The art of sparring


We’ve all heard feedback like this

It just doesn’t pop

or

My partner / pet / mother doesn’t like it

Or the always popular

I don’t get it

While our first reaction as designers might be to throw our hands in the air in exasperation, but it’s up to us as creatives and designers to master the art of both giving and receiving feedback.

The reason this is so important is summed up perfectly in this quote from Michael B. Johnson of Pixar:

Pain is temporary, suck is forever.

The initial pain of feedback (especially poor feedback) is far outweighed by the danger of shipping something to your customers that sucks. We are in software business and an update / iteration can often improve or remove shortcomings. That said shipping them in the first place can lead to permanent damage to your brand and customer trust.

At Atlassian, we found the best way to master feedback was by giving it structure and focus.

For us, this structure and focus was given form through sparring.

Sparring?

Sparring is most common in form to an art critique.

Put simply, it is a group of people in a space presenting their work to each other in turn. For us, that work can include everything from user journeys to workshop plans and anything in-between.

There are a number of principles that govern our sparring.

Design driven
Designers organise and run the session. Design and the customers’ experience is at the centre of the discussion.

Structured
Each session is organised and facilitated. An agenda is set prior and adhered to closely.

Inclusive
While it is design driven, all disciplines are encouraged to attend, be it Product Management, Quality Assurance or Engineering. We also welcome involvement from other teams.

Regular
These sessions are run regularly. Weekly in our case.

This is how sparring looked in its infancy.

Mo’ problems

These principles and basic outline allowed us to give a structure and focus to our feedback but there was still plenty of room for improvement. Over time we were able to pinpoint five key problems specific to the Purchasing and Identity team. For your company or team these might be different but these are the ones we hit upon.

Context
Setting it early. With the wide range of people attending a sparring session we needed a way to set the context for a piece of work. Too much time was spent setting this context, discussing the goals, metrics and principles for each piece of work.

Structured feedback
While we had structure to the sparring session itself, we missed a structure to the feedback. We struggled to allow the time for the giver and recipient to properly present and digest their feedback.

Closing the loop
We needed a way to show the loop of feedback had been closed. Had feedback been rolled in? Were the correct pieces of feedback being passed on to the correct people/team?

Remote teams
We are a global company, we struggled to keep all locations and teams on the same page and involved in the sparring process.

Visual design
Visual design is very personal. Each person brings their own thoughts and bias to the table.

Current

Taking into account those five key problem areas, we developed and implemented this sparring loop for the Purchasing and Identity team:

This is weekly cycle, all digital, using Atlassian tools that we run Friday through Tuesday.

Let’s look at it step by step.

Step by step

Create and share journey template
Whenever a designer begins a piece of work they fill out a journey template. This gives structure to their work and makes sure they have covered off the basics before sparring. These basics include metrics, measures of success, personas and open questions.

Once filled out, the designer then adds the journey to the sparring agenda and it’s shared with the week’s sparring attendees.

Feedback left on template
Over the next day or so, feedback is then left on the template. This period of time gives the attendees time to take in the work and see it in context. As the feedback builds up it gives the designer time to digest it as a whole and pick out key themes.

Sparring (aka the moment of truth)
The moment of truth then arrives. We all get in a room or space and work through the agenda for the week. Armed with key themes the designers presenting are able to focus the conversation and get the most out of their time.

We also use HipChat to capture comments made during the spar.

Collation
Post spar the designers take their feedback (both from the pages and HipChat) and collate it into a number of action items. These items can then be tracked by all attendees and anyone visiting the journey template page.

Our current sparring in practise

Let’s get visual

There is one problem that wasn’t simply solved by the above and that’s improving the quality of visual design feedback.

For this we developed a set of cards.

These cards are based on the AttrakDiff framework developed as a scientific way of measuring visual design.

We use the cards as conversation starters. When giving visual design feedback, sparring attendees can thumb through the cards and pluck out ones that capture the essence of their issue with the visual design. It is then a matter of flipping the card over to start a discussion of what they’re looking for.

For example, if I pull a card stating that the visuals are too ‘technical’…
…I can flip that card and ask the designer to make it more ‘human’.

This saves time in finding the right words and getting stuck on small visual details.

Download and print a set for your team.

Scale

These improvements to sparring have helped enormously in improving the quality of feedback within our team and the company at large.

There are always new challenges to face and the major one currently facing us is ‘scale’.

Our company and our teams are growing. In response we have started looking at rolling out a monthly feedback loop. This loop breaks sparring into a more informal process with more formal check-ins at key points every other week.

Proposed scaled sparring loop

Takeaway

Like any software company worth its salt we will be forever iterating on sparring and how we give and receive feedback.

Whilst sparring itself may not work for your company or team, the essence of it works anywhere. As long as you’re always working to give your feedback structure and focus you will see the value, and avoid the suck.


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