If as a designer you’ve ever felt like you’ve made the best damn thing - an app design, a drawing, a dish, a fashion choice, literally anything involving even an ounce of creativity - only to find that when you ask someone for their opinion they’ll have criticism to give you, you’re not alone.
I’ve picked up on this phenomenon gradually, especially when designers are validating ideas. I’m even prone to it myself.
Validation is a central tenet to good UX design. When you’ve stared at a carefully crafted iteration for far too long, your only chance to break out of a vortex of denial and capriciousness is by invoking third party opinions – a fresh pair of eyes to look out for problems that your own may have glazed over.
With this in mind, projects will inevitably have a limited timescale for completion. Therefore, being able to move onto the next task quickly is imperative. Yet it’s easy to get stuck in a quagmire of small circular improvements that yield minimal progress from outside validation.
One potential issue arises out of a conflict of interests: you want an honest opinion so you can address problems as soon as possible, but your extra pair of eyes have their own prerogative. They want to give an opinion to validate their own selection in the role of design critic.
Cue the subjectivity of ego versus the objectivity of productive evidence-based design.
Because of social norms, the person being asked for their opinion, the critic, will look to issue an output that they deem equitable for the exchange. What they hear is “I value your opinion. Here is the latest iteration: I want to hear your thoughts”. After all, if you’re asked to do something, especially something that comes as easily as giving an opinion, you’ll want to return value. Sometimes the best way is just to say something, even if that something is unproductive.
We know no single brain is the same based on physiology as well as observed behaviour. Our unique perspectives are the basis of subjectivity formed over a lifetime of many different experiences. Often, the design opinions that result from critiquing is productive and can pick up on things that the designer might’ve missed – this is essential and good.
The problem I’ve observed throughout my professional life lies in when the critic knows their opinion counts – they’ll try to find something to comment on in order to convey value as a critic, even if it’s unnecessary. This can stifle productivity in what might be an already very busy project.
Phrasing your request well will set an important precedent to receiving the right feedback, but ultimately it’s down to the designer to recognise when feedback is a productivity trap or when it genuinely adds value to the final proposition. Without this crucial sense of legit vs BS concerns, we run the risk of submitting to outside criticism that creates limited value for the end goal and sabotages our reputations as designers to stakeholders.
UX Designers are particularly prone to a bombardment of opinions from stakeholders in multiple areas during project reviews and idea validation meetings. Some of these individuals have been referred to as unsavoury acronyms in animal form:
HiPPO – Highest Paid Person’s Opinion
A stakeholder high up in the organisational food chain who thinks he/she knows what’s best for the product being developed. Sometimes they’ll use anecdotal evidence to back up their opinions but usually it’s about exerting executive power over the project to show who’s boss.
ZEBRA – Zero Evidence But Really Arrogant
Also has ideas of what should be done but is worse than the HiPPO because they provide no backing for their decisions; usually because they’re mired knee-deep in their own self-inflated sense of worth.
Someone who doesn’t understand the notion of constructive feedback and negatively comments (poops) on all of your ideas because it conflicts with their vision of what is right for the organisation.
Do not feed the animals
It’s difficult to argue against high ranking stakeholders powered by egotism; they’re likely paying for your design services. Luckily, we have some tools to mitigate, consolidate and drive our focused vision through the opinion onslaught:
The best advice is to carefully play your research card and support your reasoning with numerical data that shows how your idea can improve the value proposition of the business. Presenting audio and video recordings of users giving their feedback is fantastic at supporting your cause.
These nifty charts help to establish how much of your user base want to use any of the features they’re looking for in the next iteration of your design. A starter guide can be found here.
Feature prioritisation chart
Giving precedence to important features based on two axes: ease of implementation vs researched-backed demand. This can ultimately rank your features in an order of importance with support from your user-research.
Every good project starts with a brief from a stakeholder. Referring back to this throughout your project cycle will remind you of your prerogatives; but don’t forget to tie it in with user demand.
Organisation is key to staying on top; this is increasingly going virtual with tools like Trello and Realtimeboard but personally I prefer the visual impact of hanging paper up in the physical world for your team to see everyday.
Nothing beats knowing personally from past experience what works and what doesn’t. Patterns emerge and soon you’re able to handle this stuff in your sleep. Experience will accumulate over time but you’ll want to throw yourself into opportunities at every given turn to hone your sense of priority and survivability as soon as possible.
Every project is about following the path that creates the most value. With multiple paths on offer, keeping sight of important features based on research will enable better validation and therefore increased value. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether you should stick to your guns and challenge outside opinion or bend to stakeholders’ will to get the project done. Personally, I think finding a happy medium between these two will likely yield some kind of collective project nirvana.