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Web Designers, Its Time We Learn Criticism Isn’t A Bad Thing

One of the hardest things to get used to when you start designing websites for people is the extraordinary ways that people find to be unhappy about what you’ve created. It’s all too easy to assuage ourselves by falling back on the old maxim: ‘the IQ of any given committee can be obtained by taking the IQ of the lowest member and dividing by the number of people in the committee.’ Unfortunately, web designers, that’s a cop-out and most of us know it.

The fact is that you are required by your job description to serve your clients, and that often means collaborating with them. The most significant skill in the ‘collaboration toolbox’ is the art of taking critique as it’s intended: as a tool to help you achieve your client’s goals.

In an ideal world, all critique would come across in a conversational form — sounding like a pleasant suggestion — but web design is hardly an ideal world. It’s more likely that you’ll get one or more of these out of your clients:

  • The Unclear Critique: “I don’t like this,” or “This needs to be redone.” Completely useless, and makes you feel like you just walked into an invisible brick wall. The only way to negotiate here is to ask specific questions — not pursuing what they don’t like, because they often don’t know themselves, but asking about what they DO like. This will often help them jell their ideas about what’s bugging them.
  • The Personal Preference: “I don’t like stripes,” or “This photo reminds me of Haiti, and it’s depressing.” Really, it’s worse than completely useless, and even harder to deal with, because there’s really no addressing a completely personal distaste. The only thing you can really do to get anything useful out of someone in this mode is to ask them not what they think, but what they imagine the target audience might say about the work in progress. Ask, and hope it’s enough to knock them out of their own prejudices for a few minutes.
  • CBAS: (I have a few Canadian friends that use this term, and I love it.) ‘Can’t Be Arsed’ Syndrome is what most people would call ‘apathy’. “Whatever, it looks great, can we get to lunch?” There are two ways to address this type of critique: the hard way and the painful way. The painful way is just to admit that this person isn’t able to focus on the project at the moment and come back, in this example, after lunch. The hard way is to grill them, which is often something that neither the client nor the designer enjoy. Focus on showing alternative examples and asking them about the differences between them in order to elicit some sort of useful response.
  • The Head-Banger: “The page clearly appeals to single dads as we requested, but you failed to take into account the parts where we said the users will usually be older women with no kids.” Sometimes, people just say things as though they make sense when they quite clearly do not. Fortunately, if you can survive the mind-boggle, this is a wonderful opportunity to elicit some quality feedback from your client. Ask them to elucidate — act very interested — and you’ll either get to grin to yourself as they stumble over their own brain, or you’ll end up with a much better understanding of their design goals. Either way, you’ll feel better, and hopefully the project will be a bit easier from that point on.

This is my point: when you enter into any field of design, web design included, you’re basically accepting that people are going to offer their opinions on your work. When those people are your clients, their opinions have to be taken as critiques — and learning to take that criticism in stride is a crucial part of becoming a great web designer.

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