How to Give Design Feedback

Monish SubherwalImproving CollaborationLeave a Comment

There used to be an old joke in the design community: “you can always tell a junior designer from a more senior one.  When giving feedback, a junior designer nods, smiles,  thanks you…and then proceeds to the bathroom to go cry.”

Receiving feedback is a core part of being a designer and you develop “tough skin” over time.  But giving feedback is also an art.

The Delicate Balance Between Soft and Hard Feedback

As an instructor, I often have to give feedback.  I see lots of projects from students at different parts of their education and in different phases of my class.

I have to evaluate what is “good” or “bad” design and give appropriate feedback fitting the project, student skill set, and phase of their learning.

And, the truth is, it’s a delicate balancing act.

Being too soft with feedback, we lean towards being too nice and supportive.  Telling the designer the design is “OK” and “keep iterating.”  The recipient is left with little pressure –  thinking that they don’t need to worry too much and that they just need to keep moving forward.

Being too hard, we risk hurting feelings and demoralizing the person.  Telling the designer their work is “sub-par” or not acceptable.  The recipient is left with a LOT of pressure – and can shut down and not feel our feedback is useful to design iteration, but is rather a personal attack.

How much pressure?  What’s the right mindset?

Overall, we want to set HIGH expectations without demoralizing the recipient of feedback.

Indeed, whether we’re too “soft” or too “hard”, the intention is pure: we want them to keep refining their work so the product output is better.

Second, we want to empower the recipient (and especially if you are a leader your goal is to develop others).

Building self-confidence as a designer is a HUGE skill set (after all, the ultimate goal is self-reliance – for THEM to be the measure of quality and be able to evaluate themselves).

Problems with Being an “Expert”

“Expert” designers (designers with 10+ years of experience) become REALLY REALLY good at evaluating designs.  They can spot when a design is “off”.  Really great designers are able to “see” all these problems all at once (like Neo in the matrix, yes quite a nerdy reference).

They can tell you why grey isn’t a good choice for a color, or why your feature isn’t going to work.  It’s an amazing skill that comes with time and years of experience designing products.  I know this because I have met great UX directors who have evaluated my work and I have been dazzled at their insights during feedback sessions.

There are many many things to give feedback on, and expert designers can evaluate a design based on ALL these elements:

  • Design layout
  • Labels
  • Color
  • Design decisions
  • Content
  • Structure of content
  • Feature decisions
  • and much much more!

Yet, the drawback for expert designers is that it’s EASY to tear a design apart — AND the designer receiving that feedback.

It’s human nature to focus on the negative (business philosopher Jim Rohn says “negative is normal”) and just spew out problems.

However, if you quickly rattle off ALL the problems ALL at once, you really don’t make your feedback useful to the recipient.

They can end up flustered, demoralized, or unable to know what to “fix.”

Over time, they will stop coming to you for feedback at all – realizing it’s a painful negative experience that isn’t useful.

What Great Designers Do

The better designers can “SLOW DOWN” when they give their feedback.

They hold off rattling off “issues” they can spot.  Instead, they:

  1.  Hold off their reactions.
  2.  They seek to understand, before they ask to be understood.  
  3. They back their feedback up based on objectives.

I’m going to go over each of these (many of these ideas come from a book called “Discussing Design” which I highly recommend).

1. Holding Off Reactions

“I don’t like it” “It doesn’t make sense!”  “This is sh*t.”

When people react, they can react verbally or non-verbally.  Whether we like it or not, the reaction tells us something about their view of our design.

Great designers when giving feedback, hold off reactions.  When they are asked for feedback, they take some time to slow down and think.

When we react too quickly – we get judgmental and this automatically puts safety at risk.  This can cause the recipient of the feedback to get reactive and defensive themselves and even stop listening to you.

That is the opposite of what you want.

Remember, feedback isn’t about judgement, it’s about refinement.  So slow down.

2. Seeking to Understand

Once you’ve taken a few breathes, start to ASK QUESTIONS to learn more about how a designer was thinking about the design decisions.  “Why” questions become invaluable for discovering intentions.

Questions like:

  • Curious to know, why did you choose this color?
  • Why did you consider this feature over another?
  • Tell me, why did you go in their direction?

Asking questions like this helps show you CARE about the other person’s hard work.

It helps build rapport and helps set a context for reflecting and exploring the design together.  Showing you are thoughtful about another person’s perspective, is the basis of empathy (a skills set that great designers cultivate).

3. Back up Feedback based on Objectives

What is “good” or “bad” design?   Is Craiglist an example of “good” design? Craiglist is a successfully UGLY product that works well.

Design can only be “good” or “bad” based on if it meets the objectives of it’s users and the business.   

Thus, great designers can articulate WHY the design is off and back up their evaluation  based on objectives (persona, scenarios, problem statement, and/or business goals) and using design principles.

This is better than reacting quickly or being the “expert” and rattling off design problems.

Great designers ask about how the design meets the objectives.  Their feedback is centered around objectives.

They give feedback that ties into the objectives AND can ask questions to explore the design (mentioned earlier):

  • Your persona is really busy and doesn’t have much time.  Have you consider reducing the steps in the wizard?
  • The business wants to increase conversions.  Adding a form here instead of a button will make conversion happen quicker and save the user steps too.
  • The problem you are solving is related to a lack of discovery.  Your feature here is not addressing that so I’m concerned it won’t be enough.
  • I see that Nielsen’s Heuristic “Match Between Match and World” is a concern here.  The label you are using “Brand” may confuse your persona.  Maybe “Products” is a better word that users recognize.

Notice that when feedback is tied to objectives it becomes a LOT less personal.  It becomes less about one person’s taste or judgements.

This ends up building rapport with the recipient (synergy).

Leading by Example

Feedback recipients want to learn why their designs are not “good” and WANT the feedback raw and truthful.

Yet, we must also consider how we evaluate the designs.  Mastering our emotions (being non-reactive) and being willing to explore the design with the objectives in mind, keeps our conversation useful to the recipient.

Doing so, allows us to be clear and concise when we evaluate, but at the same time, not destroy a person’s self esteem or letting a person “off” too easily.  This allows us to balance being “hard” and “soft” – giving the recipient just enough pressure to refine their designs with a clearer direction.

In the long term, we end up leading by example – showing them how to evaluate design in a healthy way.

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