The ins and outs of giving great feedback

One of the biggest challenges we face as designers is that we are constantly setting ourselves up for criticism. Whether it’s from our peers, our bosses or our clients, everything we work on is bound to receive some feedback that requires changes.

In order to grow in our careers, it’s important that we accept and embrace feedback to improve our work. No matter what role you play in a project, the following tips are worth noting for any future feedback you have to give.

Always Be Actionable

There are some general phrases one should never ever use when giving feedback and “I’ll know it when I see it” is at the top of that list. That kind of response is zero help to a designer who is trying to understand what you are looking for, what your vision is, and what you have problems with. Similar phrases to avoid are “I hate that” (not helpful at all), “You’re the designer” and “I have Photoshop on my computer”.

In other words, we need feedback that is helpful and actually actionable.

Sometimes we give feedback that we think is helpful, but isn’t actually actionable. One client, awhile back tried to express her feeling about a design by saying:

“To me this looks ehhhh (high pitched sound), but I really want it to be ehhhh (lower pitched sound).”

That feedback had two problems: A) She didn’t clearly communicate what wasn’t working and B) “Ehhh” doesn’t explain anything. While I’m not trying to be pedantic, it is generally a good idea to try and communicate how you feel about a design with a thought-out sentence or two. Sometimes that may take some time to formulate, which is 100% understandable. And when we’re asking you for that feedback, we should all set the same expectations around how much time that might take.

Start With What Works

When we’re presenting designs, we try to take our ego out of it because we know we’re not making the product for ourselves. And sometimes, we know that what we’re presenting might totally miss the mark. Yes, it does happen and when it does, it’s just important for us to understand why it’s wrong and which parts of our design we can keep.

I’ve found that creative writing workshops teach how to give the best feedback. The first thing they you learn is to start with the positives (even if you’re reading the worst piece of writing) and find something that’s worth complimenting before diving into the problems. Highlight what you like first, so designers understand what you respond well to.

When you start discussing what’s not working, try to be solution-oriented instead of stonewalling the situation (For example, “I just don’t like green” is not helpful). Tell us why you don’t like it, so we can explain why we made that decision. Your reasons should prompt us to ask questions, by the way. Feedback is not just dumping thoughts across to another person; it’s about coming to an understanding from both sides about the direction of the project. Having an open communication will help both parties come to a resolution.

Honesty Is The Best Policy

To make sure the design process runs smoothly, we need frank and candid feedback whenever our client’s are unhappy with something. From both the user experience and the visual design standpoint, we want to collaborate to create the best product possible. In order for this to happen, that honesty has to come from both sides. If we don’t have the ability to disagree or at least debate a point, then there will end up being a drop in belief in the work, which tends to lead to a drop in quality. The only way to truly have the conversation mentioned above, is to feel comfortable giving honest feedback throughout the whole process.

I had a startup client who waited till we got through 90 percent of the visual design process to tell us that they weren’t happy with the overall design direction since Day One. If they had voiced their concerns earlier in the process, they would have saved a lot of money and time. In the end, we had to delay the launch because we needed to start from scratch.

Give Proper Context

If you’re bringing consolidated feedback from a variety of stakeholders, don’t just list out what everyone wants. Make sure there’s general consensus from everyone before we move things forward with the project. It’s also important to avoid outside opinions.

While it’s understandable that you may want to ask friends, colleagues, even strangers their opinions on your product, eliciting outside opinions can be dangerous. When you talk to people who are not a part of the project team, they won’t have the background or the information to give you a qualified opinion. Often times, they’ll look for something to comment on just to make sure you feel better.

We once had a financial services client take the designs we’d made for their personal finance product down to a coffee shop. They asked random people if they thought the design was beautiful. And not surprisingly, people did not find it so. Without an idea of what they were looking at, these strangers only looked at colors and words on a page that had zero relevance to their lives. Since they wanted to be helpful, they gave a lot of random suggestions on how to make the product better.

Without constructive feedback, we’re just throwing darts at a board until you passively “know it when you see it.” And that could make the whole design process take awhile.

In the end, giving feedback is about improving upon the work that’s been done. It’s about having a conversation so everyone involved can share his or her reactions and discuss what’s working and what’s not working. With clear direction, your product can launch with a distinct voice and look in its strategy, brand, and design.

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