Web Design Criticism: A How-To

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Web design is a relatively young field. It’s youthful, growing and made up of people from all kinds of backgrounds, many of whom lack formal design training. We have learned, and still are learning, as we go.

I came into my first job as a Web designer for Boeing back in the mid-1990s, with no formal design training. I was lucky to get some training on the job, and I would guess that my experience there was similar to that of many who are reading this article. I had the opportunity to work with some very talented and highly experienced designers who all had made the jump from other design fields to the Web.

It was there, as part of that training, that I learned about critiquing, both giving and receiving, through regular design reviews.

Formal Design Reviews = Fun? Maybe not. Educational? Heck, Yeah.

Formal design reviews
Image source1

Those reviews weren’t fun. They were difficult and demanding and required quite a bit of effort. However, they were also meant to yield the best possible design work through careful evaluation and constructive criticism. They weren’t inherently negative, but they did focus on what was wrong with a design and what could be improved, rather than what was working—which, to some degree, makes sense. The goal was to improve the quality of work.

Many days I left those reviews feeling like a failure, and some days I felt unnecessarily beat up. But I was often reminded that these reviews weren’t personal and were tough for a reason. In hindsight, I’m glad I had them. They improved the quality of my work immensely and taught me quite a bit about how to evaluate my own work as well as the work of others. Still, I look back and can’t help but pick out problems—not with the process or intent, but with the specific things we used to evaluate our design work.

Almost exclusively, we evaluated the designs based on established visual design principles2, many of which are sound and worthy of consideration when evaluating a website design. But, at least in the beginning, we rarely touched on things that went beyond the visual design of the websites and products we were building. I think we could be forgiven that; again, Web design was new then, and we were all learning.

Shortly thereafter, I got involved with the Web design community outside of Boeing (though Boeing had a thriving, diverse and rather large community in its own right), and I began to see how the rest of the world judged design work. It was mostly limited to informal comments in forums and such, again very much “thin-slicing” and focused on snap judgements and gut reactions related to style and visual design. I felt lucky to have what I had: formal, informed, passionate and professional feedback, even if it wasn’t as deep as it should have been.

How We React

Screenshot

This hold true today, more than 10 years later. A person tends to critique a design in one of several ways. The most common, and usually least valuable, is by gut reaction. Gut reaction is valid and can be valuable; in fact; if you look at most established design principles, you’ll see something about emotional connection. On the Web especially, this connection is often formed in an instant. It can and often does develop over time, but the initial reaction should be noted and can be important to the overall success of a design.

Gut reactions often hold little value in a critique because they are not properly articulated. The person giving the critique will reduce their initial reaction to words like “suck,” “awesome,” “like,” “hate,” which does nothing to help the designer improve their design. These kinds of reactions are fine to note, but to be valuable they need to be articulated well. This requires a longer look at the design and a clear understanding of what the designer is looking for.

The most common reason the process breaks down is because it’s hard to follow. It takes time, attention and an understanding of what is being evaluated. Unfortunately, people don’t seem willing or able to go that extra step to make their feedback, whether positive or negative, helpful. They’re more concerned about getting their gut reaction off their chest and moving on. In some cases, they simply don’t have the tools to reflect on and articulate their reaction. A good critique requires time and a grasp of fundamental design principles.

Honestly, why else would a designer fire off a “That sucks” comment? If you’re reviewing a fellow designer’s work, you should feel obligated to make your review as helpful as possible. Those unhelpful comments result more from a lack of understanding than a lack of willingness to put in the effort. To this end, I wanted to see whether established principles exist by which to judge Web design and whether we have guidelines along which to offer critiques. So, I did some research.

As With Most Things, Begin With Research

Four in Getting Clients: Approaching The Company

I began with some extensive research on Web design criticism and critique. I didn’t find much, but a few things are worth sharing. Jason Santa Maria, who is a wonderful designer and a leader in our field, wrote a good article about giving and taking criticism.3 He has some good advice there, and through his formal schooling he seems to have had a similar experience with criticism and design reviews that I did. He goes into the specifics of critiquing itself, and any designer could benefit from a quick read of it. As well, a few months ago a good post on responding to criticism4 was posted here on Smashing Magazine. It’s about responding to criticism rather than giving it, but some useful ideas are there.

As interesting as those articles are, I couldn’t find anything on giving critiquing Web designs in particular or on established design principles by which to judge websites and applications. In hindsight, and after many revisions to this article, I’m not all that surprised. Given the broad and multi-disciplinary nature of the Web, the subject is difficult to tackle.

Any Universal Web Design Principles?

Some attempts have been made to define universal principles for Web design, here on Smashing Magazine5 and over on the much-missed Digital Web6, but these (for me at least) are too broad to be readily usable. They’re a good place to start, though, and worth studying.

