valuable to the design team, while you learn about creating better designs.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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