Conducting Effective Design Critiques

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A column by Janet M. Six
November 19, 2012

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss how to conduct an effective design critique.

In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, a panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about various user experience matters. To get answers to your questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Dana Chisnell—Principal Consultant at UsabilityWorks; Coauthor of Handbook of Usability Testing
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Tobias Komischke—Director of User Experience, Infragistics
  • Traci Lepore—Senior User Experience Designer at Bridgeline Digital; UXmatters columnist
  • Catalina Naranjo-Bock—User Experience Design Researcher at Yahoo!; UXmatters columnist
  • Whitney Quesenbery—Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Past-President, Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA); Fellow, Society for Technical Communications (STC); UXmatters columnist
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
  • Jo Wong—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.

Q: How do you conduct a well-run critique?—from a UXmatters reader

“I’m assuming that this is a design or technique critique within a UX team, not an expert review,” replies Whitney. “The first rule is to avoid personalizing your criticism. My scenic design teacher told us to always come to a meeting with a drawing or some other artifact, so the discussion would be about it, not about you. Keep the discussion focused on your goals: the design—or whatever you are critiquing—is neutral. The question is whether it’s appropriate for the project.

“Think about your personas and how they would view the design rather than how you view it. In user experience, it’s not about our own opinions or aesthetic, but about how well something works for the audience. Using the technique of a persona-led review allows you to have a conversation about how specific types of users might react.

“Make it a reflective process. A critique can be like holding up a mirror—or several of them—to your work. Sometimes the best critique is the one you give your own work. Let the person whose work is being critiqued come to the conclusions, so they will own them and be able to act on them. This prevents the natural tendency to be defensive.

“Finally, when critiquing others’ work, remember that there’s a person—or several people—who may have worked very hard on a design. Assume that they didn’t deliberately set out to create something that is bad or that penalizes users. Consider their feelings in the way you conduct the critique.”

“The most important success factor in running a critique is to keep opinions out of it,” advises Traci. “Yes, I realize the irony of that statement. The quickest route to argument, frustration, and unproductive feedback is to let people say ‘I like’ or ‘I don't like’ something without any further qualification. To help stop that runaround, communicate some clear design principles that you are trying to achieve—for example, making the design clean, raising information to the top, showing the relationships between parts clearly and articulately—before starting the review, as well as key points from user data or business goals or branding criteria that you’re trying to achieve. And ask that people couch their feedback in those terms, so ‘I like it’ becomes ‘I like it because all of the critical information is here’ or ‘I don’t like it because this color doesn’t express the branding criteria.’ Make it a rule that all feedback has to have qualifiers.”

Discussing Design is an excellent collection of resources that center around conducting meaningful design critiques, from the perspective of both the person seeking feedback, as well as the person giving feedback,” recommends Catalina.

Conducting a Design Walkthrough

“One way to critique a product or service is to do a design walkthrough with stakeholders,” answer Dan and Jo. “Before doing a design walkthrough, it’s important to plan the session carefully and determine exactly what you want its outcome to be and what you would like to learn.

“Problems arise during design walkthroughs when there is no facilitator, so either assume that role yourself or assign the role to someone else. As a facilitator, if you do not frame a design review or design walkthrough properly, it can quickly turn into a free-for-all. You should decide, for example, whether a design review should focus only on a product’s visual design rather than its interactive elements or perhaps focus on the reasoning behind the design.

“Here are some tips for effectively planning a design walkthrough:

  • Set an agenda.
  • Define the walkthrough’s scope.
  • Define the walkthrough’s objectives.
  • Create an appropriate environment for the review.
  • Schedule the session for the right time of day.
  • Determine the session’s duration.
  • Define the session’s ground rules.
  • Define your design goals.
  • Create reusable tools.
  • Define your outcomes.
  • Define your next steps.”

For more information about doing design walkthroughs, read Dan’s UXmatters article, “Walking Through Your Product Design With Stakeholders.”

Benefits and Challenges of Design Critiques

“There is nothing as important than having additional sets of eyes look at what you’re designing,” exclaims Tobias. “Design critiques are not the only way to make that happen, but they’re a very good way of doing that. Although design reviews can be painful, you should enforce the same rule that guides brainstorming: anyone can bring up anything, and there are no wrong statements. You may not agree, but everything is a valid opinion. On a design team, everybody should submit their designs for critique. It’s important for everyone to experience the feeling of their design being put under an electron microscope. Experiencing this yourself helps you to provide better and more nuanced feedback when you review somebody else’s design.

“It’s not about pride—it’s about understanding what others consider good or worth improving. It may sound easy, but it is painful. If you’re a good designer, you care. You already care when at the idea stage or when you’ve just created rough sketches. But think of the tradeoff: you’ll feel pain during the critique, but what you get from the experience is evidence about whether you’re on the right track—and maybe even some helpful direction.

“I think the greatest challenge is to run a critique on a complex system,” continues Tobias. “Designers can require quite some time to explain what they’re showing. This may include introducing special vocabulary or explaining business logic. All of this can easily turn into a lengthy monologue from a designer—and the other folks still might not understand everything. In such situations, it can be helpful to distill the core of your design. One way to do that is by taking the paradigm that governs your user interface design approach and basically transplanting it into an easier to understand context.

“For example, I was working on a large application user interface for the energy sector, and the challenge at hand was allowing users to filter lists using nested Boolean operators. When I asked other designers to review my work, rather than showing the whole product in which this filter feature was embedded, I isolated the list and the operators from the rest of the product. I turned the list—which in the real product included energy-specific items—into a list with items such countries, states, cities—things everybody understands. Then I asked them to envision how the filtering worked using this list. It worked fine. However, it’s important always to remember that, by taking a core paradigm out of a real product context, you do run the risk of not getting feedback that is applicable to the real product. It’s talking about the how rather than the why—and the why is critically important. But, if that’s your objective, a design review or usability test with actual target users would be better.”

Merging Collaboration and Critique

“I don’t think critique sessions are necessarily part of a well-run project,” challenges Jordan. “When working on a product team, UX professionals need to proactively integrate their expertise throughout the entire project. This means figuring out ways of improving collaboration. That said, one really cool way of merging collaboration and critique is through a technique I call the feedback wall, where designers post concepts, sketches, and workflows on a wall—ideally a whiteboard wall—and encourage other team members to walk by and add comments on Post-it notes throughout the day. Then, the next day, the team regroups and reviews and expands on all of the comments.”

Improving Your Critique Technique

Some advice that Dana posted on critiquing moderator practices also applies to improving a design critique process: “One of the most effective techniques I’ve found is to give folks a simple checklist of a few things—ask open-ended questions; give neutral acknowledgements; don’t offer anything; ask about past experience versus future intentions—then ask them to watch or listen to recordings of themselves. Alone.

“I then ask them to tell me what they think they could do better on, what they think they need help and practice on, and what they have questions about. We talk about what they might have learned if they had asked some questions in a different way. When most people do this, they get it and correct their approach pretty quickly.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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