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How to give feedback (without destroying someone’s soul)

Hi. You’re reading part two. Here’s part one.

The opportunity to give feedback to others is both an important task and a compliment. The person seeking feedback respects your opinion and wants your contribution. It can be fun and rewarding; what you say could change how they perceive their design and how they choose to evolve their idea.

Giving feedback is also a responsibility on your part. You need to curate your thoughts to maximise its effectiveness. It’s easy for tempers to flare. Follow these tips.

Your sentiment

  1. Be honest. There’s nothing worse than a back-patting, yes-man who says “everything looks great”. Sucking-up or pity-feedback doesn’t help anybody. Any respectable designer asks for feedback because they know they don’t know everything— they’re incapable of knowing everything. They want their idea to be better. People don’t grow from blind applause; they grow from accurate positive and negative reinforcement. (If you don’t think you can be honest for whatever reason you can kindly decline to comment. That’s OK.)

  2. It’s not about you, it’s about the product— the design. That’s our purpose. That’s our bearing. We designers are selfless servants to the user. If your feedback isn’t sincere, then the product won’t be the best it can be, flaws will be overlooked and unchecked, and the users—your users—will be let down. The only shoes you should be walking in are the end-users’ of the design.

    OK, that was the empowering bit. Now to knock you down a few:

  3. What you think isn’t always correct. We’re happy to admit that when we were younger, we were completely naïve and inexperienced. We think we’ve grown out of it. We never will. “The more I know, the more I realise I don’t know.”

    Let them finish explaining their idea. Be patient and take time to understand their motivations for decisions. Whilst it’s important to be honest, appreciate you could be wrong. Start sentences with “I think…”. Snap judgements and conclusions often stunt the feedback and shut down meaningful conversation. In the Steve Jobs book, Jonny Ive hid his team’s youngest ideas from Steve: “While ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.”

    If you go a million miles an hour you make them feel obsolete and unworthy; and that’s the last thing you want to do when giving feedback.

  4. This isn’t an opportunity to feel superior. It’s not a time to compare and undermine skills, or stroke your own ego. It’s not about demonstrating that you’re better and wiser. You’re providing opinions that will shape this person. Be nurturing. They should walk out feeling empowered and motivated to make their work better.

  5. Be a source of inspiration. You’re in an incredibly influential position when giving feedback. It’s an opportunity for others to learn something off you. Take some time, walk them through your thought process and guide them with just enough information to realise an answer themselves— Inceptionise them. Let them own it and develop it.

  6. Be ready to say “Oh I see, I get it now. Good stuff!”. Don’t feel the need to assert your change on their design. It’s not about leaving fingerprints behind and pointing at it later. That’s not the point of this exercise. It’s about making a better product together.

How to give it: “The Hamburger Technique”

The Hamburger is very effective at preparing our minds and tone for our feedback. Your average hamburger has good bits and less-good bits*. It has a tasty meat pattie, soggy lettuce, amazing swiss cheese, bitter pickles, fresh onions, overripe tomatoes, delicious ketchup, but dry, crumbly bread.

I’d still eat it. Similarly, if feedback was given in a layered order of positive and negative points, by the time you reach the end, emotions have balanced out. It makes absorbing it easier. We all like to think we’re perfectly rational human beings— but, come on, that’s delusion. This is a way to be both considerate and effective. And just like in part one, if you can’t think of anything positive to say, start with “I understand where you’re coming from…” and try to finish it— you’ll end up empathising.

(* Except Australian burgers, which are perfectly designed and incredibly delicious in every way. Beetroot, guys.)

Start with the big picture

It’s easy to focus on what you can see, but good design is purposeful. When someone asks you for feedback, start with questioning whether the design has solved the problem.

Ask the design creator to give an explanation. Context-setting: the objectives of design, who the main audience will be, and how this design will achieve those objectives. Only once we know this can we think as the user.

Users are goal-oriented. I like to imagine they’re anxious, under deadline, and short-tempered. They don’t give a shit about your sign up screen, your elaborate copy, or your business compromises— they want to get in, achieve their goal, feel satisfaction from it, and go home to their wife (or mistress.) Everything else is bullshit— and they don’t care.

Does the design achieve those goals? Will the design make them frustrated, confused, or apathetic? Do they need to make an effortful choice? Is there distraction? How many steps does it take to achieve the goal? Six? SIX?!— will an angry, anxious man who just wants to do his job care for SIX steps? You better believe NOT!

That line of exaggerated imagination will shape feedback to focus on the purpose. It’ll make sure that when looking at the design, every element is questioned— each should only exist to achieve the goal.

Thanks for reading.

Further reading

Other unorganised thoughts

  • If you work on product, not everything can be fixed RIGHT NOW. Think about your feedback in the entire lifetime of the product’s existence. Things won’t be perfect, but they’ll ship, their effectiveness will be tested, and then they’ll be iterated. We will be there to try again.

  • Designers make decisions for a reason— right? Try asking for their thinking behind their work.

Shameless self-promotion

Speaking of feedback, Red Pen just released a pro service that makes getting feedback faster. A Mac app that integrates with Photoshop, infinite archives, project tagging, and more security. Check it out.

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