More helpful would be to dig deeper and look at more specific principles, such as Principles of Design7 and Jakob Nielsen’s Usability Heuristics8. With these, we could begin to dissect a Web design into its component parts and critique each individually. But let’s be realistic: not many will take the time to do that.

Learning the principles of usability, user interface, typography, visual design and so on is something every Web designer should work towards. This understanding will give you some of the language and criteria you need to effectively criticize. The rest is effort.

In addition to my research, I’ve spoken to many other designers about what makes for a useful critique. While one would expect many of the answers that were given, most people believe that it depends largely on engaging with the design and the designer, on having a conversation with them. I’ve noticed a lot of this happening in Dribbble9, a great community for designers that’s currently in beta. I have a few invitations, which I’ll give to those with the best comments. Just note in your comment that you’re interested in the Dribbble invitation.

After all this research and reflection, I’ve come to define a good critique as one that takes a gut reaction, applies context and understanding to it, and then communicates that in a constructive, conversational way.

To this end, I’ve formulated some simple rules for judging a Web design.

Some Guidelines For Constructive Web Design Criticism

Pd 4 in 6 Simple Ways For Freelancers To Increase Productivity

1. Note Your Gut Reaction, But Take Time to Explore It.

If you can’t articulate your reaction, stop there and keep it to yourself. As I’ve said, gut reactions can be valuable, but we need to explore them. Think of the last time you saw one of your favorite websites after a redesign. You may have liked it or hated it right away, but after using the website for a bit, your opinion (hopefully an intelligent one) became more moderate. Take the latest redesign of Facebook, for example. I was immediately confused. I think I actually typed something to that effect in the search field, which had been moved to where I thought the status update field would be. But I quickly found my way around and was soon comfortable with it. What’s more, the changes made a lot of sense overall. My gut reaction was expected; big changes can be disruptive, but I needed to look more closely to see that these changes were positive.

2. Learn to Articulate Your Observations, and Invite Being Questioned.

A designer should never, ever critique another designer’s work unless they are willing to have a meaningful conversation about it. This is a biggie. Expressing an opinion without offering to talk about it holds little value. You may be passionate about your craft (and your opinion for that matter), but for that passion to have much merit, you need to be willing to have a two-way conversation about it. Off-hand comments, particularly anonymous ones, are unhelpful for a number of reasons, most of which are pretty obvious. The point is simply that if you’re going to form and share an opinion, be willing to go a bit deeper and have a conversation about it.

3. Be Specific, and Offer Suggestions if Appropriate.

This is related to the last point. The more specific you are in praising or knocking a design, the more helpful you critique will be. Use descriptive terminology, speak the language of design, relate your opinion back to established principles. Think of your critique as one side of a debate in which you have to defend your opinion.

4. Always Consider Context and Audience-Appropriateness.

A personal website can be judged on how well it captures the personality of the designer. A mobile-specific website should be evaluated on a mobile device. And so on. This one can be hard, especially if you don’t know the context or audience. That said, avoid critiquing a design without knowing the context going in. Sure, by understanding visual design principles, you can critique just about any design on that level, but that’s usually just scratching the surface—helpful, but not nearly as helpful as it would be if you took the time to go deeper.

5. The Most Important Measure of a UI’s Success Is How Well It Meets Expectations.

I recently wrote about this in depth10. The point is that you should judge the utility of a user interface by how well it meets your expectations. Of course, if your expectations are exceeded in some way, that’s great, too, but simply having everything behave as you expect is a good start.

6. Subjectivity Is Fine if Labeled as Such and Articulated Properly.

Following on the point about noting your gut reaction, judging a design subjectively is perfectly fine. Sometimes, even after having taken our time and knowing the context and audience and all that, a design still just doesn’t feel right. As long as you articulate that in a way that makes it clear you’re not sure why you feel that way (and if you accompany it with other helpful remarks), the feedback is probably worth sharing.

7. Don’t Neglect the Content.

Unless you take the time to use the website and to read and absorb the content, your review will likely be superficial. While content doesn’t often fall under the responsibility of the designer, it’s still a big part of the design. Judge a design based on how well it presents the content and facilitates its use or consumption. Of course, here we have one of those “it depends on the website” situations, so context is doubly important.

8. Study the Principles Used to Judge Design, and Learn the Language.

I’ve touched on this quite a bit already. It’s probably the best thing you can do to give better criticism and to become a more educated designer. In order to properly form and articulate an opinion about a design, we need to know the principles and patterns we’re dealing with. And without understanding the language, we can’t easily have a conversation about the quality of the design.

Conclusion

Giving a great critique isn’t rocket science, as long as you take some time and use a proper frame of reference (knowledge, context, criteria) to engage and think critically about the design. So, what do you think? Agree? Disagree? I’d love for readers to weigh in here on what they think makes for a useful Web design critique and share what they think makes a Web design successful. Also, feel free to critique this article… I know I could use it.

