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Giving Better Design Feedback

In previous posts we’ve gone over how to buy design and how to sell design. Let’s take a look at how to give good feedback.

For our purposes, it’s worth noting the difference between a critique (which happens between peers or from more senior professionals, such as art directors), and feedback (which comes from clients). In other words, feedback comes from people paying a designer to solve business problems—people who may not be suitably impressed that you implemented a 16 column grid across a golden mean. (I’ll be impressed FOR them.)

How Did We Get Here?

Let’s assume the presentation went well. The design team put in a solid performance, cleaned up after themselves, and shook your hand with the appropriate amount of pressure on the way out. Hopefully someone took notes and offered to make them available to you. Those will be helpful. You should have also reached an agreement with someone in a project manager capacity about when your feedback is due.

Some design studios will also offer guidelines for giving feedback, and if they don’t they should. It’s a good client services tool.

In the aftermath, you are alone, alone with a stack of work that will affect the health of your organization, and your design team is returning to their office, with a stop at the nearest Fluevog store.

What’s in Play?

Whether or not you’ve received detailed guidelines, make sure you’re clear on which elements you’re supposed to be evaluating. Are we looking at the overall brand, the page structure, or typography? Are they comping with actual content, including photo assets, or did they take the easy way out and fill the comp with ersatz Latin and Flickr photos? (Guilty: I sometimes comp with ersatz Latin.)

It’s Not Art

First rule of design feedback: what you’re looking at is not art. It’s not even close. It’s a business tool in the making and should be looked at objectively like any other business tool you work with. The right question is not, “Do I like it?” but “Does this meet our goals?” If it’s blue, don’t ask yourself whether you like blue. Ask yourself if blue is going to help you sell sprockets. Better yet: ask your design team. You just wrote your first feedback question.

I Don’t Know Anything About Design

Who cares? Your customers probably don’t know anything about design either, and the project’s ultimate success rides on how they respond to it.

Let the design team be the design experts. Your job is to be the business expert. Ask them how their design solutions meet your business goals. If you trust your design team, and they can explain how their recommendations map to those goals, you’re fine. If you neither trust them, nor can they defend their choices it’s time to get a new design team.

Screw Feelings

I’ve had several wonderful clients who raved about the work for the duration of the project only to get to a point far along into implementation and decide the design was all wrong. God bless them. They were trying to spare my feelings. Sadly, they ended up tanking their budget and having to redo a lot of work, which meant missing their deadline as well.

Good feedback is not synonymous with positive feedback. If something isn’t working for you, tell the design team as early as possible. Will they be hurt? Not if they are professionals. A good designer will argue for their solution, and then will know when to let go. (NB: The time to let go is when it becomes clear that the solution isn’t sufficiently effective, not as soon a client expresses a negative personal opinion about it.)

By all means, be respectful, but don’t hold back in order to spare an individual’s feelings. Taking criticism is part of the job description. The sooner they know, the sooner they can explore other paths.

SIDENOTE:

Run like hell from anyone calling themselves a “creative.” Design is a profession and a craft with standards and practices. It’s not a mystical undertaking, and designers are not magical beings.

Be Direct With Your Feedback

There’s only one way to take “This work sucks.” There are many ways to take “I’m not sure this is doing it for me.” And while the former may not be good feedback, per se, it certainly leaves no question that there’s a problem that needs addressing. Perhaps you can find a less blunt way to get your displeasure across, but leave it nice and clear. Personally, I’d rather have the clarity and I can deal with the bluntness, but I’ve been told I’m an asshole.

Lead With The General

Start with your summary evaluation. “Overall, this is going in the right direction.” “Overall this sucks.” etc. Explain why, and then go into detail. The “why” is the most important piece of all.

Good vs Bad

Good feedback relates back to goals and user needs. Bad feedback is subjective and prescriptive.

For example “There’s way too much going on here and the “Add to Cart” button gets lost.” That’s excellent feedback. Relates to the goal of the page, which is to apparently sell something, and communicates a problem to be solved, which is to get rid of all the junk on the page.

Avoid personal preferences: “I hate green.” There is absolutely nothing I can do with that statement other than feel sorry for you because there are some very nice green things in the world. Like money—which you’re now wasting by giving me bad feedback.

