A designer was asked to create a new teacup for a manufacturer of tableware. Preferring natural materials, she began by making a modest, thin cup from bamboo.
A coworker interested in design stopped by to see the cup.
“This is boring,” the coworker said. “Why don’t you make something flashier?”
“I tend to prefer simple things,” the designer said. “But perhaps you’re right. Maybe our audience would like something with a bit more energy.”
The next day, the designer showed the coworker a new cup circled by bands of vibrant colors.
“Much better,” the coworker said.
“I can see why you like the colors,” the designer said. “I showed this new cup to a test audience, though. Most of them found the colors a bit much and preferred something calmer. A few enjoyed it.”
“Well, I like it,” the coworker said, crossing his arms. “I don’t understand why people would want to drink tea from a boring cup.”
“The world has an infinite variety of people, and their tastes often differ,” the designer said. “It’s okay to have personal preferences. Just be honest about them and remember that others may like something else.”
The next day, the designer showed the coworker a new cup, this time with only a single band of color around the rim.
“I like the color,” the coworker said, turning to leave. “It’s not as dull. But you should make it from iron instead of bamboo.”
“What do you mean?” the designer asked, confused.
“Make it from iron,” the coworker said, turning back to the designer.
“Well, bamboo isn’t the right material for a teacup. It’s too soft. If someone drops it, the cup could dent or crack. I’ve seen Japanese teapots made from cast iron, so do the same with the cup.”
“Ahh,” the designer said. “I understand you now.” She thought for a moment. “Our research suggests, however, that people want a cup light enough to lift up to their mouths many times. But now that I know the motivation behind your suggestion, I will make it sturdier.”
The next day, the designer showed the coworker a new cup made from hard ceramic with a single band of color around the rim.
The coworker knocked it on a table, observing that it did not dent or crack. He held it, noting its light weight.
“Good work,” he said.
“If I had taken your suggestion at face value,” the designer said, “many would have struggled with the cup. But by understanding the reasons for your suggestion, I addressed your concerns in a way which did not create other problems.”
The coworker nodded.
“Suggestions are good,” the designer said. “The reasons behind your suggestions are just as important. When providing feedback, describe the problem you’re trying to solve.”
The coworker thought for a moment, looking at the cup. “I imagine people spill their tea,” he said finally. “I spill things, but I always keep a napkin handy. How about a matching napkin?”
“Ooh, that sounds fun,” the designer said, smiling. “I’ve never made a napkin.”
The next day, the designer showed the coworker a napkin to go with the cup.
“Nice job,” the coworker said. “The two look good together.”
“I agree,” the designer said. “I just came from a tea tasting with a test audience, though. No one used the napkins. They said they didn’t want to wipe their cups and would prefer saucers instead.”
“Hmm,” the coworker said. “I never would have thought of that. I guess I don’t drink tea all that often.”
“I do,” said the designer, “and I should have predicted their reaction. But I got caught up in the excitement of making something new.”
“There is a lesson here,” the coworker said. “You are probably not your product’s intended audience. See with your users’ eyes, their goals, their problems.”
The designer nodded.
The next day, the designer showed the coworker a saucer to go with the cup.
“You’ve done great so far,” the coworker said. “But we’re not providing a way to make the tea. People need teapots, right? How about a matching set of cup and pot?”
“Interesting idea,” the designer said. “That would take some time, though, and we need to finish the cup first.”
“If the manufacturer likes the pot, maybe they will buy that design from us, too.”
“I see where you’re coming from, but I don’t like to waste time. I’ll check with my contact first.”
"I admire your idea, but the manufacturer isn’t interested,” the designer said the next day. “They lack the budget to produce teapots.”
“I see,” the coworker said. “You didn’t already design a pot, did you?”
“Good. I’m glad I didn’t waste your time.”
“It was a good idea,” the designer said, “but always consider design in the context of the product’s goals.”
The coworker looked at the cup again.
“Do you like it?” the designer asked.
“I like it,” the coworker said.
Summary: How to effectively critique a design
Having personal preferences is okay. Just be honest about them and remember that others may like something else. Instead of “this is boring,” try “I tend to like plenty of colors. This strikes me as kind of pale. Will it meet our users’ tastes?”
Suggestions are good. The reasons for your ideas are just as important. When providing feedback, describe the problem you’re trying to solve. Instead of “we should add this page to the website’s main menu,” try “This page will be critical to our new users. I’m worried it will get lost among all the other content on the site. How can we make it easy to find?
You are probably not your product’s intended audience. See with your users’ eyes, their goals, their problems. Instead of “Why do we waste money giving people instructions for using this? Anyone can figure it out,” try “I figured out how to use this right away. Will our customers? Perhaps we should conduct user research to see if they need instructions.”
Always consider design in the context of the product’s goals. Instead of “Let’s add a dashboard to inform users of their coworkers’ recent activity,” try “Our goal is to give employees a tool for entering data. Do they need to know which data their coworkers already entered?”
The book Discussing Design expands on this topic and provides a wealth of sound advice. The designer and coworker both recommend it.
Note: This story first appeared in UX Collective. I reposted it here to benefit the CodePen community.