In design, what we really need is critical thinking

More than reaction or direction, critique is the key to understanding the impact of design decisions.


Download a free copy of Designing for the Internet of Things, a curated collection of chapters from the O’Reilly Design library. This post is an excerpt from Discussing Design, by Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry, one of the books included in the curated collection.

One of the most common ways design discussions are initiated is for a team member to ask for feedback on something they’ve created or an idea they have. They might just grab someone at a nearby desk because they want to take a break from putting something together and think about what they’ve done so far. Or it could be part of a planned milestone or date in the project’s timeline, often called Design Reviews.

It’s not that either of these is a bad time to get other’s thoughts. Rather, the first real problem we encounter is from the word “feedback” itself. It’s a word that’s become engrained in our vocabulary. We use it all the time, a la “I’d love to get your feedback on something…”

What is feedback?

The issue with the term “feedback” lies in its broadness. Feedback itself is nothing more than a reaction or response. Designers talk about feedback and feedback loops all the time in their work. The user of a system or product interacts with it in some way, perhaps by clicking a button, and the system changes in one way or another. It could be that an animated loading bar appears while some new data is fetched and displayed, or maybe some elements in the interface move their position.

That reaction by the system is the feedback. It is the system’s response to what the user has done. Feedback is a reaction that occurs as a result of us doing something. In human-to-human interactions, such as the conversations we have in our projects, feedback can be nothing more than a gut reaction to whatever is being presented. And to be quite honest, even though we might not want to admit it, that’s often all it is.

Reactions might tell us a bit about how someone feels about what has happened or been created, and that can be useful in some cases, but it also presents us with some challenges. As we’ll discuss more in Chapter 2, a reaction doesn’t go far enough to be really helpful in allowing us to improve our creations and move forward in our projects. Not only that, the reaction itself is most likely built upon the biases and preferences of the individual doing the reacting, and in many cases, that individual, whether it’s a developer, designer, stakeholder, etc., is not a representative of the audience for our creation. There is a popular line in many design communities: “You are not the user.” It’s important to keep that in mind when we’re discussing things we’re creating and deciding what should or shouldn’t be a part of them.

The problem with asking for feedback is that, most times, we aren’t being specific enough in describing what we really want feedback on. Sometimes we might get a gut reaction. Sometimes we might get a list of instructions or suggestions on what to change. Sometime we might get comments that describe how what we’ve created doesn’t match what the critic would have created, and so on. And weeding through all of that feedback to try to determine what’s of use to us — what will help us identify the aspects of our design we should iterate upon — can be a struggle.

Three kinds of feedback

As Aaron and I have seen in our own experiences and through watching and working with other teams, there are key characteristics that separate three forms of feedback, all of which vary in their level of usefulness to us in the design process. Understanding these three kinds of feedback can help us understand the conversations we have with our teams and improve our own ability to react to and use feedback to strengthen our creations.


Good lord! That’s awful! An inebriated cocker spaniel could have done better!

Reaction-based feedback tends to be emotional and/or visceral. It happens quickly, instinctively. Feedback of this type can often be the most passionate, as it’s driven by an individual’s own expectations, desires, and values. Essentially, it’s a gut reaction.

There is a second kind of reaction-based feedback that is driven by the individual’s understanding of what they are expected to say, typically driven by a cultural understanding or what they think the presenter wants to hear. In this case, the reaction itself isn’t in regard to what’s being presented, but rather to the situation of simply being asked for feedback in the first place. Examples of this kind of feedback often take the form of:

That’s wonderful! Great work! I love what you did with…

Why it can be an issue: At best, this kind of feedback tells us about the subconscious reaction the viewer has to what you’ve created. These kinds of reactions are something we do want to understand when creating a product or service. It’s not ideal to try to sell something potential customers or users cringe at or grumble about the second they see it. But are the people you’ve asked for feedback from reflective of your design’s actual audience? Are they looking at it the same way your potential users would? Does this reaction tell you anything specific about any of the design decisions you’ve made so far or about their effectiveness?


