A group critique, according to the Nielsen Norman Group, refers to “analyzing a design, and giving feedback on whether it meets its objectives.”
Group critiques can occur when collaborating with classmates in a UX course, during UX interviews and of course on the job as a UX designer.
This often occurs in a group setting as a conversation with someone facilitating the process.
Much like a show-and-tell, a designer will talk about the state of their current design. Unlike a show-and-tell, that designer will also request feedback from the group so that they can make informed iterations on their current design.
Who’s who in a critique?
Ideally, a group critique consists of:
- The presenting designer: The person who seeks feedback.
- A group of peers: Probably easiest to have a group of other designers. Normally, this group can also include other individuals whose opinion could help (like a content specialist or the developer who would be building the design, etc.). As a UX Beginner, there are lots of folks whose disciplines may lie outside of design, which can substantially improve the conversation around a design.
- A facilitator: A super important part of the critique. The facilitator keeps the conversation on track and helps keep the peace by ensuring that not everything said is a negative. They remind the group that the point of the critique is to come to a conclusion…yes, it does have to end with some action items.
When should group techniques happen?
“Crits” can happen at any time during the design process, and should happen often to ensure a constant feedback loop. It’s ideal to have a consistent, predictable schedule. As a UXB working on new stuff, once a week with hopefully a fair amount of the same people would offer actionable feedback that can be built up over time.
So why is this important again?
When starting in the world of UXB, it is incredibly easy to feel a sense of loneliness. Design isn’t something meant to be done in a bubble. On top of that, it is WAY too easy to design for yourself rather than the user. Seriously – have a look on Medium and see how many articles warn against this. It’s more common than you think.
It’s probably happened to you before. That cringe you feel when you see something badly designed. But why did that happen? Is it because you tried to achieve a goal and then failed? Say, trying to order some food off of a tiny screen from an airplane, and then finding that the touch portion isn’t quite big enough. Or maybe being unable to get back to the home screen from a screen you thought SHOULD have gone back.
It makes sense. Design is something you’re passionate about, so that instinct could pop up without warning anytime you buy a product you need right away that happens to be wrapped in that ridiculous indestructible hard plastic that need extremely safe scissors. But that frustration is within reach because it’s born from a situation that is happening to you at that moment in time.
Enter UX and group critiques. As mentioned…it’s easy to be stuck in the mindset of “I’m going to improve the EVERLIVING SPIRIT out of this design” and run with it, attaching a few persona quotes here and there to show research has been done. Group critiques are there to ground your design. Your peers are there to ask you the hard-hitting questions, such as, “So what is the problem you’re trying to solve with this?” (Hint: If your answer is, “Well, the design was really bad and I’m trying to improve it,” that is not a specific enough problem, and that is why group critiques will Save You.) And your facilitator is there to make sure that you have enough information to take some Next Steps.
The Quick & Dirty Version of Group Critiques
Since you may not have access to a Design Team™ from a successful company handy at any given moment, here’s a practical, do-it-yourself version of group critiques for a variety of scenarios…
First, go back to “Who’s Who?” and figure out a facilitator. Seriously, do this first. Does someone have a background in teaching? Has anyone ever been praised for running a meeting that was a good use of everyone’s time? Have you ever taught a board game and actually got a group of people to play it because they understood the goal and how to achieve it? Find these people. If you can’t find one, BE one of these people. Do not underestimate the UX of a good UX group crit (yes, it’s very meta).
Without a good facilitator, you’ll be in the thick of what I call the “honor society problem”: a room full of very smart people who all think their idea is The Best Idea, and then NOTHING gets done. It doesn’t matter how many people you throw at a problem if everyone is fighting over whose solution to pursue.
Quick tips for the facilitator:
- Have a set of guidelines and an agenda, and make sure everyone knows them. Everyone should agree that you are the Presiding Judge of the critique, and these guidelines should be met with respect.
- Guide the conversation by asking the right questions. More often than not, you will encounter the Awkward Silence that comes after, “So does anyone have any feedback?” Come prepared with questions that can seed the pot.
- Learn how to reframe questions that might have been delivered without tact. This is a different sort of problem. You need to be able to politely stop someone when they react like, “Ugh, that’s ugly. Why did you even choose that?” Tastefully rephrase the question to something like, “Could you give us more context on how this flow makes the cart more accessible to the user?” and make sure the conversation goes on.
- Remember, a huge part of your role is to cut the chaos out of the critique. Designers are chaotic good by default; they want to do good but may not care about the laws or constraints around the solution. You need to be the true neutral in the discussion and make sure everyone’s opinions are heard, ideally without giving too much of your own personal bias. (Props to anyone who understood my D&D references without needing the links. And more props to anyone who would like to discuss further since this is a simplistic definition of both alignments.)
- Take notes and follow up. You are there to help summarize the feedback and ensure that a set of Next Steps were pulled out of the discussion. If it didn’t seem like there was one, then you can say, “Let’s table this for next time — it seems like there isn’t enough research/etc. to progress yet.”
