Sweating The Pixel: Scaling Quality Through Critique


Sweating The Pixel: Scaling Quality Through Critique

Continuous Design

Critiques help designers to deliver consistently superior experiences, even within the challenges of 'off' days and holidays.

Attendees will learn the following about critiques:
-How Critiques build a culture that enables Senior Staff to mentor Junior Staff.
-The way by which Critiques allow distributed teams to stay connected to pixel-level delivery.
-How Critiques assist leaders to target new hires, identify emerging talent, and ensure the best resource allocations.

Joseph Meersman

Joseph Meersman, Senior Director of Design,Intapp

Hi, my name is Joseph Meersman and I'm speaking about scaling quality through critique. I have over 20 years of professional experience working in design nords of various sizes, in house consulting, digital agencies, freelance, you name it.
My experience informs my point of view on critiques and I'm very excited about my opportunity to share it. I want to thank the conference organizers UX/DX, EMEA, for providing you this opportunity. Over the next 25 minutes, I'm going to tell you a quick story, introducing the drivers for critiquing the habits of effective critiques. I'm going to introduce three scenarios with patterns and anti patterns. I'm going to outline two important non critique meetings and wrap up with some practical tips. But before I get into that, what I'd like to do is kind of take a moment and provide you with my perspective on critiques, which is it's been part of my career since really, before it began.
I was one of those people that really enjoyed sitting in art school critiques. I always felt better that I was participating in part of the process and learning from the way other people, you know, created work, and learning about their approaches, then maybe actually doing the work myself. Early in my career, I got to tell you, I had a lot of hard time taking feedback, there was a lot of my ego that I felt was kind of wrapped up and then work. I was really passionate about the work. And what I really missed out on was the opportunity to take a moment out and interpret and internalize what other people were telling me.
Now, when I achieved a little bit of status in my career and was in a management role, I learned a lot about the practice of providing that feedback to others. And what I learned was that there's a lot of care that goes into saying the right thing, the right way for someone else to take something from that and positively move work forward. And then, you know, 20 years into my career, what I can tell you is that I learned a lot about designers when seeing the way that they're both giving and receiving feedback. And I find it's a useful way to gauge maturity, aptitude, and kind of keep an eye on both hard and soft skills.
Now in critiques, I've noticed that there's a lot to learn and a lot to learn from. And when done properly, we break down silos and interpersonal barriers. When we do it right. We support one another, we learn and we work transparently together. In this presentation, I'm going to discuss how we do so. Now, before I get into how we critique, what I want to do is kind of Angkor my definition of sweating the pixel. And to me, what I mean is, this is paying attention to the details of varying different interactions that are both on screen and with each other. It's really how we keep our eye on quality. It's not some sort of Hipster Richard Simmons thing or a CrossFit for design program or anything along those lines. I mean, as far as it's called scope, many of us sport the all black uniform, and we're already three quarters of the way there.
Critique to me is a way to maintain focus on the quality of our outcomes. And it is the way that we can sweat every pixel that goes into production. Now, this isn't a unique or distinct idea that formed in my head by myself. And you know, as a caveat, this stack is a product of my collaboration with some of the wonderful people that are on screen above. And, you know, we iterated on the model together whereby it was either top down or bottom up, it was really a partnership. And, you know, because this is a design conference, I'd be remiss not to highlight at least one doppelganger. I look forward to meeting one in person here in a few weeks. Before I go any further now that I've anchored in my definition of what it means to sweat the pixel, I want to frame critiques by showing a definition that these wonderful people helped me come up with. And critiques can be defined in a few different ways. But I really liked this one. So I just like to pause with this on the screen for a moment. Before I get into a little bit of the why we critique.
Essentially, there are many different reasons why a designer goes in along with others and practices critique. It sharpens our skills and elevates our crafts. It demonstrates our strength. It allows us to advocate for our work. It identifies areas for us to improve, and we grow as professionals. And some of you in the audience right now may be thinking this is great. So like, well, why should I care? And the reason being is because the entire team benefits from critiques. And I would still consider a leader, a member of the team, I think of a design team, not monolithically, but a function of logical groupings. And in this case, how they get value from critiques. So if I take a look at what I'll refer to as group one here, what we have are those with the hands on the pixels that are responsible for delivering the work, and it allows them to, you know, kind of do a little bit of rehearsal, defend their decision making and watch and listen to other senior team members do the same.
