Dealing with Design Criticism Like the Dalai Lama Would

Every designer will struggle with taking feedback and criticism at some point in their career, especially early on. When we’re learning, we’re practicing on our own or in a class. The feedback we get is instructional and typically gentle in nature.

In the professional world, there’s less room for mistakes and acceptance for growth. At times, little to no tolerance for less than excellent work, especially for high-priced client work.

How to view feedback

Regardless of environment, feedback will come. It’s helpful to frame it in the right context. Although it’s hard not to, it doesn’t have to be interpreted as a personal attack.

AN OPPORTUNITY

It’s an opportunity to improve your work. When you’re up against a deadline, you have to make some type of compromise on your design. We all have to deal with these constraints.

When a feedback loop comes, we can take the opportunity to make improvements. I’ve often found that something I wanted to do but didn’t have time to accomplish becomes the perfect solution for criticism.

A NECESSITY AND AN INEVITABILITY

As a UX Designer, you don’t get to work in a vacuum. Your team, your boss and ultimately, your users are going to weigh in. It’s inevitable. It’s part of the process.

Dealing with criticism

There’s plenty of ways to deal with adversary at work and in your life. Here’s some tips to help you get through it… at least as it pertains to receiving feedback.

TAKE A DEEP BREATH

Oxygen is good for the brain. Take a deep breath before you respond.

You’re initial instinct is going to be negative, to get defensive or lash out. You want to contain that. Bottle it up and throw it in the ocean. It’s not useful. The raw emotional response usually isn’t the way to go.

If you’re really starting to get upset, take a quick “restroom break” or go on mute and take 3–5 deep breaths. Pausing between breaths.

ASK QUESTIONS, LOTS OF QUESTIONS

Before you can really respond to criticism, you need to understand it.

Feedback like “I don’t like it” or “It’s missing something” is extremely unhelpful. Your job as a designer is to help this person identify and articulate their thoughts on the design. If they’re not trained in design, they need your help. So much of working in UX is about educating those around you. This is an opportunity for that.

You might even notice that they contradict themselves. Maybe even a lot. Just reflect what you’re hearing. “So you’re saying you don’t like the font?” or “Is it the font size you don’t like? Is it too big?”

Get them to give you good feedback. Yes, stakeholders aren’t users. Their feedback can tend to get in the way but it’s feedback nonetheless.

Ask them things like:

  • “What about the design don’t you like?”
  • “Can you point out where you got confused?”
  • “Can you expand on that a little more?”
  • “Why do you feel that way?”

Asking open ended questions to get them talking is a great way to get more information. Also, it makes you appear professional and open to their opinions. Complimenting their feedback and thanking them helps build a rapport. That’s particularly important with people you’re hoping to work with for a long time.

If they’re struggling to answer your questions, ask for examples. If they can see the problems, they should be able to see what they like.

RECOGNIZE THE SOURCE

When responding to criticism, I take into account the source. Who is the person offering this feedback? Both their personality type and their respective role.

Some people will never be swayed. Their opinion is their opinion and yours doesn’t matter. We all have worked (or will work) with someone like this. Recognize these people and save your energy. I’m not spending any energy trying to “convince” this person. If they don’t like it, I certainly want to know why. I’ll ask questions. But I’m not wasting any time trying to bring them to my side.

There’s certainly critical or negative people that hate everything. Ideally you don’t even ask these people for their opinion. You already know what it’s going to be. But if you do, hopefully you can take it with a grain of salt and move on quickly. Unless they’re paying for the project of course.

Other designers can be tricky. A “I would have done it X instead” can be helpful but can useless. Their feedback might be rooted in opinion, experience or just rock solid research. Ask some questions and try to understand where they’re coming from.

Potential users is where you really want to be receptive. No matter how badly you want them to do something. If they’re misinterpreting your design, you have to adjust. You should be critical of your own work at this point. You won’t be there to explain things when they try to use your product later. They’re just going to close the tab or app.

OFFER SOLUTIONS

Once you’ve gotten some clarity on the feedback, it’s time to find a solution.

You’re the designer. You’re creative. Lead the charge here. If something isn’t going to work for whatever reason, changes are coming so get in front of it. If there were alternatives, bring those up for discussion or show them.

I’m assuming solving the problem is appropriate in the environment feedback is being delivered. That’s not always the case. Make sure it is. If not, take it off line.

Defending your work

There are times when you’ll be looked to defend your work.

Not necessarily in a negative or aggressive way, but a client or boss may genuinely be interested in why something was done a certain way. Maybe they’re trying to learn more about design. Maybe it’s a job interview. Maybe looking to help you grow.

Whatever the reason. This a great opportunity to showcase your expertise. When handled well, you’re going to get more credibility for future reviews. This person can end up being one of your best advocates.

DEFENDING LIKE A PROFESSIONAL

Talk through your rationale and thought process. Focus on your reasoning and the benefit to the user. Mention any research, analytics or other examples you can think of. Keep emotion out of it. I can’t emphasize that enough.

I will typically circle around and validate their opinion. Regardless of how ridiculous it is.

An example is something like “I was trying to keep it as simple as possible. In my testing, the testers really struggled with the amount of actions available. I saw the best results when we kept it to 1 or 2 tasks on each screen. But I can see how you think it looks too empty. There’s certainly a lot of white space here.”

I showed my intention and reasoning. Mentioned the user testing I did. Reflected and validated their opinion. But I’m leaving them an opportunity to backtrack. Many people will cave here. Not always but it’s possible.

You may notice there was nothing like:

  • “Well, I’m the designer here and you’re not.”
  • “You just don’t get it”
  • “No, this is the way we need to go. Just trust me ok.”
  • “Sure we can do that if you want this to suck.”

None of that. It’s a discussion, possibly a debate, never an argument

Closing Thoughts

We’re playing a team sport. Everyone has work in their portfolio that they’re not 100% happy with. There was a decision or ten they disagreed with. But you just deal with it. It’s part of the profession.

Speaking of profession… remember, you are a professional (not to mention an adult). Children get upset and storm out of rooms. Show some maturity and stand in the face of a little adversity. At a minimum, close your mouth. You know you’re upset and any thing you say right now isn’t going to be good.

Yes, we all get into situations where we feel disrespected, mistreated, pissed or written off. But we’re designers, not artists. Other people do get to weigh in.

We’re brought in to be creative and solve problems with our ideas. But for a variety of reasons, our work gets challenged. Maybe they want you to do your best work. Maybe you’re just working for a control freak. Maybe you’re just working for someone that has to have some input on deliverables. Maybe they just don’t like you. Maybe they really just want the product to be awesome. Maybe you’re work just isn’t that good. It’s all possible.

At worst, you might just be in a situation where your ideas are being ignored. I’ve been there. It’s not fun. In fact, it’s demoralizing.

Regardless of where the criticism is coming from, you’re not doing yourself any favors by lashing back or burning a bridge. You’re only damaging your own reputation.

If it’s truly a pattern or reached a reprehensible level, just move on and find a new job. Don’t let it affect you personally or professionally. Just go work somewhere where you’re treated well and respected for your contributions.

But ultimately, this is our chosen profession. Work at it. Seek out critique. Keep an open mind. It’s the only way you’ll get better.

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Originally published at jonizquierdo.com on May 4, 2016.