Critiquing someone’s work isn’t an excuse to be a jerk
I work in UX. I work with designers. One of the basic activities that happens on a UX/product/design team is critique and collaborative design. Sometimes we work just with other designers. Sometimes we work with business analysts. Sometimes we work with developers. A disturbingly common feature of these sessions is that people seem to not know how to give feedback on designs. I’d like to help you understand why you can’t list out all the terrible things about the design and then expect that all of the recipients will react the same way and be motivated to do better. That’s not how people work.
Red pens raise defenses
I learned early on in my teaching career that using a red pen to comment on student work results in students tuning out your comments regardless of how helpful you were trying to be. Psychologically, the red pen is associated with bad, terrible, irredeemable work. Failure. Anger. Judgment. If you got a paper back full of angry-looking red scribbles, how anxious would you be to read it all and digest it?
Instead, I used purple, green, blue, or any other color that was easy to read and not angry-looking. I realize that color perceptions and associations are cultural, and that my choice may have inadvertently been hostile to someone who didn’t share those cultural norms with me, but that’s outside the scope of this post.
100% negative comments also raise defenses and bad feelings
The other thing I always tried to do with my students’ assignments was to point out what was fantastic about their work. Was it always easy? No. Some people are way better writers than others, but that’s okay. That’s why they were in school, right? To get better! So I made that effort to find what was good about the assignment and point it out explicitly. When you’re confronted with all the ways your work is terrible and misses the mark, it feels pretty damn bad. Do students need to get used to being critiqued? Yes. Of course! But there’s a better way to do that that doesn’t involve being mean.
The way you couch negative feedback matters. Instead of framing the bad things as simply bad, which implies unfixable, I framed them as things that needed improvement or work. I then gave them specific strategies to do that improvement. For example: “Your paragraphs are a little disjointed; it would really improve the flow of information if you added some transition sentences to help guide the reader through your argument.” That sounds a lot better than “Missing transitions; no flow” doesn’t it? How about “I’m not sure I understand what you were trying to do/say here — can we discuss so I can help you clarify?” vs. “Unclear, rewrite.”
Doing these things when commenting on student work improved the students’ morale and engagement with the material. They tried harder. They felt more agency in their assignments and took more control of their work. They also felt more free to come to me for help instead of struggling on their own.
Translating that to design and the professional world
It’s a challenge to remember, at times, that our colleagues are people with feelings. Again, we need to be able to take and absorb critique in order to improve, but that critique doesn’t need to be delivered in a way that makes people feel bad. This is especially important with junior colleagues who are still finding their career paths and developing themselves professionally. Breaking new people is no way to earn trust or motivate people to do their best work for you.
So what does that mean for you when it comes time to critique a design? It means that you are mindful about what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. Be constructive instead of destructive. Point out the positive things about the design, even if you feel like it’s a small thing that isn’t worth mentioning.
“You’ve done a really great job incorporating the new branding into this design! The logo looks great, and I can tell you followed the style guide closely with your design elements. I’m a little confused about the way your form fields are laid out, though. Can you walk me through how you came to that decision? I think there may be a better way to do that.”
This type of framing leads into discovery of the person’s thought process, and hopefully puts them in more of a frame of mind to have their mind changed to use a more effective design. It could also lead to learning — are there effective design patterns they could have used instead? Is this something that has been tested with user research already? Is there a case to be made for abandoning existing design patterns to try a new layout?
How do you think that person might react if all you said was, “Your form layout doesn’t follow existing design patterns.” Does that invite discussion and learning? Is that conducive to helping the designer grow? It might be for some people, but it might not for others. While there are people who would push back on that to get to the discussion and learning part, there are plenty of really talented people who would shut down and walk away feeling really badly.
My advice? Frame it up with kindness
- Give concrete ways the person did something well
- Give concrete things that need improvement/work
- Give concrete ways to make those improvements
- Invite them to a discussion; don’t shut it down with negativity
- For god’s sake, don’t use a red pen! 🙂
I think we could all use a little more kindness and… wait for it… empathy. Practice it. You never know what people bring with them to work, and your small kindness could mean everything to your colleague.