Design Critique Done Well

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 design teams over the last 20 years, we’ve changed our thinking and accumulated an understanding of what goes into a successful critique.

Design Critique + Deck Critique Scan4Chem App Design / Bundesumweltministerium

Thinking about improving your critiquing skills at Wildstyle Network or at your company or even when working with us as your partner? Here’s our WSN-way to approach this process.

First of all: There’s a Difference in Proofing vs. Criticism

A critique is different from ‘proofing’ a 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.

The main Design Critique Questions

The main three questions to ask the team during your design critique are these:

  • What did I enjoy about this design and why? (10 min.)
  • What concerns me about this design and why? (15 min.)
  • What does this design remind me of and why? (5-10 min.)

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.)

How to: Ranking Criticism in Priority Order

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.

Build: Critique-Safe Environments

There’s a certain environment to be created when criticizing teams. These traits shouldn’t be treated as empty phrases. Please take them very very seriously. Sometimes it helps to quickly discuss what that means…

  1. be open
  2. be honest
  3. be respectful

The Way we talk:

The experienced critic knows the harsh truth: nothing we say will directly change the design in any way. The only way the design can change is if the design owner does it. So we have to address the designers and support them in their thinking.

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?
The effect is: 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.

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.

Get used to: Sessions every Friday

Do it regularly: Being criticized every other month is harder than facing a regular design critique. It’s that simple.
We learned that regularly scheduled Atelier sessions, where the team reviewed one or two designs each time, had several interesting benefits. Wildstyle Network teams schedule a weekly design review meeting and within the meeting, they work on these two buckets:

  • What was each Wildstyler’s design challenge of the week?
  • What would other members consider in the presented design?

FAQ: What happens if

  1. If a team member reacts with “But what else should I have done?”, then the design critique maybe got too personal. The leader of the meeting has to step in.
  2. Answering the “what did we enjoy” with a big BUT. For example: “I enjoyed the brave selection of color BUT we shouldn’t have…”. Just eliminate the bloody “buts”. Pro tip: use the word “and” instead ;)

Critique Mentors at Wildstyle Network

Reach out to Steve and Anja if you want to run a retro or design critique.

Past Design Critiques (#MBS19, Microsoft, March 2019):

What the deck, strategy and design team captured from the last Design Critique meeting.

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