140 Characters Just Isn’t Enough

Critiques are a core component of working and participating in a design community. Thoughtful analysis of the design of any product or service can be incredibly helpful for both the creator and as a result, the end user. Critiques, however, cannot be accomplished in 140 characters for the most part.

I’m already feeling myself sliding down the “rant” rabbit hole (my apologies), but this needs to be said. Hang on and hear me out.

The Problem

This may be more of an overall tech community thing rather than just specific to the design community, but it seems as though we’ve slipped into a place where it is somehow cool to be the first one to think a new app or website will fail or is poorly designed. The immediacy Twitter encourages combined with it’s message character constraint has led to what feels like design complaining, which, I’ll be honest, bothers me to no end.

I’m a bit new to this world of designing and building applications and websites, but I can say that one major thing that drove me to wanting to do this stuff full-time was how open, engaging and genuinely helpful the community was. There was no such thing as stupid questions and there was an endless number of people willing to offer extremely constructive advice and criticism to those that were passionate to learn. I’m not sure what happened, and maybe it’s just a change in my vantage point, but I’m feeling the pessimism rising.

Let me reign this thing in a bit before I get too worked up. Let’s take a quick glance at what’s good about a design critique in general and what is not good about attempting to do this (or some veiled version of this) via Twitter.

There are always going to be designers that are able to offer you constructive feedback. No matter how good you think you are there is always room for improvement. There are folks that have been there before and often just a simple look from a perspective you’re unable to see is all it takes to raise different problems and bring about new ideas. So with that said, we should all be extremely open and receptive to feedback for the things we’re designing. In fact, it should be an integral part of the process.


The Value of a Critique

A good critique at the most basic level (and I’m oversimplifying here) is meant to help investigate what about a particular design is working and why, and what is not working, why it isn’t and how it could be improved. A thoughtful critique should raise some questions and ideas that can then be applied back into the design process so that we end up with a better end product.

This sounds simple enough, but Twitter enables (it doesn’t do it itself) the worst of critiques to appear. Pointless and unhelpful comments are a dime a dozen. We’ve all see the “what a badly designed app” type comments floating around. It’s so easy to just blurt something like that out with zero thought whatsoever. In general I have a hard time with complainers on Twitter as it is, but when they are directed toward something that someone from our community built and had the courage to show the rest of us, frankly, it ticks me off.

I realize I’m lumping people complaining about this or that on Twitter with a design critique. That may be a little unfair, but the total unconstructive and borderline mean comments that often times come from within the community have to stop. There is no good that comes of it.

The fix?

Here’s what I propose. The next time you use that one new awesome app website thingy for the first time and for whatever reason you’re just not connecting with it and you have that instinct to tweet about how you think it’s “the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” just stop. Stop and force yourself to think about why you don’t like it. What is it specifically? Do you not get the concept? Is that text hard to read? Is this or that view confusing to you? Think about it. Then sit down and write an actual critique of the application in a thoughtful and useful manner and publish it for further discussion. And tweet it only if you’re a Jedi at brevity.

Criticism should be thoughtful and not just tossed out on a whim. When the time is actually taken, I’d venture to guess that the initial knee jerk “this [insert some app/product name] is awful” reaction would quickly disseminate into some rational thoughts and ideas. Designers view the world in a slightly different manner. How many times have you caught yourself noticing the functional design of a door knob? Yeah, I thought so. This sort of analysis should be more second nature to us than a pointless comment. We know how to be more helpful.

I’m not saying that we all need to write formalized critiques of applications or websites to start a formal conversations about them, but just be logical with your reactions. One thoughtful, simple comment offering some real input sent to a budding designer can make the world of a difference. New web apps and services have been popping up for this very same thing. Quora (Q&A) and Branch (discussions) to name a couple.

And so…

By taking this approach we not only encourage those new to the field to keep moving forward, we also improve ourselves. In the end, we’ll all be the better for it. Whether we all agree or disagree, when actual thought is put into it the outcome can only be positive. And hey, as a bonus, you’ll sound more like someone who honestly cares about the work your fellow designers are doing and less like an arrogant, know-it-all ass.

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