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.flickr.com/photos/adamcnelson/2090704218/
  2. 2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_elements_and_principles
  3. 3
  4. 4 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/10/01/how-to-respond-effectively-to-design-criticism/
  5. 5 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/01/31/10-principles-of-effective-web-design/
  6. 6 http://www.digital-web.com/articles/principles_of_design/
  7. 7 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_elements_and_principles
  8. 8 http://www.useit.com/papers/heuristic/heuristic_list.html
  9. 9 http://www.dribbble.com/
  10. 10 http://www.dkeithrobinson.com/a52/entry/user_experience_and_expectation/

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D. Keith Robinson is a writer, designer, artist, publisher, etc. currently living in San Francisco.

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  1. 1

    Goldenboy Media

    March 3, 2010 3:22 am

    Criticism has without doubt helped me become the designer i am today. I would constantly try and create better designs until the criticism became less and less, generally to the point where the is none.

    It’s always hard taking it on the chin, especially when your just starting out, but with alot of dedication and passion you will design a piece of work you can really be proud of! This article brought back afew memories :-)

    Would also appreciate a dribble invite.

    Cheers!

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  2. 52

    Tablet PC games

    March 3, 2010 3:26 am

    I think Criticism is a way to make a man perfect. Because if you take criticism positively and work out on your weak points then it will really help you to do better and better. But as a side effect too much criticising a thing/ person can demoralize which is not desirable.Tablet PC games

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  3. 103

    Lets admit it….clients, most of the time, suck when it comes to approving designs. They always make cheesy recommendations that you know would make your beautiful design look like its from 1999. Flashing text or buttons, colors that arent complimentary and would look hideous in the design, cluttered design, etc. They have no clue when it comes to design.

    Can you imagine how they would feel if you critiqued them on their business….i.e., restaurant and its terrible food, automaker and its crappy cars, etc?? They need to understand that this is your profession as well, and you are the expert here, the “trusted advisor”, and that they need to just do that…trust that you know what you are doing. You wanted a reputable web company, you got it…now give us your content and get out of the way. Period.

    I think the best point illustrated in this article is that designers need to sell their designs to the client…basically….here ya go, and we feel this is the best way to sell your product or services.

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  4. 154

    Great article and following discussion, I really enjoyed reading it all. Let’s not forget that it’s also about content. A great design needs to be co-ordinated with a great idea, and great content. I think websites like DubLi are pushing at the forefront of this principle. Thoughts, anyone?

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  5. 205

    The points this article makes about the critic explaining the reasoning behind their comments is definitely true. Without the reasoning behind a viewpoint it’s no good as their reasons may validate / devalue their point.

    Likewise a designer should be able to explain the logic of design decisions.

    A design should be critiqued on its objective – whether it does or doesn’t meet its goals.

    The only point in this article I would disagree with slightly is that it seems to suggest the critic needs design knowledge to evaluate a design. Often clients don’t have design knowledge but are in a place to provide feedback as they should be able to explain why a design does or doesn’t meet its objectives without using technical design jargon. For example, the critic should say “the most important thing about our site is X but the design doesn’t get this across”.

    Another point is that a critic should never tell the designer how to design, it’s up to the designer to think of the solution unless they want people’s ideas.

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  6. 256

    Great article. Only if I can get my bosses to read this, the world will be a wonderful place… until then… *sigh* In another word, not everyone understands this, and reacting from a gut reaction is in almost everybody’s nature. You can’t teach a client or send them here to read this to train him how to give constructive feed backs.

    But one thing I think I have been doing right at my job is even though my bosses get annoyed when I ask, “Can you tell me specifically? Like why this and that?” – it had helped me tremendously to get what they want to see and do. Not only that, asking them can also give me an opportunity to explain why this would work better than what they’ve suggested. Compromising is better than a 1999 website I’d say… since most people believe they should see what they’ve paid for or paid you for. Getting half of what you want to see isn’t so bad. Unless you have the dream client… and as we all know they’re like unicorns…

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  7. 307

    Great article, wish clients would read this, in my past experience a lot of clients/higher ups (usually no knowledge in web design) may give you “alleged” feedback such as “it’s not working” or “i’m not feeling it”, to which you may reply in asking which parts are not working or which parts are you not feeling, in the hope of getting a response a little more specific, then they reply “I don’t know – you’re the designer!”… How would you reply next?

