Learning the art of critique – my notes

(This article is based off of my interpretation of the ebook Discussing Design: Improving Communication & Collaboration Through Critique by Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry)

I was going to title this “my critique” which would’ve been punny later, but after reading this ebook I realized that’d be the wrong use of the word. People often use “critique” to mean their opinion on something like food or movies. If that’s how you use it too, stay tuned and listen to my rambles on the subject! You may just learn something.

Recently I went through a project where I used Hotjar (heatmapping/analytics tool) to watch videos and give feedback to a company on the usability of their configurator. One of my bosses passed along the aforementioned book to help me format my presentation, and I thought I’d share my findings here. As an author, student, or even accountant, it’s a valuable skill to know how to formulate/iterate critique in a professional and meaningful way.

Balancing helpful feedback without sounding critical is a complex skill to master. If there’s a clear problem, it can be hard to not just point fingers and say “how the hell did you not see this?” On the other hand, even the most carefully planned commentary can still sound harsh: “user’s don’t understand how this works” can be a completely valid statement, but remember who you’re presenting the findings to. If this project is their proudest achievement, you don’t want to blow down their stick house and tell them to re-built it.

This brings me to the reaction-based feedback, which tends to be emotional and passionate but is “driven by an individual’s own expectations, desires, and values”. This is bad when the first thing that comes to mind is: “Wow! This is horrible, no one would ever want to use that!” or when your feedback is altered subconsciously or un-subconsciously by knowing what someone would want you to say.

Another type of feedback is direction-based. This occurs when you give someone specific tasks to complete, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problems or explain why the problems exist.

So, the happy solution is to critique, to utilize creative thinking to decide whether something has achieve its desired outcomes. As stated in the book, good critique includes 3 details:

  • “It identifies a specific aspect of the idea or a design decision in the creation being analyzed.
  • It relates that aspect or decision to an objective or best practice.
  • It describes how and why the aspect or decision work to support or not support the objective or best practice.”

It’s easy for critical thinking and focus to be ignored, but it’s important to not let that happen. Two mistakes to avoid:

1) assuming critique it only for creative people like designers, not for people in analytics or UX. 2) ignoring critical thinking and focus in favor of being “creative”.

It’s also important for critique not to be self-centered to your personal goals – you have to want to help and to be asked to help. When giving critique, having the “why” behind your statements makes all the difference so that the person you’re working with can see what to take action on or to adjust in the design. However, it’s worth mentioning that you shouldn’t problem solve as it can distract from the focus.

Talk about what you’re searching for, and ask questions!!!! Having everyone on the same page is the best way to start and end the process.

On page 18, the 4 most important questions for critique are laid out:

What was the creator trying to achieve?  →  How did they try to achieve it?  →  How effective were their choices?  →  Why is, or isn’t, what they did effective?

Additionally, “one of the best things a creator can do during a critique is to become a critic themselves. Being able to shift our mindset from thinking creatively to being analytical about what we’re creating is a key creative skill” (22).

The timing and use of critique is up for you to figure out. It’s something you have to learn and feel out, which is a scary thought as a newbie. Like, okay, but when will I know??? How long will it take me to become an expert???

That’s for you to figure out with your new power of critical thinking.

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