Giving Feedback Without Your Ego

I often speak on the proper technique for giving and receiving critique, and the value of doing so.  As a writer and as a designer, I have occasion to be on both sides of that equation daily.  I am not exaggerating when I say that it’s a critical skill for any professional.

Why then, is it the case that so often when I see people ask for feedback, it seems like the majority of responses are snarky, unconstructive and poorly formed? It wastes the time of the person requesting feedback by not actually providing them any actionable data, and it wastes the time of the person giving the feedback, because they’re not winning brownie points, looking knowledgeable, or participating in a discussion which can  help them grow.

Let’s take this out of the realm of generalities and draw some specific examples.

There’s a great website called  They have such a wonderful concept.  They provide tools, some free and some low-cost, for you to do quick-and-dirty user testing.  One of my favorites is the Five Second Test.  I use this test regularly with my real users, but when in a pinch it’s wonderful to be able to put a design up on their website, have people look at it, and provide their impressions after viewing for five seconds.  Or it would be, if the audience weren’t comprised completely of other designers, who are just participating in these reviews so that they can get credits toward running their own tests.  90% of the feedback I get on the tests I run is snarky, unspecific and has nothing to do with the design.

As a second example, John Nack of Adobe recently wrote a post asking for feedback on an experimental interface.  I was one of the first to comment, and I gave what I hope is a constructive and useful critique.  I was really interested to see what other viewpoints might be out there, so I subscribed to the comments on that post.  And I was shocked.  Despite a friendly readership, the majority of the comments on the post are caustic, sarcastic, and non-specific.

Perhaps these posters are busy posturing, like puffed up walruses, and they’re not thinking about the fact that this is a valuable chance to interact with and learn from their peers.  They’re participating in some imagined primordial dominance contest  Or, perhaps they have forgotten the value of critique, both to the giver and the receiver, which they were almost certainly taught in design school.

Let’s all remember: A properly formatted critique benefits the person whose work is being evaluated by pointing out things that are not necessarily obvious to the designer/artist, and by providing a different perspective and potentially new ideas.  It benefits the person critiquing the work because it may point out tendencies or habits they have themselves, it may open a new and inspiring dialogue with a worthy colleague, and it may bring to light whole new design philosophies or techniques.  And don’t discount the value of networking – open dialogue with people who do what you do not only lets you learn to do your job better, it opens up doors to new jobs in the future. I love to recommend people who have shown me how good they are, and how easy they are to work with.  Everyone wins when there’s a good critique, and nobody loses.

For posterity, a good critique goes like this:

  1. The critiquer carefully examines the work.
  2. Critiquer starts on a positive note, by praising something.
  3. Next, (optional) is an overall impression of the work.
  4. Critiquer asks questions about the reasoning behind anything he/she doesn’t like.
  5. Followed by at least 3 actionable things to improve.  Note, I’m not saying “point out three problems”. I’m saying “point out three things to improve”. It’s a positive, constructive thing.
  6. Followed by at least 3 things that are great and shouldn’t be changed.
  7. Critiquer finishes with an optional recap of the overall impression.
  8. The artist listens silently, only answering questions, until the critique is done.
  9. The artist thanks the critiquer, and can discuss improvements as long as they’re not attempting to defend their work.  I use the rule that you can’t say no.  Even if you’re thinking no, you never say it or imply it because the point is to receive and internalize, not to debate.

As a design community, and I mean this inclusive of pretty much the whole planet, let’s spread the word of the constructive critique.  Speak up, constructively, to the people you see wasting everyone’s time.  Remind yourself to give and receive regularly. And let’s all try to leave our egos at the door.

Today’s Interesting Link: is a delightful blog in which artist Jessica Hagy publishes simple, insightful and funny drawings on 3×5 cards every day.  These drawings are almost exclusively graphs and venn diagrams, which often combine unexpected things to make a wry and useful point.  It’s the perfect example of “a picture is worth a thousand words” and I subscribe to it as design inspiration.

Today’s Usability Quote:

“The brainstorming muscle can get rusty just like anything else.  You get lost in operational realities.” – David Blakely, Director of Technology Strategy at IDEO

Today’s Music To Design To:

The Art of Noise.  Anything the Art of Noise does, really.  It’s ambient enough to be distracting, while energetic enough to keep your mind focused. Also, the variety of instruments, samples and sounds they use really lends itself to creating things from other things – I don’t know why.  I love derivative work, and Art of Noise is my go-to music for derivative work.