How to Effectively Deliver a Design Critique

Early in my career I had no idea how bad I was delivering a design critique.  I basically told people (usefully developers) that their baby (website or web application) was really ugly and they ought to fix it.  I even told them how to fix it.

From my perspective, it wasn’t personal. I was doing my job!  I was good at my job and I had a lot of valuable expertise to share.  But above all, I had user research to back up my “your baby is really ugly” comments.

I had no idea my delivery was like that Ghostbusters scene where Dr. Venkman says, “Back off man, I’m a scientist.”

Guess what?  A lot of my good stuff was ignored.

Happily, I failed forward.  My failures taught me how to effectively deliver a design critique.  Or put another way, I learned how to deliver bad news and effectively move the design forward.

Tip #1:  Remember that it IS personal.

It does not matter WHO you present your critique to (e.g., the boss, the artist, the entire team, etc.) or HOW you present the critique (e.g., oral presentation, hallway conversation, email, etc.), understand people as people.  They care.

If you deliver nothing but a string of negatives you’re most important and valid points are going to be ignored.

Tip #2:  Celebrate what you enjoyed and explain why.

Bad design is easy to pick out.  Good design is not.  Find something you genuinely enjoy.  Be specific.  Whether it’s the techniques used, the emotion the design evokes, the difficulty of the problem trying to be solved, always include specific appreciations in your critique.

If you get stuck, try the questions Jared Spool offers in his article on What Goes Into a Well-Done Critique:

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

This statement has also worked well for me:

  • [It] works because…

Pointing out an interaction or technique that works especially well is another way to show appreciation.  It’s also a way to introduce an alternative option.

While an appreciation by itself is good, go the extra mile and explain WHY you enjoy the design.  Explanations allow you to share your perspective, expertise, and it demonstrates you care about the long-term success of the design.

With practice you’ll be just as good at showing appreciation as this little girl who likes everything.

Tip #3:  Have a conversation whenever possible.

The most effective critiques I have “given” are conversations—not presentations or remediation reports.  I’m not suggesting you skip the report or presentation.  I’m suggesting you schedule a conversation with the creator(s) before you turn in your final report.

Think of this step as an interview.  By now you should have spent time looking at the work-in-progress.  You’ve noted some areas of concerns along with the things you love.  Now it’s time to talk with the creator(s) to understand how and why the design is the way it is.

Here are some of the open-ended questions I have used to approach problem areas:

  • Tell me about [problem area].  Walk me through what the user needs to accomplish. h(Sometimes just talking through the experience leads the creator(s) to recognize a mistake.)
  • Did you consider [offer a substitute]?  (I was in a critique once where the team HAD considered every substitute I offered and they had valid reasons they went a different direction.  That changed how I wrote my final report.)

I usually walk away from these conversations understanding constraints that were never articulated, issues the creator(s) were already aware of, and having a much better idea of how I will create a deliverable that won’t sit on a shelf and collect dust.

In Summary

The most effective critiques are not the ones you “give” but the ones you participate in.

So leave a comment and tell me:

  • What has been your most difficult critique?
  • How did you manage to push the design forward?
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