Feedback helps you move forward / by Gavin Lau

The past Friday I participated in a very nice design feedback meeting and decided to write a few words that could be useful to people who are or will be participating in such events.

There are many types of communication we experience daily. But few are as important as giving and receiving feedback.

Feedback is essential for us as humans to be able to change. It is equally essential for our creative process. It helps us surpass our limitations, move forward and create better quality products.

Sometimes, people will refrain from giving constructive feedback in order to avoid potential conflict. Other times the delivery sucks and the receiver of the feedback does not get the point. This leads to damaged relationships and bad design decisions.

Good ways to deliver feedback

As the person giving feedback make sure to increase your empathy to its maximum before you open your mouth. Make sure you understand correctly the presented problem/solution. Understand what decisions were made and why.

Frequently, the design feedback presentation is not enough or the presenter simply lacks experience. This automatically puts the feedback session in a bad direction.

As a person delivering the feedback, we can help compensate. Ask questions that will help you and the rest of the listeners understand the thought behind the design decisions.

“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”
– Buddha

Only after you feel you’re understanding the presented problem/solution, you can start shooting your “wise” words.

Remember we are all people who by default make mistakes. Giving and receiving feedback is the way to correct them.

Specificity and focus

Telling someone that he/she can do better without specifying how, is equal to slapping them and telling them they’ve failed.

If the design is totally off the business goals or is violating well-established design patterns, don’t react like “OMG this is shit!”. It is called Critical, not Destructive Feedback for a reason.

Clarify the points that are not working and say why it is not working the way it is now. Suggest potential ways to fix the specific problems. Good feedback is very specific and not vague! It provides clear and actionable information.

Stuff like “You know, I just don’t like circles and pink is not my favorite color.” is a big NO! If you have such feedback in your head, keep it there until it evolves into something more specific and actionable.

Positive frame

Constructive and critical feedback is hard to deliver especially in a positive light. It is not as simple as forcing a smile on your face because that might seem like you’re making fun of the person’s failure. Or you are a person who likes causing pain to others. :)

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”
– Bill Gates

To put myself in a positive frame I like to think of the people involved in the feedback session as family members. Each of them imperfect as myself. We’ve gathered to help each other and elevate our work.

This helps me get into a more supportive state of mind and not let the critical mindset dominate me.

For example, instead of saying “You’ve failed to communicate the purpose of the screen and that will lead to reduction in the conversion rate” you can say “The purpose of the screen is not that clear as it is now but I am sure if we do a 15 min. brainstorm session we can resolve that issue quickly.”

Remember, all of the people in that meeting were hired to make the product/service better. The goal is one and we need to move as one unit supporting each other.

Having a positive frame in the feedback sessions creates stronger bonds between the people and predisposes people to be more open for future feedback meetings.

Amount of feedback

Delivering the right amount of feedback is an art of its own. People are different, which means they handle feedback differently. The aim is to give enough feedback so it can be digested and used to improve the design work.

Defining the right amount is a very subjective task. It becomes easier when you get to know the person you’re about to give feedback to. The more feedback sessions you make with the design team the easier it will become to adjust the right amount of feedback.

Giving too much feedback could seem a bit too aggressive and could lead to offending the receiver. Or simply overloading him with too many things at once. Digesting too much food (for thought) can be quite demanding.

Personal feedback

Sometimes, you might want(have) to deliver personal constructive feedback. It is better to wait and deliver that type of feedback in person and on neutral ground(not on your own turf). Avoid giving personal feedback publicly. An exception could be a “High Five” type of positive feedback, then you might want to make it publicly.

Receiving feedback

Receiving and asking for feedback is equally important as delivering one. As the one asking for design feedback make sure you are well prepared.

Prepare in advance a short presentation to communicate clearly what you want feedback on. Present the problem/solution explain the key points and the thought process behind them. Consider having a time slot for Q/A.

Prepare mentally to receive all feedback without defending

Prepare mentally to receive all feedback without defending

When the feedback starts darkening the sky like a rain of arrows falling above your head, don’t raise the shield. Take them head on and trust the people in the room not to hit any vital points. Be brave, you will get out of it stronger and better.

“Examine what is said and not who speaks.”
– African proverb

Take notes! Get an old fashioned pen and write the valuable feedback. Also, put a name if you think you will need to talk to the person again for more clarification after the meeting.

Note on why writing the ideas down is good. It helps the brain absorb the new information better since it gives additional tactile information contributing to the memory formation.

Final thoughts

Great feedback is a two-way communication. Engaging in active dialogue is always a good idea.

Strive to deliver and receive feedback in person when possible. Especially when the feedback is critical and important it is good to deliver it face-to-face.

As Designers, we should aim to deliver and ask for feedback as soon as possible. It speeds up the process of improving our designs.