"Receiving a critique is probably one of the hardest things we'll do in our work. Giving one is equally as difficult. It's hard to do well and easy to do poorly. As we've been working with teams over the last 20 years, we've accumulated an understanding of what goes into a successful critique. Here's what we've found.
What a Well-Done Critique Is (and Is Not)
You can tell a critique has been successful when everyone involved -- the design owner, the critic, and the rest of the team -- have all learned something to make them better designers. A well-done critique is a way to step away from the specifics of the design process and better understand how to create great designs. We do this by starting with the current design and asking "What is it we're really trying to do here?" and "How close are we to doing it?"
A critique is different from 'proofing' the design. When we proof, we're looking for those little details, like typos and inconsistencies, that distract us from reaching perfection. Proofing is about polishing, whereas critiquing is about reaching understanding.
A critique is also different from common usability techniques, such as heuristic evaluations, cognitive walkthroughs, inspections, and usability tests. These, when done well, look at the design from the perspective of the user. Instead, critique looks at it from the perspective of experience and viewpoint of another designer. Both perspectives are invaluable to successful designs, but should not be confused.
The most successful teams have everyone in the role of critic at some point. Some do it through regularly scheduled studio sessions. Some make it part of their overall design process. When everyone knows they'll be on both the receiving and delivering end of a critique, they tend to be more in tune with the overall goals.
Four Elements of a Well-Done Critique
As we observe teams involved in critiques, we've seen some patterns emerge. The teams that benefit most from the critique process all share four basic elements: respect for the hard work and experience, a dispassionate approach, recognition that the critic lacks authority, and justifications for the discussion points.
Element #1: Respect
In the best critiques, the critic, when delivering their advice and criticism, understands and acknowledges the hard work that the design owner has put into the design. They know that it's taken a lot to get to this point and this is reflected in their dialogue.
The critic also knows how difficult it is for any design owner to receive a critique. This means going beyond basic cordiality and politeness. A skilled critic will understand the design owner is invested and works to reduce the 'attacking' feeling that is a natural reaction to any criticism.
Respect comes in small ways, such as only providing a critique when the design owner is ready to receive it. Anyone who has been 'ambushed' by an unsolicited critique knows that the element of surprise does not enhance their receptiveness to the advice and criticism.
Element #2: Dispassionate
When done well, everyone can step away from the design. The design owner understands he isn't being judged, but is helping the team see the journey he's taken to get here. The critic, who sees the design at its current state, uses the critique to explore the different directions the design could go in. This becomes a learning opportunity for the entire team by spreading expertise, vision, and skills.
Element #3: Lacking Authority
The seasoned critic knows the harsh truth: nothing they say will directly change the design in any way. The only way the design can change is if the design owner does it.
In the best critiques we've seen, the critics never made a single recommendation. Instead, they asked questions and guided discussion. They talked about the significance of design rationale, as it pertained to a bigger philosophy and vision for the design.
For example, instead of saying, "While I think those flyout menus are slick, I recommend you nuke them and put the links in the center of the page," the critic might ask, "What alternatives did you consider for the flyout menus?" By moving the conversation to talk about the bigger picture, everyone can discuss how this element (the flyout menus) is contributing to the total experience.
Element #4: Justified Impressions and Concerns
In any well-done critique, we see two themes that run concurrently: the positive impressions the design leaves on the critic and the concerns the critic has about the design's direction. This balances hard-to-hear criticism with the good things the design owner did. In both cases, the critic goes beyond a simple statement and provides good justification for their thinking, to bring it more value." (Continued via UIE, Jared Spool) [Usability Resources]