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Criticism and two way streets

Co-founder & Chief Strategy Officer, Intercom

Des Traynor


A post by Jason Fried titled “Give it 5 minutes” reminded me of a great technique I learned about from Bill Buxton.

Bill is a Principal Researcher in Microsoft where his main role focuses on designing a company that permits great design to happen. As many have learned to their peril, it’s not simply a case of just dumping talent in a room full of Ikea furniture. In large companies you have to design the process that creates design. One key idea Bill advocates is an emphasis on exploring the solution space before iterating on a solution.

However having great designers each producing great solutions to a shared problem can cause conflict, if not managed correctly…

Exploring the solution space

Like Apple, Microsoft encourages their designers to create many different solutions to any given design problem. But picking an outright winner isn’t easy. It can cause arguments and standstills. The quality of resolution here defines the quality of the design process. Who gets to decide? Is it the loudest shouter? The most senior? The highest paid? None of these are correct by default.

When does your solution suck?

Every solution is great in some circumstances and terrible in others. Design debates are best settled by inviting everyone to present their solution, but also explain under what circumstances their solution is terrible. Finally they’re asked to explain under what circumstances their colleague’s solution would be better. This is what Bill Buxton refers to as walking on both sides of the street.

The person who demonstrates most knowledge about the shortcomings of their own solution and the benefits of all the alternatives is the best best equipped to make the call.

Less time arguing, more time designing

Group Design

One surprising knock-on effect of this approach is a reduction in pointless design arguments. The ones that are rarely constructive, where people get offended and cling on to their own precious concepts. When everyone must be able to praise their colleague’s work and criticise their own work, inevitably a solution is agreed upon before a showdown is necessary. Also, by making a rule of praising alternate solutions and criticising your own, the discussions move clear of the realm of personal preference and bias. It’s simply a discussion of what is right, and when.

Design decisions should always be based on what’s appropriate for the task at hand. If you find your design is being beaten down, the best way to fight back is to counter with “Well, when would my design be appropriate?”. Conversely, before you take pleasure in destroying someone else’s hard work, first make sure that you can answer “When is this solution great?”.

The quality of critique decides the quality of design output. Giving it five minutes before you criticize certainly helps, as does learning to understand what it’s trying to achieve, where it would be right, and where it would be wrong.

Lastly, always remember the golden rule of critique: don’t be a dick.