Lessons in UX: Embrace criticism

I’ve had my fair share of uncomfortable situations in design meetings, moments where the person presenting their work took any criticism of what they were showing as a personal assault, an attack on who they were and what they had done. It shouldn’t be that way, and thankfully more often than not the professionals I am working with are exactly that… professionals, people who can respond to criticism appropriately.

I used to be very sensitive to criticism, and like the reaction I describe above, I took things way too personally. Then I changed my attitude. Instead of fearing feedback, I welcomed it. Instead of beating myself up over critical comments, I used them as opportunities.

Now, not all criticism is equal, of course – what I am talking about here is constructive criticism, criticism that intended to make the item being reviewed better. Like the creator who can’t objectively detach themselves from their own work, many people attack the creator for what he has done instead of critique the work itself. In those instances, it’s important to filter the feedback, and separate any personal attacks from legitimate criticism. It’s not easy, but you have to try. Especially if the person is screaming…

In getting (and giving) design feedback, there has to be a balance… Yes, I’m human, and I would love to hear a peer shower praise on something I have done. But that positive feedback does nothing but stroke my ego. The direct feedback, the times where my colleagues said “this doesn’t work, and here’s why…” THAT is what is the most valuable to make the work better, in the same way that a usability test unveils the flaws in the UI being tested.

My favorite anecdote about criticism involves an early screening of a very rough cut of the movie Star Wars. George Lucas showed it to three of his friends, who were also young directors who had some measure of success at the time: Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola. The feedback was brutal – Scorsese actively mocked the film, and told Lucas it was a disaster. Spielberg and Coppola were also critical, but unlike Scorsese gave Lucas direct feedback as to what was working and what wasn’t. Lucas listened and made changes, and the movie… well, as you know, it turned out pretty good and was also… somewhat successful.

Am I 100% “cured” of my previous sensitivities? Of course not – the creative process always requires and emotional investment in what you are doing, and a part of me is in every design I create and word I write. But learning to let go, to accept that I am not the work, is absolutely necessary to not only maintain an optimistic attitude, but to also keep getting better.

If every sports player stopped listening to their coaches then their natural skill will only get them so far. If every author ignored their editors then they would produce long meandering manuscripts instead of tight, focused stories. And so on… Criticism is valuable, it’s important, and it can help take you to the next level. Embrace it.