- Seriously, don’t be afraid to tell people to stop talking (politely, ideally). Group crits derail incredibly fast. Pay attention to when it feels like the discussion is no longer helping the presenter, and then put an end to it. If you’re afraid of being rude, don’t. You’re making sure the time is being spent efficiently.
Next, gather your group. Everyone is likely going to be working on something different, and that’s good. This means whoever is the presenter will have to give enough background on their project so that everyone else in the room can follow along and give adequate feedback.
Quick tips for the presenter:
- Come in with a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve, and what you need for feedback. Don’t assume everyone is going to know exactly what you are trying to convey and what you need to do it. You are designers, not mind-readers. Reiterate the objectives of your project and frame that with the feedback you need.
- Gently remind people that give you feedback on stuff you didn’t need feedback on to get back to the original request. If you want to know whether a modal overlay is better than a pop-up or a new window and people are giving feedback on your color choice of your button, then they are not giving you the feedback you asked for. Say so or flash a “HELP ME” look toward your facilitator.
- Set expectations for WHEN you’d like the feedback (i.e., “yes, you can interrupt me” or “let’s wait til after I’m done to ask questions if that’s cool”. Yes, the facilitator is there for that too, but you may not have gotten a chance to speak with them beforehand (usually this is the case because you will have been so busy working on things).
- Be succinct. Talk about the things on a need-to-know basis. A good presenter knows how much information is necessary to divulge in order to get the feedback they need. Think about the last time someone told you a story and gave you a bunch of unnecessary details about something…like the hot dog your friend ate for lunch today but really, the story was actually about how they adopted a dog early the next morning.
- Don’t take the feedback personally. People usually roll their eyes at this one, but seriously: don’t. It’s quite easy to think, WHY DON’T THEY UNDERSTAND MY VISION and then block out some potentially very useful feedback for your design. Remember, you are not designing for yourself (because if you are and people critique you then you can say YOU DON’T KNOW MY LIFE), but for your users (because then they’d say YOU DON’T KNOW THEIR LIFE).
The Peer Critic
It can sometimes be helpful to just have a presenter and a peer critic, but it’s good to have a few other opinions before going forward with an iteration. They make of the rest of your posse and will be critical to your success (pun intended).
Quick tips for peer critics:
- Listen. Yes, this has to be listed. Beyonce said it. Roxette sort of said it. Before you go jumping the gun with your own Awesome Idea, listen to what the presenter is saying, and make sure that your contributions are actually relevant. Please don’t be the person that starts talking about color when they’re asking for help on the layout.
- Offer actionable feedback. Have you ever gotten feedback that was completely useless to you? “Yeah, I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel right.” “Are you sure that’s the right choice?” “I think it looks awesome, I really have nothing to say!” It’s frustrating, isn’t it? Don’t be that person. Don’t talk for the sake of talking; take a moment to think. Take a moment to ask yourself, “If I were presenting, would this be helpful?”
- Caveat: If you’re new to this, then say something, ANYTHING. I know, it’s madness. Design crits (and discussions in general) don’t have strict rules…they have fluid guidelines. The only thing worse than a group critique with useless feedback is a completely silent group critique. If you have a very kind facilitator who is fine with seeding the pot with questions after the first bout of awkward silence, great! But everyone should feel empowered to lead the conversation and trust that the facilitator will guide it toward those actionable Next Steps.
- Don’t feel offended when a facilitator decides it’s time to move on. If you have a fair facilitator, this either means your feedback was off topic, or there are other matters that need to be discussed within the allotted time frame. If you’re about to say, “One quick thing…” REALLY ASK YOURSELF if it’s actually quick. “One quick thing” from you becomes “one quick thing” from your neighbor and suddenly everyone is talking again and the next presenter doesn’t have time to go, and there are at least two people who are now annoyed. Remember, you are ALL smart people in the room, and yours isn’t the only voice that needs to be heard.
Keep these sections handy
The part to keep on hand is the section detailing the quick tips for being a facilitator, presenter, and a peer critic. Keep these around in an easy-to-see place to keep each other accountable. Agree that it’s okay to interrupt — politely — if people are stepping out of the guidelines set by the facilitator. Give yourselves permission to let the group critique grow naturally. It won’t be perfect the first time, and probably won’t be until you’ve had a few. If you have new folks, make sure they are well-aware of the structure so they don’t freak out when you say, HALT! ENOUGH! (Though I’m sure that’s not what you’d actually say, but you know what I mean.)
Break out of the bubble
And there you have it — a very short primer on group critiques. Organizing these aren’t easy, but they’re an invaluable tool that can be used to help your designs evolve, and thus, are very much worth the time and effort. Crits keep you in check when you’re off designing on your own (which will often happen at work anyway). They’re a reminder that you’re a single designer in a TEAM of designers, and together, the potential for your work to improve soars. Make that potential worth it.
Now go out there and ask some folks if they’re willing to design together!