Our Obligation For Effective Critique

There are many ways to work collaboratively and one of the best is to solicit a specific kind of feedback and to be able to provide it to others in an open and constructive way. This approach is called a critique and it’s more than providing opinion or advice, it’s a process that helps divorce our work and decisions as a reflection of ourselves and instead focus on the needs and experiences of others.

Breaking our effort away from our ego is hard. It’s often difficult for any of us to deeply invest our creative side without injecting a sense of ourselves into our work. Critiques are geared to help all of us separate ego from effort.

Providing feedback can be just as daunting. It can be very difficult to criticise someone else’s work in a professional and constructive manner. However providing feedback builds critical thinking skills and hones our ability to empathise with diverse perspectives–ones different from our own.

Invite critique of your work

It’s important to continually seek feedback through ongoing critiques of your work. These can be formal critiques where you invite participants to comment on your work, or informal that happen in the normal course of the day. The approach is the same. Invite comment, don’t debate, summarise the feedback, and thank your participants.

The key to a strong critique is to really just put our egos to the side. It’s about critiquing the work, not the person. Trust that you have thick enough skin to have your work pulled apart, as that’s the goal! Our work becomes much more robust when it is deconstructed and rebuilt than when it's solely the result of inspired thought. Use the minds of your peers to help you rebuild successfully.

Running a critique

1. Have a goal. Focus your critique session on the feedback you need to move forward. Is it form? Is it function? Is it content?

2. Invite participants to critique your work. Choose people who can provide perspective on the issues you want to cover.

3. Briefly explain your work and the feedback you are looking for. If you need to explain too much, your work isn’t speaking for itself. Make sure you are setting the boundaries for critique at the right level. Provide your audience with the goal of your project that will help them understand what your work is addressing and who it’s for. Remind them this is the perspective you need to vet your project.

4. Ask for feedback.

5. Don’t defend your work. Take feedback on in the spirit it is given. Be an active listener.

6. Facilitate an exploration of each participant’s feedback. Try to understand how you might engage new lines of thinking or different approaches to your work. Your goal is to discover not just what’s not working, but ways to address them. Feel free to have other’s participate in these conversations.

7. Make sure everyone has had a chance to participate and provide their perspective. See if they have anything more to add after hearing the critique from others.

8. Play back to your critics what you’ve heard. Summarise what’s been highlighted as being problematic and what’s working well.

9. Thank your participants!

Participate in a critique

Participating in someone’s critique session is an important part of collaborative work. You don’t always have to be invited, and can ask if you may provide feedback. The approach is the same either way:

1. Critique the work not the person.

2. Stay on point. Don’t critique things that might be outside of the session’s goals. That can happen at a later stage.

3. Begin each critique with something that you like or works well for you

4. End each critique with something that you don’t understand, or doesn’t work well for you. Be specific.

4. Avoid providing feedback on how you feel about a project. Refrain from using emotional terms, instead focus on how something helps or hinders your understanding, its usability, aesthetics of form and function.

5. Speak from a point of view. Don’t make over-generalisations.

6. Avoid absolute statements. Instead of “I don’t like it”, try “I’m not sure what this is trying to convey." Or “It’s great” can be better said as “I find it easy to understand and use."

7. Explore the work as a user would. Capture what works and what doesn’t, however don’t try to redesign it. You can provide advice on how to address your critique if asked. If not, let your colleague come to their own conclusions on how to address your feedback. It is especially important for managers to allow their team members to develop their own solutions after a critique. The managers role is not to be a decider.

9. Provide insight into how the work impacts you, or anticipate how it might impact a user, a client, or other stakeholders. Let the session facilitator seek your feedback on how you might address a problem or take a different approach.

10. Allow others to participate and don’t debate their critique. If you disagree with their assessment, you are welcome to provide your perspective on the same issue when it’s your turn. You can have more than one turn.

11. Thank them for allowing you to provide feedback! Be sincere. They've given you a great opportunity.

It might be helpful when first starting to begin each critique with the most junior people in the group, working through to the most experienced. It’s not supposed to be a conversation within the group, but a round. This approach can help participants fully participate whilst learning both the process and the etiquette of a design critique.