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Prioritizing Design Critique, Part 1

Enterprise UX

Designing experiences for people at work

A column by Jonathan Walter
July 15, 2019

If you’ve worked in enterprise environments with a scarcity of UX resources, you already know how difficult it is to institute design processes whose goal is to improve your craft and the quality of your design deliverables. At companies that allocate insufficient funds and support to User Experience, there is often limited opportunity for activities beyond approved, budgeted project work. Moreover, building additional commitments into your schedule can be exhausting when there are already several, disparate product teams awaiting your and your teammates’ design deliverables. Activities that focus on collaboration with UX teammates and craft are usually the first to fall by the wayside.

However, making the time for UX teammates to come together and focus on our craft and the quality of our deliverables benefits not only us, but the entire company—especially the product teams with whom we work. Doing so helps prevent inconsistent designs, the use of different user interface components and patterns to accomplish essentially the same things, and, above all, the creation of poor user experiences. Furthermore, if we fail to prioritize collaborative activities that would improve the design work and deliverables of the entire UX team, we risk creating a vacuum that product teams would happily fill with their own design solutions—perhaps relying on false assumptions rather than user-centered design and often resulting in subpar user experiences.

Design critique is one of the most effective ways of cultivating our design skills and improving our deliverables. But prioritizing design critique is easier said than done, which is why it is important to ensure that, as UX designers, we create clear, executable processes that lower any barriers that would hinder our ability to do them. Often, the biggest barriers are ourselves! But, if UX designers do not prioritize design critique, nobody else will.

In this column, which is Part 1 in a series of two parts, I’ll first describe what design critique actually is—to avoid any confusion with design reviews. Then I’ll explain some ground rules and processes that, in my experience, help UX designers get the most out of design critique. Finally, I’ll present some ideas for building accountability into the design-critique process to ensure that it happens. In Part 2, I’ll share some specific design-critique methods that my team at Rockwell Automation have found effective.

What Is Design Critique?

Design critique is an activity that takes place when a UX designer wants to obtain constructive feedback on a design with the goal of improving the design. A design-critique session should occur when a design is in a state of progress that would allow further iteration. Often, design critique necessitates engaging with multiple people in an effort to derive broad, diverse feedback.

Sometimes a brief sanity-check or casual request for input from a fellow designer is all that is necessary. But do not confuse these with design critique. While you should encourage such activities at all times, they are not design critique. Conducting an effective design critique requires more preparation—which I’ll get to when I discuss process.

Moreover, many confuse design critique with a design review—a vague term that, depending on where you work, connotes different meanings and manifestations. According to Sarah Gibbons of the Nielsen Norman Group, design reviews usually occur “at the end of the creative process…to gain approval and move forward.”

The aim of a design review is not necessarily to improve the design—let alone the UX designer’s craft—or to determine how well the design meets a set of established goals and heuristics. This is the role of design critique, which assumes designers will apply the feedback they receive to further improve the design. In his article, “Paying Attention to the Details of Design Critique,” Adam Connor points out: “The conversations that take place during a critique are not about reaching some point where it’s [okay] to do something else, they are about the goals and principles you’ve set out to accomplish and how well your designs address them.”

Ground Rules

Every organization is different. The process you follow when conducting design critique can vary depending on your company’s culture, the number of available UX resources, and the distribution of those resources—whether they are collocated, remote, or a mixture of the two. Regardless of your critique method, if your peers are distributed across multiple campuses and time zones, prioritizing design critique can be challenging—unless you have a shared set of rules or guiding principles. The following are some ground rules that my team at Rockwell Automation have established. The intent of these ground rules is to foster consistency and efficiency in the design-critique process, regardless of the method of execution:

