Being a design client is hard work. It’s hard because design is hard, and by hiring a design partner, you’ve signed up to be equal partners in the process. We can’t do it without you. We need you—and not just to process the invoice at the end (thank you in advance).
As a client, the most valuable contribution you can make to the design process is giving feedback. Good feedback. Feedback given for the right reasons in the right way. Your feedback will be one of the deciding factors of whether or not our work together is successful.
How can something so simple be so powerful? Easy! Giving good design feedback isn’t simple. At all.
Giving design feedback can be daunting. No one teaches non-designers how to give design feedback. Honestly, a lot of designers never learn either. (Don’t work with designers who can’t give or take feedback.)
You may feel like to give design feedback you have to learn to talk like a designer. Good news! Your designers have got the designing covered. What they need is your expertise in your field: if the design is communicating the right information; if it’s botching an industry best practice or regurgitating an industry cliché; and most importantly, if it will meet the goals of your users and your business.
Let your designer be the design expert you hired. Focusing on what unique insight you have is much more valuable.
Feedback, Huh, What Is It Good For?
Feedback Moves Design Forward
Feedback is a tool for making decisions about how to solve the problem at hand. It moves a project toward its goal. It lets your designer know whether the work they’ve shown you is fulfilling its purpose or not. An agreed upon definition of success for the project is essential to giving good feedback.
Decide How to Decide
While you need to agree on the project’s success metrics, you’re not always going to see eye-to-eye with your designer or colleagues. A good designer will push back if you advocate something that will impede the success of the project.
Feedback isn’t a marching order. Feedback is a dialogue that sometimes turns into a debate and, every so often, a brawl. But since that brawl is hopefully metaphorical, there will come a time when you have to decide which way to move forward.
Feedback is a tool for making decisions about how to solve the problem at hand.
You and your designer should both respect each other’s areas of expertise and know when the other is best suited to make a call. When the disagreements are internal, your team should know in advance how they will be resolved. But you may still run into deadlock and won’t be able to please everyone. Someone close to the project needs to be empowered to drive the project forward regardless. Everyone involved needs to know who that person is before the trip begins.
The Right Tool for the Job
Like any tool, feedback can’t do the hard work for you. What good feedback does is provide information you and your designer can use to identify what’s working about the design and what needs to change.
Positive Feedback: Building on Strengths
Good feedback is not the same as positive feedback. Positive feedback works when the design is doing what it’s supposed to. It helps identify the design’s strengths so you can decide to play them up, decide what to preserve as you revise everything else, or decide it’s time to move to the next step of the project.
Negative Feedback: Closing Gaps
Negative feedback can still be good feedback when given well and for the right reasons. At Mule, we value constructive negative feedback much more highly than praise because we want to get the job done well. We can feel good about ourselves later. Negative feedback—when done right and not just to let the poison out—identifies where the design is falling short of its purpose. If the goal of the project is to drive donations and your designer hasn’t built a pathway for giving, don’t tell them you like the colors they picked.
To make sure your feedback—positive or negative—helps get you to a successful design, make sure it meets the following guidelines.
The Good, the Bad, and the Worst Feedback
Subjective vs. Goal-oriented
❌ Subjective: I Don’t Like This
Whether you “like” something or not is not feedback. Although your personal taste is impeccable, I’m sure, design decisions should be made based on the goals of the project, not the personal preferences of decision makers. You may hate the color green, your boss might love it. What color do you make the “Pay Now” button on your site? Whatever color is on-brand and effective at getting people to pay you.
Most often, subjective feedback is used as a vehicle for swerving through internal political minefields. Changes are proposed not because they will help the design reach its goal, but to avoid uncomfortable conversations with key stakeholders. What does it matter if “The folks in marketing aren’t going to like this,” if it’s the right thing to do?
Design decisions should be made based on the goals of the project, not the personal preferences of decision makers.
There comes a point in every project when everyone involved has to pause and ask, “Is it more important that I get my way/get out of a confrontation or that I get a good design?” You may ask, “Can’t I have both?” I’ve asked myself the same thing about cake and a beach body, and the answer is the same. (You decide whether good design is cake or the beach body in this analogy.)
✔ Goal-Oriented: This Meets Its Goal
Orienting your feedback around the project’s goals will keep the review cycle from becoming about personal tastes.
Projects balance multiple goals—establishing a new brand, driving sales, educating their audience. Each piece of the design has its own goals in support of the project’s. Aesthetic decisions like color and imagery should convey brand attributes. A good form drives conversions by making it easy for users to complete the desired action. Type makes information appealing and comfortable to read.
These goals matter much more than which typeface the designer has used or whether a slightly different sans-serif would be better. (While cake vs. beach body is an important decision, most design hours are burned arguing over cake vs. cake with slightly different icing.)
No matter what you’re giving feedback on, structure your comments on how well the work does what it’s supposed to. Focusing your feedback on function will ensure any changes you and your designer decide to make move you toward a successful design.
Prescriptive vs. Evaluative
❌ Prescriptive: Make This Change
Good feedback describes what’s working or not. It doesn’t prescribe a solution. When you notice a problem, your brain naturally wants to fix it, but that’s why you hired a designer. If you want to get your money’s worth, let them solve the problem.
Feedback is an informational tool for making decisions. Prescriptive feedback jumps to a conclusion, potentially overlooking even better solutions you and your designer could craft together.
Exempted, of course, from bans on prescriptive feedback are typos, using the wrong logo, and anything else that could be categorized as an oopsie-daisy. We’re trying to come up with the best solution as efficiently as possible. Not sugarcoat simple mistakes.
