On crit sessions

In the past couple of weeks I’ve sat in on a handful of crit sessions with BAIMP students where the point has been to present some work in progress to twenty or so other coursemates and receive feedback on it. There were some hits, and a few misses, but the one thing that stands out about them is that people are really, really bad at giving feedback. It’s frustrating. People who 5 minutes before are talking at an annoyingly loud level about getting mashed * the night before, are suddenly rendered mute when you ask them to come up with more than 10 words about the piece of work in front of them.

Not that I’m saying I’m brilliant at it myself, but I like to think that I can come up with a list of good or bad things about a project, and articulate them in a fairly decent way. Maybe not. I actually find that it gets harder to give decent criticism when no-one else is because the smallest negative thing you might say automatically sounds really harsh against the backdrop of silence. Conversely, you start to think that the things you thought were good points aren’t actually that good, because no-one else seems to have noticed them.

I get it though. No-one likes doing presentations (apart from Peter Sage. Obv.) and no-one likes to say they don’t like someone’s work to their face, cuz like, they might not be bezzie mates anymore. But it’s much more damaging and less helpful in the long run to let someone go on thinking that their work is amazing. I barely had any ‘crit’ experience when I was at uni, and the little I did get, was pretty similar to the stuff that happens with the students now. “I like those colours” – “That band that ‘inspired’ you is really good” – “I like turtles” etc.

I wish I’d been subjected to more realistic and relevant comments because I’ve since found firsthand that when you’re getting paid to do work, and it doesn’t match what the client wanted, they’ll definitely tell you. I’m sure that anyone who has delivered substandard work for whatever reason knows that horrible feeling you get when someone starts questioning why that game doesn’t work properly, or why that animated moose looks like it’s been done by a child. It’s not fun. (Not that that’s ever happened to me; my work is always stellar. Contact me for quotes!) But while it makes you feel a bit shit, it’s very necessary. Taking aside the ‘getting paid for work’ scenario, why anyone would want to deliver / hand-in / show off work that isn’t as good as they can make it, I don’t know. It’s a personal pride thing surely(?) Granted, it’s hard to stand back from your own work and evaluate it – which is why crit sessions (or at the very least, some comments from a couple of other people) during the production process are really useful.

Or rather, they can be really useful. If only people would get more involved.

I found a list of possible questions to ask yourself (as a ‘critic’) that I think provides a decent starting point..

  • What are the user scenarios the site is designed for? Walkthrough how each design would enable those scenarios.
  • What known usability / design / business issues are these sketches trying to solve?
  • What is the intended style of the design, and is it appropriate for the target audience?
  • What is the intention of the style, and does it achieve the desired effect?
  • Are there standard brand elements that should be used, and are they used appropriately?
  • Are there similar software products or features that these designs should relate to?
  • What usability heuristics does each design support well? (or not?)
  • Where in the design are the most likely places for users to have trouble? and why?
  • Are there reasonable design changes that might avoid these problem points?
  • Does each design idea take advantage of things the user might already have learned?
  • What are the pros and cons of each design idea, relative to each other?
  • Are there any hybrid design ideas that are worth exploring, based on the designs in the room?
  • What open issues might best be resolved by a usability study or other research?

I’ve highlighted the ones that I pretty much always ask myself when looking at bits of work. Obviously, the list needs tweaking slightly for different types of work but if you’re asking yourself those questions, and can share the answers you come up with, then you’re potentially helping. You’re definitely helping more than if you just sit in silence and occasionally murmor vague approval of everything. It’s not just about “I like it” or, “that looks good”. It’s about establishing the meaning of the work and objectively deciding if it works. For instance, if someone tells you that they’ve made a game that is meant ‘as a quick timewaster type of thing, aimed at pre-teens’ but the set of instructions accompanying the game is a War & Peace epic, then you can fairly safely suggest that the intentions of the game have failed. It’s got nothing to do with whether you personally like games for people with short attention spans, it’s whether the end product has met the imposed criteria.

That said, being critical doesn’t mean being negative. If something’s good, then say why it’s good. It’s always nice to be told nice things, and more importantly for the creator, to know that your work has been successful. A list of nothing but negative points and ‘improvements’, while it might be intended as helpful, is nonetheless disheartening.

I’m sure that for some there’s an underlying fear that by commenting on other people, you’re losing friends and leaving yourself open to retribution when it’s your turn to stand in front of everyone. But that’s really nothing to be afraid of. As long as you’re being honest and can explain your reasons for criticism, you’re doing them a favour. And when it comes to your turn in the stocks, you should take on board what others have to say if they have valid reasons for their thinking. I dunno if there’s also a slight element of inferiority complex type of thing going on, whereby people don’t feel like they’re able to comment on other work because they don’t hold their own work in a high regard. But you don’t have to be an expert on something to have an opinion on it. Yeah, it helps if you can properly explain your stance, but look at Brian Sewell. He’s an absolute fuckwit and yet his views on art are apparently worthwhile. Pot, kettle & black are words that have no place in crit sessions, so long as you can justify your thoughts.

I dunno. Maybe I’m completely wrong. But I really don’t think crit sessions are the nightmare that some people view them as. They should be helpful, you should welcome them, and you should definitely, 100%, actually speak in them. It’s silent crit sessions that are awful. For everyone involved. Speak and be spoken to! You’ll appreciate it eventually.