  • Initiate design critique early in your design process. Schedule a design-critique session as soon as you have a viable design solution that is still malleable—that is, before you’ve invested too much time refining and polishing it. The fidelity of the artifact you share depends on your role and is at your discretion. For example, a visual designer’s artifact would likely be more polished and at a higher fidelity than that of an interaction designer, who might simply be looking for feedback on a sketch, a set of wireframes, or a rough design specification.
  • Promote participant diversity. A design-critique session should include four to six individuals who have differing roles, responsibilities, and mindsets.¬†Feel free to include non-designers in your design-critique sessions. Depending on their role and field of expertise, they might be able to offer unique perspectives. Moreover, engaging architects, engineers, and other stakeholders in your design activities helps foster UX maturity within your organization.
  • Encourage flexibility. You can conduct design critique either synchronously—in person, remotely, or, less desirably, using a mix of the two—or asynchronously, which lets remote attendees in different time zones—an unavoidable reality for globally distributed teams—participate at their own convenience. Further, there is no single design-critique method or collection of methods to rule them all. I’ll cover this in Part 2. While it is okay to suggest methods, try not to treat them as requirements. People should feel empowered to explore different ways of deriving meaningful feedback on their design artifacts.
  • Demonstrate sensitivity to participants’ time constraints and availability. A synchronous design-critique session should take no more than an hour of the participants’ time. While this constraint does not preclude participants’ preparing in advance or reviewing an artifact at their own pace—especially for asynchronous design-critique activities—you should always demonstrate sensitivity to participants’ schedules, their context, and their understanding—or lack thereof—of your design work. Keep the scope of the deliverable for which you’re requesting design critique small enough to derive meaningful feedback within the allotted time. Presenting too large a deliverable or requesting too wide of a range of feedback won’t be effective. If you need wide-ranging feedback, schedule multiple design-critique sessions over the course of the project.
  • Foster your own engagement. I strongly recommend your having a facilitator or a notetaker—ideally both—so you and other participants can actively participate throughout the design-critique session. For a UX designer requesting feedback, a design-critique session won’t be beneficial if you are too focused on capturing notes in your notebook or on your computer. This could cause you to miss valuable feedback.
  • Nurture objectivity. Always assume the good intentions of your participants. You are requesting objective, constructive feedback on your design deliverables, so they should feel empowered to provide it. Otherwise, why would you invite them to participate? They are candidly critiquing your work, not you. A sure-fire way of discouraging open communication is reacting emotionally and taking feedback personally.
  • Promote clarity. Effective design critique has a clear goal and a desired outcome. For example, do not simply send a calendar invitation to participants, asking them to critique a faceted filter control or workflow that you’re hoping to incorporate into a product. Instead, provide contextual information, describing the user’s mindset, goals, and tasks when using the control or workflow, so participants can come up to speed faster.

Process

No set of ground rules alone can help UX team members form a clear mental picture of how effective design critique works. But, by providing a chronological construct your team can follow, you’ll give your teammates an actionable plan for executing a design-critique session. People relate better to rules that are tethered to practical actions. The following is an example of a process I have found useful for conducting design critique.

Before a Design-Critique Session

When you’re planning a design-critique session, do the following to ensure its success:

  • Invite the right people. As I described earlier, you should invite up to six people with differing roles, responsibilities, and mindsets to better facilitate meaningful, diverse feedback. Resist the urge to invite only individuals who you think would agree with you or validate your decisions. Doing so would only hurt the quality of your design solutions. Solicit design critique from people who would challenge you by providing constructive feedback. The people you choose for the facilitator and notetaker roles do not have to be UX professionals. Do not consider them participants. They should focus only on keeping the design-critique session moving along or capturing notes, respectively.
  • Provide context and goals. Participants won’t know where to focus their feedback unless you tell them. In advance of a design-critique session, clearly describe your goals and the scope of the feedback you want—specifically indicating what is out of scope. Attach your design deliverable to the meeting invitation or feedback request that you send to participants, so they’ll have time to form a clear mental picture of your design solution. State your desired outcome to ensure participants can help you achieve it. If you’re requesting asynchronous design critique, be sure to clearly state a due date by which you must receive all feedback, so participants can work toward that date.

During a Design-Critique Session

It’s important to do the following during a design-critique session:

  • Leverage the right tools. If you’re conducting a mostly in-person design-critique session that involves printed materials, ensure that your participants have access to extra pens and sheets of paper, so they can jot down their thoughts or sketch ideas. Do not assume that they’ll bring their own computer or notepad—even if you’ve asked them to. Never forget to ensure that remote participants have the materials they need in advance, so they can participate to the best of their ability.
  • Communicate with intention. As UX professionals, it is our job not only to solicit feedback, but to receive it openly and objectively—a mindset that should extend to our product teams and constituents. As you receive feedback, be aware of your body language, your facial expressions, and your tone, which influence those providing feedback. Furthermore, not all feedback on a design artifact needs to be critical. It is okay to ask participants what they feel is working well. Finally, invite feedback from any people who have been less vocal during a session, so they have an equal opportunity to contribute their thoughts, without interruptions from others.
  • Mind the time. After showing the deliverable to participants, allow them plenty of time to collect their thoughts. Ask the facilitator to monitor the time and inform participants when it is time for discussions to begin and end. Depending on how many deliverables you’re showing, you may need multiple intervals of discussion and quiet rumination.
  • Maintain focus. If someone steers a design-critique session away from its intended goal, tactfully redirect that person by reiterating your objectives and the scope of feedback you want—or ask the facilitator to do this before the session begins. Never dismiss ideas with which you do not agree. Instead, acknowledge differing viewpoints and ensure that the notetaker records them. The same applies for tangential discussions that could provide useful insights for another time and in another setting.

After a Design-Critique Session

Do the following after a design-critique session to maximize its impact:

  • Share the session’s output. In addition to thanking your participants for their time, send out any notes or recordings that were captured during the design-critique session. Ask participants whether, based on their recollections, they think anything is missing or inaccurate. Sharing the output from a design-critique session—for which you’ve requested participants’ scarce time—is not only courteous, but reinforces the value of their participation and, thus, helps to encourage their future participation.
  • Follow up on unresolved issues. To resolve issues that you couldn’t address during a design-critique session, consider meeting with participants who expressed interest in or had questions or concerns about those issues. Remember, participants have invested their time in critiquing your work. Nevertheless, not all of the feedback you receive will necessarily be good or useful feedback. Do not feel pressured to incorporate feedback with which you do not agree or that does not improve the design. You are the lead UX designer for the artifact you’ve presented for critique, so determining what gets incorporated and what does not is your decision. After all, you possess more intimate knowledge of the related product or feature. Plus, you need to synthesize all the feedback into a coherent whole.

