Running Effective UX Design Critiques

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Imagine your BFF asked you for some fashion advice. In this case, they want to know whether their pants are too short.

Typically the response is one of the following:

  1. Wow! You’re really good at fashion!

  2. Good job! The shoes fit well but look, your pants could use some length.

What would you do?

In most situations, people do A. They want the other person to feel good, and they value their friendship more than telling the truth. It’s a perfectly reasonable response, especially if you want to maintain your friendship.

But as useful feedback, B is much better as they can actually use those ideas to improve their fashion sense.

I see the same thing happen with design, too. Designers need actionable feedback, not just compliment. And if you want to improve, you have to ask for feedback, and one powerful way to do this is with Design Critiques.

In this post, I’ll share why and how we do it at Avvo, an online legal services marketplace, and what we have learned so far.

Why Design Critiques

As designers it is absolutely critical that we don’t do our jobs in isolation. The difference between a bad designer and a good one (or at least, someone I want to work with) is someone who knows how to seek and take feedback--from their peers, users, and bosses--to solve a particular problem.

At most companies, that problem is that we have to hit a particular goal, and in order to do that we have to do good work. This is especially important at a startup like Avvo where we need to learn fast to keep moving ahead. To do good work we need feedback, and UX Critique is a way to do this. But as our experience at Avvo shows, it takes some trial and error to get it right.

How we got started

Every week my team has a half hour meeting on Monday afternoons called UX Standup (although for this one we are actually sitting) where each member of the UX team shows the research, design, and/or AB tests that are planned for the week. Because our work is visual, we have an ongoing slide deck that each member of the UX team quickly updates weekly with their work.

We initially started UX Critiques by extending this meeting for another half hour to have time for critique of any of the designs or ideas shown during standup. While optional for people to participate, most everyone attended. We typically had two individuals who were seeking feedback and broke out into small groups of about 5-7 people each.

Roles each person played

In the small groups, each individual had a role:

  • Presenter

  • Notetaker

  • Audience

  • Timekeeper

The presenter is the person seeking feedback. To get started, they must share the following:

  • Set the stage

  • What is the problem to solve?

  • What is the hypothesis?

  • What stage is the design/work in?

  • What type of feedback they were looking for?

The notetaker takes all the notes on behalf of the presenter and is the only person in the group who should be on a laptop besides the presenter. This is incredibly useful for the presenter because it allows them to focus on just the feedback and not worry about multi-tasking.

The audience is encouraged to ask a lot of questions as they often help further explain the problem at hand and uncover hidden issues.

The timekeeper is to help us stay on track, and also acts as an audience member.

By having the descriptions of roles posted on the wall, it was easy to remember what to do

After a few weeks of doing UX Critiques and making some minor tweaks along the way, we did a quick retro to learn what was working well and what could be iterated upon.

Benefits our UX organization gained from doing critiques

  • It increased the chance of cross-pollination. When UX teammates sit with their agile teams, it can be tough to benefit from the learnings of other teams.

  • We started to see organic consistency emerge across our teams and products. This helps provide users a more seamless experience as they move through the site.

  • It was an exercise in our presentation skills. Always important.

  • We became better able to effectively articulate what feedback is valuable and able to handle it well (feedback is always a two-way street).

  • We're getting better results. Our work is stronger all around and providing solutions to hard problems. Our AB tests are stronger, our UI solutions are lighter, etc.

How we are going to iterate

  • We discovered that Monday wasn’t always the best time because it didn’t align with our sprints; at Avvo they start on Tuesday and work may not be identified until then. Therefore we added a second time on Thursday to better align with teamwork.

  • Feedback is hard, and if we are going to improve how we get useful feedback, we need to learn how to give good feedback. We did a workshop specific on how to give good feedback, and this provided individuals with some frameworks to help with this. Stay tuned for another post on that topic!

It has been very clear that Critique is a team effort, and requires the participation of everyone involved. It becomes truly valuable when we come together in a safe and trusting environment with the intent of understanding, exploring, and building up the work and, even more importantly, those we work with.

Other references for design critiques that inspired our work

How to Run A UI Design Critique

- Jason Teague, Smashing Magazine

Design Criticism and the Creative Process

- Cassie McDaniel, A List Apart

Design Doesn't Scale

- Stanley wood, Spotify

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