The second group that benefits from critique is, you know, those that are guiding the work and managing the individuals, then what they benefit from is watching and providing feedback, as well as seeing the balance of hard and soft skills of those members of their teams. And their peers, of course. And then the third group is kind of that leadership strata. And what they do is they can support and encourage critique, they can identify the potential and unmet potential members of the team. And it also helps them to understand where they may need to augment the team, or otherwise help to scaffold and build upon the skills that currently exist.
Now that I've described the benefits of critique for different members of the design team, I'm going to now get into some habits. And what we want to take in mind is there is no formula, this is not an equation, what we want to do is start with a few initial conditions and ladder from there, we want to start with a mindset and think about our behaviour over time, which truly is a habit. So when we think about behaviour, we might think about how we aspire to behave together. And I think, you know, these five items on screen really identified the way that we want to go into a critique and have a positive mindset. We want to be humble and bear in mind that, you know, modesty is a virtue, we want to actively listen to one another and stop thinking about what we're going to say and process what we're hearing in that moment.
We also want to have gratitude, we want to thank others for their input, especially when it hurts, and we want to own it, we want to admit our blind spots, and bear in mind that it takes a lot of time and effort to defend oversights versus kind of taking in and acknowledging that we have areas to grow. And then you know, as far as acknowledgment is concerned, I mean, if you see something, you want to say something because someone else is going to benefit from that. So if a habit is behaviour over time, practice can be defined as the repetition of doing something with a focus on learning. And there are three lenses that I'm going to reference a few times over in this presentation that deal with the practice of critique. The first is giving, the second is receiving and the third is observing critique. And I've referenced those earlier in the stack. You'll see this as a little bit of a theme popping up here and there.
Now, what I'm going to do is place these lenses into three scenarios. And each of these scenarios kind of act as miniature critique narratives. And each of these are three scenarios that represent a situation in real life that I went through, and along with some of my peers, and what I want you to do is kind of learn from some of my mistakes and the mistakes of others in order to propel yourself forward in terms of your practice of design. And the first scenario I have, I'm calling the iteration loop. And we've all been there. We've all had multiple options on the table and seemingly not know where to go. And we need the help of others to help us through the process of delivering design. And in terms of the iteration loop, this takes place three days before a big you know, to do type meeting potentially with a client.
There's a bit too much divergence late in the process. You'll see a designer that's working through wires with a high pressure deadline looming. And what we have here are three designers, you know, embracing what I'll call an ad hoc critique. And these ad hoc critiques happen. So often, most of us don't even realize it. And we have the designer on the far left who's interested in receiving critique, saying, you know, I keep going through different placements of, you know, body copy H1, H2, as well as, as images, you know, I keep moving things around, and I've kind of, like lost the plot here. You know, I don't even know why I'm doing it. And the senior designer looks at them and says, you know, I understand why you're frustrated, this really isn't the best that I've seen you deliver. And another designer that's sitting in on the meeting is chiming in saying, You know what, you're right, I would do a lot of what it is you're talking about right now, completely different.
And, you know, if we take a pause and a timeout here, what you can see is that the designer that's looking to receive the critique, they're failing to provide enough context around the conversation. They didn't start with the business goals or the user goals. And they're also not asking anything specific, they're kind of throwing their hands up and saying, I'm frustrated. And the senior designer is missing an opportunity to be constructive and say, you know, what, I've been there before, I understand what it is you're trying to do, you know, I've been frustrated. And here's some direct areas where I think, you know, you can improve things. And the other designer in the mix really is missing out the opportunity to tune in to what the advice of that senior designer is.
They also have the opportunity to follow up at a later time and embrace the fact that, you know, someone else's approach being completely different than theirs may not be a bad thing. I'd say overall, if you're the receiving designer, in this case, it's easy to let emotion get the better of you because you're trying really hard. I would say the senior designer here has a responsibility to help others grow the same way. Hopefully, someone helped them grow.
