Designing for Better Feedback

If you’re not getting the feedback you need, you’re probably asking for it wrong.

Designers, I have some feedback for you. You are great at making things. You could make things all day. Love making things with love. With practice, some of you even get great at presenting things. But when it’s time to get feedback on your designs, most of you need to step up your game.

Getting good feedback is essential to making good design. It’s how you measure your design against its stated goals to identify strengths to build on and gaps to fill. At a more fundamental level, feedback is how you validate if you’ve designed the right thing.

Good feedback is:

  • Tied to clearly defined project goals, not subjective tastes
  • Evaluative, not prescriptive
  • Specific, not vague
  • Addressable within project constraints, not better addressed by a genie than a designer

Not all good feedback is positive feedback. Feedback isn’t good or bad because of how it makes you feel. The value of feedback is measured in how much (or little) it helps our design successfully meet its goal. Negative feedback, even when it stings, is invaluable in figuring out how to improve our designs. There’s a difference between bad feedback and feedback you don’t want to hear.

Getting good feedback is essential to making good design.

Now I can hear your defense, and settle down. I agree with you. Not all the feedback we get from coworkers, bosses, and clients is good feedback. Back seat design direction, making product decision based on personal preferences, being told to “jazz something up…” All bad feedback.

So what do you do when you want to do better work, but you’re not getting the feedback you need to get you there? Change the way you ask for it.

When bad feedback happens to good designers.

Most bad feedback isn’t given out of stupidity or malice. (As a rule of thumb, avoid working with spiteful idiots.) Most people, especially clients, give bad feedback because no one has ever told them what good feedback looks like—or worse, they’ve been trained to give feedback by bad designers.

Client feedback can be a particularly sore spot for designers. Clients bring many wonderful contributions to the design process, but not many bring extensive experience in being a design client.

Unfortunately, some designers use client inexpertise as an excuse to condescend to them, dismiss any feedback that isn’t immediately gratifying to the designer’s ego, and shame the client out of giving future feedback. That’s a damn shame because most clients make up for what they lack in experience providing design feedback with a desire to see their project succeed. By not welcoming and guiding client feedback, you are shooting yourself in the foot by depriving yourself of potentially useful feedback and by making the client relationship an adversarial one.

Set the stage.

As a designer, it’s your job to tell your client what good feedback looks like and guide them through giving it to you. Before you ask for feedback, make sure whoever you’re asking understands what it is you’re showing them and how their feedback will move the project forward. Tell them how much feedback you need and whether or not they’ll have another opportunity to provide feedback. Is this an early gut check or is it a “or forever hold your peace” situation?

If this sounds like too much to do in an email, you’re right! Don’t email deliverables to clients with a few paragraphs of text and expect a revelatory reply. Your design won’t sell itself—in fact, you probably designed it to sell something else (a product, a service, a cause), so you’re going to have to convince the client of the rightness of your design on your own. That job is far too important for an email, which clients will usually skip over in favor of going straight to the deliverable, which, again: Won’t. Sell. Itself.

Feedback isn’t good or bad because of how it makes you feel.

Walk clients through designs, preferably in person or at least over Hangout—at least the first few times they see them. As you do, tell them what they should pay attention to. Don’t give them a real estate tour, but instead tell a (true, ripped from the headlines) story about how your design does the thing it’s supposed to.

One of the worst ways designers sabotage the feedback they get is by talking to clients like they are also designers. Designers spout esoteric typography and color theory terminology like spells for deflecting client critique. Then they get frustrated when the client’s comments are focused around type and color.

Presenting design based on what it does instead of how it looks encourages your client to frame their feedback around the project goals and leaves less of an opening for less helpful backseat typesetting.

Ask and you shall receive.

Explaining what good feedback looks like and clearly tying design decisions back to the project’s goal are great first steps, but you’ve got more work to do before getting the feedback you need. You’ve guided the feedback provider this far, don’t leave them hanging now that it’s time to actually provide the feedback.

You may present your design perfectly, but if you end with, “what are your thoughts?” you’ve undermined all that work. You should know what you need feedback on, so why ask an open-ended question that could take you on a counterproductive tangent?

Facilitate client feedback with specific questions. If you are presenting a visual concept, ask how well it conveys the client’s brand. If you are designing a transactional flow, ask if it captures the information necessary to complete the transaction. Guide the client’s feedback through the lenses of the project goals and their domain expertise. And if you don’t want or need the client’s feedback on something, for the love of God, don’t bring it up.

