The art of receiving and giving design feedback

When designing or crafting something there usually comes a point when you stop being smart, where you go over the same things again and again, or get stuck polishing some small detail, without making any forward progress. It is at this point that you need to go and get yourself some outside perspective. In my experience, 15 minutes of feedback from a trusted colleague provides as much forward progress, or more, than an afternoon of single-minded solo work.

We all know that one of the most effective means of improving the quality of our interaction design work is through qualified feedback. Design feedback, or design critique, is unanimously recognized as an effective thing to do, but the skills needed are seldom taught or practiced. In this essay I will provide some real world advice for how to elicit, receive, give and make proper use of design feedback.

Eliciting and receiving feedback

One way to get good feedback is to get better at receiving it. Being open to receiving feedback makes people more willing to give it to you. Don’t wait for feedback, but ask for it. Ask for it early and ask for it often. By postponing feedback you risk wasting time and effort going in the wrong direction.

Unless you are in a place where people are practised at giving feedback you need to take control of the feedback session, set the scene and clearly communicate the parameters of the feedback that you wish to receive:

· Make it clear what you would like them to focus on, where you are in the design process, what your design goals are, and what you need help with. Think of it as a game and that you are explaining the rules before you both play. When explaining what it is that you need them to do, watch out so that you are not over-explaining in an attempt to preempt critique that you feel you might otherwise get.

· Start by listening, and always listen more than you speak. Ask clarifying questions. Make it your goal for the session to maximize the amount of information that you collect.

· Try assuming the attitude that everything you are told might be useful in some way. A technique you might like to try is to automatically respond to any feedback in a positive manner. Giving an affirming response, before you have evaluated the implications of a piece of feedback, pushes you to be more attentive and open.

· When you receive positive or negative value judgments, but no rationale or suggestion how to proceed, ask for clarification. “It’s crap, you say. In what ways is it crap?”. “You like this one better? What makes you like it better?”

· Don’t overly defend your design. Practice simply accepting criticisms, especially criticism that is already known to you, or for which you already have solutions. Fight your desire to look good and to seem smart. The person who is giving you feedback doesn’t always need to walk away with a full and veracious account of your design.

· Write down any feedback that you receive. This communicates that you value the input that you are getting, and it also counteracts our natural tendency to forget things that are uncomfortable. Having a written record of the feedback allows you to return to it later and it allows you to get back to your colleagues to ask clarifying questions.

· If the feedback starts to veer off from what is useful to you, it is up to you to steer the session back on track. Gently remind the person giving you feedback what you need, what the design goals are, or give them a scenario or a use case to focus on.

· Everyone is not equally adept at giving feedback. Identify the few who are and return to them in the future. Find people who give you different types of feedback. At the same time avoid collecting feedback from too many people; there will be diminishing returns and you can get overwhelmed sorting through contradictory opinions.

· Another thing that will increase how willing people are to give you feedback, and how much effort they will put into it, is the quality of the feedback that you give them. Build a relation in which you trade feedback with each other. Regularly trading feedback is also a way for you and your colleagues to practice experiment and perfect the art of feedback.

· Don’t forget to thank people when they give you feedback. It is also nice to give people public credit for their input and ideas.

Giving feedback

When giving feedback I favour a process that is less about pointing out issues and proffering solutions, and is more about creating forward movement. Sure there may be things that can be fixed on the spot, my preferred goal, however, is that the designer goes away with new insights, new leads, and with renewed energy and curiosity.

· Unless the designer herself does so, you need to establish what the parameters for the feedback session are. Where in the design process are we currently, and what does the designer need most help with? Does the designer need to open up the design space, or to narrow it down? Does the designer need help identifying issues or finding gaps? What are the goals of the piece of design you are about to look at?

· You can, and should, challenge the parameters and assumptions given to you, but don’t get stuck doing so. To be able to provide helpful feedback, at some point you need to accept the premises given. Compare a film reviewer who harps on about how he or she doesn’t like a particular genre instead of providing insights about the film in question. Make sure that most time is spent on feedback that moves things forward.

· When giving design feedback, look at the actual design and have some paper and pens, or a whiteboard, ready to hand. I know that this seems like trivial advice, but it is remarkably often that someone tries to talk you through a design problem without giving you anything to look at. I am not sure why this is. Perhaps it feels like it is going to be quicker, or maybe it just feels safer. However, drawing and pointing at design is much more effective than only talking. Be sure, therefore, to ask to look at the design and that there are paper and pens ready to hand.

