I recall myself when I was just starting my design career. Criticism was the worst thing that could happen to me. I could work on a piece of design for hours just to hear in the end:
“Not bad, dude! But…”
“Well done! But you should probably take another approach, because…”
And right after these “but” and “because” words there were plenty of points indicating my mistakes. I’m sure not giving up and keeping thyself motivated is the biggest challenge for every beginning creator.
After being a designer for a couple of years I realized that this flow of criticism would never end. I saw myself getting better and better at what I’d been doing, but the amount of criticism was only increasing. Just because feedback is an essential part of any product development.
But then there was a tricky part. Feedback was not always about my mistakes. It was also about other visions. Other solutions. Or something like “I just don’t like it. It’s too greenish”.
Providing constructive criticism is also a skill that you’re getting while mastering a profession. Nobody has this skill by default. And even if your colleagues are in business for a long time, they might be really bad in giving feedback and in reasoning their own suggestions. Meanwhile, they can easily be amazing in what they do usually.
Thereby, a question arises: how to tell a constructive criticism from a destructive one?
1. It Can’t Be Personal
Recently a friend of mine recalled one of his situations with his first boss a decade ago:
“Hey boss, can I come to your office for a sec?”
“Oh, not you. Fine, come in, but better be quick I’m running lately to another meeting!”
John’s knees immediately began to tremble. A trickle of sweat ran down one of his temples. He immediately recognized signs of dissatisfaction in the manager’s voice.
“John, tell me, what is this?”, the manager turned his eyes to John once he studied his latest design pieces, several layouts John was working on for the last week.
“Listen, I can tell you that this is not your best work for sure, okay? And I don’t want to show this to the Client A…”
“But why?”, John burst out. “All these options absolutely fit our client’s requests. I just tried different…”
“No, John, I don’t want to hear any excuses! I want you to get back to your desk now and to work more and harder. You have two days to propose something new. Otherwise, I don’t know what to do then. Just to be clear, I don’t want even to spend even a minute describing what is bad here, with all these instances of your bad taste in choosing colors, fonts, and icons… Try again and start from the beginning! I want to see something really beautiful!”
Frankly speaking, I thought such a dialogue could probably happen only in a movie. For instance, the one showing an advertisement agency lost somewhere in the 60s or 70s, with a tyrant leader.
Today such unprofessionalism is almost impossible. Still, this is how we often imagine criticism and why we can be afraid of it.
Constructive criticism is about your work, never about you.
There is no “you” in the formula. It’s about getting the results we need to get when acting as a team. And thanks God today everyone is aware of it.
Still, as presenters we have a conditioned reflex. We perceive any sort of feedback as a negative thing. That’s why we’re starting a criticism session from a defensive position.
We’ve done a research, spent our time working hard on this particular project and we don’t want to lose anything. We deeply believe that we know better, so to be defensive seems to be an obvious reaction. But this is a bad strategy, especially considering the idea mentioned in the beginning: we need criticism to evaluate and to move forward.
So the first step you need to take is to demolish the illusion that you know better. The longer you’re working on a task, the more blurred is your vision.
Comments like “What have you done!? This looks bad…” is something you can ignore shamelessly even if it happens. And don’t take it close to your heart. Constructive criticism never judges you. It only raises questions.
Even if we’re sure nobody will try to offend us personally, we’re still starting from sitting in the trenches. We are afraid others will have invalid points and instead of feedback we will get to an emotional discussion about goals, visions and different opinions and your own work will be derogated.
2. It is Always Problem-Aware
“Oh, let’s see how Google/Facebook/Airbnb solves this”.
A phrase that I can hear almost every day. Of course, analyzing big wins and fails of such big companies that spend millions on a research, is a very important phase of your own one. But usually this phrase means something different:
“Oh, let’s see how Google/Facebook/Airbnb solves this and do like them”.
This is nonsense. A Company X has its own context, different users, and — in 99,9% cases — a different problem.
Without being aware of a problem you’re trying to solve your audience will not be able to provide actual constructive criticism. You are depriving them of such a chance, leaving space only for subjective assumptions.
Constructive criticism starts with expressing the problem that’s been solved.
Doing this you will reveal an opportunity to think about the main question: if your solution is valid? And to get a proper answer remember to change a question “what do you think about it?” to “Is this a valid solution for the described problem?” at the end of your presentation.