Presenting design based on what it does instead of how it looks encourages your client to frame their feedback around the project goals.

Set parameters for feedback that include what is most helpful to discuss in the moment, what has already been decided and doesn’t need to be rehashed, what you can discuss later in the project, and when clients need to get you final, consolidated feedback by (if it’s not the end of the conversation).

If the client does need to consolidate feedback offline, give them written guidelines for good feedback they can refer to—don’t make them remember that shit! And summarize any conversations that were left open from the presentation and provide follow-up questions that will help them guide the conversation happening without you in the room or on the phone. And don’t forget the deadline for getting back to you!

Feedback is a dialogue.

Don’t stop asking questions once you start getting feedback. Often times, what’s said is just the tip of the iceberg floating in the back of people’s brain. Don’t let it sink you later. Think of how many rounds of revisions you could spare yourself over the course of your design career if you’d just clarify that one piece of feedback upfront.

Ask people to elaborate on their feedback—positive and negative—in a way that encourages them to be evaluative rather than prescriptive. If they say the design isn’t working, ask them what’s not doing its job not how they would fix it.

Follow-up questions are also where you can set boundaries with folks who offer prescriptive feedback anyway. If someone tells you to change a color or move a box, don’t just do it! Instead ask what they hope to achieve with that specific change. How will their prescriptive feedback help the design perform better? How does it benefit the user?

Sometimes prescriptive feedback is also correct, but by holding it at arm’s length and evaluating it against our criteria for the project, we help keep people providing feedback in the right mindset, stay open to the possibility of coming up with a better solution by fully understanding the request, and maintain our equal standing with the feedback giver in making decisions about the project.

Remember: people hire us because we have expertise they need to solve their problems. If someone thinks they have a solution, you’re not signing up to be a designer, you’re a paid set of hands.

In a healthy designer/client relationship, you’re working together to solve the problem at hand with your combined expertise. The client isn’t your boss, and feedback isn’t a marching order.

Getting good at getting feedback will not only improve your work, it will also improve the experience of working with you.

This is not to protect your ego as the designer but to ensure the success of the project, which benefits the client. Sometimes clients want things that will be bad for the health of the project. They’ll push you to make things prettier at the risk of making them less usable. They’ll want you to add or remove things from the design to avoid political conversations inside the organization that don’t matter to the user.

Explain this to clients early so you don’t sound combative when you need to push back on feedback later. And when someone suggests that wrong thing, you should push back. Argue why the design is doing it’s job as-is or present a better solution if, in asking for a wrong thing, the client has identified a real problem.

If you have laid the foundation of a strong partnership with your client and demonstrated an ability to accept and work with feedback earlier in the project, these conversations will go much smoother. They’ll still be tough as hell, but they will be less entrenched in ego, meaning they’ll have more than a snowball’s chance of being productive.

You’ve got to mean it.

For any of this to work, the person you’re asking for feedback needs to know—and believe—that they can answer your questions honestly. If you’re lucky, you’re working with really nice people, but sometimes wanting to be really nice can cause folks to withhold feedback they fear will hurt your feelings.

Again, it’s up to you to get the feedback you need, and sometimes that means getting feedback on where the design is falling short. Invite that negative feedback specifically. At Mule, we often start presentations for feedback with something like:

“You are bound to see things that are not quite there yet or flat out wrong. That’s a normal part of the design process. Please tell us when you see them. You won’t hurt our feelings; we’ll be grateful for the opportunity to fix them.”

When someone inevitably finds something you missed, makes a suggestion that would improve the work, or asks a question that stumps you, thank them.

The deliverables we design are not children, limbs, or art. Negative feedback on them — when it meets our criteria of good feedback — is not an attack on us personally, and it doesn’t mean we haven’t done our job well. And though they receive so much of their designers’ love, deliverables are not what clients and bosses hire us for. People hire designers to solve problems.

When someone inevitably finds something you missed, makes a suggestion that would improve the work, or asks a question that stumps you, thank them. They have given you feedback that will take your design to the next level. By responding to it positively and not defensively, you have ensured the client feels heard and welcome to give you whatever future project-saving feedback they come up with down the line.

Getting good at getting feedback will not only improve your work, it will also improve the experience of working with you. And it only gets better from there.