Using critical thinking when giving design feedback

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More than reaction or direction, critique is the key to understanding the impact of design decisions.

The last time you asked for feedback, how did you go about it?  Usually, we ask for feedback in one of three ways:

  • "Hey, could you take a look at this? Tell me what you think."
  • "Hey, can you take a moment and fill out this survey about our {x}?"
  • "We updated the colors on our {x}, does it help with readability?"

Asking for feedback is great, but ensuring that the response is actionable is what makes it vital. If the feedback participant doesn't immediately "see" what you think they should, the feedback may be useless--and you've wasted both your time and theirs.

In one case, I remember asking a cohort group about the number of steps required to complete a task and how well that fit to their expectations and workflow. Unfortunately, without specifying the parameters for the feedback, we received everything from copy and font recommendations to angry shouts and crying.


What is feedback?

The issue with the term “feedback” lies in its broadness. Feedback itself is nothing more than a reaction or response. Designers talk about feedback and feedback loops all the time in their work. The user of a system or product interacts with it in some way, perhaps by clicking a button, and the system changes in one way or another. It could be that an animated loading bar appears while some new data is fetched and displayed, or maybe some elements in the interface move their position.


The problem with asking for feedback is that, most times, we aren’t being specific enough in describing what we really want feedback on. Sometimes we might get a gut reaction. Sometimes we might get a list of instructions or suggestions on what to change. Sometime we might get comments that describe how what we’ve created doesn’t match what the critic would have created, and so on. And weeding through all of that feedback to try to determine what’s of use to us — what will help us identify the aspects of our design we should iterate upon — can be a struggle.

In the original article, the author explains that there are three types of feedback: reaction, direction, and critique.


Good lord! That’s awful! An inebriated cocker spaniel could have done better!

Reaction-based feedback tends to be emotional and/or visceral. It happens quickly, instinctively. Feedback of this type can often be the most passionate, as it’s driven by an individual's own expectations, desires, and values. Essentially, it’s a gut reaction.

Reactions, in general, can be a good first glance reaction--especially for things like color, layout, and style.  Sometimes, someone can't explain why they like or don't like something--it's just... a feeling. This information, however, is often too vague to act on because the feedback isn't specific to an aspect, feature, or functionality of the product.  You might think they had your flashing red text... but it ends up they hated that you used Comic Sans.


You should have made all of those radio buttons a drop down [because…]

Direction-based feedback typically begins with an instruction or suggestion. In many cases that’s also where it ends. In this form of feedback, the individual providing it is often looking for ways to bring the creation more in line with their own expectations of what the solution should be. You might also have encountered examples of this kind of feedback that start with phrasing similar to: “If I were to do this… or I would have… or I wish…

Direction tends to be based on experience or bias. This feedback can also be emotional, like a reaction, as the individual tries to not only provide feedback, but provide justification and argument with their feedback.  Direction can be useful from knowledge experts (asking a UI expert on proper colorization of a layout), but less so from a general audience.

What we really need is critical thinking

Critical thinking is the process of taking a statement and determining if it is true or false. When we’re designing something, we’re doing so to meet or achieve some set of objectives. When looking for feedback on our creations, what we should be working to understand is whether we think it’s true or not that what has been created and the method in which it’s been created will work to achieve those objectives. We’re looking for a form of analysis to take place.

This analysis comes in the form of critique--qualified, quantified, objective feedback...

Critique: The third form of feedback

If the objective is for users to seriously consider the impact to their bank balance before making a purchase, placing the balance at the bottom of the screen at the same size as all the other numbers isn’t effective because it gets lost in all of the other information.

It’s this form of feedback that is most helpful to us in understanding the impact of our design decisions. Critique isn’t about that instant reaction you might feel when seeing something, or about how you would change someone’s creation to better solve an issue.

Critique is a form of analysis that uses critical thinking to determine whether a creation is expected to achieve its desired outcomes (and adhere to any pertinent best practices/heuristics). Those outcomes can be any number of types of things. They can be about utility — for example, giving someone the ability to complete a task. They can be about metrics and measurement, as in increasing the number of conversions for a particular call to action. Or they can be experiential — for example, making someone feel excited or surprised by something.

When asking for feedback, a majority of the time we're looking for critique. However, proper critique takes time, energy, and a bit more knowledge and understanding than simple reaction or direction.

  • what is the use case (what are they trying to do or accomplish)?
  • who is the target audience?
  • why are they using this?

If you're familiar with user personas, they're quite helpful when asking for a critique because they allow the individual to embody the audience and provide qualified feedback.


When asking for feedback, be aware of the type and tone of feedback that you're requesting: short and simply reactions or detailed and actionable critique.

  • design
  • feedback
author photo - David Longnecker by David Longnecker

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