Prescriptive feedback comes along the lines of “Move the buttons over here.” And, of course, everyone’s favorite: “Make the logo bigger!” These may, in fact, be excellent ideas, but if we talked about the problems you’re trying to solve with these prescriptive solutions we might come up with better solutions or possibly uncover a bigger problem in the overall design system.

It’s like walking into your doctors office and demanding a prescription for penicillin. Could be that’s actually what you need, but there’s no way you’re walking out of that office without the pants coming down.

And of course the worst kind of feedback…

Don’t Try This At Home

There is nothing less helpful than getting feedback in the form of a comp (whether committed in Photoshop, Powerpoint, or Word). Nothing. I mean it. We’ve been in business at Mule for almost 10 years now and this is the only thing we’ve ever fired a client over. (It happened once. The client refused to stop after being told on numerous occasions that it was counter-productive, not to mention a contract violation.)

If something isn’t working for you, point it out and go into as much detail as possible as to why it’s not working. Tie it to the goals we agreed to earlier in the project. Understanding your reasoning is critical to solving the problem. Being told to just do something a certain way, or worse, getting a comp of it done that way only means we have to reverse-engineer the whole thing and find out what you were trying to solve. Lost time. Lost budget.

Ask Questions

Not sure about something? Ask. Don’t wait until the feedback is due. Pick up the phone and ask your design team for further clarification to write your feedback.

Distill Your Feedback

“John in marketing wants to be able to log in directly on the home page, but Tim in Engineering would prefer it on its own page. Can we compromise?”

No. We cannot compromise.

If you tell your barber that you like it short, but your significant other likes it long, you’re gonna get a mullet.

Listen to your team’s feedback, weigh the plusses and minuses, and then compile a clearly written feedback document full of strong decisions. There is no way to design a solution to an internal debate. Nor should that debate be passed along for your customers to suffer through. If members of your team have varying ideas on something, iron it out. Invite your design team to join in the debate. They should be eager to as it informs their work. But reconciling feedback is important to moving the process along successfully. Again; having to sort through 10 pages of internal disagreement means lost time and lost budget.

Present Your Feedback

Just as we don’t believe good design sells itself, we also don’t believe good feedback necessarily explains itself. Set up a time to go over your feedback with your design team, in person or on the phone. Walk through it together. Use the time to go over any sticking points, get clarity, and go over any issues that anyone on your team disagrees on. Bring that person on the call as well. The goal of this meeting is to make decisions and move forward.

Solid decisions, well-communicated and well-executed are the path to success. And of course we can all agree on one thing: the logo, she is always too small.

 

Would you care to elevate the discussion?

30 thoughts on “Giving Better Design Feedback

  1. David Hoffer says:

    Putting feedback in the context of the material that’s been presented is useful. This is different from a comp in that it takes the original work done by the design team and displays comments as an overlay with arrows if necessary to clearly point out what it is that’s great or wrong. It reduces ambiguity. Rather than an email that says, “We don’t think the navigation is working.” Which navigation, as there might be several areas that contain navigation. If the comment is dropped directly on the image that’s been presented, cool. Barring that, if the area in question can be identified before feedback is provided, that also works. A good design company like Mule, will establish a nomenclature with it’s clients so there’s an established and distinct tool for communication. So it’s not just the “navigation” it’s the “Primary Navigation Bar” or the “Sidebar navigation.” Citing page numbers and annotations in a multipage document is also a great way to help convey your feedback to the design team.

  2. jeff white says:

    I really enjoyed the part about clients providing their own comp back. That’s got to be the most demoralizing, ridiculous response to any round of design you can experience.

    I actually gave a talk at a conference about this very issue and followed it up with a couple of blog posts. Yours is infinitely better organized and more concise than mine, though. I’ve added a link to it in the second part of my post.

    http://kulapartners.com/2010/05/beyond-i-dont-like-it-part-1/

  3. Matthew Kosterman says:

    I love the mullet analogy. Almost spit out my coffee.

  4. Dave Wieneke says:

    This totally fits with the formalized critique process I lived in at design school.

    1. confirm the project goal and scope of crit.

    2. set the general direction.

    3. distill recommendations as advice (not an order)

    4. let it soak in.

