How to ask for — and give — design feedback
A more generative, inclusive, and useful feedback process
Feedback is a vital part of the design process. It’s the mechanism by which we compare our work against company goals, keeping everyone on task and on track. Without it, designers would have to rely too heavily on their instincts.
Given how important it is, you’d think we’d have the feedback process down to a science. Here’s the thing, though: It’s tough to give and receive design feedback in a way that doesn’t feel overly personal or prescriptive.
Design students have the opportunity to strengthen this muscle through the constant repetition of talking about their work. Over time, most design school graduates learn to receive feedback gracefully and separate critiques of their work from the idea of somebody's personal feelings about them.
But not everyone who works in design went to design school. To be clear, this is a good thing! Diversity of thought is what makes teams do great work. But most people who give design feedback have even less exposure to this critical process. Whether you’re a marketing leader, product manager, engineer, there are several potential landmines you can accidentally step on when trying to communicate your feedback on a piece of work.
So why is it so difficult to ask for and give design feedback, and what can we do about it? This article will examine these questions and offer some suggestions for improving the feedback process.
Why it’s difficult to ask for feedback
Asking for feedback is difficult for designers because it requires vulnerability. The best time to seek it out is as early as possible, and that can be scary. We all want our colleagues to see us as competent in our work, and it feels risky to share an idea that doesn't feel like it's fully formed yet. If designers don’t feel a sense of psychological safety (and more importantly, if their managers aren’t able to foster an environment that feels safe), they will be less likely to proactively ask for feedback.
The problem with this is that when designers wait to seek feedback, they can miss the mark entirely. Having to go back and redo something can impact timelines and throw a wrench in project plans when a quick check-in early on could have allowed everyone to course-correct.
Why it’s difficult to give feedback
On the other side of the coin, giving quality feedback is also hard to do well. It’s easy to have an opinion, of course, but it’s challenging to deliver that opinion in a way that inspires better work.
There are a few reasons for this:
It’s hard to make feedback actionable
Great feedback should be communicated in a way that allows the designer to apply it to their work to make it even better. This is the first challenge for the reviewer: it's difficult to communicate feedback in a way that doesn’t sound like you’re simply giving a recommendation.
The best feedback encourages a designer to think critically about their work. Saying, “I would try purple” is not feedback; it’s a personal reaction. “The color of that text is hard to read,” is more helpful. Separating useful feedback from opinions and finding a way to deliver it in a way that inspires action is one of the hardest things to figure out.
It’s almost impossible to be objective
In one of my previous roles, we tried for a while to stay away from “feelings” statements in design reviews. We went as far as banning sentences that started with, “I feel.” And you know what? It didn’t work.
The fact is, it’s almost impossible to separate feelings from design feedback. It’s not something you can easily shut off. We’re human, after all.
How to make feedback less painful
The best way to overcome challenges is to acknowledge them directly and then build solutions into your design review process to mitigate them as best you can. There are a few ways to achieve this with design feedback:
Manage expectations from the start
One way to avoid feedback going off the rails is for designers to be clear at the outset about what specifically they need feedback on and even what kind of feedback they need.
When presenting work for review, we have designers state this up front. This way, the designer gets actionable feedback on the relevant parts of their work. For example, if colors and layout are already approved, the designer may just want input from a UX perspective. Usually, people will react to how a design looks, so if a designer is hoping for input on how something works, they need to be clear about that.
Structuring requests for feedback in this way helps to alleviate some of the vulnerability designers feel. Having the opportunity to be direct about what you need gives the designer some control and provides a framework to work within. It also helps to avoid wasted time and energy on aspects of the project that aren't up for review, whether those are technical constraints, business requirements, or work that's simply not ready for review.
Make space for questions
It’s much easier to avoid long stretches of review where people aren’t on the same page by ensuring everybody gets their questions answered upfront. Over the years, I’ve noticed that structuring reviews to allow questions before getting into feedback can positively impact the review process.
Similarly, it’s helpful to go around the room and give everybody a handful of minutes to provide their reactions by saying, “What are your reactions to this work?” Take two minutes to share your responses. It could be as simple as, “That looks great!” It doesn't have to become a thing every time, but just making sure there is a dedicated time to share thoughts and create a space for all voices to be heard can go a long way.
Establish a consistent presentation layer
I can’t tell you how often a design falls flat because of poor presentation — this is especially true in remote environments. If a designer is sharing their screen and you can see their Slack alerts and all the tabs they have opened in the background, it just takes away from the experience. On the other end of the spectrum, if somebody has built a very polished prototype, that too can be distracting because you may end up looking at the wrong thing.
It’s crucial to establish a kind of consistent layer that each designer can default to. Whether it’s a slide deck or a prototyping tool, putting it in a format that doesn’t create distraction is important.
Make it a goal to gain momentum
A good design review should result in a decision on a way forward or enough momentum for the designer to keep working on a problem. I try to make a point to ask my design teams after a review session, “Do you have enough to keep working?” If the answer is no, likely, there wasn’t enough communication during the design review.
Sometimes, several people in the room express ideas and opinions, and it's up to the designer to go back to work for a while. It can be hard to notice when a decision has been made during these discussions, and learning to detect signs of momentum and point them out is a valuable skill to build. It can be as simple as saying, “It seems like we all agree on this point. It seems like the next steps are A, B, and C.” Having a place to record and mark that down is very important at Abstract.
Feedback is an ongoing process
Ultimately, finding a feedback process that works depends on your team culture. It’s important to have a framework within which you can work, but design teams should feel like they have the freedom to try different tactics within their design review meetings to see what works best.
In other words, you can improve on the feedback process with — you guessed it — more feedback. Making this a collaborative and iterative process will help you find a way to make your design review process feel generative, non-judgemental, and useful.