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  8. 358

    Great discussion, and an ongoing process for all of us. After 25 years in the design business, I can look at every time the design review worked or didn’t work, and almost always find the tipping point to be the communication process. How well did we work with the client up front to determine the goals, audience and expectations? We go through a comprehensive planning and specification process with all the stakeholders and team players, so everyone is on the same page (or they’ve said they are). By the time we get to the design, it almost unfolds naturally from all the preparation work, and there should be no surprises, mostly preferences. We’ve prioritized the content, explored “look and feel” parameters, and detailed the functions. Before we show the designs, we review our content outline with the team, revisiting the plan and intent, which is a great set up to show how the designs bring the plan to life. At this point, if the client has issues, it is often because the stakeholders weren’t involved in the pre-planning/approval process. And, there are always some personalities that like to disclose new information at this point or wonder why we didn’t read their mind about something. As some of you have pointed out, it’s good to have a process built in that requires going back to the planning stage if this happens, and building in additional fees for redesign if the agreed upon plan up to this point is changed.

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  9. 409

    Thanks for your article, I found it interesting and timely. The subject is one I find difficult and something I need to address better in my work. Most people if asked their opinion take a passive position and will by default offer something negative, anything else requires thought, time and consideration.
    I thought the most important point you made was about telling people what kind of criticism is expected of them so they don’t fall into the trap of offering an unelaborated gut reaction.
    If anything I would like to hear more about this kind of strategy.
    By way of careful criticism: I found the article a bit long, I thought the ideas could have been expressed more briefly. Thanks for taking the time and care to write it though.

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  10. 460

    A really good article, but you know what I like better than that? In the article, you say it’s important to maintain a two-way conversation in the critiquing process. Then, in these excellent comments and responses, you DO!

    Better content and discussion than the average blog, but Smashing Magazine is on my short list of “must-reads” and I’m rarely disappointed.

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  11. 511

    Criticism should be related to collaboration or, at least, with a constructive attitude, as you mentioned, when is visceral becomes unprofitable.

    Me, as many, never heard about Dribbble, but I would like to checking it out.

    Thanks.

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  12. 562

    Ah this was a great read. Thank you so much….I wish I could instantly transfer this knowledge to my coworkers and clients…and my boss. Even though I don’t freelance anymore, and work for a small marketing company, we aren’t a “branding” company and I feel these are GREAT points for anyone trying to critique work, not just designers…I have to deal with “sucks” or “i like…but more red” all the time from both my boss or from clients. so it’s great to be able to analyze them and understand their thought process a bit now too to help them out.

    …also thanks for all the links in this article, reading a lot of these right now too to learn more. this stuff is really appreciated!

    one link was broken though that i would really like to read: the user experience and expectations link..

    also – dribble caught my eye..any details on that? im not sure if you have any more invites…i think i’m like the 75th comment or something. but wanted to ask anyway!

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  13. 613

    This was a great article. Also loved some of the comments…

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  14. 664

    made my notes, thanks again

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  15. 715

    Well written and good advice here Mr. Robinson! I have a tip to help with the articulation of ideas into words. Pause. Often. It sounds weird at first, and I first experienced this during a critique in one of my classes. A girl would always stop mid-sentence, and quite frankly it got on my nerves. Although she always had really valuable things to say, every time! It didn’t take long before every student in the class would be mid-sentence on gut-reactions and pivot to more critical advice by pausing a moment. This also discouraged interruptions in the critique. Before long my classmates understood the pause being a ‘thought-shift’ and not ‘I’m finished speaking. I had the best critiques in this class, and now, after much improvement, I sound like a speak-n-spell! jk :)

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  16. 766

    Jonathan Bruder

    March 3, 2010 12:07 pm

    To me, one of the biggest challenges is introducing the culture of criticism. You make it clear that there’s a lot of work to be done in creating a common platform for criticism; team members must understand design principles and standards, and must be able to apply a discerning eye with regard to those standards.

    It can be difficult to bring team members — especially new team members — into that fold. Many of the designers and developers that I now work with started in roles where they were completely isolated from a community of peers. Those individuals are acclimated to working and making decisions alone, and may need a lot of coaching to move into any team environment. A critical framework might complicate this process unless expectations are clear and consistent.

    Another challenge lies in introducing accountability. For a critical framework to work, team members must have time to do the work that is necessary for effecting constructive change in projects. Design reviews can’t just be added to the list of tasks; team members must be held liable for the review process and given the opportunity to participate. Otherwise, the criticism process will evaporate over time. If you give your team the time to do the work, and hold them accountable for it, you will see the rewards for that work.

    I’m fortunate to have used the critique process extensively in art school. I’ve made the mistake of expecting others to have had a similar experience. You might guess that the situation ended badly. People don’t take kindly to critique, constructive or otherwise, without clear boundaries and expectations. If you can get on the same page, it will be an overwhelmingly positive experience in the long run.

    And yes.. I’m interested in a dribbble key :)

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  17. 817

    I loved your article i totally agree on your point of view. But the first step still is being able to accept criticism from other people. Most western people find this really hard.
    Id love a invite on Dribbble and try that out.

