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OVO Tech Blog

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Todd Carter

Senior UX Designer helping OVO customers understand the benefits of renewable energy technology and hardware.



We’ve started running (design) critiques here at OVO

Why critiques and some thoughts on improving our process.

I'm Todd, a UX Designer here at OVO and I've been involved in organising and running critiques (crits) within the UX team over the past few months. No-one in the UX team had much experience with crits so we've been learning as we go.

How did this start?

Jess, a User Researcher here at OVO, ran an interview crit looking for ways to improve her interviewing skills. As a participant it was a very interesting and positive experience: I'd personally never been involved in a critique before so didn't know what to expect, nor had I heard of an interview crit so was intrigued to learn more.

I found myself, along with the rest of the group, asking questions about the session during the session. Questions like:

"How much feedback should we give you?"

"I'm not sure how negative my feedback should be...?"

"I feel uncomfortable giving you criticism in this group setting, does anyone else feel weird?" (Me)

And so on. I wasn't sure what to make of it at the time, but these questions stayed with me in the days afterwards. I kept thinking about how we could lessen the unease people felt giving feedback and ensure that the recipient gets what they need from the session.

Jess wanted to ensure we didn't lose momentum with this practise so, at the end of the session asked if anyone would be willing to step up and run the next critique (design or interview). I volunteered as I wanted to learn more about design crits and I had just finished something that would be a good candidate for critiquing.

My first step in preparing was to do some reading: Why are design crits important? How to run a productive design crit? I found a few great articles that I read over and over during my preparation which helped shape my thinking about what a design crit is, and what a productive design crit could look like. Don't worry, there's a reading list at the end so you can have a read yourself.

Essentially it showed me that when done well, critique is a tool that helps foster collaboration, improves your craft, and builds trust within teams. Worthy goals for any UX community!

Improving our work and growing our craft

I really like the way a design critique is explained in Improving Design With Critique:

"A critique is an open exploration & discussion of the intent of the design and the choices made, to reach the designer's objectives."

I believe there are 2 important points in this explanation:

  1. Understanding the intent of a design and the objectives a designer is trying to meet is crucial for effectively critiquing a piece of design
  2. Rather than trying to solve the 'problems' within a design, a critique is more concerned with openly exploring all possible avenues for meeting the objectives - the discussion is just as important as any potential solutions that are revealed during the critique

And crucially, it removes the element of personal opinion from the discussion and focuses instead on objectives and the choices made to reach them.

The authors also mention the difference between criticism and critique: expressing disapproval and judging a piece of work from one's perspective vs. analysing a piece of work in relation to the goals and objectives to be met - this helped me answer some of the questions I mentioned earlier.

But Todd, I hear you ask, why is it important to reflect on our work in this way?[1] The hint is in the title, so not only can we improve the work that we do, but also to grow our craft within the team. At OVO, we've identified a few key reasons as to why design crits are useful:

Design crits create a dialogue that help us focus and reach consensus. They deliver constructive, specific feedback to improve designs, and they help designers grow in their craft in a positive environment.

How's it been going? How might we continue to improve?

Amazingly well, mostly in part due to the great people in our UX team: It's really important to have trust within the metaphorical room and an open-mindedness to learn by doing. Thanks for sticking with it team! We've run 5 critiques since the end of September, with a nice mixture of interview and design crits.

One of the biggest hurdles we've been struggling with is co-location. As OVO is split between Bristol and London, so too is the UX team. We have decent video calling equipment (a luxury I know) and meeting room availability (mostly) which helps, but there is definitely something about having everyone in the room for a critique: reading body language more easily, understanding what someone is pointing at or talking about, having dedicated headspace to reflect on the design without distraction - I could go on. We're working on strategies for improving the sessions when we're not co-located but ultimately technology doesn't quite hold up to being in the same physical space at the same time.

So far our strategies include using Realtime Board :hearteyes: for showcasing context and work, establishing voting rounds to give everyone time to reflect on the design by themselves, and recognising that remote participants need more time - plain and simple.

Something I believe we haven't struggled with is trust. We're a pretty supportive group in the UX community, and when it comes to being open and vulnerable, I'd struggle to find a more welcoming group of people. We've spent a lot of time reflecting on what kind of community we want to be, and this has built a level of trust that made it easy to explore how to run productive design crits together.

It's also important to remember that the recipient of the design crit has volunteered to receive feedback on their work, and one of the best ways to keep people volunteering is for the sessions to be safe and productive. Which is why the feedback is optional: ultimately it's up to the designer what changes they make (or not) based on how they want to meet their design objectives.

Wrap up

I've really enjoyed exploring (design) crits these past few months, and have come to really value them as another tool for improving the work that I do. Don't get me wrong, we've not 100% perfected them here at OVO, but we're learning as we go and it's more about the journey than the destination right?

Through my reading on design critiques and discussions with colleagues something occurred to me: If critique is a tool, then it could be used in different contexts e.g. with interviews. I'm thinking about them less as 'interview crits' and 'design crits', and more as just 'critiques'. As we've now run 2 kinds of crits this year we're trying to reflect on and learn from them, to ensure we keep them productive, collaborative, and supportive. I'd like to write about this idea in a future article when my thinking is clearer (and I've been able to talk more with people smarter than I).

Reading list

  1. 10 points to your favourite Hogwarts house if you've already asked yourself this question. ↩︎

Todd Carter

Todd Carter

Senior UX Designer helping OVO customers understand the benefits of renewable energy technology and hardware.

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