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Learning to love criticism

Since I was young I’ve had this strong fascination with balance and structure. As I grew older I developed an irritation towards imbalanced colours, typography, space, clothes etc. I became a designer and spent my days fixing these cosmetic injuries, first in print and clothing, and then later in the digital space. I really believed design was this super easy thing. It was effortless. If you could make something look ‘nicer’ you’d sell X times more, and users would be elated (I’m lying, I didn’t think about users at any point. Well it turns out design doesn’t actually work that way, or at least good design doesn’t work that way.

As the years flew past I naturally grew over-confident in my ability to design, and developed this friction with the profession. Clients would critique my work and it would tear me up. I’d design a first version of something, which would most likely be way off-brief, it would happen almost instantly — sometimes before we’ve even agreed terms, and as far as I was concerned that would be the final. Any iterations past this version were just making the design worse. This must’ve happened 100+ times. I’d design something that was visually great, and it would end up becoming this horrible piece of work because I wasn’t willing to collaborate with my clients (to be fair, sometimes my clients were equally as clueless). My motto was ‘Either I design it, or you design it’. Eventually I gave up. The only way I can enjoy design is if I’m designing my own ‘things’.

I stopped replying to work requests and set off on this short journey to build my own products with friends. I found myself designing some app screens, and for the first time I had to look past the visual design and focus on making something that actually worked, because real people would be using this. I don’t know who these people are yet, but they’ll be using something I made, and I love them for that — more than I love design. I was about 2 hours into designing these screens and realised I had never done this for a client, ever. I was mind-blown (I wrote about this here jermainecraig.com/posts/useful-design). I felt like I had to re-learn design. I was so excited about this new way of designing that I was offering up my time to help people re-think their design decisions, for free, just like my early days.

I was feeling good about design, and needed some cash so I took a U-turn back to my clients. After a few months I discovered a new type of friction. Either I was working on vanity projects, in which the end-user didn’t really matter to the client, or I just didn’t have enough time to understand the product and it’s goals before it got shipped off, and I was onto the next job. I thought to myself ‘this sucks’. I’d groomed myself to work on a job to job basis, whether that’s as a freelancer or within a design agency.

So one day I had this foreign thought about what it would be like to work on a product like twitter, where for however long I was working on the product, all I’d be focused on is how to improve twitter for it’s users, and I wouldn’t be wearing multiple hats as the CEO of my design career. I thought ‘okay, let me position myself for roles like this’. I knocked up a new website with no work to show and wrote on the website “Currently looking for short term (still scared of the full time commitment) roles at companies working on a single product or brand”. I was super excited about dedicating 100% of my attention to one thing. The timing couldn’t have been any better but I got into a dialogue with a Palo Alto based company called Shortlist.

So the cool thing about Shortlist is, If ever I wanted to work on a product that would stretch my design ability in regards to user empathy, this would be it. I’m a 22 year old black guy, working on a product for a space that’s predominantly Senior white male dominated. Designing for the user is one thing, but designing for the user who’s such a polar opposite of yourself is a very interesting challenge.

I worked remotely out of London for a few months, but the magic happened when I came out to Palo Alto. We’d been designing a prototype for our mobile app and it was time to get it in front of real people. The first stop was Facebook to meet with a PM for product feedback. At this point I was thinking “The app’s great, I just want to see what the inside of Facebook looks like”. We sat down for lunch and took a run through the prototype. During the session we were getting so much feedback on everything that was wrong with the app, as well as the little that was right. I was absolutely amazed at how insightful the feedback was. Layers of product use that I had never considered were brought to my attention. As we were driving away my mind was racing, all I could think was that we needed to pull apart the whole app and re-think the design on a completely different level. This is where I fell in love with constructive criticism, and was more excited about getting product feedback than anything else.

The thing about product design is there’s always a way to make the design better for the user, so it never gets signed off, it’s never finished, once I figured that out I understood how powerful the feedback I was receiving was. The more criticism I received the further along I could push the design. It’s a no-brainer really. You include more people in your design process and you get more brainpower pushing the design forward. Anytime you turn away feedback / critique you’re really turning away free labor.

Now I’m at the point where I don’t fully believe in my assumptions until I test them (which is good, I think) and I’m underwhelmed with lazy feedback, or praise. ‘I like it’ doesn’t help me make a better product, ‘Here’s what I like about it …’ does, ‘Here’s what sucks about it’ is even better. Any time an assumption I have about user behaviour is proven correct, it makes me happy, when it’s proven incorrect I’m also happy because it saves me screwing up a product feature. It all leads to happier design. You’re not battling with anything anymore, and you eventually get used to design trade-offs. I mean if I can push up body text to 18px then anyone can.

Now I’m trying to figure out how I can extend this method of learning into other areas of my life, like relationships for example. What vibe do I give off to people? What parts of being a friend aren’t I so good at? Where do I falter in my communication? These are all things I’d be very excited to get honest feedback on.

I think this would be a good read for any young designer, who’s battling work criticism. You may need to re-wire your design process, or you may need to pull out and go and work with people who are into building a great product for their users. I’d say the latter would be more helpful.

Written 26.11.2015