How to Critique for Value
I spend a lot of time talking about research, which is the core of any design process. But as a design decision begins to take shape, you need to discuss its effectiveness and relevance to the business.
That’s where critique comes in. Critique is a constructive, guided discussion of a design decision. It’s constructive because you find a way to improve the design. It’s guided because the discussion needs to happen in the service of a specific business goal. And it happens in the service of a specific design decision; in the absence of something to discuss, you’re brainstorming or ideating, not critiquing.
Let’s talk about how to critique revenue-generating design decisions – and, more broadly, how to incorporate curiosity and scientific inquiry in your design practice.
When to critique
Critique can happen at any stage of the design process, and it should happen whenever you need to build consensus to move forward. For example, you can critique the following:
- Two sentences on Trello describing a potential change
- A strategy document
- Low-fidelity sketches
- High-resolution prototypes
The only commonality is that all of these represent some sort of change to the business. You have ground to stand on in a critique.
Critique helps you build consensus with the team, moving your design decision from hunch to sketch to comp to prototype to production. Along the way, it takes shape, changes, and ultimately improves.
Dumping your ego
Usually, critique involves two parties: the person proposing the design decision, and the person critiquing. This sounds like an antagonistic relationship, and it should not be one. You are both working in favor of the design. It doesn’t matter who comes up with the key idea that shapes the design if you’re both working for the same team.
Put another way, it’s not a referendum on your design practice if you float an idea, someone says “how about this, instead?”, and you end up going with that. First, there’s no way for you to know whether your idea triggered the improvement in your colleague’s head. But more importantly, you just won. You improved the original design.
There’s no design decision in the world that couldn’t benefit from some sort of improvement – including yours.
Every successful critique involves thorough expectation-setting from the outset. Before presenting any work, you should reiterate:
- the goal of the critique
- what constitutes good feedback
- what constitutes poor feedback
- the outcome of the critique session
- the number of revisions expected from critique
Here is why each one of those is essential.
The goal of the critique
Before you start, what are you hoping to get from it? You need to tell someone. For example, if you’re presenting low-fidelity wireframes, tell people you’re looking for feedback regarding layout and behavior.
If you’re critiquing for conversion (which is why you’re here, right?), tell people you want feedback that is explicitly focused on moving the customer through the funnel towards a sale.
What constitutes good and bad feedback
You should cite general instances of what feedback you’re looking for. This will help people understand how to give good feedback – which nobody is innately good at.
I often provide explicit examples of good & bad feedback. For example, bad feedback is “I don’t like purple.” Good feedback is “purple doesn’t fit our business’s goals because it conveys the wrong message.”
This may also be a good opportunity to reiterate who has final approval authority, in case of more significant debates that go unresolved after a time.
The outcome of the critique session
What are you hoping to get out of this, and why? Do others agree?
The number of revisions expected
Will there be future critiques? If so, there should be a finite number – otherwise, you’re going to be stuck moving commas around while your competitors destroy your business.
The critique itself
Critique usually takes three steps:
- Present the work. What was your thinking behind the work? How does it function? In what ways does it encourage conversion?
- Encourage questions. What is the team curious about? Are there any open gaps in your thinking, or in the way the design is expressed?
- Discuss feedback. What would people like to see changed, and why? Don’t say that you’ll incorporate changes immediately – some will make it into the revision, some won’t, and you’ll have your reasons for each.
I find myself repeating these steps as I move through each design decision, or each page of an application. I wouldn’t expect a neat progression from one step to the next.
There are lots of ways to keep feedback constructive, and the #1 rule is to keep feedback focused on business goals, not personal preferences. What you like has no ramification on what your customers like, no matter how powerful you are in an organization – and it often runs against your customers’ preferences, desires, or needs.
Two methods of constructive feedback can be explained during initial expectation-setting, which I find to be really valuable:
Also called the “shit sandwich,” this style of feedback leads with praise (yes), moves into what can be changed (no), and explains how the design will benefit (yes). Padding the feedback in positive qualities helps frame it more positively and keeps the designer from feeling attacked.
Whitney Hess did a big deep dive into this method in A List Apart a few years back.
The five whys
The five whys is a questioning method that involves (up to) five why questions, in order to get to the root cause. It’s easy to employ this during the questioning phase of any critique – and it’s great for the designer to drill into the drivers of any feedback that they may find confusing or contradictory to the goals of the design.
Buffer has a great post on the five whys.
Critiquing for conversion
Now you have a good critique process together. How do you focus critique around conversion? Here are a few questions that I ask of any design – which should be a good way to focus your own critiques:
- What research backs up this change?
- What does this change have to do with the business’s overarching goals?
- What is the next step on this page?
- In what ways is the next step clear to the customer?
- Does the page appear credible? How?
- Does the change aid in credibility?
- Does the change improve usability? How?
These questions largely reflect the ones that ConversionXL and Baymard Institute both use when analyzing various ecommerce sites for what works and what doesn’t. They act as solid goals for any design, and I’ve honed them over several years of design practice.
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