Practicing critical thinking for designers

"How do you know if you are solving the right user problem?"

"What makes you believe in one idea over another?"

"Why do you think this UI and its interactions will work?"

It's not that simple to give a reasonable answer to such questions. The explanation should be logical, objective, and evidential. To develop one requires a thought process that includes research, analysis, and evaluation, which is generally known as critical thinking.

Throughout history, some practitioners came up with various definitions and interpretations. One of them is a statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul that is acknowledged by The U.S National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as:

The intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

Critical thinking in the design process

As a designer, we must have been practicing critical thinking in the design process through criticism.

We know the divergence-convergence model, proposed in 1996 by Hungarian-American linguist Béla H. Bánáthy. In the convergence stage, we employ critical thinking to prioritize potential ideas that we have explored, refine ones then finally make a decision.

However, the practice of critical thinking in the design process is broader than just criticizing in the convergent stage. We need critical thinking in an end-to-end design process to think clearly, solve problems systematically, and provide reasonable answers. Besides that, it also helps with presentation skills so that we can explain things more in order.

Common myths

Some people may believe that critical thinking is inborn. We can't learn it. While genetics play a role in critical thinking, making some people seem more natural than others. It isn't impossible to learn it, just like sports or art. Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard, as Kevin Durant said.

Some may also consider that people develop critical thinking as they gain more experience in a specific subject. But having a lot of experience doesn't necessarily make someone applying critical thinking. Of course, you have met someone who has worked for a long time but often concludes without any basis and evidence.

Now that we know we can develop critical thinking and it doesn't necessarily relate to being more experienced let's talk about how to practice it in a designer context.

Practice critical thinking as a habit

Critical thinking is a wide range of cognitive skills and intellectually disciplined processes. To avoid feeling overwhelmed by the broad and vague of critical thinking, we can focus on one skill at a time to practice as a new habit in the design process.

Michael Scriven & Richard Paul also mentioned that we could see critical thinking as a habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior.

I've listed some practical examples of how you can develop habits to nurture critical thinking:

1. Observation

Try to gather as much relevant information as possible. Ask many questions to seek understanding. Talk to the researcher or data scientist to find what quantitative or qualitative data could be suitable. Check if there are any related insights from the previous research.

Try to reflect on these questions as you observe your project in the early phase:

  • To whom I can get relevant information?
  • Do I have enough information already?
  • Do we need to conduct thorough research to understand more about our users? (Discuss with your researcher)
  • Why do I need this data? What's the importance?
  • Why did they make this decision before?
  • Why does our team want to solve this problem?
  • Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

Tip: Dump anything you find into one place, for example, Miro.

2. Identification

We don't always have to trust others just because they initiated the project or have been there for so long. Please pay attention to whether what they say has biased. Identify the relevance and importance of gathered information.

Try to reflect on these question as you identify information:

  • How can I believe this information is accurate? Is there any basis?
  • What level of confidence does our team have in the data available?
  • Is this new information relevant to the information I have collected?

3. Synthesis

In synthesis, we generate new ideas based on the information (evidence, insights, or arguments) we have gathered. To do that, we need to examine the collected information by comparing or highlighting similarities, differences, and connections.

Try to reflect on these questions as you examine the information:

  • What do the evidence, insights, or arguments gathered have in common?
  • What is the difference between this information to that one?
  • Can we conclude something? Or is there any missing information?

Tip: Try to do it in pair. A discussion can help you synthesize in a more objective and fun way.

4. Evaluation

Whether you are working on a rough concept or high-fidelity design, try to balance the creativity that you produce with some evaluation. Try to notice what implications might happen from your idea or design.

Be open-minded to judge your design. You might have errors or biases. Don't wait for other people to notice that, especially if the errors are within your expertise domain.

The evaluation will help you to strengthen your arguments so that people understand and believe in what you propose. If you come up with multiple alternatives, try evaluating the pros and cons of each.

Try to reflect on these questions as you evaluate your concept or design:

  • What is the difference between this alternative and the others?
  • Why do I need to put a divider here? (Check every single element you put on the screen you design)
  • What's the downside of the concept that I'm working on?
  • Will people abuse this concept?
  • How much effort would it take to make this concept happen? Will it be worth the impact? How can I measure the impact of what I am doing?
  • Do I have to speak to the engineer to help me evaluate?

5. Reasoning and Communication

Try to come up with a point-of-view (argument) for your concept or design. Avoid being indecisive or too opinionated. Just the right balance, still be open to any changes.

However, your point-of-view should be structured and backed based on the information you have analyzed and synthesized.

Your concept or design should reflect on the information you've gathered and ideas or insights that came up from your synthesis. Also, take time to prepare how you will communicate your point-of-view.

Try to reflect on these questions as you structure a point-of-view and prepare to communicate it:

  • Will other people understand my point of view?
  • What will be the basis for my argument? Is the base strong enough?
  • What's the best way to communicate it?
  • Do my opinions for the proposed concept or design align with the information I found?

By integrating reflective questions into a new habit, you are also practicing critical thinking because reflection is a part of it.

At first, you may need more cognitive load to adopt the habits and reflective questions. As you go along, you will get used to it and do it naturally.

So, which thinking habits would you like to practice starting tomorrow?

  1. Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy
  2. The foundation for critical thinking: Defining critical thinking