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February 22, 2017 /UX/UI Design /

Hip Hippos Do it With Others: Three Handy Acronyms for Creating Effective Design Critiques

Feedback, critique, review… these words can send shivers down a designer’s spine, conjuring up painful meetings with stakeholders expressing their personal preferences or team members trampling all over your glorious vision. We’ve all had difficult experience with critique that was untimely, uninvited, ill-informed or otherwise unhelpful.

Here’s the thing, though. You might just be doing it wrong. While receiving critique of their work may never be 100% comfortable for some people, there are a few things to keep in mind which will definitely improve things and could even make it an enjoyable process!

What Critique Is and Isn’t

As Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry make a strong case for in their excellent book, Discussing Design, part of the challenge is that we are often mixing up feedback and critique. Feedback can take the form of a reaction (‘I hate blue!’), or a directive (‘You should change those to check boxes.’). In contrast, critique is the process of identifying a specific aspect of a design and assessing it against the desired objective (‘If we are trying to get more new sign ups, let’s make the sign up link more visually prominent in the page hierarchy.’)

Critique is:

  • Thinking critically about whether a design choice meets a specific objective
  • Thoughtful rather than reactive

Critique is not:

  • A gut reaction or response, especially in terms of a personal preference
  • Personally directed or about a person

The even better news is that critique is a skill that can be developed and evolved with practice. Critique is a form of communication, and there are ways to frame, structure and support this communication with the people you work with.

HHIPP – Humble, Helpful, Immediate, in Person, doesn’t Personalize

At a high level, we want to ensure that the critique and feedback we offer to our teammates is coming from the right place. Kim Scott has created a tool called radical candour. Radical candour is often referred to as a management or guidance tool rather than one for design critique, but is a very useful way to frame the attitude that we are trying to cultivate when we build a culture of critique.

Radical candour means that we care personally about our teammates and their work, as well as being able to challenge them directly. HHIPP is an acronym that captures the spirit of radical candour in practice – it is humble, helpful, immediate, in person, and doesn’t personalize.

In design critique, it is crucial to give and receive critique for the right reasons. The table below outlines how HHIPP applies to both the critique giver and receiver.

Critique Giver

Critique Receiver

Humble

  • Identifies the designer as the ultimate decision maker
  • Open to other perspectives

Helpful

  • Focuses on the design objectives
  • Understanding that others are offering their support

Immediate

  • Provides timely critique when requested, or informally if appropriate
  • Asks for critique at the right times, open to informal critique

In person

  • The best critique is an exploratory dialogue – this can be in person, over the phone, or video call
  • The best critique is an exploratory dialogue – this can be in person, over the phone, or video call

Doesn’t personalize

  • Focused on the design work and is never personal
  • Doesn’t take critique personally

 

DIWO – Do It With Others

Design is a team sport, and critique is no different. Critique is an opportunity to open ourselves to multiple perspectives and ideas. The team is collectively shepherding the design closer to the objectives. With good ground rules and a culture of critique, there is room to bring diverse perspectives to the table for a critique session; for example, this could include the project manager, developer, visual designer and a marketing expert. Smaller sessions often work better for teams getting used to delivering critique that is focused on design objectives. A good rule of thumb for the maximum session size is the ‘two-pizza’ rule (credited to Jeff Bezos). You should be able to feed your critique session team with two pizzas, so between five to eight people.

Regardless of the size of the critique session, be sure to designate a facilitator whose job is it to run the meeting – keeping people focused on critique rather than reactions or directive problem solving. The facilitator can also play a note taking role in order to capture the critique for the design owner who is receiving critique of the work.

Interestingly, people who are very adept at critique can switch ‘modes’ and step back to critique their own work. This takes a lot of maturity, critical thinking and analysis skills, but it can be done! For our purposes as designers, DIWO is still a great principle to bear in mind – you build buy-in, team trust and gain access to new modes of thinking that you cannot replicate solo!

HiPPO – Highest Paid Person’s Opinion

In a design critique session, it is crucial that all perspectives are equal, and that all participants come from a place of thinking critically while exploring the design and its objective. Hopefully, the culture in your organization is already conducive to this, regardless of title, role or pay grade. However, this is not always the case, and it is important to bear in mind the potential effect of HiPPOs – the highest paid person’s opinions.

Depending on organizational culture, and individual relationships, sometimes even just the presence of very senior stakeholders in a room changes the dynamic and can cause others to stay quiet. One potential risk is that people wait for the senior person to speak first and simply affirm or follow suit, rather than bringing a diversity of exploration.

One approach is to host separate sessions for very senior stakeholders if needed. Another is to be very clear on the difference between a design review (a checkpoint for approval or sign off) and a design critique (a session to help further the design objective through critical thinking and questions.) Including senior people in critique sessions can be a great way to build buy in, but be thoughtful about who you invite and the potential dynamics. Make sure that the rules of engagement are clear, even with senior people in the room.

Critique is a Gift

Consider author Ken Follet’s words on critique, “One of the hardest things for me, now that I’m famous, is finding people who can read my stuff and give me an honest critique.” Though it may not always feel like it, design critique is a gift that can move you and your team to new heights. Through some good ground rules, practice and embracing the process, critique can become a central and much loved part of the design process. Just remember, hip hippos do it with others!

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