Stop Dancing Around Criticism and Put It to Use with These Tips from Airbnb's Head of Experience Design

“Criticism may be based on opinion, but that’s what makes it valuable. It gives us a taste of why people will eventually love or hate our work.”

This is Katie Dill, Airbnb's Head of Experience Design. Previously, she helped founders shape products and UX at Greenstart, and ascended from analyst to creative director at Frog Design. She also teaches graduate industrial design classes at CCA. Needless to say, she’s been on the giving and receiving end of design and product feedback countless times — but she thinks the process could almost always be much better.

What’s better? Better results. Critique doesn’t exist so that people can air their unfounded opinions. It exists so you can accelerate the time it takes to get to the best possible product. That said, many have been burned by insulting or unfocused critiques, so they’ve stopped doing it — missing out on vital opportunities to improve.

“If critique isn’t done right, it’s insulting. You’re not excited to go do more work or do it better,” Dill says.

At First Round’s last Design+Startup Event, she shared insights from interviews with a number of designers and business leaders diving into the nuts and bolts of criticism, what makes it helpful, and how to offer criticism that actually yields game-changing results for users.


The Basics

A lot of people assume that designers have a monopoly on what has become known as "critique." But the core of that process is much more extensible and applicable than that. To start, Dill busts some myths:

  • Critique is a powerful tool for many kinds of problems. “It isn’t just about design. You can use it to create a better business plan, or a marketing strategy, or better French toast.” 
  • Critique is a great way to start. “When you’re in that upfront fuzzy area where you’re trying to figure out a problem, or what you’re trying to solve for, or what opportunities you want to go after, critique can help you cut through the noise.” Then it should be used both formally and informally throughout the process of taking an idea to market, Dill says. 
  • Critique is a great way to refine. “Good critique can create more ideas or help you pick between a multitude of great ones. It gets you to that idea that you’re really passionate about and gives you the energy to tweak it, polish it, snap it together and ship it.” 
  • Critique must be two-sided. This seems obvious. For every piece of feedback, there is a giver and a taker. But when you’re actually there, on one end of the process, this can be hard to remember. When Dill attended the Art Center College of Design, her first teacher wrote all over an early paper with red pen “so that no one else would ever have to see it.” She credits this tough love with forging her into the designer she is today, but recognizes it’s probably a bit too harsh for most.

To understand how to run better, more effective critiques, Dill splits these two sides apart and offers tactical advice for each. With the following tips, you can be critical and direct while keeping spirits and motivation high.

TAKING

1. Set the context.

If you’re accepting feedback on work, you’re probably the one who made it. You know everything about it, and one of the worst things you can do is assume that the people critiquing your work will know as much. You have to bring people up to speed as part of your presentation.

“For example, you’re working on a project that’s for elderly users that have certain needs and there are certain constraints. Let your critics know this,” Dill says. “Most importantly, let them know what the criteria is for the product’s success so they can help you figure out if you’re actually hitting those points.”

A while back, Dill was designing a wearable product for a large technology company. The target user was a fashionable and thrifty woman, but the majority of the stakeholders providing feedback were middle-aged men in khakis and blue button-downs.

“They didn’t get the user, and that’s okay — it’s not their bag. But during feedback sessions, it was very hard for them to get away from their reality,” she says. “‘Why doesn’t it have a keyboard?’ They’d ask. ‘How is she going to write on that device on her wrist?’ These things kept coming up.”

To set the context, Dill and her team needed to immerse the group in the identity of the end user. They had to talk about her like she was an actual person with interests, worries and a lifestyle. So they showed them imagery of what the average end user would look like and how the device would integrate into her everyday life — “personas and use cases.”

When the group understood who it was they were trying to reach, how she interacted in her daily life prior to the device, and how she might use it to make her life better, they knew why the designers had made otherwise unintuitive decisions.

The collage Dill and her team used to introduce stakeholders to the "fashionable and thrifty" woman they were trying to reach.

2. Clarify the scope.

“The critics in the room have to know what part of the process you’re in so they can give you the right type of feedback,” says Dill. “If you’re at the beginning when everything is mushy, you want to talk about all the different ways you can go. When you’re a week away from launch, you’re going to want focused feedback that will help you refine and polish it. Feedback that is too big to implement won’t be useful in the homestretch.”