And only the next level will consist these types of questions:
“Can we solve it in a different way?”
“Will it be more effective?”
“What can be improved in terms of the proposed solution?”
3. It is Emotionless
If a criticism session turns to a fierce discussion, you need a break.
A calm attitude regarding feedback allows us to make bolder decisions and get a fresh point of view on a project we’re working on. And this is extremely important: no one is able to rate their own work perfectly due to their subjectivity.
So be ready that you work will never satisfy everyone and ask for feedback to understand how you can do what you’ve done even better.
Constructive criticism is unbiased in its evaluation.
Emotions are our indicators of our perception of the situation. They can be used as our compass. There is no chance for constructive criticism in a stressed atmosphere filled with fear and anxiety.
Celebrating a big win is also a bad time to ask for feedback. Not only your colleagues might not want to focus on your job, they will also be overpositive to judge your work fairly.
Unfortunately, a case when everyone is stressed with deadlines or other requirements is not a rare one. Thus, if you need feedback ASAP to figure out if you’re heading in the right direction, it makes sense to prepare a criticism session and to mention a necessity to stay calm and keep absolute sangfroid before getting started.
In the end, even if everything went not by a plan and a criticism session turned to be a harsh one, remember that a little sympathy goes a long way. Be kind. Highlighting positive things and mentioning nice decisions can water down the bad taste of your words for you as a presenter.
4. Criticism is specific
Let’s recall that conversation of my friend John and his boss. John’s manager said, “all these instances of your bad taste in choosing colors, fonts, and icons” and obviously, the only thing John could do with this kind of feedback is to get frustrated and find himself in a bar that night, drinking and thinking what an asshole his boss was.
John needed to know why these colors, fonts, and icons are bad. Otherwise, there was nothing to do with these statements except getting upset about them.
Constructive criticism is always based on facts.
So let’s now turn the dialogue above into an example of a constructive criticism session and see how it will change everything.
“Hey, boss! Do you have a free minute? I’ve just finalized a couple of layouts for our Client A and I would be glad to share and to hear your thoughts,”
“Sure, come in!”
“So, they want us to design a web page with a big word “CREATE” on a white background just in a center and with a call to action “Start now” under it. This is a promo page, so they want to collect as more users as possible,”
“I see”, says the manager and starts to review John’s work carefully. He continues then, “It looks great, John! I think it’s a good solution. I just have a couple of questions… You’re using red color for a call to action button. What is the idea behind that?”
“Client’s A primary brand color is red,” John said, “and I wanted to use it somewhere,”
“This makes sense. But I heard that red is not the best choice regarding all those best UX practices we learn so far and our previous projects showed that green and blue are better for call to actions than others. Do you think you can try another color for action and to use the red color somewhere else?”
“Yep, I can think about it. Maybe to have this word in red would be better”, John reacted.
“By the way, this word. I think it’s too big and trading on the button. Not even sure I would notice it without your help”
“Gotcha! I think you’re right and I can iterate on balancing the things out”
“Sounds good! And thanks for sharing! I think you’ll get to a more effective solution”
“Thanks for your feedback, boss!”
This is how constructive criticism looks and feels.
5. Criticism is actionable
Here is the last but not the least principle wrapping up the entire methodology. Any criticism session should be closed with an action items list. Essentially, you need to step out of the meeting room with certain tasks to do. And this list should live not in your head, but in your task manager app.
Every element that has been discussed on a session should be summarized and turned into a task with a clear goal. Keep in mind that it’s not always an action item for a presenter. It’s possible that a certain task will require some efforts from others e.g. a researcher, project manager, content strategist, others. So it’s a good practice to use tracking tools (Asana, Jira, Trello etc.) during the session and to assign those tasks to necessary parties.
Constructive criticism ends with a list of things to do.
Even if the whole session went well and it was full of constructive comments and good questions, you are unable to keep everything in mind. Obviously, it’s easy to forget something especially when you want to relax now and to have a rest after your presentation. Others can deprioritize their tasks while sinking in their own routine. Take care about the record of a session to have the whole picture easily recallable.
Everyone should have an understanding of what to do and what to expect within the next iterations. A criticism session can be closed when all the tasks are written down and no one has any questions left.
This principle is extremely important to turn criticism into real results.