Website Design Critique: A How-To
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.
Further Reading on SmashingMag:
- How To Respond Effectively To Design Criticism
- Creativity Under The Microscope: Running A UI Design Critique
- Defending The Generalists In The Web Design Industry
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.
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 principles, 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
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
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. 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 criticism 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 Magazine and over on the much-missed Digital Web, 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 Design and Jakob Nielsen’s Usability Heuristics. 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 Dribbble, 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
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 depth. 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.
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.