  5. Rob says:

    I’d love to share this post with clients. However, Mr. Cash’s big middle finger would kind start them off with the wrong message. Would you consider changing it?

  6. Jillian says:

    Really really great and helpful post that I hope will spread like wildfire to clients around the world; however, I must disagree that designers are not magical beings. I mean, but I can only speak for myself…

  7. Ty Fujimura says:

    Very nice post and helpful in creating a standard “Client orientation” to be gone through at the beginning of each project.

  8. Kyle says:

    I would just like to add that you don’t have to settle for a mullet in a lot of those kind of “arbitrary” design decisions.

    Just do some simple A/B testing and figure out what works better.

    Never underestimate the power of A/B testing. Iterations are cheap.

  9. Mike says:

    I make it a point of giving feedback in the form of a comp early in the process. It’s a surefire Rorschach test to root out designers who are going to be prima donnas down the line.

  10. Kosta says:

    I thought the same as Rob – great article to show to clients, but Johny’s finger is just too much.

  11. Fiiiiiine. By popular request, Johnny’s finger has been removed.

  12. jessica says:

    Can I please come work with you!?? If you take the worst case scenario implied in these three design articles and the two calendar articles, you have a snap shot of my day (and my team’s day), which goes well beyond dark and five days a week. I will definitely rethink my part in creating the shit storm. Thank you.

  13. darojad says:

    is good contents..tq;)

  14. josh says:

    @Mike a handful of comments above:

    You are actually selecting for compliant producer and, not only are you wasting your time coming up with comps, you are wasting an opportunity to be shown a more comprehensive solution you most probably haven’t thought of by a specialized professional. And, by definition, if you have thought of it, you don’t need a designer as Monteiro points out in his article “how to buy design”. You need a production team.

  15. josh says:

    @ Kyle:

    A/B testing is ok in house, but not to be presented to the client. It turns an “arbitrary” process into a truly arbitrary process.

    There is no arbitrary design decision. Every design move is done for many inter-related reasons based on client needs and technical parameters. In-house iterations reveal these reasons to the design team, which can then be concisely articulated to the client as one cohesive design based on one set of self-reinforcing reasons.

    Client A/B testing, on the other hand, vastly increase the chances of a de-coherent and un-integrated design down the road. Also, you invariably have to explain why some attributes of the iteration not chosen are no longer in the design.

  16. Adam says:

    I also think the advice regarding comps deserves some pushback. If clients aren’t good at talking about design, a comp seems like a potentially fine way of starting a conversation. Mike writes:

    > If something isn’t working for you, point it out and go into as much detail as possible as to why it’s not working. Tie it to the goals we agreed to earlier in the project. Understanding your reasoning is critical to solving the problem. Being told to just do something a certain way, or worse, getting a comp of it done that way only means we have to reverse-engineer the whole thing and find out what you were trying to solve.

    Why can’t a comp be a way of pointing out what’s not working? Yes, obviously if the client is insisting that something be done one way only, then the entire design exercise is probably a waste of time. But it’s hard to sympathize with the problem of having to “reverse-engineer the whole thing.” You have to do that with any client feedback. It’s not clear why a comp is any different, and it certainly has the advantage of being a very unambiguous piece of feedback.

  17. Aaron says:

    Fully agree with Adam above.

    As a designer who’s work has been chopped up and spliced back together by clients via PowerPoint, I understand what the feeling is like to receive that “comp” as “feedback”.

    However, the worst part of that occurrence isn’t the fact that they hurt my feelings by chopping up my work “fixing” it, it’s the lack of supporting commentary that truly sucks.

    It’s possible to receive a comp as part of terrible feedback, but it’s also possible to receive a comp as part of the best feedback imaginable. The key word is PART; there must be accompanying commentary like “We had a problem with THIS navigation group because THIS OTHER navigation group should have more weight.”

    Other than that, COMPLETELY agree with your Prescriptive “advice” comments, this is something I’ve been preaching at my firm for years now. Tell me the problem you’d like me to solve, not your proposed answer to your mysterious problem. Excellent doctor analogy, too.

    Oh, and to me there is no real difference between “This work sucks” and “I’m not sure this is doing it for me”. One is more rude, but both are equally non-constructive for reasons you outline in this article.