    Greetings Pascal

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  18. 868

    nice – covers a lot of ground

    critique story from 1st year of design school:

    one of the earliest and most memorable critiques I had was in a drawing class… the assignment was a self-portrait done with charcoal on newsprint… the standard issue newsprint at the time was was 24×36″ or so… decent size for this purpose… the entire class used this standard size — except for 2 people. Their drawings were monumental by comparison, done on newsprint roll 10ft x 30ft… no exaggeration. Done with HUGE chunks of charcoal. I still vividly remember those drawings years later… of course part of the critique centered around the format… defying expectations sometimes can be very powerful and often it’s difference between good and great design.

    Would like to check out dribbble.

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  19. 919

    It would be good to see a follow up to this article which would follow each element of a design in detail, start the top and work your way to the bottom. Logo to footers. I would not stop on the visual but also go into depth on the coding. Do you know how many webmasters who do not start off with a doctype? I would go further and expand to SEO and then into other elements outside a ‘template design’ like forms etc. Ok forget the articles we are into ebook/book status by now:) It would seriously be a good idea. I feel there are things left unsaid.

    I too started ten or more years ago but I am not a professional (In that I have a job). However my crtiques I’ve been told are welcomed, one because I go into depth. Plus I find others tend to follow my lead and start putting a bit more into their own critiques. (I am also an abstract artist and trying to get feedback on my artwork from anyone professional – well it just never happened to any great extent) This makes me want to give what I perceive I should be getting. I find when you are giving a critique you should say what is wrong and then say how to fix and to give details where to get more indepth information, if you haven’t got time to go into detail, touch on the most salient points and come back later. I like nothing better than to watch people have their ‘light bulb’ moments. Lastly, I prefer critique’s where the OP will start asking questions, and others chip in with help or more questions and a dissussion ensues.

    Regarding conclusion – well if you are taught in high school that is how you should end a report, its not a ‘high school’ thing to do, its a method you are supposed to use in the ‘real world’. I prefer seeing that there is a conclusion a lot of people don’t bother with one at the end of their articles and you are left wondering what the point might actually be. Plus you can always skip to the end for a quick round up of the article.

    Tina
    I’d be delighted to receive a Dribble invite, please consider me. I started following them, to see what they were about, so far from what they are saying it seems like some kind of game where you score points but what you have to do is not clear. They do say “Pro Tip™ for folks seeking invites: have a URL where ppl can check out your work. A Twitter profile with no info makes Larry Bird cry :..(” However they don’t follow that criteria themselves. I suspect its just a marketing viral ploy, nothing is as exciting as a ‘secret’. I suspect this article was either created to feed it with people of a certain mindset or it is a happy coincidence, that it was decided to write it.

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  20. 970

    really enjoyed the article, i’m actually taking an HCI class right now and we’re apply a lot of the concepts we’re learning to the web.

    i’d also be interested in a dribbble invite, if you have any left.

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  21. 1021

    Well done.

    As embarrassing as it may be, I actually show my mom everything I produce. Chuckle it up, but she’s the best critic because she knows absolutely jack about web design. Her gut reactions are generally spot on and she’s totally capable of articulating them so I never hear ‘this sux’ or whatever. I value her input because she’s my mom and because she represents a great example of the audience I generally deal with. She’s isn’t ignorant to the web but at the same time she’s not using twitter all the time either.

    One thing I didn’t see though was a point on sticking to your design decisions when questioned. I was lucky enough to attend a fairly respected art institute and critique was 60% of my day. One thing that always drove me crazy was when students would back down from their work when their peers called them out. It’s one thing if you didn’t know about a certain aspect but don’t make excuses for what you did. You chose a color because it spoke to you, you drew a line there because it needed to be there. Don’t be defensive and argumentative but stand up for what you’ve done and back it up with reason. Have confidence in your work even if you’ve done it wrong. Critique is meant to help not hinder, so don’t shake in your boots when someone calls you out on something you did.

    ps – Can I get a dribbble invite? ;)

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  22. 1072

    for me, i like to get back to basics. Since websites these days incoporate most multimedia elements, i like to break down the website into media types and critique its design/use individually, and then how these influence the overall success/failure of the design. Then I move to navigation elements and usability. By doing this, you actively identify what is good or what needs work, and also can draw upon the traditional design critique/principles to critique certain elements (for example background art)

    -dribble?

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  23. 1123

    The first photo you selected is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA, which means free and for non-commercial use. Your advertisements on Smashing Magazine makes your site commercial, so the use of this photo here is prohibited.

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  24. 1174

    nice article :D hope to see more articles like this one in the future

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  25. 1225

    This article sucks

    Just kidding :)

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  26. 1276

    Great article! Nice that you took the time to write about this topic. The only problem is that the audience that is reading this post isn’t necessarily the audience that SHOULD be. Many times, we as designers and developers need to get approval from those higher up in the food chain, or those in completely different areas in an organization…and more often than not they have zero background in web development. Getting them to buy into this review methodology will be the challenge.

