Final day at Hyper Island in 2013. Can’t believe this has been almost 5 years.

Designing a Better Feedback Culture

Wonjun Song
Feb 27, 2017 · 6 min read

When I was attending Hyper Island in 2012–2013, students were encouraged to exchange feedback after each project was done. Giving and receiving honest feedback was a foreign activity to me. I had never learned how to exchange feedback until this point. I was so intrigued by this newly found activity and embraced what I think is the bedrock for design thinking principle and agile process.

What it boils down to.

Understanding Feedback’s Nature

Christopher-Robin, our program facilitator for Interactive Art Director 2013 class, shared in depth methodology on feedback. Here’s a nice quote from the post.

Effective feedback is a way to create a dialogue with greater clarity. It focuses on two things: honest self-expression — exposing what matters to oneself in a way that’s likely to inspire compassion in others, and empathy — listening actively.

In order to give effective feedback, you also have to understand the difference between feedback and criticism. Here’s a nice summary.

“Criticism is driven by the frustration and fears of the giver, not from the needs of the recipient. The underlying assumption is that the recipient somehow “should know better” and needs to be set straight. The implied message is that the recipient’s intentions are questionable, that there is something wrong with the recipient that the giver of criticism knows how to fix. In criticism, the problem is all in the recipient.

In contrast, feedback has an air of caring concern, respect, and support. Far from being a sugar cookie, feedback is an honest, clear, adult to adult exchange about specific behaviors and the effects of those behaviors. The assumption is that both parties have positive intentions, that both parties want to be effective and to do what is right for the company and other people. Another assumption is that well-meaning people can have legitimate differences in perception. The person offering the feedback owns the feedback as being his reaction to the behavior of the other person. That is, the giver recognizes the fact that what is being offered is a perception, not absolute fact.”

Result of Effective Feedback

So what does giving and receiving feedback really do for you and your team? According to the quotes, giving feedback is about sharing your perception and insight without hidden agenda. It also trains you to be a better listener. It is a genuine and mature conversation between two parties to help each other to improve weaknesses and nurture the strengths. When feedback is effectively exchanged, you will start to learn about a person’s values and interests. You will also be able to show the things that your teammate hadn’t known about himself previously. This allows receiver of feedback to reflect and grow.

In a team setting, you will have clearer understanding of shared goals. In result, a team who shares effective feedback will likely to become high performing team faster than the counterpart.

Creating effective team broken down into steps.

Participation is Key

In my career, I had a trouble finding healthy feedback culture in companies I worked for. It almost felt like my experience at Hyper Island was something out of a fantasy land in real world.

We had this thing called check-in and check-out where each members of the team would share his/her emotional state, expectations on things to achieve and reflect on day’s performance. This sometimes can be a grueling process because some check-out can take hours until everybody’s voice is heard. This can be emotionally draining experience but you get to learn a lot about yourself through this process. Key point is that everybody has to participate and hold no hostage when sharing individual’s thoughts.

One of many check-out sessions @ Hyper Island. This can be stressful but definitely helps you grow.

My Perception on Performance Review

Unfortunately, during my career, I have not worked for a company that really embraced effective feedback culture. Only time you can expect any form of feedback is during the performance review.

Every 6 months or 1 year, your manager will score you based on your achievements. At times, people are left with discouragement because the feedback that you get is not specific enough to help you to improve. I had few occasions where I felt confused, biased and offended.

Doesn’t have to be this way.

Susan Fowler’s Story and Personal Reflection

About a week ago, Susan Fowler broke a story about her painful experiences at Uber. Not only this story had a strong case on sexism but also points out the frustration that can be prevented with open communication.

If you want to tell others that you practice empathy, you need to start giving and receiving feedback at your work first. If you don’t have empathy for the people that you work with, how can you even be empathetic on things that you are trying to solve?

Finding Better Alternative

After reading her article, I began to identify problems and pose questions specifically on performance review.

Sorry for bad hand writing once again…

Problems

  1. Performance review can create biased feeling because of lack of clarity.
  2. Number system feels bit too cold.
  3. Lack of frequency on giving and receiving feedback (mini performance reviews)

Based on these problems, I began to jot down some solution.

Possible Solution

  1. Rather than focusing on negative, focus on the positive.
  2. Increase feedback loop frequency, at least once a week.
  3. Train people to find goodness in each other.
  4. Intimacy
  5. Feedback activity should be highly encouraged.

Designing a Place to Exchange Feedback

Based on this hypothesis, I began to sketch on a notebook to come up with design solution. I designed Slack extension that only focuses on sharing feedback with your team. Since Slack’s environment is highly focused on a team, I naturally felt that it’s a right platform to deviate from.

Sketching a logo mark.
Sketching to formulate design ideas.
Feedback notes I got from buddies at Hyper. This became an inspiration for the UI.

Originally, I called this service Feedlove. But soon after, I realized that it sounded bit too cheesy. I renamed it to Feedbag. It connotes a bag full of feedbacks. Still cheesy? Why don’t you give me some feedback on the name? Here’s my initial take on the design.

Navigate your team member and leave a feedback. A person you haven’t left a feedback
Feedback confirmation screen. You can leave more feedback for a same teammate or choose another person.
A section where you read feedbacks that you received from teammates.
Photo courtesy of Quartet Health. This photo really spoke to me.

I am convinced that 2017 is the most important year for a company to embrace effective feedback culture. Based on Edelman’s Trust Barometer Report, trust level has declined significantly across the board. People distrust media, government, companies, ceos and so and and so on. What stems this issue? How can we fix it? I don’t know the right answer to this but being able to speak your mind without fear and providing environment of inclusion can help alleviate distrust. I wish I can experience that at work and I hope more and more companies start to see a value in effective feedback culture.

Wonjun Song

Written by

Product Designer. Beat Maker. Lifelong Learner.

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