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February 4, 2016 /UX/UI Design /

How to Discuss Design Without Losing Your Mind

Every designer has been there. A design that’s not your own comes by your desk and you’re asked to provide the other f-word: feedback. You might sit there and grapple with what has been presented alone, using the proverbial red pen to rip apart what’s in front of you. You might instead gather a team in a meeting room for a glorified rant session, with the words “what were they thinking?” being spewed left and right. Both of these exercises aren’t helpful, and it’s likely that the person tasked with compiling said feedback, and the person receiving it, will be left feeling defeated. So, why is design so hard to talk about productively?

Adam Connor, VP Organizational Design and Training at Mad*Pow, recently shared insights at O’Reilly’s Design the Future conference on how to talk about design without losing your mind.

Most of us struggle when talking about the things we’re creating and things others are creating. Despite knowing the importance of this exercise, even designers often fall short when it comes to providing constructive feedback on another designer’s work. Part of the problem lays within the word feedback itself.

Let’s break it down.

Three kinds of feedback

The first kind of feedback is reaction, which comes from the gut. It’s a hard to control a first response that often is verbalized. For example: “Good lord! That’s awful! An inebriated cocker spaniel could have done better!”

The second kind of feedback is direction. This is when you show someone something and they tell what you should be doing instead. For example: “You should have made all those radio buttons a dropdown because…”

The problem with both of these is they lack critical thinking. “Reaction and direction don’t help us look at what we’ve created and understand whether what we’ve produced is actually going to work towards the objectives we have for it,” said Connor. Critical thinking answers the yes or no question of whether or not your design will meet objectives. When you start to apply this kind of thinking to your response, you wind up with the third kind of feedback, critique.

Critique is a form of analysis based on critical thinking. For example: “If the objective is for users to consider the impact to their bank balance before making a purchase, placing the balance at the bottom of the screen at the same size as all the other numbers isn’t effective because it gets lost in all of the other information.”

So how do you get to critique?

Get tools and a plan

You need to make sure you structure conversations to work towards to critique. This isn’t something that just happens. When someone asks you for feedback or critique, ask yourself four simple questions:

  1. What was the creator trying to achieve?
  2. How did they try to achieve it?
  3. How effective were their choices?
  4. Why or why not?

Before you jump in with your critically-thought response though, you need to make sure everyone (including yourself) is in the right headspace.

Giving and receiving critique

There are two facets to critique, giving and receiving. The foundation of both of these is intent, and in order for this exercise to be effective both sides have to want to improve the design. “Giving critique with the wrong intent is self-focused act,” said Connor. “Giving critique with the right intent is objective focused.”

When giving critique…

  • Use a filter – give initial thoughts and reactions, then revisit them in the right context.
  • Don’t assume – find out the reason behind the thinking, constraints or other variables.
  • Don’t invite yourself – get in touch and ask to chat about the design.
  • Lead with questions – show an interest in their process and learn more about their objectives.
  • Talk about strengths – critique isn’t just about the things that aren’t working.

When receiving critique…

  • Receiving critique with the right intent takes humility and restraint. You need to be able to present and listen.
  • Remember the purpose – critique is about understanding and improvement, not judgement.
  • Think before responding – do you understand what the critics are saying?
  • Participate – analyze your proposed solution alongside everyone else.
  • Set the foundation – use prior agreements and objectives to get everyone on the same page.

Critique is at the core of collaboration

“If you want to work well with other people, you have to know how to critique,” said Connor. “The best organizations that do this…are the ones who can critique without thinking about it, they don’t need a formal meeting to do it.”

Keep in mind that critique is a skill which you need to practice. Start small, even if that means one-on- ones. Always think before you speak, and choose who you critique with carefully because some people simply won’t share your intent to improve a design.

For more information on how to discuss design without losing your mind, including breakdowns on standalone critiques, design reviews, and brainstorms, check out Adam Connor’s full slidedeck. You can also find him on Twitter @AdamConnor.

UX/UI Design

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Join the discussion

  • By Joel Emmett - 9:38 AM on February 4, 2016  

    Getting bogged down in personal taste is a common problem. I knew someone who would skirt that by saying the offending element was a “design decision” which they explained was something that had nothing to do with direct functionality, but just needed some kind of design to look professional. It defended the design while saying it didn’t really matter. Everyone would be happy and we’d move on.

  • By Ian - 8:08 AM on February 16, 2016  

    This site is very unreadable. The content section is too wide (narrow text columns are easy to read) and the font is too small. I have to open it in Evernote (simplified) or Pocket to read it.