How to Critique Custom Design

Critique is a large part of what makes up great design. Feedback from a fresh pair of eyes can mean the difference between a hit campaign and a devastating flop. Designers often become so close to their designs that they just cannot accept that their work has faults. This is a habit we must break. I am taking a stand, here, today. Say it with me, “I’m a designer, and my work is not perfect.” I know it’s difficult to admit, but admitting you have an issue is the first step towards positive resolution. Now that we have admitted that we, as designers, are in fact human and capable of mistakes – we can move on to the next step of this process. Throughout this article I will guide you through the steps of coping and critique.

Walk a Mile in Your User’s Shoes

To truly get the most out of your critiquing experience, you must first put yourself in the position of the person who will be using your website. This means knowing your audience. Consider how technically-savvy a typical user would be, and what he or she would be searching for.

What Is The Purpose?

This may seem a bit elementary, but from the initial stages of research, sketches, and mockups to the final build-out and launch of a project, it becomes relatively easy to lose track of what your original intentions were. All too often we become too caught up in new techniques and flashy elements, and forget the most important aspect of design: what is the purpose? Think of it this way: why does your client have a website? Does he intend to sell products on the site? To spread awareness on a particular topic? To provide a tool to schedule a purpose? There are many more questions needed for a complete list. However it is most important to understand exactly what the purpose of the site is, and to reinforce your solution at every turn.

Where Do You Look First?

Take a glance at your newly designed site. Ask yourself this question: “Where do I look first?” Did it take you more than about 4 seconds to figure out the answer to this question? Well then, Houston, we have a problem. Studies have shown that most users will abandon a site within 4 seconds if they cannot find what they are looking for. You need to make it easy on your user. Make sure they know they are in the right place. Do this by reinforcing their established brand identity and maintaining consistency. Let’s take a website that many designers are fairly familiar with: basecamp.com as an example.

In the top left corner is the Basecamp logo, and throughout the page are sans-serif typefaces and the same blue and green hues found in the logo. What does this tell us? We are in the right place. If you stumbled upon the same site and the logo completely differed from the rest of the site, you may be suspicious. Or worse, you may think you have landed upon the wrong site altogether. You’d probably leave the site, continue looking for “Basecamp” for a few more seconds, maybe a minute or so. But then you’d probably go back to the drawing board and Google “Project Management Systems”. This, my friends, is how an acquisition is lost. It takes less than 5 minutes and it happens without the user even considering the idea that he was in the right place.

Next, do you remember how I asked you to look at your own site and ask yourself what you see first? Do it again, with Basecamp’s homepage. The most likely answer here is the call to action “Start your Free Trial”. Why? One word: contrast. This call to action is the only place you see red used as an element on the page. Had this call to action been placed in black, you may have missed it. The first thing on the page you noticed would probably have been “Last week 7,863 companies signed up for Basecamp to manage their projects. Today it’s your turn.” While this statement is intended as a testimonial to Basecamp’s effectiveness, it isn’t actually a clickable call to action.

Where do I go from here?

If your site follows the guidelines mentioned above, your user will most likely decide that your site provides just what they are looking for. Hooray! Party time, right? Not so fast, mister. Getting a user to your site and convincing him that he is in fact, in the right place, is only half the battle.

After a user lands on a site, and decides it is in line with what he or she wants, what’s next? Let’s continue with the Basecamp example, since we are already acquainted with the homepage. If you had actually searched for a project management system, and landed upon Basecamp’s homepage, you’d probably complete the logical next step and fill out the four-field form to start your free trial. That leads you to a page with this message:

This message uses friendly, simple language to reinforce the user’s decision about the product. In addition, it provides ONLY ONE BUTTON. There is no option, and therefore, no confusion. Naturally, you continue on your way, just as the button invites you to do. And just like that, Basecamp’s website has completed its core purpose. To get the user to sign up for a free trial. They have used simple language and effective call to actions, and ultimately, won your attention.

A word to the wise: I’m not suggesting that every designer should now follow Basecamp’s design style as a definitive guide. In fact, just as I stated earlier- there is always room for improvement, and design is not a one-size-fits-all kind of situation. What I am suggesting, however, is that what Basecamp has done seems to work for them. They have created a site that is easy to navigate and easy to recognize. Will san-serif typefaces and bright red call-to-actions work for everyone? No! However, in this particular example, I find that Basecamp has done a good job in making the user feel comfortable and leading the user in the right direction.

Application

While you may not be designing a website for project management system software, you can definitely apply some of the same techniques used in Basecamp’s design. Color isn’t the only way to use contrasting elements to make call to action buttons stand out. You can also add contrast by using shape, size, texture, space, and line.

User Testing

I cannot stress the importance of usability testing enough. As I stated originally in this article, a second pair of eyes can be invaluable to the design process. And what is better than a second pair of eyes? How about three pairs? Or five? Or Ten? Thanks to sites like usertesting.com, this process has never been easier. Simply sign up and you will receive a video recording of an average user speaking their thoughts as they use your site, as well as a written summary describing any problems they encounter. Usertesting.com even allows you to handpick the type of user you’d like to have tested the site by setting parameters such as gender, age, location, average income, etc.

If you don’t have the resources for services such as these, then you can rely on user testing by using a group of peers, friends, family, etc. However, you need to choose your subjects carefully, and give them explicit instructions to be completely unbiased and give their honest opinion and feedback.

The Job Is Never Done

One of the reasons I first became interested in web design and development is because of its ever-changing nature. There is always a new technique to learn or a new idea to research. However, this means that designing solutions for problems is a never-ending job. For example, you may think that one of the pages on your site needs to be changed, while the statistics say it is actually the highest converting page on the site, or vise versa. A design job does not end with a launch. In fact, a launch is really only the beginning. You must continuously check how users are reacting to your design, and researching ways to solve new issues. However this process of finding new solutions for new problems can only be made possible by being open to new ideas. Don’t be married to your original design solution just because it was yours. In reality, your first design actually isn’t your first design. Think back to when you were first assigned the project. Did you come up with a single sketch and turn it into an award-winning project? Well, if you answered “yes” you have no business reading this article, and you should probably point me in the direction of your latest blog post because you are clearly a genius and I have a lot to learn from your brilliant ways. For the rest of us, however, it is likely that the sketching and research process consists of several rounds of trial and error before settling on the best solution. So why do designers get so attached? We need to learn to let go, and stop cutting off our noses to spite our faces. Learn to accept criticism, and learn from others. Do this, and you will soon see your designs improve and, ultimately, conversions increase.