Krysta Curtis adds joy to the world through design.

Feedback is inevitable in the business world.  If the feedback is not from your peers, your consumers will provide you with plenty of feedback.  It’s vital to get feedback before your product hits the market or you risk it bombing.  Seek feedback early and often to prevent from designing in a vacuum.  Since no one person knows the right answer to everything, designing in a vacuum leads to wasted time or flawed products.  You’ll either end up spending too much extra time making changes down the line or release a less-than-ideal product and missing key opportunities.  In a creatively safe environment, feedback can be a positive experience for all involved and will enable you to cut the right wires and disarm the bomb.

Giving Feedback is Hard

There are many reasons why a person may avoid giving feedback:

  • it takes time out of their schedule
  • it’s emotionally draining
  • they don’t want to hurt your feelings
  • they don’t know the right answer
  • they don’t know how to give good feedback
  • they don’t feel it’s their place

A designer must understand the value of feedback, how it is vital to their success and that the burden of getting feedback falls on them.  With all the above reasons, seeking feedback can be a daunting task!

How to Seek Feedback

Work towards and find appropriate stopping points in your work.  This is when you believe your work it’s fleshed out enough for others to understand your vision.  It’s best to approach people one at a time or their feedback may be skewed by other people in the conversation.  Beware of feedback that is overly positive, they may not have been comfortable with giving feedback.  Here are some tips on seeking feedback:

  • Find people who will give honest and open feedback – you don’t want answers swayed by people who don’t want to hurt your feelings.
  • Find extreme users – get feedback from peers who think like you and from peers who don’t think like you.  If you only get feedback from those who think alike, you risk creating a self fulfilling prophecy.
  • Treat them as an expert – after all, you value their opinions highly.  Do this by asking them about experiences they’ve had with similar products and try to learn something new from them.
  • Let them know how their feedback is valuable to you – most will be happy to help but keep in mind they are taking time out of their schedule for your benefit.  Tell them what it means to you to make their time feel worth it.
  • Give them time to take it in – make sure they understand what you are presenting, what it will be used for and what you need their help on.  Give them time to ask questions and think about it.
  • Put out a welcome mat to critique – make them feel safe to give critical feedback.  If they think you love your work, they may feed bad about being critical.  Start by identifying a concern in your work and ask them if they feel the same way about it.  Now that they know you are open to criticism, ask them what other concerns they see.  Then be optimistic, let them know that by getting their feedback you can make it better.
  • Ask focused questions – if you ask high-level questions like “do you like it” you’ll get an “uhuh, yeah!”  Instead ask, “what about this small feature can use improvement?”  Then ask why, why, why and why.
  • Share multiple directions if you can – if your peers look at multiple different directions, they know you are not sold on one direction and will be able to speak to the merits and flaws of each one.  Ask them which one they like the best and why, then ask about the one they like the least.
  • As a rule of thumb, don’t take their first answer – keep pressing them to dive deeper into their feedback and to provide you with more descriptions and examples.
  • Try not to get emotional – it’s hard, I know.  Refer to “multiple directions” above for one way to help – this will also prevent you from getting caught up on one idea.
  • Don’t make them feel stupid – sometimes people worry it’s their fault they aren’t “getting it.”  Remind them it’s your job to make them understand it and that you need them to tell you what is not working since you are designing it for them.

When you feel you have enough to go off of, thank them for their time.  Reiterate the major points of their feedback and tell them how you’ll use their feedback to improve the product.  They’ll be much happier to help in the future if they see their efforts being put to good use.

How to Interpret Feedback

After you’ve gathered feedback from a handful of people, start to identify patterns.  If you’re getting the same critical feedback from multiple people, it’s time to adjust your design.  If you can’t identify patterns, get more feedback.

If you are getting similar positive feedback from multiple people who think like you and who do not think like you, and who you believe are giving you honest feedback – you should move forward with your design.

How to Give Feedback

People naturally fear the judgement of others and can be greatly affected by feedback that’s not delivered well.  Here are a few tips on giving good feedback:

  • Be patient – Take the time to let them express their idea and make sure you understand their work.  What challenges are they trying to solve?  Why do they like the idea?  Think about the positives and the negatives – but don’t say them just yet.
  • Start with the positives – there are surely a lot of great elements to their work.  Let them know what you think it is!
  • Build empathy – let them know where you are coming from and why you think the things you do.
  • Guide them to insight – don’t just tell them what’s wrong with it.  Walk them through the experience to the point of your concern.  Hopefully they’ll say “Aha” and see the same concern as you.  Ask open ended questions like, “What are the advantages to this approach?”
  • Ask probing questions – if they don’t see your concern, start to point it out to them but frame it as a question.  “I’m a bit concerned about this, does this concern you too?” or “Have you thought about it this way?  Do you think it may be a problem?”

If You’re the Boss

People are particularly affected by those in higher level positions than them.  They look up to you, want to learn from you and most of all, want your approval.  If you are in a position to direct their work and they are still not seeing your concerns after following the above process, try not to act frustrated.  Instead, give them clear goals on how you want them to proceed.  Always frame it as a challenge and not a dead end – people want to give you what you need, but it’s frustrating when they are shooting from the hip and not making progress.

Start by asking questions like, “What could we do if we thought about it this other way?” or “I see an opportunity here that may be more beneficial, could you come up with a few ideas around that?”  Then follow up with a few examples to start them on the right path, “Think about using this specific approach and then see what you can do from there.”  If they still won’t budge, tell them to work on the other directions, but tell them it’s OK to come back with their original work – but only after they’ve solved the specific concerns you’ve identified.

Never tell them their work is stupid, bad or not fun.  For one thing, it’s probably not ALL bad.  Also, they’ll begin to resent you, lose confidence in their work and lose motivation.  If you have general critical feedback that you need to share, say things like. “I’m not sure if our core audience would find this fun because…” or “I’ve tried similar in my experience but have always ended up with poor results because…”  Then, follow it up with a directed challenge.

Remember, even though the challenge they are solving may seem small compared to what you are working on, it might mean the world to them.  Make them feel safe to flourish, flounder and fail and soon they’ll start handling the bigger challenges.

Feedback Starts with You

As I mentioned in the beginning, the burden of feedback falls on the seeker.  I also believe the best feedback comes when asked for and not from those who start by giving.  However, in situations where feedback is not the norm, I’m struggling to figure out how to let people know when I may have feedback which could help them without being a thorn in their side.  Any ideas?

Comments on: "Feedback is Not a Four Letter Word" (2)

  1. […] enough of the right people to take a look.  That’s a finesse skill – see my post on feedback to get some pointers.  Tom does have a valid argument in the case of selling soda however, it […]

  2. […] In fact, the first thing I noticed when I flew to IDEO’s headquarters in Palo Alto, CA for my 10-hour long interview workshop was how supportive people were in conversations.  This communication style wasn’t just used when coming up with ideas – it was a communication style that permeated almost every conversation I had at IDEO.  This doesn’t mean people were ‘soft,’ on the contrary conversations discussing difficult matters could still be effective but had the unique ability to do so without reducing morale, creativity or productivity.  I’ve written a few blog posts about this topic, the most relevant being Be Courageous:  Look for Success and Feedback is Not a Four Letter Word. […]

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