How to get the best design feedback from your team

In 2015, I wrote out my thoughts on creative feedback. Here’s that article in list format:

  1. Feedback should be concise
  2. Feedback should be action-oriented
  3. Feedback should have a consistent format

At the time, the Planetary design team was growing. We were grappling with one of the challenges every design team faces: how do we get good feedback?

Two years on, I’ve revisited that article many times, each time appending and amending my own mental notes. Looking ahead to even more growth, it’s the right time to do a proper update.

Let’s look at the original theses.

1. Feedback should be concise

Do I still think feedback should be concise? Yes.

Concise feedback is the key to making small, quick iterations. The faster the turnaround on design feedback, the more velocity the design team has.

2. Feedback should be action-oriented

Do I still think feedback should be action-oriented? No.

It’s good to give actionable feedback, but it’s easy to over-emphasize the outcome. Prescriptive feedback sets unrealistic expectations, and is very frustrating to receive.

3. Feedback should have a consistent format

Do I still think feedback should have a consistent format? Yes.

Consistent formatting means less ambiguity. It makes feedback easier to give, and it makes feedback easier to process.

However, The format I described was a bit too consistent, and created a steep learning curve. More feedback is always better, and a good format should encourage participation.

Formatting feedback: it’s all about the process

My original framework for design feedback used a narrowly-defined template. In practice, such a specific and consistent format proved very unwieldy.

A person giving feedback is dealing with a lot of pressure, and the way they give feedback can change dynamically. What is their experience? How much sleep did they had last night? What did they eat for breakfast? Did they eat breakfast at all?

Asking someone to avoid words that come naturally to them discourages feedback. Giving someone a vocabulary bank means there’s less room for new ideas. All in all, imposing restrictions on language prevents fair participation.

Instead of standardizing our feedback language, the Planetary design team standardized our feedback process. It has four parts:

  1. Check in,
  2. Ask questions,
  3. Share reactions,
  4. Capture and share feedback.

A note on timeboxing and bikeshedding

Timeboxing is a powerful tool in the feedback process. Timeboxing means “setting aside a fixed amount of time.” It eliminates the greatest threat to good feedback: bikeshedding. Also, it sounds cool.

Bikeshedding is the enemy of good feedback. It’s a reference to Parkinson’s Law of Triviality[1]. In short, bikeshedding is spending time discussing (usually, arguing about) minor issues. Bikeshedding saps momentum and distracts from deeper issues.

By timeboxing feedback sessions, we’ve been able to set the team’s expectations for how deep to dive. With practice, and a careful eye for bikeshedding, we can capture meaningful feedback from the whole team in 15 minutes.

Preparation

While it’s sometimes useful to ask for spontaneous and immediate feedback, it’s also important to do some preparation if you can.

Before you ask your team for feedback, make sure you give the feedback-givers time to prepare. Ask for participation from key stakeholders. Schedule feedback sessions in advance, giving everyone time to review the material. Provide context, and make sure your team knows what you expect from them.

At Planetary, we have a standard template that we use for design reviews. It helps us paste in links to the design, questions for the reviewers, and any necessary context.

Step one: check in

Empathy is like a superpower. If you understand how someone is feeling, you stand a much better chance of understanding their feedback. To give everyone a chance to understand your state of mind, check in before you gather or give feedback.

Here’s how we check in: each person, in turn, states anything that is influencing their mindset. This can be “I’m really hungry,” to “I’m distracted by an email I just got,” to “I’m excited about showing you our progress.” It’s also ok to say “no distractions.”

We usually check in popcorn-style, with each person calling out the next.

Step two: ask questions

A common roadblock in the feedback process is a lack of information. It’s tough to give good feedback if you don’t have a good handle on what you’re looking at: how did the design come to be? Why is it blue? What does ‘lorem ipsum’ mean?

It’s important for the person asking for feedback to provide context up-front[2]. But it’s also good to give the feedback-givers a chance to ask questions. This way, the team shares responsibility for gathering information. By asking questions, the team helps each other understand what’s in front of them.

Here’s how we ask questions: each person, in turn, asks as many questions as they’d like. The person requesting feedback gets a chance to respond, and then it’s on to the next person. We minimize back-and-forth, and put the kibosh on cross talk.

A note on sneaky feedback

It’s tempting to try and sneak feedback into a question. For example, “Why didn’t you use Helvetica?” instead of “Why did you choose that font?” Take a second to think through your motivation in asking it: are you interested in the answer? With practice, you can keep your questions focused on clarifying and understanding.

Step three: share reactions

Next, it’s time to gather feedback. This is where things get complicated, where empathy and transparency can make or break the process.

If you’re giving feedback, think about your feedback as a reaction. In short, a reaction is a personal response. It usually contains the words “I,” “me,” or “my.” It’s usually based on an impression or subjective interpretation. A reaction is easiest to define by way of example:

A reaction: This layout feels really cramped to me.
Not a reaction: Add more whitespace.

Focusing on subjective feedback is good because … well, almost all feedback is subjective. Even feedback that seems objective — “these two blues don’t match” — comes with some assumptions that probably weren’t discussed beforehand — that the blues are supposed to match.

Not only is objective feedback rare, it also is less valuable. Any group of people has a wealth of experience, expertise, and viewpoints. Getting subjective reactions to your work delivers much more information than if the same group made objective observations.

Thinking of feedback as a reaction also opens the door to feedback like, “I really like this.” This is a great reaction, both to give and to receive.

Step three and a half: say thank you 🙏

“Thank you for that feedback” is the best way to respond to any feedback, positive or negative. It keeps the conversation going, avoids conflict, and builds gratitude and empathy.

A note on feelings

I used to have a hard time hearing feedback based on feelings. In my previous essay on feedback, I went as far to ban the word “feels” from the feedback lexicon. This was a big mistake.

Feelings are the most easily-accessed source of feedback. A gut reaction — a very strong, immediate type of feeling — is a great thing to share[3].

Step four: capture and share feedback

While it’s the last step in the process (and the easiest), capturing and sharing feedback is crucial. Without a record, most feedback gets lost, mis-translated, or worse: ignored.

You can capture feedback in any number of ways. Record a video or phone call, write notes in a notebook or google doc, annotate an image on InVision, or run the feedback process in Slack. Capturing feedback makes it easier to recall later, even if you don’t refer to the notes later.

Sharing feedback is all about keeping expectations and understanding consistent. Keep your notes or recordings in a public place (one that your teammates have access to), and everybody benefits. This also fights the Fear Of Missing Out; If I can’t be present during a feedback session, I can always catch up later.

Conclusion: practice makes perfect

The feedback process is a design tool, like Sketch or Micron pens. The best part about the feedback process is that it is, by nature, a team activity. Anyone can take part, and everyone benefits.

Like any tool, the feedback process gets better with practice. At Planetary, we’ve been running short feedback cycles for 6 months or so, and we’re still working to improve (this article is part of that work).

Overall, shifting focus away from the language of feedback and towards the process of feedback has allowed us to be more inclusive, work faster, and design better.

I hope you adapt this process to gather your own design feedback, and share what you learn.

Special Thanks

A lot of this process was shaped by my work with friends and colleagues at The Ready, August, Median, and Parabol. Each of those companies works hard to improve the way companies work, and I’ve learned a lot from them.

Additionally, this essay benefited greatly from the feedback of Joshua, Josh, Vince, and Keni. Thanks!

[1] As with most good metaphors, this one involves a nuclear power plant.
[2] See the section on preparation.
[3] Gut reactions should be clearly communicated as such, as they are good things to revisit from time to time.