What Makes a Good Design Critic? CHI 2010 Panel Review

Author: Daniel Schwartz, Senior Interaction Designer, Oracle Applications User Experience


Oracle Applications UX Chief Evangelist Patanjali Venkatacharya organized and moderated an innovative and stimulating panel discussion titled "What Makes a Good Design Critic? Food Design vs. Product Design Criticism" at CHI 2010, the annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. The panelists included Janice Rohn, VP of User Experience at Experian; Tami Hardeman, a food stylist; Ed Seiber, a restaurant architect and designer; John Kessler, a food critic and writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; and Larry Powers, Chef de Cuisine at Shaun's restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia. Building off the momentum of his highly acclaimed panel at CHI 2009 on what interaction design can learn from food design (for which I was on the other side as a panelist), Venkatacharya brought together new people with different roles in the restaurant and software interaction design fields. The session was also quite delicious -- but more on that later. Criticism, as it applies to food and product or interaction design, was the tasty topic for this forum and showed that strong parallels exist between food and interaction design criticism.


Figure 1. The panelists in discussion: (left to right) Janice Rohn, Ed Seiber, Tami Hardeman, and John Kessler.

The panelists had great insights to share from their respective fields, and they enthusiastically discussed as if they were at a casual collegial dinner. John Kessler stated that he prefers to have one professional critic's opinion in general than a large sampling of customers, however, "Web sites like Yelp get users excited by the collective approach. People are attracted to things desired by so many." Janice Rohn added that this collective desire was especially true for users of consumer products. Ed Seiber remarked that while people looked to the popular view for their target tastes and product choices, "professional critics like John [Kessler] still hold a big weight on public opinion." Chef Powers indicated that chefs take in feedback from all sources, adding, "word of mouth is very powerful. We also look heavily at the sales of the dishes to see what's moving; what's selling and thus successful." Hearing this discussion validates our design work at Oracle in that we listen to our users (our diners) and industry feedback (our critics) to ensure an optimal user experience of our products.

Rohn considers that restaurateur Danny Meyer's book, Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, which is about creating successful restaurant experiences, has many applicable parallels to user experience design. Meyer actually argues that the customer is not always right, but that "they must always feel heard." Seiber agreed, but noted "customers are not designers," and while designers need to listen to customer feedback, it is the designer's job to synthesize it. Seiber feels it's the critic's job to point out when something is missing or not well-prioritized. In interaction design, our challenges are quite similar, if not parallel. Software tasks are like puzzles that are in search of a solution on how to be best completed.

As a food stylist, Tami Hardeman has the demanding and challenging task of presenting food to be as delectable as can be. To present food in its best light requires a lot of creativity and insight into consumer tastes. It's no doubt then that this former fashion stylist came up with the ultimate catch phrase to capture the emotion that clients want to draw from their users: "craveability." The phrase was a hit with the audience and panelists alike. Sometime later in the discussion, Seiber remarked, "designers strive to apply craveability to products, and I do so for restaurants in my case." Craveabilty is also very applicable to interaction design. Creating straightforward and smooth workflows for users of Oracle Applications is a primary goal for my colleagues. We want our users to really enjoy working with our products where it makes them more efficient and better at their jobs. That's our "craveability."

Patanjali Venkatacharya asked the panel, "if a design's "craveability" appeals to some cultures but not to others, then what is the impact to the food or product design process?" Rohn stated that "taste is part nature and part nurture" and that the design must take the full context of a product's usage into consideration. Kessler added, "good design is about understanding the context" that the experience necessitates. Seiber remarked how important seat comfort is for diners and how the quality of seating will add so much to the complete dining experience. Sometimes if these non-food factors are not well executed, they can also take away from an otherwise pleasant dining experience. Kessler recounted a time when he was dining at a restaurant that actually had very good food, but the photographs hanging on all the walls did not fit in with the overall d├ęcor and created a negative overall dining experience. While the tastiness of the food is critical to a restaurant's success, it is a captivating complete user experience, as in interaction design, which will keep customers coming back and ultimately making the restaurant a hit.


Figure 2. Patanjali Venkatacharya enjoyed the Sardinian flatbread salad.

As a surprise Chef Powers brought out a signature dish from Shaun's restaurant for all the panelists to sample and critique. The Sardinian flatbread dish showcased Atlanta's taste for fresh and local produce and cheese at its finest as a salad served on a crispy flavorful flat bread. Hardeman said it could be photographed from any angle, a high compliment coming from a food stylist. Seiber really enjoyed the colors that the dish brought together and thought it would be served very well in a casual restaurant on a summer's day. The panel really appreciated the taste and quality of the different components and how the rosemary brought all the flavors together. Seiber remarked that "a lot of effort goes into the appearance of simplicity." Rohn indicated that the same notion holds true with software user interface design. A tremendous amount of work goes into crafting straightforward interfaces, including user research, prototyping, design iterations, and usability studies.

Design criticism for food and software interfaces clearly share many similarities. Both areas value expert opinions and user feedback. Both areas understand the importance of great design needing to work well in its context. Last but not least, both food and interaction design criticism value "craveability" and how having users excited about experiencing and enjoying the designs is an important goal. Now if we can just improve the taste of software user interfaces, people may choose to dine on their enterprise applications over a fresh organic salad.


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