✔ Evaluative: Solve This Problem
Evaluative feedback is more descriptive. It doesn’t assume a suggestion before you and your designer have a chance to combine your respective expertise. Provide evaluative feedback by articulating what you see in the design and your assessment of how well it’s working.
Where prescriptive feedback is a command, evaluative feedback is more open and can even be a question. Asking questions is a great technique for giving the best feedback possible by making sure you have all the information you need. Ask your designer questions to ensure your understanding of the design is accurate. If you see a problem, ask how they will account for it.
Getting more of your designer’s thinking may also change your evaluation of the design, and if not, the dialogue started by your question will make participants more receptive to negative feedback. By giving direct, evaluative feedback, you just gave your designer enough information to come up with a new solution. (If you haven’t, a good designer will let you know.)
Vague vs. Specific
❌ Vague: Something’s Off
Vague feedback leaves important information unsaid. “Make it pop,” is not nearly as useful as, “Treating the call-to-action the same as the other text on the page causes it to get lost.” In the latter, the problem (and solution) are clear. The former could get you a web page littered with animated GIFs in the next round.
Your designer can only propose a fix if they’re clear on what’s broken.
Even everyone’s favorite feedback technique, the Shit Sandwich (sneaking a piece of negative feedback in between two pieces of, usually insincere, positive feedback), can obscure the information your designer needs. People hear what they want to hear, and if your designer is starved for affirmation, they’ll only hear the bread. It’s better to be direct. Don’t make people eat a shit sandwich.
✔ Specific: This Works Well (for Reasons!)
To ensure your feedback is accurately reflected in the design, you’ll have to be specific. If something isn’t working, articulate what and why. Your designer can only propose a fix if they’re clear on what’s broken.
Specificity will surface assumptions, misunderstandings, missing information and other silent roadblocks to success. Being specific with your feedback establishes a shared understanding of the design and any changes that need to be made to it.
Unaddressable vs. Addressable
❌ Unaddressable: Wouldn’t It Be Nice
“We would like the whole page to fit ‘above the fold’ while still feeling uncluttered and readable.”
Feedback is a tool for getting shit done; it’s not tossing a coin into a wishing well. If your feedback requires a spontaneous change in your users’ behavior or how the internet works, it is unaddressable and best let go . Unaddressable feedback can derail reviews and sometimes the whole project.
My English bulldog still chases his tail despite the fact that his tail is an inch long and he’s shaped like a bean bag chair. Be smarter than my bulldog. Focus your energy and feedback on things you can change.
Contradictory feedback is also unaddressable. If you and a teammate contradict each other—if you disagree about whether something is working—or the nature of the change that needs to be made—it is up to you to resolve that before the designer can address it.
And don’t think you can solve the disagreement by comping up both sides. Splitting the design into two parallel tracks won’t move you any closer to your goal. It will only drive decision makers’ thinking further apart, burning design hours as fuel. Your designer can make recommendations, but you can’t design your way out of an argument.
✔ Addressable: We Can Do This
For feedback to be useful, it needs to be addressable within the scope of the project and laws of physics. Now, you may not know whether something is achievable or not until you bring it up with your designer, so err on the side of more feedback than less.
As a rule of thumb, ask yourself first, “Do I expect my designer to do something with this feedback or am I just venting.”
Poorly Timed vs. Timely
❌ Poorly-timed: Let’s Go Back to the Beginning
Feedback is not always better late than never. Delays in feedback mean delays in work. Delays in work mean increases in cost. The later feedback, the more disproportionate the havoc it wreaks and the more it costs you.
If you miss a feedback deadline by a couple days, you might be able to make it up later in the project with a little luck and extra work—and did I mention increased cost? But if you sit on feedback from the beginning of the project until the week before launch, you better cancel the balloon drop.
Taking longer in providing feedback can be worth the time if it allows you to resolve any internal disagreements and provide consolidated feedback from your team. Feedback that rolls in a little bit at a time makes it harder to revise designs systematically.
But if you’re going to be late, let your designer know! Ghosting on your design partners makes it hard for them to adjust the remaining project schedule. If you pop back up later, you may find another project has their attention, and your delay in revisions snowballs.
✔ Timely: While We’re On the Subject
For feedback to be addressable, it needs to be given at the right time. At each phase of the project, your feedback will serve a different purpose: to define a scope of work, to identify any gaps in your new app’s user experience, to pick a visual concept for your new website, to approve your brand’s new logo.
Stakeholders should be brought in at the right time so they can give the feedback they need to give. Ideally, people are invited to give feedback when their expertise is most helpful. Designing a donation flow? Get your fundraising team on the call! If someone has the power to blow your project up at the end, best get their input early—when you feel confident in the direction of the design but before you hang the launch party balloon drop.
If someone has the power to blow your project up at the end, best get their input early
A good designer will tell you what type of feedback they are looking for. And if you’re still not sure when the right time to give feedback is, ask! They should also tell you when they need your final input by. Timely feedback keeps the project on track and ensures decision-makers have all the necessary information fresh in their minds.
Bonus: the Absolute Worst Feedback You Can Give
“Be more creative!”
You may think you’re giving your designer license to do what they love—flexing their ✨creativity✨—but studies show that being told to be creative makes people less creative.
Instead of telling your designer to be creative, consider what you’re using that word as a stand-in for. Do you mean “trendier,” “less like our competitors,” “more interactive?” Or are you thinking of creativity as a secret sauce that can be sprinkled on a design to make it more appealing?
The real secret sauce of design is a secret no longer. It’s your feedback, with the goals of the work as its base. Now go enjoy the sweet taste of success on your next design project!