And the third designer is missing out on the opportunity to actively listen to, you know, the conversation that's taking place. As far as an ad hoc critique is concerned, there are a few attributes to it that I want you to take away. The first is that, given the nature of them, everyone's guard is and should be down. These are more or less timely in nature. And they're an opportunity to share work that really hasn't landed yet. Bear in mind, you can never share too much, but you can share too little. And you know, there are definitely some missed opportunities for iteration or improvement. And you know, if we think about it, this is an opportunity to get out of that mode of maybe being a lone ranger or doing so low work. And it is an opportunity to iterate faster with purpose with a little bit of guidance and feedback from others.
So to step into our second scenario, here, what we have is what I'm referring to as the refinement compass. And as every project starts to come in for a landing, there are certain details that will make or break a strong design. These important details aren't always clear, and they often land just at the right time based on someone else's input. And in this case, this scenario takes place at a weekly critique at an agency, with individuals from other accounts with varying levels of experience. And I feel like it's a great opportunity for input.
So what we have is a senior designer, an ACD, or an associate creative director, and a junior designer. And the senior designer goes to the associate creative director says, you know, I could really use a second point of view on what I'm working on here. The associate creative designer looks at them and our associate creative director looks at them and says, You know what? All of these are fantastic, you know, again, job well done really, really pleased what I'm seeing here, and the more junior designer chimes in and says you know what, like I can see where you're coming from here. And this reminds me of a project I worked on a few years ago, it got made an award you might have heard about.
Now, if we pause this exchange real quick, what's missing is an opportunity for the senior designer to maybe share it a little earlier in the process. And again, has the opportunity to be a little bit specific about what they're looking for feedback on. The ACD is getting a little personal here. I love everything that you do, is it really something that a senior designer can take and drive forward better work with, so it's a little too indirect and has a low impact outside of inflating the ego of the senior designer. And then the more junior designer in the mix has the opportunity to not make statements but to pay attention to be mindful and to ask intelligent questions.
And when it comes to these informal critiques, a few things to keep in mind is, you know, they don't have to be regularly scheduled, you can easily just ping a few people on a group slack or teams or, you know when we're back in the office kind of saunter up to a few other designers that happen to be there as well. I would recommend having a host or someone facilitating things that might be a third or in this case, a fourth party, who may have a background in research or have very little context to the project in question. And you know, the topics here should really be seen as a rotation. And there could be something larger like search, browse, or query or something more specific around the lines of bread crumbing competitor comparative objections, data density, whitespace, things of that nature.
But what you want to do is treat these like a prototype and evolve them over time, right? We want to do a little bit of dogfooding as designers and try to think about how we can vary our approach.
And then our third and final scenario here is the deep dive in this involves some tense moments with leadership oversight. And what you have is something that I feel is all too common when it comes to the nature of design where we have a big bad that's taken too long to ship, we've had many, many intelligent debates about the work. And now what we have is the design executive leaning in. One thing to bear in mind when it comes to critiques is the fact that in a larger organization, there may be moments where that senior leader wants to look in on the work and wants to bring a bunch of people together to see that work. There are different, you know, reasons for that. But in this case, what we have is a designer, a design team lead by the director, probably many other designers that are here.
And you know, the designer may open up talking, you know, kind of complaining a little bit about how they've waited for a really long time for their turn, it may be that, you know, the design team leader, the director goes along when you know, prepping everyone else for the work, or it may be that another critique runs over. So in the case of the design team lead, after looking at the work, they make the comment that they don't even know where to start, the work just kind of feels a little bit off target, they can't really put their finger on it. But it seems to be everything kind of taking place all at once. And the design director, that's part of the conversation kind of mentions, you know, it seems like everyone's really had their guard up here. I'm a little disappointed at the back and forth conversation that's taking place here.
Now, if we break this down into its different components, what's happening is that the designer in question may have been over prepared and forgotten that a critique is a bit of a conversation. And that context is going to be really important in order for everyone to get feedback in an informed manner. You know, they immediately come off a little defensive in nature. You know, as far as the design team leads are concerned, they're not being calculated, constructive, and considerate about the input that they're giving. And, as far as the director is concerned, you know, they're not helping to set the tone more positively. And if anything, they're making it a little personal, and they're not, you know, kind of creating an environment of psychological safety.