There are a couple of attitudes that I find to be especially conducive to a good feedback session:

· Treat the person you are giving feedback as an equal. Avoid all status play. Be humble and don’t assume that you are right.

· Focus on the qualities of the design and not those of the designer or the design process. Assume that you both want the same thing: to make the design object the best that it can be.

Although design knowledge and domain knowledge are part of being able to provide useful design feedback, the simple act of asking your design colleagues to explain their reasoning, and the choices that they have made, go a long way towards helping to move the design forward. If nothing else, I find it useful to return to a couple of fundamental questions:

· What are the users’ goals here?

· What is the design trying to achieve?

· What are the behaviours that we want from the users?

Some other things that I have found useful to look for when critiquing a design:

· Looking for ways to remove and simplify things. Look for ways to reduce the amount of things someone has to think about, the number of choices they have to make, and the number of steps they have to take.

· Looking for ways to help guide the user along. Repeatedly ask: will the users know what to do, will they know where they are, and will they understand what is happening?

· Looking for things that are being solved through interaction that could be solved through graphics and animations, and vice versa.

· Making note of things that the design is doing particularly well, and seeing if these things could be made more prominent, and also if they can be applied elsewhere in the design.

· If there is only one design solution being reviewed, and you have nothing to compare it to, it can be useful to ask about alternative solutions that the designer discarded or discounted along the way.

(Added on the 14 March: Since writing this piece I have created a deck of cards with over 50 questions that you can ask of a design. I write about the cards and provide a downloadable pdf here.)

Making use of feedback

At some point the feedback session is over and you find yourself alone with a long list of issues, leads, suggestions, reactions and opinions. What do you do with it all? Much of it you will immediately know to ignore or to start working on. The difficult part is paying attention to those bits of feedback that your natural impulse is to ignore, but which actually contain some important insight. There are many reasons for why we might ignore something. Perhaps we don’t understand a particular comment, or we might be stuck in a particular frame of mind, or it might simply be because criticism can be painful.

· A good way to work through uncomfortable feedback is to let some time pass. This is one reason for why you should write down the feedback that you get. Let the design rest and then reconsider the feedback that you previously chose to ignore, especially if it is feedback that makes you uncomfortable, and that came from people whose opinions you trust.

· There is feedback that you can more safely ignore. If you know that someone has a particular agenda or hobbyhorse, or generally likes to affirm their status, this can be factored in when you evaluate what they say. Value judgments (both positive and negative) that are not accompanied by some rationale are hard to do anything constructive with and can usually be put aside.

· You don’t need to use only reason to work your way through all the feedback that you have collected. Design cannot take place solely in your head. If you are unsure of the value of a particular idea or suggestion you might take the risk of trying it out and seeing what it does to your design. Why not explore a suggestion that you disagree with or feel especially opposed to.

In addition to the risk of discounting valid feedback, there is the risk of blindly and unquestioningly accepting positive feedback. There are many reasons for why other designers might respond positively to something in your work, even though those things may have little to do with the reactions of actual users of your design. Just being aware of this fact is one important countermeasure. As is always asking for specifics for any positive feedback that you get. We of course have other means than feedback for validating our design work, but it is useful to remain sceptical towards the favourite parts of the design we are working on.

Having your work criticised can be embarrassing, uncomfortable and threaten your sense of self worth. To make it easier for you to receive and make use of feedback I’d like to end on a couple of ideas that have helped me personally:

· Realize that there is nothing than cannot be improved on in some way. Feedback is thus an essential and unavoidable part of making something excellent.

· Feedback is information. You can choose to see feedback as just data, information that is neither true nor false, but which you can make use of in various ways in order to make your creations better.

In conclusion, there are things that you cannot do without feedback, and if you want to improve your skills and the quality of the things that you create, feedback is essential. It is hard to think of anything as effective as good feedback for improving the quality of a piece of design and for facilitating personal growth.

Strive to improve your ability to elicit, receive, give and make use of feedback; the payoff will be out of all proportion to the effort you put in.

Thanks

I’d like to thank Kristoffer Åberg and Nils-Erik Gustafsson for their sage and cogent advice on an earlier draft of this essay.

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