12 Rules of Engagement When Running Design Critiques from NASDAQ’s Aaron Irizarry

12 Rules of Engagement When Running Design Critiques from NASDAQ’s Aaron Irizarry

12 Rules of Engagement When Running Design Critiques - 2016

Critiques can be an invaluable part of your design and development process. They offer you a forum to solicit feedback from your peers and colleagues, with the goal of refining the quality your final product.

But just like design itself, critiquing is a skill that requires practice to master. It’s not always something that comes naturally to designers and many critiques end up being unfocused, inefficient, and to be frank, a waste of time. To avoid these pitfalls, and get the true value out of your critiques, it’s important to understand how to run them effectively.

Earlier this month, we held a webinar with the Aaron Irizarry,  Director of UX at the NASDAQ Stock Market, and chatted about getting the most out of critiquing and how it drives collaboration among teams. You can watch the full recording below:

During his talk, Aaron shared 12 rules of engagements to follow in order to run an effective design critique. We’ve compiled them into a single article in order to provide you with the advice to transform your critiques into one of your team’s most efficient and useful tools.

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Rules of engagement when giving critique

There’s two sides to every design critique: the designer and the critic. As the critic, your role is to provide feedback to the designer that is both constructive and useful for achieving the project’s overall objective. But there is a fine line between giving a critique, and giving a useful critique.

There are many things to consider before offering your advice on someone else’s design. To help ensure the feedback you’re providing is the right feedback, here are Aaron’s six rules of engagement when critiquing:

  1. Don’t invite yourself — Before offering your opinion on someone’s work, make sure that it’s actually wanted. Showing up at your colleague’s desk, looking over their shoulder, and telling them why their design should change is the wrong way to approach critiquing. Instead formalize the process a bit by asking if they want your feedback and scheduling a meeting to go over it. This will not only show that you’re genuinely interested in their work and time constraints, but will also help diffuse any defensiveness from the designer.

  2. Use a filter — When critiquing someone’s work, it’s easy to blurt out your thoughts without thinking. Useful feedback should be objective and rooted in critical thinking, not based on emotional or subjective impressions. Take some time to gather your initial thoughts and reactions, but revisit them in the right context before sharing.

  3. Avoid problem solving — The critiquing process is more about analyzing and evaluating work, rather than actual problem solving. Focusing your efforts on coming up with a solution during your critique is an inefficient use of everyone’s time, and should be avoided. Instead, schedule a separate meeting to discuss potential solutions once everyone has had time to digest the information shared during the critique.

  4. Don’t make assumptions — Find out the reason behind the designer’s thinking, their constraints, and other variables before offering your critique. Don’t assume that decisions were made because the designer is a “bad designer.” Ask meaningful questions to uncover what factors could be influencing their design decisions.

  5. Lead with questions — Similarly to not making assumptions, you should lead your feedback by asking the right questions. Doing so shows an interest in their process and allows you to learn more about their objectives or restrictions. This will help them feel more comfortable, and open to your feedback because they know you have full context when assessing their work.

  6. Talk about strengths — Critiquing isn’t only about identifying the things that aren’t working, it’s also equally important to describe what is working. This lets someone know where their design is succeeding and helps avoid any situations where good work was changed due to lack of communication. Make your insight even more valuable by identifying things that could be helpful down the road, like a pattern that could be reused in other areas of the design.

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Rules of engagement when receiving a critique

Now that you’ve got a sense of what it takes to give a critique in an effective manner, it’s time to turn to the other side of the table: receiving a critique. Receiving a critique is often harder for most to master because of the vulnerability associated with putting your own work on display. These are projects you’ve worked tirelessly on and feel passionate about, so it can be difficult to disassociate yourself from your design.

To help you become more comfortable putting your work out there, here are Aaron’s six rules of engagement when receiving a critique:

  1. Set the foundation — The information you use to drive your overall design should also be used to inform the flow of  feedback. Establish rules with your team in advance, based on prior agreements and project goals to ensure all participants are on the same page before the critique. Rely on your project’s objectives, user personas, and other documentation to provide more context to your critics and guarantee their feedback is as valuable as possible.

  2. Remember the purpose — Critiquing is about understanding and improvement, not judgement. It’s easy to let your peers’ feedback get under your skin, but it’s important to remind yourself that the purpose of the critique is to leverage this collective feedback to transform the initial design into the best final product possible.

  3. Participate — Some of your colleagues or peers may be afraid to share their opinions on your work because they want to avoid hurting your feelings. You can overcome this by identifying specific areas of your work that you are looking to get critiqued. This creates a more welcoming environment for your critique, which helps spark the critiquing process and lets participants know you actually want their feedback.

  4. Think before responding — While it’s important to use a filter when giving feedback to peers, the same rule applies when you’re on the receiving end as well. It may be easy to immediately dismiss a critic’s feedback, but you should make sure you truly understand what they are trying to say before doing so. Try to keep your emotions on the sideline, and remind yourself that the feedback is about your design, not your skills as a designer.

  5. Use active listening — A great technique for ensuring you understand your critic’s feedback is to use active listening. To do this, simply repeat their advice back to them during the critique to confirm that you’ve fully understood. If you have, great. If you haven’t, you’ve now opened a dialogue where any misinterpretations can be addressed. This process helps validate that you’ve received the right information, and can act appropriately on it.

  6. Accept insight from all angles — You will have some colleagues sharing advice who you might not feel are experienced or qualified enough to provide feedback. Many designers will shrug off the advice of their marketing or management teams because of this. It’s important that you take on humility and restraint in these situations. These teammates will examine your work from entirely different perspectives, which can be beneficial in identifying opportunities or shortcomings in your work that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. So long as the objectives and context are clear to all participants, you never know where the best insight will arise from.

Make your design critiques worthwhile again

Remember, critiquing is a skill that needs to be worked on over time to be perfected. That means you’ll need to practice both taking and giving critiques with your teams and clients. It’ll take time for you to become fully comfortable with the feedback process, but don’t worry, by relying on these rules of engagement you’ll eventually develop a format that is efficient and worthwhile for all parties.

Now get out there and start critiquing!

We’d love to hear how you run design critiques with your own teams or clients. Share your insights in the comments below!

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About the Author

Simon is a coffee lover, former agency digital strategist, and Shopify Partners' Content Marketing Lead. When he isn’t hustling at the Shopify HQ, you can most likely find him dining at restaurants across the city or brushing up on the latest design trends.

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