How to run a design crit and why they’re important

One of our design principles is ‘design in the open’. This means we choose to be collaborative, we show our early design work and invite feedback. Holding design critiques, or ‘crits’, is a useful way to do this.

Done well, they:

  • improve our designs
  • improve collaboration between designers and between disciplines
  • offer a different perspective
  • boost morale and strengthen communities of practice
  • show the decisions behind the design

I recently asked on Twitter if a post on ‘how to run crits and how to get the most out of them’ would be useful. People said yes.

So here it is.

What’s the point?

The purpose of a design crit is to give a designer feedback, to evaluate an idea and identify possible changes or different approaches. It’s not to figure out a solution there and then.

Crits can focus on (but definitely aren’t limited to) things like:

  • interaction of specific page elements
  • a specific user flow
  • the emotion a visual style portrays
  • competitor services

Who to invite

Having the right people there is essential. The temptation might be to fill the room with designers but inviting people from different disciplines will make sure you hear a range of perspectives. In most cases it’s good to start with content designers and user researchers because their work is so intrinsically linked with design.

But they’re not the only ones who really understand how design works. I’d be hesitant to blanket call out other disciplines, instead I’d say it’s up to the person whose work is being critiqued to use their judgement and invite individuals they think would offer valuable input into the specific thing they’re sharing.

A golden rule is to invite the maximum number of people you’d be comfortable hosting a dinner party for – a group big enough to encourage discussion but not so big things are unmanageable.

It’s best when the crit is led by the designer who did the work so they can explain the decisions they made around their design. It also means they’re there to receive feedback first-hand rather than hear chinese whispers. However, if that designer isn’t comfortable leading the session, someone else can facilitate and steer discussions while the designer makes notes on the feedback.  

When to run a crit

Run them often at the start of a project then less frequently as the project goes on. Early crits will most likely focus on top-level ideas. When you’re further along in a project, it’s useful to hold crits to look at particular issues with a view to making specific decisions.

They’re also beneficial before project milestones, for example, before it’s too late to iterate features, flows or ideas.

Actually running a crit

  1. Start the session by identifying the aim(s) of the discussion. For example, we want to:
    • improve the registration flow
    • understand if the design is easy to follow
    • assess whether the design meets the project goals
  2. Point out any constraints, blockers and considerations. For example:
    • any content that can’t be changed – this might be due to legal or policy restraints, or deadlines
    • anything that’s already been built and will take more work to change
  3. Show the design. At this point it’s useful to:
    • explain reasoning or constraints of that specific thing. For example, your navigation choice might need to be consistent with someone else’s work or all the content has been agreed and signed off
    • show alternative designs if you have any
  4. Facilitate discussion by:
    • encouraging the group to share 1 or 2 pieces of feedback. Give the option to do this on post-its for anyone not comfortable giving verbal feedback
    • prompting the quieter people so that nobody dominates the discussion
  5. Collect feedback in a format you can share. This could be Trello.
  6. Share feedback and next steps to the wider group while allowing people to give more – not everyone will be comfortable in the session.

One rule: be kind

Sharing work and opening it up to criticism can be a terrifying prospect. Here are a few ways we can make it less daunting and much more productive for everyone.

When sharing your work you must remember the golden rule: you are not your design.

When critiquing work remember to:

Listen. Then speak thoughtfully.

Crits should be a safe space for everyone to share their thoughts. Listen carefully. If you want to respond, consider whether your thoughts are relevant or whether they’ll progress the discussion.

Ask questions

Rather than stating “X is bad” or “Y doesn’t make sense”, ask questions about the reason behind a design decision. Yes, “what’s the reason for…” is kinder than “that’s rubbish”, but it’s also more useful for the session – if you were wondering about something, chances are the rest of the group are too.

State what’s fact, opinion or assumptions

Everything you say in a crit is your point of view but it’s worth clarifying if something is your personal preference or opinion, or whether it’s backed up by research. “My assumption is that…” is just as valuable in a crit than “user research shows that…”. Both are better than “that should be green/bigger/bolder.”

How do you do it?

Designing collaboratively and in the open is important and design crits help us do that. There’s no set method but this is one that has worked for me and teams I’ve worked with.

Do you place importance on critiques and design reviews in your organisation? How do they work? All crit-related tips and tricks are welcome in the comments.

Jack Sheppard
Lead interaction designer

What we’ve learnt since coop.co.uk went live

Users come to coop.co.uk to find whatever Co-op thing they’re looking for. The site’s been live for almost 3 weeks now.

To help us design the new site, we looked at how customers and members were using the old one. For example, we ordered the content so the most popular things appear first. We’ve been looking carefully at the data to monitor traffic and see if any user journeys are broken and so far, everything’s looking good.

Thorough prep paid off

We changed the old site for a few reasons: the content management system was difficult for us to develop and improve; the performance was slow and some sections of the site weren’t responsive.

The old site had been up and running for 8 years and the team that was working on it wasn’t the same as the one that set it up. Over the years, documenting different parts of the site had got messy and complicated but we knew that and planned for the problems we thought we’d face.

Positive results from our biggest change

The biggest change we’ve made is improving the search function. We stopped it searching old content so that it didn’t return results that were out of date and for the first time searches can find food stores.

Since then, we’ve seen the number of searches increase by 28% (admittedly, this could be seen as a positive or negative thing) but the number of search refinements has dropped by 13%. That’s when a user’s first search didn’t return a result they were looking for so they search again using different terms. This means people are finding the results they want, quicker.

We’re still learning though

Five days after we launched we added a feedback box on the search results page. A recurring piece of feedback that we’ve had through it is that users are struggling to add points to their Membership card.

“I went shopping and forgot my Membership card. I’m just trying to add my points. ”

“I forgot to take my Membership card. I have my receipts, can I add my points.”

We’ve now created a ‘Forgotten card. Add your Co-op rewards’ page in response to those comments.

Making things better and quicker

To help make the site quicker and potentially save on server costs we’ve been making improvements to our codebase. We’re halfway through refactoring the backend which should more than double the server response time and add improved resilience under load.

Looking at the analytics

As part of the piece work, we also looked at our old urls. I blogged back in January 2016 about why we got rid of 20 websites to improve the quality of our content. We’ve got rid of lots more since then. We took down 400 pages of information on Co-op estates and we’ve put in lots of redirects from searches. The most notable one is when people search for our funeral homes we direct them to the new Funeralcare branch finder.

Despite the cull, there hasn’t been a massive drop in the number of page views. The blue line is the new site and the orange is the old site.

Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 15.40.45

All this is just the latest chunk of work we’ve been doing – we know there’s still a long way to go. As always, we want to improve the site so if you have feedback, we’re keen to hear it.

Peter Brumby
Digital Channels Manager