The secret to good design feedback

The key to giving great design feedback, as well as receiving it and putting it to productive use, is your attitude. The right attitude will makes more of a difference than your choice of formal method or process. In this essay I describe ten ways of thinking about feedback that have the potential to significantly and profoundly alter your attitude. These ten perspectives have the power to increase the effectiveness of your feedback tenfold.

The right attitude will makes more of a difference than your choice of formal method or process.

Each perspective can subtly shift your attitude to both giving and receiving feedback. You will no longer feel the discomfort that so many experience and you might actually start to savour the process. Your shift in attitude will be sensed by those around you and will change how they respond to you during a design critique.

I suggest that you read through the perspectives that follow and that you pick at least one idea and try it out as soon as possible.

1. It’s a gift

You will have heard this before: feedback is a gift and a blessing. It’s one of those statements that is true, but which may have lost some of its impact from overuse. On some days it can sound trite and new-agey. I believe it to be true, however, and important, because good critique can help you to improve anything that you are creating, or any skill that you are developing. It can even contribute to your personal growth. In other words, feedback can help make anything that you care about better. This is true whether or not the feedback was intended to help you. Feedback can make you see or understand something that you would otherwise not have seen or understood, or which would have taken you a long time to grasp. It can help you to come unstuck and renew your energy. Without the feedback, you would not have been in the position that you are now in. That is why it’s a gift.

Gifts are something that we are thankful for. I have often heard and read the admonition to always thank the person giving you feedback. I find this to be a little too ritualistic. If it is done by habit it risks becoming meaningless; we become like hectored children, acting by route and lacking insight. What I am encouraging you to do, rather, is to see the immense value that feedback can bring. Sometimes you will want to thank people for it, other times not.

Receiving feedback can be intensely uncomfortable, even when you understand and appreciate its value. When I personally feel discomfort (this can still happen, even after writing on the topic) I like to remind myself that the unpleasant feeling that I’m experiencing is a sign that I am receiving something useful, something that will help me further my own agenda and my goals. The feeling alerts me to the importance and value of the moment.

2. It’s just information

Feedback is just information. It is just words (and sometimes gestures, or a few hand drawn lines). Information is neutral. You don’t need to be upset or threatened by information. You don’t have to obey information. What you can do is use it, weigh it, take different stances towards it, probe it, and experiment with it.

The information in feedback is just another design material available for you to work with.

Thinking of feedback as information neutralises its occasionally distracting emotional effect and it frees you to see and make use of the value it provides.

3. Be curious

Once you begin to view feedback as information it becomes easier to start eliciting more of it. Become curious about design feedback in the same way that you are curious about user insights. When someone gives you feedback, try applying the same skills and attitudes that you (or perhaps the researchers in your team) do when conducting user research. Listen to what is being said, try to understand it from the perspective of the speaker, ask follow up questions to test your understanding, and dig deeper for more information.

This is quite the opposite of what commonly happens when people ask for feedback. All too often the person asking for feedback hopes to receive none, or at least very little; certainly nothing too challenging. The person giving feedback plays along in this little game. Both parts escape the potential discomfort of the transaction, and neither learns very much.

Break the pattern. See the collection of feedback as a kind of sport that you can get good at. Each session is a challenge to extract true, significant and useful information about how people understand and react to your design. Show other people, by your openness and curiosity, that you genuinely value their input.

4. Everyone doesn’t have to like your design, or even like you

One of the sources of discomfort that people feel when receiving feedback is that it can make us look bumbling, foolish, lazy and incompetent. Feeling this in front of other people adds shame to the list. This is only human. We want to feel accepted and valued by our peers. A giant leap towards becoming better at eliciting feedback and putting it to use is to start to care less about what other people think.

Everyone doesn’t have to like your design work. You should strive to do good work, of course, but everyone doesn’t have to like it. We are all different and have different preferences. In meetings you will attend there will be people with different values and who are driven by different agendas. Liking is very seldom a useful metric of what is good in design. Figure out which metric would be useful and bring that with you to the design critique.

Everyone doesn’t have to like your design, and everyone doesn’t have to like you. Your value as a person is neither dependent on people liking your work or on them liking you. I am not saying that you should become a rude and inconsiderate person, I am simply observing that caring less about what people think of you and your work increases the odds of creating good work. Find something more fundamental to care about.

5. It is very rarely about you anyway

If you still worry about what people think of you, and what their various reactions to you and your design might mean, realize that most of the time it is not about you anyway. Sometimes people are not going to give you the reactions you expect or hope for. Instead they will frown, lose attention and fixate on peripheral things. Be aware that a lot of the time they are actually not reacting to you, or to what you are presenting.