    PS: I’m interested in Dribble.

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  27. 1327

    Awesome article, as a user interface designer, all these things still very much apply.

    please dribble me if possible

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  28. 1378

    I find it’s really helpful to add the word “ass” to any formal critique. For example you can combine words with “ass” like “suck ass”, or “kick ass”, or even…. “Awesome ass”.

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  29. 1429

    Steve Krug has a great book on designing web sites that are easy to use called _Don’t Make Me Think_. Among other recommendations, he encourages designers to rely heavily on conventions that users will recognize. Apparently this is a pretty popular book in the UX community. Krug’s site is http://www.sensible.com.

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  30. 1480

    sayan mukherjee

    March 7, 2010 12:48 pm

    nice, very nice….
    nothing more to say.

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  31. 1531

    I’m interested in a Dribbble invite.
    —–

    Why Subjective Criticism is Indispensable

    Articles introducing people to critique tend to make two points about subjective responses: 1. Subjective experience of design cannot be dictated or avoided; 2. Talking about your subjective experience is all but useless in design critique and should usually be avoided.

    But subjective experience is the only way we know whether a design works for us.

    Design is experienced sensuously and emotionally. Objective critique often lacks the essential human experiential component, and will jump straight to problem-solving phrases such as, “Spacing is too equal between groups of unrelated components causing parity,” without pointing out the telling fact that the layout causes anxiety and a feeling of being lost. You need to know if people feel your design is impersonal, warm, bold, depressing, energizing, wet, crunchy, luxurious, or serene; whether the design tastes more like Granny Smith or Red Delicious; whether it smells of spearmint, licorice, strawberries or axle grease.

    Unless we are the intended audience, the best we can do is make an educated guess as to how the intended audience will experience the design. You can discuss all you like about clear information structure and navigation, but what you are trying to avoid is target visitor discomfort; if your intended audience is happier with a single page of hundreds of catalog items than with a paginated catalog, all you need to know to make a design decision is a single long page makes your target audience happier. You might LIKE to figure out why the audience prefers one design over another, but you MUST know whether your design is audience-alienating.

    Without acknowledging our subjective experience we cannot know when breaking rules is better. When rule-breaking design works, we might not know why because the design goes beyond the limited body of principles we rely on to de-liberate our intuition about what works.

    Conveyance is the key to effective design and useful subjective critique.

    Conveyance is the manifestation of information in the observer, whether intended by the communicator, and goes well beyond objective fact into the relational, contextual, associative realm of human experience. Conveyance gives rise to unbeckoned associations from our culture, language, recent and memorable events, media, memes, ethics and morals, individual taste, education, travel, family, generational influence; the unpredictable details of human experience which co-create our experience of design.

    Asking what a design conveys gives us permission to explore and speak from personal experience with the design; the intimate experience, which is ultimately what we need to know, not the speculated thoughts and feelings of an absent audience.

    As designers we are deliberate with our design choices, and take responsibility for visitors’s experience. If we were certain of our control of user experience and ability to convey what we intend is effective for everyone every time, we would not value feedback. Through critique we want to learn what we could not know from within the limits of our own experience — how others feel about our design.

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  32. 1582

    Greetings,

    This article is very useful to me, and it should be to others. Critiquing is a basic element of human relations, and needs to be considered in both a general and specific way.

    There is something that came to mind while I was reading that might be helpful us: fractals.

    A fractal is a part of mathematics, but its principle I have applied to all forms of thinking, and it has great potential.

    Simply put, to fractal something, you take a simple idea, and progressively make it more complex and more developed by adding to it in repeated, systematic actions.

    It is like a seed, growing into a tree.

    Giving someone a gut reaction response to their design barely pases as a critique. It is merely a seed of a thought, not much more. It is like a basic triangle, undeveloped, and unhelpful.

    What you need to do is ask specific questions about that gut reaction, defining it and connecting it to the design in tangible and definable terms. Then taking each of those, organizing them, and developing them in a similar way until you have a fully developed and fully helpful critique.

    Just like a fractal. The more iterations, the more beauty.

    P.S. I would be interested in that Dribbble invitation.

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  33. 1633

    Great article, thank you! The part that interests me the most is were you mentioned point 8, “Study the Principles Used to Judge Design, and Learn the Language”. What would the best starting point to learn the language (eg. site / article / book)?

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  34. 1684

    Great article, I often get criticism which is basically that they don’t like it, but they can say why.

    In the future i’m going to ask these people to maybe go away, explore the design a bit more and not just give me their gut reaction right away as it dows not really help me.