You should have made all of those radio buttons a drop down [because…]

Direction-based feedback typically begins with an instruction or suggestion. In many cases that’s also where it ends. In this form of feedback, the individual providing it is often looking for ways to bring the creation more in line with their own expectations of what the solution should be. You might also have encountered examples of this kind of feedback that start with phrasing similar to: “If I were to do this… or I would have… or I wish…

In all of these, the individual giving the feedback is trying to communicate his or her own vision for the creation. It may be because they have their own detailed solution already in their mind, or it may be that they feel a problem they perceive is not adequately being solved. In some cases, the individual will go on to describe why they are making the suggestion, which can shed a bit more light on their thinking and motives.

Why it can be an issue: Similar to reaction-based feedback, direction-based feedback without any explanation tells you nothing about the effectiveness of your decisions in meeting the design’s objectives. Sure, if the person giving you feedback is the one who will ultimately approve the design, it might supply you with a to-do list that you could act upon to get their approval, but getting that approval and creating an effective design are not necessarily the same thing.

In the situations where the individual also gives some explanation as to why they are making the suggestion, you at least begin to understand the impetus and perhaps the issue they’re trying to address with it. But it still does not help you understand how or why the design you have is or is not effective at addressing that problem.

Additionally, when left unchecked, this type of feedback leads to problem solving which, while an important part of the design process, is counterproductive to the conversation you’re trying to have. It’s not that the direction itself is a bad idea, but at this point, it’s out of place. We’ll talk more about problem solving and it’s impact later on in Chapter 3.

We’ll talk more about how to deal with these forms of feedback in Chapters 4 and 5. For now what’s most important is to understand what these forms lack in terms of their usefulness to us in helping us improve our creations.

What we really need is critical thinking

Critical thinking is the process of taking a statement and determining if it is true or false. When we’re designing something, we’re doing so to meet or achieve some set of objectives. When looking for feedback on our creations, what we should be working to understand is whether we think it’s true or not that what has been created and the method in which it’s been created will work to achieve those objectives. We’re looking for a form of analysis to take place.

And that’s exactly what critique is.

Critique: The third form of feedback

If the objective is for users to seriously 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.

It’s this form of feedback that is most helpful to us in understanding the impact of our design decisions. Critique isn’t about that instant reaction you might feel when seeing something, or about how you would change someone’s creation to better solve an issue.

Critique is a form of analysis that uses critical thinking to determine whether a creation is expected to achieve its desired outcomes (and adhere to any pertinent best practices/heuristics). Those outcomes can be any number of types of things. They can be about utility — for example, giving someone the ability to complete a task. They can be about metrics and measurement, as in increasing the number of conversions for a particular call to action. Or they can be experiential — for example, making someone feel excited or surprised by something.

I once worked on a project for a financial services company whose goals for an update to their site’s design included getting more visitors to spend time viewing their articles and commentary, and more specifically to increase the average number of articles and commentary pieces viewed by a user within a visit. But the primary goal was an increased completion rate for a short contact form that helped generate leads. With these objectives agreed upon by the team, we were able to focus our conversations on the aspects of the design ideas we came up with that we felt would or would not work to produce these results.

Good critique is comprised of three key details:

  1. It identifies a specific aspect of the idea or a design decision in the creation being analyzed.
  2. It relates that aspect or decision to an objective or best practice.
  3. It describes how and why the aspect or decision work to support or not support the objective or best practice.

We’ll talk more later in Chapter 3 about the role of these objectives in design projects and in setting the foundation for productive conversations, but hopefully this begins to give you a sense of how critique differs from the very broad and reactionary basis of feedback.

Knowing what we want and what we’re asking for makes all the difference in how our conversations play out. It may seem like little more than semantics, and it’s damn hard to let go of using the word “feedback” when asking to talk with people about an idea or creation (hell, we’ll be using it over and over again in this book). But as you’ll see as you read the coming chapters, what’s important is to understand the difference and to use that understanding to inform how you ask people and facilitate the resulting conversations.

Cropped image on article and category pages by Patrick Hoesly on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license. This post is part of our investigation into Experience Design and Business.

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