People looking at sticky notes on the wall

How to do content crits well

Content crits are an excellent way to improve your work, share good practice and establish standards in a team. Other than 2i (second pair of eyes), crits are probably the single best thing you can do for your content.

What is a content crit?

A content crit (content critique) is when a content designer shows some work in progress and asks for specific feedback. It’s a chance to:

  • review your work
  • come up with different options
  • share ideas
  • explain decisions to a wider team
  • get help when you’re stuck on something

The idea comes from design critiques.

How to run a content crit

The mechanics of running a content crit are best kept as simple as possible. That’s so that you can set up and run crits quickly and easily.

All you need is:

  • a piece of work in progress to show – on a screen, or as printouts on the wall
  • a group of people to take a critical look at the content
  • someone to take notes
  • you, to explain what you want from the crit, give some context and keep the discussion focussed

Anyone can do this. However, there are a couple of ways to get as much as possible out of a crit.

What content can you crit?

Any content will benefit from a crit, as long as it’s a work in progress. Showing your work at all stages helps you work in the open. It makes things better. Show your work as often as you need to. Crit early, crit often.

If you’re working on a service, rather than on (eg) guidance content, there’s a bit of an arbitrary distinction between a content crit and a broader design crit. It’s quite hard to focus specifically on content when it’s so intrinsically bound up with the interaction design.

But I’ve always found value in a long hard look at the words alone. It’s particularly good way of spotting inconsistencies and finding emerging content patterns.

Have a clear idea of what you want from your crit – set the scene and give context

Crits are at their most useful when you have a clear idea what you want to get out of them. You need to be able to tell people what you want feedback on.

This could mean asking people to:

  • focus on or ignore certain sections of the work
  • look at specific phrasing, or solve a specific problem
  • review a particular aspect of the work
  • review in the light of their own user research

You also need to set the scene – give people some context. That might mean talking about the users, the user needs, any constraints or assumptions you have made, how advanced the work is, or how you have iterated based on user research.

Keep bringing the focus back to what you want. This is important. Crits get off-track easily. If the discussion shows you need to focus on something else, make a note to come back to it after the crit.

Get the right people in the room

Another good reason to know what you want from a crit is to make sure you get the right people in the room – no point having policy folks if you’re only reviewing for style.

But you definitely don’t need to restrict content crits to content people. You’ll get an excellent range of feedback and ideas if you invite your wider team – subject matter experts, product managers, user researchers, designers and developers. Crits have great silo-busting power.

Opening up the crit means that you can improve collaboration, explain design decisions and build a shared understanding. It’s a good way of helping non-designers understand what we do when we do user-centred design.

Content designers at Scope do multi-disciplinary crits really well.

How to behave at a crit

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

-Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review

Norm really sets the scene there. Positive, helpful crit culture is where people are kind, supportive and unafraid to express a viewpoint. The old gamer meme, ‘Don’t be a dick’, sums it up too. If someone consistently breaks that rule, they should not be at your crit.

If you are bringing your work to a crit:

  • don’t be defensive – you’re asking for help and constructive criticism, accept it when it’s given
  • keep people on-track – crit time is precious, use it wisely
  • ask lots of questions about people’s suggestions

If you are invited to crit someone’s work:

  • speak up – someone’s asked for constructive criticism, so offer it
  • don’t make it personal – don’t talk about ‘you’ (‘Why have you done X?’)
  • keep it neutral – ‘Does X meet the user need?’ or ‘I wondered if Y might work’
  • call out the positives as well as the negatives
  • ask for clarification if you need it – ‘What was the thinking behind the decision to X’?

Sarah Richards writes really well about the rules of the crit.

A few useful lines

To set the scene:
“Here’s what we want to look at today – x, y and z. Feedback on a, b and c can wait until next week.”

When someone is giving feedback on something you don’t want to focus on:
“I hear you on that. Now, what do you think about x?”

When you think it’s time to end the crit:
“Thank you all for your feedback. I’ve got what I need for now, and will go and work on the next iteration.”