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  35. 1735

    Great article, I enjoyed the read

    Sometimes our own critics are more powerful then others about our work, because we know the nook and corner of our design.

    To critic our own we need to give some gap after designing, like for 2 or 3 days.

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  36. 1786

    a bit thin and general me things. an example critique and a critique sheet would be way more interesting than this long text with not so much content in it.

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  37. 1837

    I enjoyed the article and have been working towards developing a repeatable process that we can use when doing design reviews with our clients. We’ve found that by using mood boards and wire frames the client becomes more vested in the design process and feels some ownership in the design. This certainly helps us produce design comps that are much likely to be viewed favorably by the client and requiring sign-off from the stakeholders (and executive management where appropriate) nearly eliminates the drastic re-designs.

    Perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle, at least for us, is educating the client at the beginning of the project about both the process, their role, and the role and responsibilities of the designer(s).

    Keep up the good work!
    Cheers!

    (Dribble me if you can…)

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  38. 1888

    Just one question, where to ask for critique?

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  39. 1939

    Interesting article that supports the notion of “old-tmers” like myself who believe that HF/UX/Usabiity is actually a science involving knowledge, education, and training in Psychology, Research Methods, and specialized courses. It is not something you become “certified” in by taking a few 3-day courses followed by a multiple-choice exam. Nor is it a “vocation” that you learn through an apprenticeship like electricians and plumbers. To understand the history of our profession I suggest reading articles by Alphonse Chapanis to see where we come from.

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  40. 1990

    A man is as old as he feels.

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  41. 2041

    Good posting!

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  42. 2092

    this was actually pretty good!

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  43. 2143

    Thanks, i really liked this post…..

    Safi.

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  44. 2194

    you can also get free web design critique here:
    http://www.freedesigncritique.com/groups

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  45. 2245

    Great article. One I have read time and again. I have a question that I hope soemone can advise me on;

    I recently had an interview for a web agancy. The postion was for Trainee Web Designer (my dream job). I’ve produced a few sites to date but am no means a web master. The interview went really well. We got on well, discussed design trends and personal prefernces over a coffee and he gave me some great advice on how to advance my protfolio. It resulted in a request for me to re-design the home page of one of their current clients. I accepted and recieved the details in an email later that day.
    This was the brief;

    “I’m interested in your interpretation, choice of color, structure and style choice.
    Will you explain your reasons why you opted for a particular style.”

    I did my research, mocked-up a homepage and sent it on with an email expalining choice of colour, typography and layout.

    The response I got was less than favourable;

    “I’m sorry to say that its not quite what I expected from you. I think you have the ability to do a lot better. Would you like to have another go at the design or leave it?”

    I am not afraid of negative feedback, of course I would love if all the feedback I got was positive but I find that I often learn the most from good/helpful criticism. I found this answer to be rather vague and unhelpful, especially from someone in the industry for many years.

    I emailed again requesting more specific feedback;

    “What is it about the design in particular that does not meet your expectations? If I go ahead with another attempt I feel I would need more detail in regards to what missed the mark in your eyes and why.”

    His response to this was;

    “Here’s link to sites that we have designed recently. The standard is pretty high.”

    They were sites I had already researched before submitting my design but I studied them again and tried to take note of the noticable difference in quality. It was tricky. I showed my design to a friend along with the list of sites, they were a bit more helpful but I still felt like I was playing the guessing game in regards to the expectation of my interviewer.

    So I emailed again;

    “I have spent some time looking at your other sites but unfortunately without specific feedback relating to my design (the whats and whys) – or even specific feedback in relation to one of your own sites – I don’t feel a redesign will produce what you are looking as this results in a guessing game on my part. If you have the time to relay specific feedback to me, that would be great.”

    The response;
    “OK, Best of luck with the job hunt.”

    My reaction; I felt/(still feel) totally gutted.

    Am I worng in wanting more specific feedback? Why would he go from being so interested and helpful face-to-face to being so vague and unhelpful via email? What is it I have done wrong in this instance?

    I have been advised by friends that I may have dodged a bullet by not getting the job – working for someone unable to give helpful feedback (especially for a trainee role)is less than ideal – but I feel they are just trying to save my feelings.

    Any adice on this matter??

    Thank you in advance.

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  46. 2296

    Critique is vital for a successful design outcome. In art college critique was how we all learned the elements and principles of art and design. We learned through doing. I now work in Silicon Valley where critique can make or break a new product. The guidelines for constructive web design criticism that you laid out is a very helpful model that I will keep in my pocket.

    Cheers!
    -AC

    p.s. I would love you if you throw me an invite on dribble :)

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  47. 2347

    I’ve had this happen as well, and it’s a tricky problem. At my old company we’d call this kind of thing Seagull Management (as it would usually come from management) as it was like a seagull came in, crapped all over everything, and flew away.

