Art critique

Recovering the lost art of criticism

When it comes to design, UX professionals are well aware of the importance of empathy. Understanding the weak points for the end user is essential to create the products that will meet their needs. Increased empathy ensures that a real view of these pain points is achieved and there are many tools and best practices that enable this. But there is a blind spot that has arisen from all of this goodness, which is forgetting to apply that same principle to our colleagues, stakeholders and peers.

Creative tension between cross-functional teams can be a positive thing, but only if we understand each other’s goals and know how to criticize work and take criticism constructively. In short, we can be tough with ideas, while being nice to our colleagues. Being able to maintain the ability to assess and reassess our work as designers for the good of our business and our customers, while building trust and respect among our teams, is good for business. To help you get the most out of review workshops, here are my top tips for creating an effective and robust review framework.

1. Define a framework for the feedback sessions

In my 20 years of experience, I have learned that setting the stage for feedback sessions is essential to getting the most out of everyone involved. Not only does it provide clear boundaries for review, but it also ensures that there is a natural progression that aligns with a product roadmap, resulting in a deployable solution when sessions are over. My proven trio of feedback steps are:

Session One: Where Are We Directionally?

The first session or design sprint should focus on capturing the initial brief. It’s not about what the buttons should do or what the icons should look like. This is a simple assessment of key stakeholders to determine if we have started to design against the solution’s core business goals. The result of this session should be an emphatic green light that allows us to begin the journey towards a minimum viable product.

Second session: is everything functional?

This session should focus on the key requirements of the solution. We still don’t think about the aesthetic details, but instead make sure that the functional components of the solution – that is, the core functionality – are in place. We need to make sure that nothing has been overlooked at this point.

Third session: Details

Now we can start exploring text edits, icons, buttons, and menus. This is the step to scrutinize the details and dig deep into why we feel what we do for the smallest of design choices, and then fine-tune it a bit more.

The goal of the three steps is to avoid an endless review loop. With the session over and a direction agreed, we move on. If comments that fit the context of the first session are given in the third session, we are just too far along on our roadmap to return to the drawing board. This is why it is essential that all stakeholders are represented at every stage.

2. Avoid the pitfalls of feedback

There are three main mistakes we can make when it comes to feedback. First, we can seek to advance our design without asking for feedback at all. This is arguably the most damaging approach, because if you don’t take the initiative to ask for feedback, you are missing out on a huge opportunity. We can’t assume we’ve designed the perfect solution, so we need to leverage the experience and expertise of our colleagues to inform our decisions. Remember, we are all better than any of us.

Second, we can ask for feedback without listening. Sometimes review sessions can be seen as a check mark exercise, especially when we feel that those giving their feedback are not close enough to our work to understand the desired results or the rationale behind our design choices. Going into feedback sessions with this mindset is a fatal mistake. By not listening to our colleagues, we miss out on valuable information that can improve our designs. People asked to critique our work will also likely notice our disinterest and feel uncomfortable sharing their thoughts.

Finally, we may ask for feedback to receive praise or validation when we think we’ve done a good job. Regardless of the validity of the points, this approach ensures that we are not in the right frame of mind to hear them, which can lead to missing key flaws and, most importantly, not meeting customer requirements.

3. Accept criticism and increase your value

We must remember that there is an essential business case to identify faults as early as possible. The sooner we find them, the easier and cheaper they are to repair. Finding an error at the design stage is much less expensive than when a solution is in development, where remediation is about 15 times more expensive. The cost also changes with each progression along the product roadmap. For example, a defect that is only realized when a solution arrives in production can be 100 times more expensive to correct than a defect that appeared during the design stage, as it will require significant redesign and integration by engineers.

One of the best tools in our toolkit for detecting design errors is peer review of the design at critical points in the product development lifecycle. Spending time on making them as effective as possible is not only important for efficiency gains, but they are also an essential part of increasing an organization’s bottom line.

4. Use data to save design decisions

Before we begin our design work, we’ll have developed ideas, performed user testing, and followed UX best practices for feedback. At this point, it is essential that we accurately record the feedback data, as this will be our ultimate ally when challenged on our design decisions.

Data allows us to respond to concerns with empathy, rather than taking them personally, and the confidence to show why the decisions we made were right, or at least made in accordance with customer demands. Every design of a feature does not need to be backed up by data when there are well-understood design paradigms that inform it. For example, an application with multiple menus does not require us to justify the design of each menu when we know that a certain style meets the functional requirements of 99% of users.

If a challenge arises over an unprecedented problem, then we must be open to the possibility that an oversight has occurred. In this case, we need to create a basic prototype and present it to users with the original design for some AB testing to get quick feedback.

This is where an agile approach is essential. Taking this approach means that we are not afraid of failure, which is essential for innovation. We need to try things when there is a need to, but fail early and fail quickly when we do, which is why effective feedback is so essential for business.


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