One mistake we often make is to misinterpret the reactions that we appear to be getting. A person’s thinking face, for example, might make them look grumpy or displeased, when in fact that are just thinking hard. Someone may be genuinely grumpy, but for entirely unrelated reasons that have nothing to do with you or your work; they may have slept poorly, had an argument at home, or suffer from severe constipation.

My general advice is to not overreact to the apparent reactions of others, and to withhold your reactions to the reactions that you seem to be getting. Avoid making the wrong assumptions by testing your understanding. One way to do this is by summarising the other person’s point of view and checking if you got it right.

6. Critique is inevitable

People sometimes ask for feedback, but secretly hope to receive none. Unfortunately, our peers sometimes comply with this game of pretence. Since there is nothing that cannot be improved in some way (as evidenced by thousands of years of innovation), and since there are always many perspectives from which to view and judge something, there is nothing that doesn’t warrant feedback. If you ask for feedback, or present your design for review, you will inevitably receive feedback. Critique is inevitable, regardless of the quality of your work.

There is therefore no reason to be surprised or apprehensive when you receive feedback. Always simply assume that there will be something than can be said about your work.

7. It will still sting sometimes

Even if you value feedback highly, and have a number of conducive ways of thinking about it, it will still sting sometimes. Sometimes what people say will get you down.

This is going to happen and it’s ok. We are only human, so be understanding and forgiving of yourself. These moments are an opportunity to learn something about yourself. Try to identify the uncomfortable feeling that you are experiencing. Probe it. When did the feeling arise? What was the exact moment? What is your discomfort really about?

The attitudes covered so far have mostly been about receiving feedback. The final couple of perspectives will improve how you give feedback and will make your feedback more effective.

8. Accept the assumptions — at least after a while

In design it is immensely valuable to question the assumptions underlying a piece of work. Why are we doing this? How will things be different? Who is this for? How are we adding value to the business and to end users? We often fail to do this to the proper extent. However, to help your fellow designers, at some point you have to accept the premises behind a piece of design, and work from those premises. To give good feedback you will sometimes have to do this even when you disagree with the underlying assumptions.

I see this as a kind of curtesy. I might state that I am sceptical of some assumptions, then do my utmost to work productively from those assumptions. Who knows, I might even change my mind about the assumptions later on.

Compare this to a poor game reviewer (or music or movie critic) who gives something a bad review because he or she doesn’t like a particular genre. We expect our critics to provide useful thoughts, within the confines of a genre or a premise, and to help those who enjoy a genre to make their decisions.

Good feedback, in my opinion, is helping to improve something, not about making it into something else.

9. Help make it the best that it can be

I have been told that I am good at providing unusually frank and useful feedback, but without making anyone feel bad. This has been said enough times that I started to think about what it might be that I was doing. I think it comes down to this. When I provide feedback I tend to focus on the thing itself and on helping making it the best that it can be. I show interest, I am genuinely curious about what the designer’s goals are and what they are trying to achieve, and then I try to work with them to make the thing better. I focus less — if at all — on the designer, their process, and the choices they’ve made up to this point.

This approach is unthreatening and non-judgmental. People quickly feel that you are working in the same direction. It signals respect, shared goals, and a wish to collaborate. The person receiving feedback does not have to defend themselves, or their self-image, and can focus their energies on achieving their design goals.

10. Do the right thing

In general people are reluctant to give feedback and are not very good at providing useful insights or questions. This is a great shame, holding us back from growing and improving. This is especially sad when the context is one in which we are led to believe feedback to be forthcoming (such as a design review, or a performance management session). When we don’t receive true and useful feedback in these situations we are erroneously led to believe that all is well and dandy.

This is even more appalling when it is clear that someone should have received feedback a long time ago, but that people before you have avoided doing so due to the slight discomfort of telling the truth. To me this is like letting someone walk around all day with a huge and revealing hole in their trousers and not alerting them to the fact.

Since I know the value of feedback, and know some constructive ways of providing it, I feel that the onus is on me to give it, especially in those contexts in which I know others will fail to do so. Giving people true and useful feedback that will allow them to see things more clearly, to come unstuck and to grow, is for me a moral imperative. How do you feel about this? Needless to say, it is generally better to give your feedback one to one and not in front of an audience.

What will you try next?

Did any of these ways of thinking about feedback resonate with you? If you were to pick one idea to try out, which one would you pick?

How will you remember to try it out? Will you write a post-it and stick it on your monitor? A note in your note app? A comment in the meeting invitation or in your calendar? Or perhaps it’s time for a new tattoo?