  18. Noumenon says:

    I don’t know what “comp” means but there are a lot of things I simply can’t communicate without actually taking Photoshop and drawing arrows on things and moving them around. It’s always clear I don’t expect it to be the final version because I leave it so unfinished.

  19. “(Guilty: I sometimes comp with ersatz Latin.)”

    Heh Heh… Me too. Been there, done that. Lorem ipsum can be a rather clear reminder to the client that they haven’t provided any actual content … but no, not my preference either.

    And many many times I have asked, “what are you trying to accomplish here?” So spot on here. Nothing is quite as frustrating to hear from a boss or client than, “I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when you show it to me.” Not horrible if you’re salaried and it’s the boss, but a nightmare when its your client and you’re billing hourly.

    Oh GOD… SO HEAR YOU… getting your Photoshop, HTML or InDesign work fed back to you sliced and diced into a monstrosity of bad design and worse taste – “My partners son (14 yrs old!) has a computer and some great ideas!” – in powerpoint or word, replete with embedded graphics filched off of Google images, or their COMPETITORS website and usually with NO useful analytical commentary… makes for one of those days where I look at the attraction of driving a school bus for a living.

    Great post. Reminds me to guide my clients into giving useful feedback.

  20. noname says:

    Can anybody explain what “comp” means?

  21. Anonymous says:

    Comp means ‘Composition’, as far as I can tell.

  22. Anonymous says:

    marketing, please tell us ‘what’ you need a solution for, and we’ll come up with ‘how’ to design it. Don’t come to us with expectations already in your mind about what colors and fonts we’ll use. And by all means, please don’t say ‘I need to see it first’ EVER!

  23. Matt says:

    Wow. Now, I need to go back to find the other two articles. This one could be easily adapted to the “creative” side of my photography business. Great concepts.

  24. advisor says:

    Hey– this is a really entertaining and useful article. Will share it with friends. I’m in the process of building a design critique community at http://www.DesignAdvisor.com and found some of your insights rather key.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Your site tells it, like Danielle Tosh. To the point. Great site.

  26. badman says:

    @noname: “Comp” refers to “comprehensive” layout (as opposed to a rough layout).

    It is a term carried over from the old school days (pre-computer design) when art directors/designers could either do a quick pencil or marker rendering of a concept for the client, or if they wanted to spend more time (and budget)they could refine the concept even further by incorporating more detailed marker illustrations or actual photographs along with hand-rendering headlines/subheads/logos to suggest actual type fonts, etc.

  27. Topher says:

    “Avoid personal preferences: “I hate green.” There is absolutely nothing I can do with that statement other than feel sorry for you because there are some very nice green things in the world. Like money—which you’re now wasting by giving me bad feedback.”

    I can see Alec Baldwin saying that in a David Mamet play. Brilliant.

  28. Topher says:

    “Avoid personal preferences: “I hate green.” There is absolutely nothing I can do with that statement other than feel sorry for you because there are some very nice green things in the world. Like money—which you’re now wasting by giving me bad feedback.”

    I can see Alec Baldwin saying that in a David Mamet play. Brilliant.

  29. Taghkanic says:

    From the design side, the two biggest headaches IMHO are:

    • Clients who are unsure of what they want;

    • Clients who expect you to underwrite their uncertainty.

    In other words: “I just changed my mind three times, gave conflicting instructions, and asked for twice the features agreed to, but I don’t want to pay a dime more or extend the deadline one day.”

    This puts the designer in the position of having to find a way to point out (or manage) the behavior and the terms of the contract which doesn’t enrage the client.

    Great contracts and clear communication are supposed to be the answers, but don’t guarantee that these issues won’t crop up.

  30. Anonymous says:

    re. the font comment a couple msgs above, after displaying a logo treatment using several different fonts, the feedback was “nah, not the one, I’ll know it when I see it”. Really? You want me to come up with several thousand versions for each font in my collection? I promptly asked him to send me the font he wants. Yeah this is the same client so aptly illustrated in The Oatmeal. In case you haven’t seen it http://theoatmeal.com/comics/design_hell

    great article btw, I sent it to our design team and PM, hopefully some of the wisdom will reach the ears of a client down the road..


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