At the same time, be sure to clearly define your critics’ role in the room. “If you’re inviting someone to look at your work, it’s probably because you feel like they have something valuable to share, or a unique perspective. Let them know what you want from them so they provide that unique opinion and don’t get distracted by something else. Let them know, ‘Hey, this is a product for dogs and we brought you in because you’re a dog whisperer.’”

Let people know what they bring so they can tap into that expertise to give you the feedback you need.

3. Share journeys, not moments.

“When you show your work, don’t just show one screen or one sketch of a product sitting on a shelf,” says Dill. “If you’re designing with your user in mind, then you’re thinking about how they’re going to experience your product over time and space — it’s a journey. To help your critics understand your product like a user would, share that journey.”

For example, if you're building a website, think about the pathways the user will take. “What are your users trying to solve for when they use your site? What is the journey they have to take to accomplish that? To ensure your design provides for their needs and that each screen is designed well, build and assess the screens side-by-side. See how it feels to move from one place to the next and how the content and layout facilitates the user’s journey.”

When Dill and her team of designers were devising the look and feel of a major U.S. Bank’s ATMs they had to think through all the different interactions people have with them.

“What was very important for us in assessing this experience was drawing it out in a story board so everyone could see how people go from one step to the next. And it’s not just about the screens. It’s envisioning how someone would actually get to an ATM. Maybe she’s walking up with her friend. She’s carrying a purse.” Even the smallest details can change an approach, and you want to show your critics that you’ve thought through them.

“Storyboarding is a terrific way to find out if there are holes in your story. Does it make sense that a user would do something? Is it comfortable? Is there flow?” Answering these questions for the people looking at your designs will help them make better comments. They’ll know what you’ve already solved for and what you’re still looking to fix.

4. Make it tangible.

Katie Dill spent five years at Frog Design creating products, experiences and environments for some of the world's biggest brands. Today, she makes sure Airbnb users have a seamless, surprising and delightful experience end-to-end.

Don't present slides. Print them out and put them up on the wall so people can write on them and move them around.

You should make every effort for your presentation to be dynamic, Dill advises. When you offer up something static, it narrows the field of possible feedback. People can’t visualize everything you're showing them at the same time unless they can literally see it all at the same time. Allowing them to interact with your content and giving them the space and visibility to do so will only improve your results.

“It’s super important to be able to look at the entirety of an experience so you can think about whether it makes sense as a system.” On the same wall where you’ve posted everything, be sure to include the framework and guiding principles you used to arrive at the design in the first place. As a package, this creates coherence and gives your critics a compass for navigating your decision-making. 

“When you have everything displayed together, you can not only get people up to speed more quickly, but it gives you the opportunity to ask the big questions: Are we doing what we set out to do? Are we meeting the goals that we said we had?”

5. Prototype immediately.

“If it’s on the wall, great. If you can use it, that’s all the better,” says Dill. It helps put your critics directly in the shoes of your user and give all the more relevant feedback.

A lot of people fear the idea of a prototype because it feels like a commitment. They think it will take time. But it doesn’t have to.

“There are so many different ways and tools to prototype easily,” she says. “For example, I’m a big fan of PopApp, Keynotopia and Flinto. All three are digital and great ways to do quick mockups on products.”

  • PopApp is designed to make iPhone prototyping easy. “You literally take a picture of a page in your notebook and you can turn it into an interactive prototype in minutes,” Dill explains. “You can see if this thing is working, and then when you bring someone into your critique, you can hand them your phone and say ‘try it.’ That’s how you get feedback that is pointed and specific."
  • Keynotopia is a library of interface elements including buttons, sliders and entry fields that help you to make mockups in Keynote or PowerPoint quickly and easily.
  • Flinto aggregates any existing screen designs you have and lets you link them in any number of ways so you can mimic what your actual app will do and how it will behave.

The goal is to help you spot issues before you get too invested in one particular direction. In this way, rapid prototyping actually helps you be less committal.

The better you can set the stage for your product or your design or your plan, the higher quality the feedback will be to take it to the next level. The best way to set the stage: Get it as close to reality as possible in the least amount of time.

GIVING

On the other side of the critique is the critic, the one providing the feedback. They have a job to do, too. A critique can’t be held like any old conversation.

