Following up on my previous essay on design feedback, Why Critique?, I wanted to elaborate on what I've learned over the years about what makes critique "good." Read on for useful perspectives, examples, tips, and approaches for general-purpose design critique.
Critique is a ritual gift exchange
Previously, I mentioned that critique is like a gift exchange, or a ritual. Let's break that down. (If you're interested in this, there is a wealth of research on gift-giving and ritualism in the field of Performance Studies).
A collectively decided-upon time and place…
Critique should happen regularly, and in addition to ad-hoc feedback from clients and partners, there should be a more formal critique setting. This formal setting is a time and space we all agree to use to challenge each other's work. Because this is a ritual and an exchange, all participants — both critic and designer — should feel engaged, heard, confident, and clear.
A theme or shared occasion…
A productive critique is grounded in the context of the work itself, and the thought process of the designer. Critics should focus on seeing through the eyes of the designer and their audience. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to define that context, a set of questions, and a goal — all elements that make up a great gift exchange.
A shared desire to understand and challenge one another…
Critique should be approached with Radical Candor — a communication and feedback technique that focuses on being respectfully critical, honest, vulnerable. Critique is about understanding a designer's intent, in context, and drawing what you see into question from their perspective. It's not about the critics could/should/oughts, or design by committee. It's about amplifying the designer's authorial voice and helping them to better articulate it. We accomplish this by actively listening, asking good questions, and providing actionable feedback.
How to receive critique with grace
As the designer, you're setting the table for the critics — initiating the ritual for your gift exchange. Getting a good critique means taking an active role in the process! Here are some tips and common practices to help you take a more active role, and solicit better feedback!
Invite the right people.
Think about the goals for your critique, and invite only the people that will help you get there. This will help you feel like you're an active participant, and can eliminate a lot of off-topic feedback and opinionation.
Present problems, not solutions.
In general, try to bring work that is somewhere from 25% to 75% complete. This is a rule Pixar brings to their daily critique sessions that proved very useful. Work that is less than 25% complete probably isn't figured out enough, and work over 75% complete is too far along for feedback to be impactful.
If possible, give people a sneak peek.
Send out a short summary or Loom video so people can come to the session prepared to hear you out.
Acknowledge the intent of your work.
Express your standpoint as the author, and share relevant context so that others can understand your logic.
Frame the critique with goals.
What exactly do you want to take away from this critique? Are there specific questions you can ask to help get closer to these goals?
Avoid asking passive questions.
These are questions like "what do you think?" or "does this make sense?". Instead, try asking active questions, like "does my intent come across in what you're seeing?" or "from a user's perspective, does this interaction feel natural?"
Respect your critics.
Hang back and take time to collect your thoughts after they speak. After you've shared your intent and goals, create space for curiosity and critical questions. Set aside your ego and listen.
Simply say "tell me more…"
This question is a powerful way to encourage spontaneous and honest feedback. When in doubt, let your critics wander. Let them not understand, let them be irrelevant, let them make sense for themselves. To "win" at critique is to get a few insights, ideas, or suggestions that you are excited about, or that you couldn't think up on your own. Lead the conversation until you get there. Listen intently.
Step into your role as an author.
It's your role to decide what to do with feedback you get. A good chunk of it might not be important to you, or might not move the work forward in a meaningful way. That's ok, it's part of the process. You are the author of your work, and critique is done in service of helping you improve your authorial skills. Just because someone told you something, doesn't mean you need to act on it.
How to give critique with candor
Being a good critic is just as important of a skill as being a good designer. Sometimes it's actually more important, like when you're a manager or a strategist. Lara Hogan gives us a really cool framework for giving consistently productive critique, in the form of an equation:
Start by simply stating your observations. What do you see in front of you? Your goal should be to help a designer understand whether their intent is effectively framed and communicated. Letting the designer know what you see, and what you understand, is a simple but powerful tactic. A critic will often see things differently than the creator, and this is some of the most valuable feedback we can give. By showing the designer what we think they are trying to say or accomplish, they can begin to understand what their work is actually saying.
This is where you can say how you feel. Remember how the designer shared their intent and goals at the beginning of the session? Tie what you see back to that intent, and describe whether you think what you see is successful in communicating that intent. And remember: it's important to recognize the context a designer is bringing to the table, and filter your feedback through it.
Question or Request
In general, there are two styles of feedback: questions and requests. It can take time to figure out which one best fits your personal style, and both can be valid.
This is when you share your observations, why it matters to you, and advice on how you would do it instead. This is great for something like a brainstorm, but sometimes it's not productive. Remember that critique should be grounded in what you see and what the designer wants to discover; in many cases, it shouldn't be speculative or instructive, but concrete and relevant. Lots of designers default to requests — understandably, because this is how we most often hear feedback from clients. When in doubt, ask the designer if they're willing to hear your request, and let them decide based on their goals.
This is when you ask the designer specific questions to spur their curiosity. By asking questions instead of providing suggestions or instructions, we're drawing attention to points of contention, curiosity, and confusion. Sometimes critics try to use this style because they view the "Request" style as harsh or directorial, but it's important to know that this is also a skill that you can improve. Asking good questions is hard, but one good question can be better than all the suggestions in the world.
Whether you've used a request or question style for your critique, your goal as a critic should be to give the designer something to act on! In the same way the designer created space for you to give feedback, an excellent critic should aim to create space for the designer to move forward and make informed decisions. If your feedback is prescriptive, instructional, heavy-handed, rude, out of context, or too speculative — the odds are that the designer didn't get what they needed out of the critique.
One tip is to ask the designer near the end of the review session: "Did you get what you needed out of this feedback?"
Some more tips to guide you
Critique should be kind, but doesn't need to be nice.
It's about Radical Candor — being very vulnerable with each other by drawing thoughtful, deliberate attention to areas where a person can improve their work. It's an act of compassion.
Try to avoid giving corrective critiques.
Instead, focus on understanding the intent of the designer and give feedback through the lens of helping them better communicate that intent.
Share what you like, not just what isn't working
When providing critique, try to share what you think is working with as much enthusiasm as you describe what isn’t working. Avoid the compliment sandwich; be clear, candid, and kind.
Be cautious when raising objections.
An objection, like an instruction, is a very powerful form of feedback. An objection should be raised if something might put the business or client at risk, harm someone's health or safety, or conflict with the studio's values. If your objection doesn't hit those criteria, try rephrasing it as a question. Instead of "I think your solution is wrong because it reinforces negative behavior", try out "do you think this design encourages desirable behaviors?"
Depersonalize your feedback.
Another way that you can improve your feedback is to depersonalize the feedback. The comments should always be about the work and context, never about the person who made it. It’s “This button isn’t well aligned” versus “You haven’t aligned this button well.” This is very easy to change and makes a big difference in creating a critique environment that feels safe.
Take notes and listen first.
Try writing down your feedback and listening to others before vocalizing it. You may find that others share your perspective, or maybe feel differently. This can spur interesting insights for the designer! Better yet, if you bullet out your feedback, you can go a bit further and send that list to the designer afterward — recognizing that the designer may do what they wish with your feedback, including disregarding it.