Map Critique, How to Avoid Bad Advice

While I often espouse the need for critique in this blog, I don’t usually go into detail on how to conduct a successful critique of your work. First, how do we determine if a critique has been successful? In simple terms, critical feedback must make the map better.

And, the more people you have critiquing the work, up to a certain point, the better. Something like this:

But you also want to make sure that the critique does no harm. You could be on the receiving end of bad ideas as well as good ideas. How do you identify them so they can be eliminated?

Eliminating errors is especially difficult when you already have a favorable opinion of the critic’s ideas and/or the critic has already given you an idea you consider to be quite good. This is the halo effect.

The halo effect applied to a cartography critique goes like this: (1) If a known expert, perhaps your cartography professor, gives you a bad idea, you are likely to think that it is a good idea. (2) If an unknown critiques your work and you consider her first idea to be really good, then you are much more likely to think her second idea is really good irrespective of its merit.

To prevent the halo effect from biasing the results of your critique, you want to decorrelate error. Decorrelating error is achieved by getting a large amount of critical feedback from many people. This will tend to move you toward a good design because the good ideas will be suggested by multiple critics while the bad ideas will be outliers, on an idea vs. quantity chart.

This only works if your critics are giving you feedback independent of one another! If, like in a typical architecture critique, the critics are grouped together in a room, shouting out their likes and dislikes, they will most certainly influence each other and you will not have uncorrelated errors.

In summary: For the best map design, get as many critics as you can, and ask them for their feedback independently of the others.*

*A good description of the halo effect and decorrelating errors is found in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.”

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