Don’t overthink your product critique interview

It’s about who you are, not how many things you can say.

man with colorful paints on his hand
Design is not art. But sometimes you gonna hold on to your own style like an artist. Photo credit: Alice Dietrich

The Myth

It’s confusing when people ask how to do a product critique.

Before you can do any design, you must have already discovered a problem and critiqued the current solution (if there is one). If you can get to the last step and be entitled a professional for doing so, you innately already have opinions for a design and know-how to critique.

When people stress out about their product critique interviews, I always think they are not under-prepared (I mean, your work is already good enough to earn you an interview), but merely afraid of showing their true selves. There is really no need to mimic the textbook product critique or hide your “messy” think process. Product critique is a conversation. Its doing, as Julie Zhuo puts it, is to explore “why some products and experiences work for people, and why others don’t.” Its purpose is to see how a designer subconsciously reacts to products and advice. Most importantly, product critique is the best place to let your personality shine. A portfolio review tells you about the design process, a product critique tells you about what the designer cares about. It lets people know how it feels like to work next to you.

Of course, it’s normal to feel a little insecure about the uncertain, elusive interview. That’s why it’s even more important to take the time to reflect. Here, let’s reflect as a designer and prepare to show people our true, best side.

First stop: understanding what type of designer you are

The first step is knowing your strengths when you design.

Aside from the myriads of amazing soft skills like collaboration and leadership, a designer’s professional skills can be roughly categorized as product thinking, interaction design, and visual design.

Are you good at thinking deeply about product-market fit, cranking prototypes that people can subconsciously use and understand, or polishing interfaces to pixel-perfect?

You should sit down and look at your past designs, ask yourself where you made the most contribution, and list out the skills you feel proud of. No skill is too trivial to matter. Every designer has their strength area where they understand things more clearly. In critique, they also feel more confident talking about it.

Also, think if you are a specialist in one field or a generalist in all three. It might give you ideas on how you work. Specialists collaborate to create top-level products, whereas generalists can quickly adapt to their jobs and work independently.

Then the rest comes naturally.

If you are an interaction design specialist, spend more time critiquing interface interactions and touch on the details you care about personally.

If you are a generalist with product thinking being your most prominent skill, tell a story that touches all three parts and demonstrate your understanding of the product as a whole.

a swiss army knife on the table
photo credit: Denise Jans
Second stop: how do you tell the story?

You have a lot of freedom in how you want to tell the critique story.

For example, you can go top-down. Start with a broader overview like the product’s user group or its market then work your way down to more detailed aspects like information architecture and colors.

You can also go bottom-up. In this case, walk through the product as you would as a regular user then deduct the design decisions behind each step.

A mixture of both will do great too.

Regardless of your choice, make sure your story flow has good logical transitions. That is to say, the things you just talked about are related to the things you are about to discuss. For example, because Uber riders are usually in an outdoor context and face a lot of distractions, the waiting-for-pickup screen layouts like a subway signal system where the most important information pops. It doesn’t sound like a super hard thing to keep track of. But when you throw too many balls at the same time, people end up catching none. So avoid talking all over the place and making it hard to grasp the point.

Girl laying down on a tennis court
photo credit: Jeff Cadestin

Sometimes you get carried away and forget about your plan to talk about everything. It’s a bad thing in a presentation, but I think perhaps a good thing in product critique: that’s because a presentation needs to send a complete message and a product critique needs to showcase what a designer cares about. If you find something that wows you, share it with the other designer and why it's important. My opinion is don’t be afraid to go deep.

Your story also doesn’t have to be just about one product. Talk about other products that do the same job and how do they differentiate themselves. It can be big as how they each make money, or small as how are the swiping animation different. A product designer’s job after all is creating differentiating and comfortable experiences. We need a well-rounded understanding of the people, context, and market to make the right decision.

Last stop: don’t forget it’s a conversation

A critique is a conversation filled with critical thinking. If someone asks for your opinion on a design, answer then ask back for their opinions. The question you ask is also part of who you are. From the other designer’s answer, you also get a glimpse of how life feels like to design next to them.

The real preparation

They say, if you want to cook, you must learn to taste.

If you want to design, then you must learn to critique.

Pay attention to everyday designs and build a habit of subconsciously critiquing them. I think that’s one of the best ways to sharpen a designer’s mindset and product thinking skills, aka the best way to prepare for product critiques.

I always think critiquing is just a type of innate reactions. Being human means constantly reacting, thinking, and changing our environment to refine our living. The interview merely brings it to the table.

There are countless ways to get started. Our lives are already so designed by other people: the chairs we sit on, the device we use to read this article, the place we live in… These are all the things you can critique without a how-to article. Here are a few tips to get started anyway.

Tip 1: Look for products to critique

Keep trying new products out and ask yourself how you feel is the simplest critique practice. I always just search for random apps to try in leisure. Some good sources to find apps are App curations and rankings from the App Store, new product updates from the tech news sources, or product reviews from your go-to social media platform.

Take screenshots and recordings of good design you see and write down why they are good. I’d also write down plans to change the less appropriate designs. Feel free to try different apps in the same market and cross-reference design choices.

a hand holding a flower
Photo credit: Krista Joy Montgomery
Tip 2: Keep an eye on your favorites

If I liked a product for the first try, I’d move it to a watchlist folder and log back in once in a while to see the new things they’ve come up with. I think of it as my second chance to learn from a design team I like. If you keep doing this, eventually you will build a list of favorites products, get more familiar with their design philosophy, and have more opinions about product design.

It’s also worth mentioning good design might not be immediately perceivable. A seemingly complex interface can have hidden secrets (or it can be just an MVP too). If you can get a behind the scene tour from the makers, like reading their design case studies or articles, it will give you a much clearer and comprehensive learning experience.

There are a lot of Medium articles on frameworks and reflections from many silicon-valley companies company editors, but I don’t think enough are showcasing how they designed their products. This is a loss to the junior designers trying to catch up to the industry and efforts to build a more open tech design industry. I say that because the Chinese tech companies do step by step breakdown of how they designed their latest product, monthly. I get inspired by the official design accounts from Tiktok, Alibaba, and Tencent's ISUX team all the time. They are my irreplaceable resource for growth.

Tip 3: Look everywhere

Not just tech products, furniture, buildings, video games, or billboards on the street all yield inspirations. I get the most inspiration from video game UIs, you should explore your favorites too. Also, something ordinary in one industry may be a great inspiration in another. For example, the W3C contrast ratio is a well known accessible standard in the digital design world, BBDO studio took the inspiration and designed the 7:1 Furniture collection series for the same visual impaired user group.

furniture designed with 7:1 border ratio
photo Credit: BBDO

Building a great product critique skillset relies more on the product sensitivity you build over the long haul than what you do three days before the interview. Stay calm and critique on. Don’t be afraid of showing who you are. I’m sure you can make it!

Thanks for reading; feel free to share and check my other articles
Credits: Julie Zhuo — How to do a Product Critique

Don’t Overthink Your Product Critique Interview was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.