    I think in this kind of situation, the best way to deal with it is to set expectations up-front. Essentially make sure everyone involved knows what is on the table, what kind of feedback you’re looking for, etc.

    When presenting to clients I almost always set some pretty strict boundaries about what can be discussed. I also sometime lead their criticism to an extent. I’m pretty good at that, but it’s not the same as getting an honest critique. Selling design for sign-off is a unique topic in and of itself.

    I’m not sure how you can avoid this completely. When it does happen, it’s probably good to accept that feedback with as much grace as you can muster and move on.

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  48. 2398

    This is a great article – and this discussion is amazing!

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  49. 2449

    Thank you for the article, it was very useful. “Selling design for sign-off is a unique topic in and of itself” – It would be great if you could write about this as well!

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  50. 2500

    A lot of times clients don’t have the language to accurately describe what they are reacting to. I’ve had to talk more than one client off of a cliff over something relatively simple that they were not able to articulate at the time. For instance, a client may say something as simple as ‘Its not working’ or ‘I hate it’. If you were to stop right there and go directly into revisions you could waste a lot of time. The key is to ask a lot of questions: What isn’t working? Why don’t you think it is working? Which element of the piece is not working? Is the header on target? Are the colors on target? Does it feel to crowded/spacious/simple etc.

    Oftentimes, you find that something a client hates is a simple as changing a header font or switching out a picture… but this information would be lost without taking the time to really discover the nature of the client’s beef. One bonus of this question/answer routine is that it indirectly teaches clients how to evaluate design and thus give better feedback in the future.

    PS Dribbble me :)

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  51. 2551

    You are right about that. But what if their feedback/critique is only based on personal taste and don’t have any reason behind it? Like making the body text really tiny and black instead of a normal grey text?

    I always hate to see my design getting ruined by clients/nondesigners because of their silly critiques like these without a reason behind it…

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  52. 2602

    and these are the kind of Gut Instincts we are talking about ;)

    Great article, I really enjoyed the read :)

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  53. 2653

    On the other hand, it’s become common place to see ‘Conclusion’ at the end of the article.

    I personally think it’s a good habit to get into in terms of usability on the web, as most users will scan for such a keyword that will outline the end of the article, and a very basic summary of the author’s thoughts.

    1
  54. 2704

    “Conclusion” is great, it’s universally standard and really easy to comprehend. It seems a lot of people think what makes good writing is to command the language in an obfuscated and indirect way. The thought of how many people will be able to easily understand what it is a writer is getting across, especially considering how large and vast their audience might be, kind of gets thrown out the window. What’s favored more by a lot of amateurs is to be “impressive” with your writing, “oh, screw usability and comprehension.”

    Isn’t that a bit of an oxymoron? “In order to write well, we must obscure our diction and presentation so that it is not quite so straight forward, and a little harder to decipher.” Really? That’s the sound notion we’ve come to? I’m sure Keith isn’t trying to impress anyone, the goal here is to provide tips and advice that might help a large number of individuals. And as Bryan pointed out, there’s so many more benefits, especially on the web, when people stop butchering the idea that writing is a form of communication.

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  55. 2755

    brandon nielsen

    March 4, 2010 7:46 am

    Well said, Joseph.

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  56. 2806

    Indeed. Keep in mind: not all Smashing Magazine visitors are native English speakers.

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  57. 2857

    Joseph…your reply was almost obfuscated by your decision to use the word “obfuscated” ;) ….but I agree with you, “Conclusion” is an appropriate label to use for the conclusion section of a blog article.

    1
  58. 2908

    I agree with the use of “conclusion” too. What may be obvious to you may not be obvious to everyone else, and it’s better to state the obvious that risk someone missing it.

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  59. 2959

    @Roger – You are right, but what if you get the answer like “I dont know but something is missing?”.
    In that situation you have to be very patient and talk to them in their language. Many time clients want something different and says different.

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  60. 3010

    @Sarah
    Products are not sold, it is the benefit which is bought.
    You need to tell non-IT people that how helpful it can be for them if they use App in this way.

    From usability point of view, No matter how brilliant your design is, but if your customers can’t digest it then it should be redesigned.

    The design which is beautiful is not a good design but the design which enable users to solve their problems.

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  61. 3061

    I agree that the use of “Conclusion” at the end of the article is useful. Yes, if one is writing an essay, using the closing, “In conclusion” may seem juvenile. However, when publishing an article on the Web, users do tend to scroll down to see how long the article is prior to reading it. I scanned through this article picking out the subtopics in bold and determining how long it was before reading it. Seeing “Conclusion” was helpful to me because it allowed me to mentally create sort of a frame around the article before I read it. This helps me to determine if the information is going to be to the point or long and drawn out. (Kind of like this post is, but I just had to get it all in.)

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