Skeptical

Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere. Skepticism enables us to distinguish fancy from fact, to test our speculations.

from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

There have been a few instances recently when I’ve followed up a tech announcement with critique and skepticism. Most recently, Facebook Paper, which is looking to enter the already-crowded space of personal news apps, seems like yet another instance of Facebook attempting to pull a Microsoft. And unfortunately, history isn’t on Facebook’s side in this regard: Facebook Questions, Gifts, Photo App, Poke App, etc. were all entries into existing spaces with existing incumbents and, while I don’t have access to usage numbers, those apps/features have largely fallen by the wayside (anecdotally, I haven’t seen anyone using a single one of those apps/features outside of the initial launch).

However, when I put an opinion out stating that Facebook would ultimately be better off acquiring an already-successful social news app (to mimic their success with Instagram), a chorus of designers (both from Facebook and other startups) chided me for being skeptical. For being negative. Even when I tried clarifying that the app looks great, but that it feels strategically off-point to me, I continued to field complaints about my attitude.

How have we become so fragile? How have our egos become so easily bruised by public scrutiny that we fold under the slightest critique? How have we let ourselves believe we deserve nothing but praise just for shipping something regardless of strategy or quality or success?

We’re designers. Skepticism and critique are supposed to be our ballgame. Thinking beyond the pixels, beyond the animations, beyond the UX, even. Expecting to ship something and get nothing but pats on the back is misguided at best and damaging to our products at worst. The measure of a designer isn’t how they accept praise (that’s easy), but rather how they accept critique, how they fold it into their process, how they internalize it, chew on it and come out the other side better than before.

Skepticism is healthy. And hearing skepticism is healthy, whether it changes your mind or not. The most effective design critiques challenge our premises and assumptions and forces us to think about the why behind our decision-making to better understand not only what we’ve just built, but where we’re going with it. It helps us craft a narrative and go beyond designing our product in a vacuum. It makes good products great and great products exceptional.

So here’s to the skeptical amongst us. The folks that ask questions, that prod our work with sticks, that test our strategies. And here’s to all of us being better for it.

 
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