1. Empathize.

Again, this seems like old hat, but you’d be shocked by how many people give criticism without taking the time to put themselves in a producer’s shoes. No matter how well a “taker” sets the context and presents their design or product, “a giver” has limitless opportunity to make the conversation uncomfortable, and force an opinion that won't be useful. Givers have a duty not to do this, Dill says.

Empathy isn’t one dimensional. Critics have to have empathy for both the team that produced the work and the users. When you’re giving feedback, you need to channel the identity of the end users and think about what they might want. It’s your responsibility to enter the room with that already in mind. Especially if you’re invited to a critique for your expertise, you should be helping the team of producers better understand who they are trying to reach.

“You can leverage users and what they're looking for to filter what you’re saying,” Dill says. The user’s best interest is the ideal bridge between critics and producers. It reminds both sides of the ultimate goal and gives them common ground to empathize with each other. So if you’re a feedback giver running short on empathy for a designer or producer, you can cite the user's needs and wants. Rally them around doing the best possible work for that person.

2. Zoom in. Zoom out.

When people are very close to their work, they have a hard time getting enough perspective to see where they are falling short or what they should change. “When you’re the critic coming in to offer a second opinion, you have he chance to zoom out and look at the forest for the trees and think about the system as a whole.”

First, zoom out. Does everything work together coherently? Do the different journeys and experiences that have been mapped out make intuitive sense given the audience?

“Then zoom down into the details,” says Dill. “Are all the little pixels along the way helping convey the message they are trying to? Is everything there for a reason?”

Zooming in and zooming out is your opportunity to give someone a whole new perspective on their work.

3. Be lavish in your praise.

“The words you choose in critiques really do matter. You want to tell it as it is. You don’t want to sugarcoat anything or change your feedback. You want to be able to deliver even really harsh feedback in a really positive way.”

The formula Dill suggests: The compliment sandwich. She knows it’s widely despised, but she begs to differ. “There are some people who hate it, but it doesn’t matter. It still works.” After leading a number of teams across diverse projects, she’s seen it work again and again. For those who aren’t familiar, the strategy goes like this:

1. “Very nice sincere compliment — it has to be sincere or it will not work. Telling them their page is really white and their tape is sticky isn’t going to help. You have to be sincere and thoughtful.”

2. “Follow it with a piece of criticism — or two, or three or however many there needs to be.”

3. “Cap it all off with sincere appreciation for what they are doing.”

“The reason why this is so powerful is that if you were only to criticize, they’re not going to know that they did anything right whatsoever, and how empowering is that?” 

Who wants to go back to the drawing board after they've been told their work is terrible? 

Giving them positive feedback keeps empowerment on the table. You don’t want to deflate, you want to excite. “And just for practical purposes, if you don’t tell someone what they’ve done well, they might never do it again. They could remove that too in the next iteration,” says Dill. “So point out what’s good and what’s working and help them build off that.” In her experience, it’s the only way someone will march forward not only because they have to, but because they want to. And only the latter will yield the best possible results.

In terms of the criticism you provide, you need to accomplish two things:

Be specific. It doesn’t work when you just say you don’t like whatever it is or ‘it doesn’t pop’ or ‘it’s not Apple enough.’ What does that even mean? We have to be more concrete. Show other examples of what you mean.” If you can visually demonstrate what it is you're talking about, your feedback is much more likely to get digested and the next version is that much more likely to resemble what you’re looking for.

Ask questions. Don’t just direct or tell people what to do. Asking questions is respectful and a more helpful way to provide feedback. It’s not about how smart you are. By asking ‘Did you try that?’ or ‘What else did you look at?’ or ‘How do you think the user would respond to this?’ you get them in a position where they feel in charge and motivated to go make the design better, and you’ve initiated them into what might need to change in the future.”

Asking a lot of thoughtful questions serves the same purpose as posting all of your slides up on a wall. It gives people the opportunity and space to poke and prod and really consider things comprehensively and in cohesion.

Finally, when it comes to praise, there's only one major rule: Be lavish. Don’t hold back. In every critique process, you have a few chances to fuel people up so they go that extra mile, spend that extra hour, and move those last few pixels into the perfect position. Don’t squander them.

“The reason I care so much about delivering criticism well is because, at its essence, it's really helpful. It offers us a sneak peak at what our customers are going to think,” Dill says. “By setting the stage and having empathy for each other and the user, you can create a place where opinions will actually thrive and be put to use.”

 

 

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