Now I haven't gone through the three scenarios describing what critique is. What I'm going to do is transition here in a moment talking about what critique is not before I get there, I'd like to wrap up talking a little bit about what a formal critique is. And it's set by leadership. It's meant to look at work in progress. And, you know, a benefit that can be shared to all is, you know, an understanding of similar use cases, other domains, constraints, challenges, as well as varying levels of detail. But what this provides everyone is a line of sight into work that's being done in different areas, it allows people to advocate in front of a different audience. And it definitely has some broader implications.
So as I mentioned, we're going to talk now about things that are not critiques. I do feel like it's important to kind of set the table by talking about what something is as well as what it isn't. So if a critique focuses on craft and the iteration of a designer's work, a design share doesn't do that. And what I mean by a design share is it's a kind of cross team opportunity to see a final project presentation, right? These are typically claimed pitches versus work in progress. These are outcomes and not iterations. You know, these aren't kind of sharing of work for feedback. But it might be a dry run, asking for input on flow and or, you know, can be used for practice for one of those big client pitches or important meetings. And what we want to learn from a design share is it's a great opportunity to learn other approaches and styles.
It's also good to see how someone talks about their process to a non-design audience. A design share might take place in a town hall for instance, where you know, someone has the ability to showcase, you know, work that they're really proud of, and or to celebrate a big win. So bear in mind that, you know, a design share is really an opportunity to see how others are approaching creative problem solving. It's good to learn how design is packaged for different audiences. And you know, what you want to remember here is that critiques and design shares drive toward different outcomes. But they can both prepare you for what I'll refer to as the playback, which is also different from a critique.
So something notable about a playback is that you know, your audience here may be the stakeholders or the buyers, it may be a client or someone that's kind of the patron of the work. The works already been done as in the work is past tense. And this is a great opportunity to kind of sell without selling and to tell a story. And what you want to achieve in a playback is getting the buy-in from the business or from an internal partner, and to be able to showcase the results, the outcomes, and a little bit of how you achieve them. So we've talked at this point about critiques, we've talked about design chairs, we've talked about playbacks, and what I'm going to do is talk to you a little bit about how you can take this home. And when you start to critique yourself, or when you continue to critique your teams, you know, some things that you might want to keep in mind.
The first is that you know, not being dogmatic is really important. I don't advocate for a singular approach to critiquing. I think it's all about initial conditions and the application of the framework that we've been discussing here today. I feel like a good critique is kind of like a prototype that keeps resetting itself every time you do it. And you want to trust your team to set the tone and drive the cadence thereof.
There are five takeaways from this deck about how you critique. The first is to think about the type of critique you're going to have, don't worry about mixing in matching the different styles. Think about how you know you want to set up a critique based on the goal or the objective. The second is really just starting now. Don't wait until things get slow. Or you know whether or not there's a part two of a project or whether or not you know, there's a leader that should set up the critique and question the third has to do with you know, hosting duties you ideally in a larger setting, for any sort of formal or even In informal critiques, you know, you do want to have someone that's more of a conductor than a referee, researchers and workshop are great at this, I would also say being inclusive is really important. Invite everyone. Don't be upset if everyone doesn't show up.
And, you know, you want to show your best work in progress. And bear in mind that if you show too late, you can act on great input. So, you know, bear in mind that you can bring critiques, to zoom WebEx teams pick your poison there, but also they're going to work great in person. And you know, if you're going to take one screencap throughout this presentation, it's going to be at the end of the build. Bear in mind that when you're receiving critique, we want to do so with humility, and we want to own the decisions that we've made as designers, we want to think about what we're hearing at that moment. When we're giving critique, we want to acknowledge you know, what someone's doing, well, maybe what they have to improve upon. And we want to think with care about how we're packaging up what it is we're saying to our audience.
And when observing critique, we want to think about, you know, the exchange of the words that are taking place and where there's opportunity for improvement, and when we always want to be intellectually curious. So in closing, go forth, sweat the pixel, improve your craft together by using the three lenses giving, receiving, and observing feedback. Thanks so much for your time here today. I really appreciate the opportunity.