Creating Accountability

Even if you have the best ground rules and process for conducting design critique, these won’t matter unless you and your teammates are committed to executing on them. Because the intent of design critique is not approving designs in an effort to move design deliverables forward for implementation, it can be difficult to institute accountability and ensure that design critique remains a meaningful part of your design culture. So how do you do it? Borrow one element from the design-review process: making approval a part of your design-critique process. However, this is not about getting approval of the design itself, but approval for having conducted the design-critique session.

Perhaps your product teams use Jira, Trello, or some other Kanban tool with a series of columns through which they move feature stories and deliverables, depending on their status. Your UX team can borrow this same construct for tracking design deliverables that are ready for critique and ensuring that they receive the necessary level of feedback. For example, as Figure 1 shows, in the To Do column at the left, you can create a story card for a design deliverable that is ready for design critique.

Figure 1—Tracking design critique using a basic Trello Kanban board
Tracking design critique using a basic Trello Kanban board

Source: Trello

Assign the story card to the participants you would like to critique your work. Most Kanban software provides notification features, so the participants to whom you’ve assigned the card should receive an email message, notifying them that you’re requesting their participation. On the story card itself, you could also provide details about when you plan to schedule a design-critique session and include any relevant information about the artifact for which you’re requesting a critique—such as the user’s mindset, goals, and tasks. You could also attach the design artifacts to the message to give participants an early look at the design, allowing them to better prepare for the session and frame their thoughts and questions.

When you send your meeting invitation, move the story card to the Doing (scheduled) column, in which the card remains until the design critique occurs. Upon completing the critique, move the story card to the Done column. Even though participants are not approving the design, you can help ensure the design critique receives the appropriate priority by providing an easy, visual method of tracking sessions—just as you would track feature stories.

If you’re conducting an asynchronous design critique, in lieu of using a meeting invitation as the catalyst for moving your critique card to the Doing (scheduled) column, your sharing the design artifact should be the trigger for moving the card forward, whether you send it through email or post it on an agreed-upon collaboration program such as Microsoft Teams or Slack.

If you manage a User Experience team and need to incentivize your staff to conduct design-critique sessions, consider tying annual performance and development goals to moving a minimum number of design-critique sessions to the Done column over the course of a fiscal year. Is this heavy-handed? Perhaps. But creating accountability—despite some potential grumbling among your employees—helps ensure that the design deliverables coming from your team gain the appropriate level of attention and oversight they need. This is a far better outcome than the alternative: allowing poor designs to find their way into production, resulting in the release of potentially brand-damaging user experiences.

Conclusion

Some UX teams fail to embrace design critique because it adds more meetings to people’s busy calendars, product teams might not support it, and it requires thoughtful planning. Moreover, design critique, by its nature, requires that a UX designer who requests a critique session must demonstrate humility and a willingness to expose their design decisions to a group of peers who are poised to deliver constructive criticism. But design critique is critical to your success as a UX designer, the success of your UX teammates, and the success of your product teams. Therefore, design critique should be a high priority.

Work with your teammates to draft a set of foundational ground rules that support all design-critique activities, help ensure consistency and efficiency, and lower barriers to optimal execution. Establish a design-critique process that you and your fellow UX designers can follow, ensuring that everyone knows how to execute upon those ground rules when conducting design critique.

Assigning prescriptive actions and presenting examples in chronological order paints a clearer picture, making the design-critique process more approachable and increasing the likelihood of its adoption. Create accountability by using the story-tracking tools that product teams often favor. After all, such tools are already familiar. Plus, their intent is to foster productivity and visibility. There is no need to invent something new or tax people’s already finite cognitive load by using some foreign construct. Treat design critique as a project with its own stories. It deserves such respect!

Craft and collaboration are essential ingredients of any successful UX-design career, and design critique is an effective, proven way of fostering them. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll share specific methods my teammates at Rockwell and I have found useful in conducting design critique. 

User Experience Architect at Rockwell Automation

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Jonathan WalterJon has a degree in Visual Design from the University of Dayton, as well as experience in Web development, interaction design, user interface design, user research, and copywriting. He spent eight years at Progressive Insurance, where his design and development skills helped shape the #1 insurance Web site in the country, progressive.com. Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. In 2013, Jon joined Rockwell Automation, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. He is UX lead for a revolutionary analytics appliance for users on the factory floor. In addition to his Fortune-500 experience, Jon has contributed his skills to a real-estate startup. Jon rounds out his time by writing and reading anything he can get his hands on.  Read More

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