Embracing Public Design Discourse

May 6, 2019

There are many ways we could improve the products we ship. Encouraging a healthy public discourse where we can learn from the opinion of our peers could be one of them. Yet, in the midst of cancel culture, more people are retreating to private spaces to discuss controversial topics. If phrased incorrectly, a tweet taken out of context can have catastrophic consequences. Similarly, it can feel like a punch in the gut when you work hard for months only to ship something that is received by the design community with piled-on opinions on what you could’ve done better.

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There’s an argument to be made that designers encounter dissenting opinions constantly, so there’s no need to repeat that in public. We spend most of our days listening to reasons why our work is not yet up to par. So it seems natural to congratulate others when they finally get something out the door.

This line of thinking could justify the attitude of lifting each other through positivity, especially in a public environment where we lack the context to understand the decisions that defined a product. However, I’d argue that this attitude creates a veneer of support that perpetuates a system that generates flawed results.

Perhaps, a more productive approach could be to lean on each other to elevate the design profession by providing insightful feedback.

Unfortunately, the majority of feedback online is far from insightful. We tend to fall into one of two extremes: we either rely too heavily on emotional responses or are afraid of expressing discerning opinions at all. On one side of the spectrum, we have forums like Designer News, which has a reputation of hosting toxic conversations. On the other side, sites like Twitter are filled with hollow praises after releasing imperfect work, rarely providing critical feedback.

Instead, feedback could be grounded on our expert opinion and backed by design principles, which have held true across time and multiple industries.

Empathy Paralysis

Sharing feedback in public is often fraught with anxieties: you’re likely not the target audience, the team probably went through countless iterations to land the product where it did, and their decisions must be grounded on research that you don’t have access to. So, it becomes natural to assume best intentions and refrain from giving feedback at all. This deprives the team and your audience of a valuable learning opportunity.

The “I can’t know everything behind the decisions that were made” is a true—albeit unhelpful—crutch that many of us tend to lean on. Choosing to not evaluate a shipped product because we weren’t part of the team that made it seems like a missed opportunity to improve the product development process.

Although it’s true that what we get to see is only a subset of the iterations explored, a product can be evaluated by its shipped incarnation, regardless of the effort put into its making. Most users don’t have the privilege of judging a product by the process it took to make it.

This concession only happens in our industry. As an extreme example, imagine jumping off a plane and as you pull you parachute’s chord, it doesn’t open. Would you consider the effort it took to ship it?

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Your opinion is not only valuable but often necessary when evaluating your peer’s work. It helps inform the process that leads to shipping products. One step further, there’s value in doing this in public; it helps less experienced designers develop critical thinking skills and creates a system of checks and balances that transcends any single institution.

Limiting feedback to “safe” private settings deprives everyone else of learning from it and runs the high risk of creating an ideologic echo chamber of how to build products. Instead, embracing sharing and receiving dissenting, well-informed, and reasonable opinions in public could lead to better outcomes, freed from any given ideology.

Questions As Feedback

In the absence of context, a formula has been laid out for designers to provide feedback in public without ruffling any feathers: ask questions instead of expressing your opinion.

In this Twitter thread, my friend Brian Lovin goes to great lengths to live up to his bio and avoid making any negative statements by phrasing all his tweets in the form of questions. Although this generated a lot of attention and kicked off interesting conversations in private, it seems to me that packaging feedback into questions is not as useful as it could be in a public setting, where those questions will likely remain unanswered. Brian brings up good points yet chooses not to make those points in pursuit of an answer he (and most importantly, his audience) may never receive.

If Brian were to talk directly to the product team, then these questions would make sense. They could discuss the experiments they ran and what they learned from research. From there they could examine what went wrong and correct the error in the process. Although this is a sensible approach, Twitter and other public settings are rarely the place to hold these types of discussions.

So, should we refrain from providing feedback in public? Absolutely not.

As described earlier, public feedback can be valuable. So the question remains: how should we provide feedback in public?

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The Relatability Paradox

A few years ago, I was invited to speak at Valiocon. It was my first real public speaking engagement and I was deathly anxious about it. Despite the invitation, I didn’t feel like I had the authority to speak about any given topic. Then, Drew Wilson gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me ever since: avoid preaching to a choir and talk about your story.

When speaking to a large audience, there can be a tendency to make general statements to try to cover as much ground as possible. However, this can come off as disingenuous and shallow. The more specific and personal a story is, the more relatable it tends to be. This is the Relatability Paradox.

Feedback is no different. Generally explaining why something may be unusable can be less impactful than explaining why something wasn’t usable to you. Expressing feedback from your point of view remains authentic to your experience while leaving room for the receiver of such feedback to decide how relevant your experience may be to their intended one.

Feedback, like all data, should inform rather than drive your product. This means that there’s a fair degree of processing to be done after receiving feedback. For example: Where is the feedback coming from? Did the product have the intended experience? How much does that matter to your team’s definition of success?

Important to note: just because you’re not the target audience, it doesn’t mean that your feedback is not relevant! Don’t underestimate your taste, experience, and knowledge as another data point to be considered when reviewing feedback.

The Case For Design Criticism

Feedback doesn’t have to be constructive to be valuable. A purely negative piece of feedback can still hold value. It’s up to the person receiving the feedback to assign its value: Are they the intended audience? Do they make a reasonable argument against the decisions made? Are they a peer whose opinion you respect? These questions can help you discern the weight you give to a piece of feedback, after all that’s one out of seven billion potential voices you could choose to listen to.

One of my favorite podcasts is the /Filmcast, where a group of film critics watch and review movies. They’re not expected to make the movies any better, they simply try to articulate whether a movie resonated with them and why. None of them are filmmakers themselves, yet they use film knowledge and taste to inform their opinions. Over time, the audience decides who to align with and thus whose opinion holds more weight.

In the world of software design, there are few self-proclaimed critics who have garnered as much attention as Eli Schiff. His style of critique can be off-putting to many, but it has clearly resonated with thousands of people. Why?

My theory is that Eli’s thirsty and inflammatory approach shines a light on two tribes: the prototypical Silicon Valley Designer who benefits from preserving the status quo and everyone else. As a devout reject of the Silicon Valley in-group, Eli consistently and unapologetically points out his believed flaws in the system.

His focus is often aesthetic and—if nothing else—consistent: Skeuomorphism is beef and Flat Design is bust. He expresses it in ways he deems entertaining, which ironically often falls flat. Whether you agree or not with his perspective is a prerogative. The value here is the perspective itself, one of thousands that ought to be unleashed.

Although Eli clearly takes pride in stirring controversy (his Twitter avatar is an anthropomorphized egg) that is not the point of criticism. That which he naively deems entertaining, does a disservice to design and criticism. However, the answer is not to denounce criticism, but to improve it. Better critics will entertain by providing constructive value over destructive snark.

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Final Thoughts

While some people go out of their way to avoid expressing negative opinions online, others lean on emotional triggers to gather attention. Finding the right balance is not only tricky but necessary when it comes to improving online discourse, which all of us would benefit from.

If you’re interested in improving the way you share your thoughts online, check out these resources:

Let’s push each other to be more critical and challenge what we take for granted with better and more insightful alternatives instead of fewer and less visible ones.

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All illustrations by Ouch!

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