Critiques are are key part of a design team and can really help elevate the work that a team produces. In the past, critiques had a tendency to lean more towards criticism, which made for a very negative experience for everyone involved.
At Australia Post, teams were religious with their critiques, and it was run differently to what I had experienced before, which made for an extremely great outcome for everyone involved. Here are a couple of things that I learnt along the way.
Establish clear roles
Everyone has a role to play in a critique. These roles are critical in order for critiques to be effective. Critiques vary from each company to another, however here are a couple of important pillars in each critique, the presenter, the audience and the facilitator.
This is the individual presenting the work. The main role of the presenter is to:-
- Clearly describe the problem being solved
- Show the ideas that were explored
- Present the design or solution they ended up going with
As a presenter, keep things simple. Show a prototype or a Figma flow. The idea here is not to come up with a presentation or to sell the team on the work completed.
The audience is anyone who isn't presenting. The audience should:-
- Listen without distraction (keep your devices away)
- Ask questions
It's important to ask a balance of macro and micro questions. Macro questions can help the presenter and their team prioritize, reassess or even pivot. Micro questions will assist in areas like visual language or push different types of innovation within the design team.
Create a parking lot to "park" questions that are a little more contentious to avoid taking up time and derailing the session. The parking lot will allow you to revisit and give them the consideration and time to they need, which you couldn't initially.
Perhaps the most important role in critiques. Think of a facilitator as the person that brings the room together and helps the critique session run smoothly. Facilitators should strive to:-
- Connect with presenters early (ideally a day before) and create a schedule. I normally find that using Confluence helps a lot here. This way it doesn't become a burden and is more on the presenters to book a spot and facilitators can assist with the flow or reach out if they think there are too many presenters in one session.
- Help keep everyone on agenda. Critiques are extremely human and emotions run high along with tangential comments and rants. A facilitator can help steer everyone and keep them on course.
- Help with note taking. This doesn't have to be super formal. Jump into Figma and leave notes there next to frames or in a preset section. The most important thing is to be as clear and precise as possible to help the presenter understand the feedback.
- Help the presenter progress by asking what are the next steps? Document these or help the presenter start a dialogue with key stakeholders.
Help everyone understand the problem
Presenters should start with the problem being solved before showing any work. This context is incredibly helpful for the audience to be able to correctly understand and provide the right feedback.
A simple format to follow that I've used many times is:
- I am showing [early/mid/late] work
- Around [the problem]
- Because [why its a problem / worth solving]
- And am looking for feedback around [area of feedback you're looking for]
It's good to be specific around what type of feedback you're looking for because it shows what you are and aren't focused on.
Feedback vs criticism
This is where critiques become a real drag. From past experience, the issue teams struggle with is how to provide feedback. The most important thing when it comes to feedback is to pose your thoughts as a question.
This allows the presenter to respond by expressing their reasoning instead of being defensive. Most of the time, this comes down to the way we phrase our questions.
I've found that phrasing a thought with "Have you considered....." is way better, much more polite and respectful compared to "Why is the list icon like ......". Its the difference between considering the person behind the work, the efforts they've put in, the considerations they've made and allowing them to explain that.
Another thing to consider is to start on a positive note before jumping in with your questions - "I really like how you did X, have you considered turning this into a pattern?" Positive notes like this can really brighten someones day up and brings the team closer together and encourages positive reflection, which is equally important in critiques.
A really great resource on the differences between critique and criticism is written by Judy Reeves:-
- Criticism passes judgement — Critique poses questions
- Criticism finds fault — Critique uncovers opportunity
- Criticism is personal — Critique is objective
- Criticism is vague — Critique is concrete
- Criticism tears down — Critique builds up
- Criticism is ego-centric — Critique is altruistic
- Criticism is adversarial — Critique is cooperative
- Criticism belittles the designer — Critique improves the design
To sum up, remember that critique is a team effort. We should focus on moving solutions ahead together and empowering the team with the mindset of working together as opposed to criticising one another. Critiques are truly useful when everyone comes together to understand, identify opportunities, explore and build on each others work.