5 Ways to Get the Most Out of Criticism
Think of a constructive critique as childhood chickenpox for your ideas. Sure, getting it is often pretty unpleasant, but sitting through the experience and building up immunity to the issues raised by improving your product, website, marketing materials, or even that important email can save you from coming down with much more serious issues down the road when it really counts.
Still, no one would go through chickenpox without a little bit of itch relief, and criticism is the same. There are plenty of ways to get equal or greater benefits with less discomfort. Want to discover these? Just ask designers and creatives, for whom critiques are a central part of their work process.
Recently, two of them, Katie Dill, Airbnb’s head of experience design, and Cap Watkins, senior product design manager at Etsy, shared their tips. What were some of the most applicable ideas for entrepreneurs?
1. Set the stage. Good criticism doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Those offering you their opinions need to know what you’re trying to do and whom you’re trying to do it for to tell you anything useful. Make sure they have this info before you get started.
Dill gives an example from her own niche of product designer: “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. Most important, let them know what the criteria are for the product’s success so they can help you figure out if you’re actually hitting those points.”
The basic takeaway: You’re super-immersed in your project, so it’s easy to forget others don’t have all the info you do. Don’t make that mistake.
2. Get clear on scope. When you’re just at the beginning of a project, it’s feasible to chuck out large portions of your work and start fresh. If you have to launch tomorrow, there’s no use in being told to scrap something you can never change in time.
What you need is actionable tweaks to improve what you have. Tell those you’re working with what stage you’re in and what you’re looking for, to avoid misery and wasted time, suggests Dill.
3. Write everything down. Criticism makes us all emotional, and emotions don’t always make your brain and your memory work so well, so make sure you capture everything that’s being said--especially in a particularly overwhelming setting like a meeting--by writing it all down, whether you agree or not. You’ll be able to evaluate your reactions to these comments better later when you have a cooler head.
"It actually helped my nervousness to give myself a job to do during my critique," writes Watkins. "Furiously jot down ideas, points of critique, and questions being asked. Later (like, the-next-day later), carefully read through your notes. Find answers to the questions you didn’t know the answers to yesterday. Look for patterns in the feedback. Did a lot of people comment on the third step of your flow? It might be worth another look."
4. Ask. You don’t have to be a passive receptacle for criticism. If there are particular areas you’re struggling with (for example, "I just can’t get this headline right!" or "I’m really unsure about the color scheme"), go ahead and ask, urges Watkins. "I’ve seen a lot of designers get frustrated with a critique because it didn’t address the things they actually needed help with," he says. "Your design team aren’t mind readers (though we wish we were!), so be direct about what you need from your critique."
5. Don’t sit on feedback. Sure, you need to examine your critique notes with a cool head a bit after they’re given, but don’t sit on feedback for an extended period of time. Put the ideas generated in the critique session into practice as soon as is practical.
It’s only by actually wrestling with whatever you’re working on (rather than thinking about it abstractly) that you’ll really be able to see what’s working and what’s not. If you’re working with digital products, Dill offers a selection of tools for prototyping.
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.