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How to critique

Andrew J. Ko

So you have a design. How do you know if it's any good? We're going to talk about three ways to know in those course: 1) critique, 2) empiricism, and 3) analysis.

When you're asked to give feedback on an idea, how can you give useful, constructive feedback? In the culture of design studios, designers give feedback via critiques. As some have noted, critiques are not just evaluation of designs, but collaborative deconstructions of what makes a design successful and what makes it fail.

In many ways, being critical is easier than being generative. Our society values criticism much more than it does creation, constantly engaging us in judging and analyzing rather than generating and creating things. It's also easy to provide vague, high level critical feedback like "Yeah, it's good" or "Not great, could be improved". This type of critique sounds like feedback, but it's not particularly useful or constructive feedback.

Design critiques have a number of unique features that try to ensure that feedback is useful:

Now, some design critiques have a culture that borders on abuse. In some studios, people might call designs even designers by nasty names. This is often done to attempt to free people to provide deeply honest feedback about design, train designers to have "thick skin," impervious but open to negative feedback. But it can be highly discouraging to many novice designers, making them question their abilities.

In this class, we'll establish a different culture through a simple rule: if you're going to say something negative, say something positive first, and preferably last too. Some people call this the "hamburger" rule, other people call it a "shit sandwich." Whatever you want to call it, finding something positive to say about something you don't like forces you to consider the possibility that there is something actually good about the idea. It's your responsibility to search for both and share both good and bad aspects of an idea. This strategy has the added bonus of making people much more likely to listen to your feedback, because they'll be primed by positive feedback.

Let's look at an example of a critique. Most aren't filmed, so I can't show you one. Instead, I made one up. Let's pretend you showed me this user interface mockup and we engaged in a critique.

Here's one possible design critique that would follow:

There are several things to notice about the exchange above. It's respectful, with each person listening and accepting what the other person is saying. It's collaborative, with each person contributing knowledge to the conversation. It's grounded in design rationale and design judgement, focusing on why choices are made and why different choices were made, and how that might effect the success of the solution.

Another form of critique that can be applied to design is Socratic questioning. In this form of critique, the person giving the critique wants to deeply probe the designer's way of thinking and dig beneath the surface of their design. Some types of questions to achieve this include:

Now imagine a dozen other students observing this dialog. What would they get from it? They'd see, like you're seeing on this web page, an example of how to share feedback, how to receive it, and deep domain knowledge about the nature of email as social media. This means that you have much to gain just by watching critique happen, in addition to participating in it yourself.

Do you need expertise to be effective at design critique? Some expertise of some kind is helpful. First and foremost, it helps to be good at critique. It helps even more if you know something about the domain a design is exploring. Recent evidence suggests, however, that peers in classrooms can get pretty close to more expert feedback when students get feedback on their feedback. That means that we'll be spending a lot of time in class practicing critique, but also critiquing each other's critique. Nothing can replace domain expertise, however, which is invaluable for understanding the structure and dynamics of a problem space.

There's one critical aspect of critiques that we haven't discussed yet, however. How does someone judge what makes a design "good"?

Let's start with some ideas that you should not use to judge designs:

In my experience, good design is mostly subjective. Search the web and you'll find a myriad of ideas about what makes design good or bad. What's underneath these ideas is actually many different goals and values in design, most of which conflict. Let's look at some of these different objectives:

Of course, you can see by now that I take a relativistic view of design aesthetics. I think all design choices are made relative to a prioritized set of values. I think good design process makes these values explicit, consciously deciding which aesthetics supersede others. Therefore, in this class, I'll judge your design process and final designs relative to the goals you define.

Next chapter: How to Evaluate Empirically

Further reading

Christensen, T. (2016). Four Things Working at Facebook Has Taught Me About Design Critique. Medium.

Irandoust, H. (2006). The Logic of Critique. Argumentation, 20(2), 133-148.

Kowitz, B. (2014). The Key to Happy, Productive Designers: Teaching Your Team To critique. VentureBeat.

Kulkarni, C., Wei, K. P., Le, H., Chia, D., Papadopoulos, K., Cheng, J., ... & Klemmer, S. R. (2015). Peer and self assessment in massive online classes. In Design thinking research (pp. 131-168). Springer International Publishing.

Norman, D. A. (1999). Affordance, conventions, and design. interactions, 6(3), 38-43.

Story, M. F. (1998). Maximizing usability: the principles of universal design. Assistive technology, 10(1), 4-12.