The art of receiving and giving design feedback

David de Léon

We all know that one of the most effective means of improving the quality of our interaction design work is through qualified feedback. Design critique, is unanimously recognized as an effective thing to do, but the skills needed are seldom taught or practiced. In this essay I will provide some real world advice for how to elicit, receive, give and make proper use of design feedback.

When designing or crafting something there usually comes a point when you stop being smart, where you go over the same things again and again, or get stuck polishing some small detail, without making any forward progress. It is at this point that you need to go and get yourself some outside perspective. In my experience, 15 minutes of feedback from a trusted colleague provides as much forward progress, or more, than an afternoon of single-minded solo work.

Eliciting and receiving feedback

One way to get good feedback is to get better at receiving it. Being open to receiving feedback makes people more willing to give it to you. Don’t wait for feedback, but ask for it. Ask for it early and ask for it often. By postponing feedback you risk wasting time and effort going in the wrong direction.

Unless you are in a place where people are practised at giving feedback you need to take control of the feedback session, set the scene and clearly communicate the parameters of the feedback that you wish to receive:

  • Establish early on that you want honest feedback, and that the most helpful thing that they can do is to not hold anything back. You don’t need the person giving you feedback to be nice; you need your design to get better. Your attitude and body language needs to be congruous with these statements. Staying relaxed, being friendly, and showing interest in the critique that you receive helps signal that the person giving you feedback is doing the right thing.
  • Make it clear what you would like them to focus on, where you are in the design process, what your design goals are, and what you need help with. Think of it as a game and that you are explaining the rules before you both play. When explaining what it is that you need them to do, watch out so that you are not over-explaining in an attempt to pre-empt critique that you feel you might otherwise get.
  • Start by listening, and always listen more than you speak. Ask clarifying questions. Make it your goal for the session to maximize the amount of information that you collect.
  • Try assuming the attitude that everything you are told might be useful in some way. A technique you might like to try is to automatically respond to any feedback in a positive manner. Giving an affirming response, before you have evaluated the implications of a piece of feedback, pushes you to be more attentive and open.
  • When you receive positive or negative value judgments, but no rationale or suggestion how to proceed, ask for clarification. “It’s crap, you say. In what ways is it crap?”. “You like this one better? What makes you like it better?”
  • Don’t overly defend your design. Practice simply accepting criticisms, especially criticism that is already know to you, or for which you already have solutions. Fight your desire to look good and to seem smart.
  • Write down any feedback that you receive. This communicates that you value the input that you are getting, and it also counteracts our natural tendency to forget things that are uncomfortable. Having a written record of the feedback allows you to return to it later and it allows you to get back to your colleagues to ask clarifying questions.
  • If the feedback starts to veer off from what is useful to you, it is up to you to steer the session back on track. Gently remind the person giving you feedback what you need, what the design goals are, or give them a scenario or a use case to focus on.
  • Everyone is not equally adept at giving feedback. Identify the few who are and return to them in the future. Find people who give you different types of feedback. At the same time avoid collecting feedback from too many people; there will be diminishing returns and you can get overwhelmed sorting through contradictory opinions.
  • Another thing that will increase how willing people are to give you feedback and how much effort they will put into it is the quality of the feedback that you give them. Build a relation in which you trade feedback with each other. Regularly trading feedback is also a way for you and your colleagues to practice, experiment and perfect the art of feedback.
  • Don’t forget to thank people when they give you feedback. It is also nice to give people public credit for their input and ideas.

This is the first in a series of blog posts about giving and reciving feedback. Part 2 is centred around ”Giving feedback”.

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