What’s in a name? The word “feedback” can be one of those nebulous terms that can mean anything from “Hey, can I quickly get your eyes on this?” to a final approval presentation in front of the big boss.
Knowing how to navigate what kind of feedback you need, and when you need it, is an important process. And it’s actually one that you and your team can design yourselves. That’s according to Katie Dill, Head of Design at Stripe.
“You have to design the feedback and review experience, because if you allow people to just drop in and drop out and have opinions every stage of the way, that can really slow down a process,” she says.
We’ve captured Katie’s advice in this guide to designing a better feedback experience. With this, you’ll learn how to keep the right stakeholders informed while also ensuring that you’re receiving the quality of data that you need to build the best product or service possible.
1. Put yourself in your user’s shoes. Literally.
“Bodystorming” is a concept we learned about from David Hoang at Webflow. It’s basically taking yourself (literally your body) physically through an experience or journey so you can test out what it might be like.
Katie doesn’t use the same term exactly, but she does agree that taking as many measures as possible to actually put yourself in your user’s shoes is what helps you see where you have gaps in your experience.
“It's about trying to understand the problem,” says Katie. “It's really about squarely putting the end user and those affected by what you do front and center, then using iteration and creative thinking to develop new solutions, prototyping them, visualizing them, and determining that they're worth it.”
She also offered up this great anecdote from the times when she led design teams at Airbnb and Lyft, where 99% of the user’s experience is actually offline.
“You might use the app or the website to book a place to stay or to book that ride, but it really comes down to sitting in the back of a car with somebody you've never met before; or driving strangers around; or somebody's sleeping at your house,” she says. “These are the experiences that you're trying to make great. And you might not be physically there to be able to do anything about it.”
All to say: This kind of complex design work requires designers to use more than just their drawing and artistic skills. It requires designers to flex their abilities to develop, as Katie puts it, “a methodology, a process, a way of thinking, and a set of tools” towards approaching their design work.
2. Design your review process around decisions and decision-makers
“How might you better anticipate the stages of review so that it doesn't become disruptive?” That’s a core question Katie often asks herself and her team when kicking off a project.
“These are moments when you're going to bring the leadership team in, right? And so before work even begins, you start to design that process,” she says.
You can almost look at it as a kind of creative constraint. You know that you’ll need to consult with others and bring them into your process along the way. Best to know who those folks will be from the outset so that your project doesn’t get totally derailed.
There are plenty of different models — like the RACI matrix, for example—that you can use to help you determine who your decision makers are (or should be). Here are some questions Katie finds useful to consider when you’re ironing out your who’s who of stakeholders:
- Who do you bring in and when?
- What is the value of that person in the room?
- What knowledge or experience is the person supposed to bring to the table?
- Who's just providing insight that we don't have?
- Who just needs to be informed about what we're doing?
The other part of designing your feedback and review process is actually including them as milestones in your product roadmap alongside your milestones for deliverables. Depending on where you’re at, there are probably two types of feedback milestones that you need to consider incorporating:
- Milestones that outline which members in your organization need to be enlisted for feedback or input.
- Milestones that track a fork in the road where you may need to make a decision in terms of which direction or idea to move forward with. (Katie calls these the “Go/No Go” decisions.)
It’s a little like air traffic control — you want to control the flow of inputs and outputs so that you don’t cause any undue delays or worse. Determining who's in the proverbial room, why they’re there, and making sure that they know what is expected from them is a surefire way to keep your project on the right track.
3. Frame up feedback to get the data you need
Expectation setting ahead of a feedback or review meeting is absolutely essential. Katie says you have to be direct about your expectations of presenters as well as your audience.
“If they have no insight into the project whatsoever, how do you help them get up to speed?” says Katie. “How do you give them enough information to be useful in their feedback versus wasting everyone’s time by leaving them in a lurch? You really do need to think that through.”
Katie’s a big fan of prototypes and getting as real as possible with the work that you're showing. She’s not a big fan of “the big setup,” a.k.a when a presenter comes into a review or feedback meeting and starts listing off the issues, how they’re approaching these challenges, and the product’s objectives.
The flaw with this approach, as Katie points out, is that, “By the time the reviewer sees the product, they’re already so contaminated with all of that setup that their feedback is, basically, as good as somebody who's been entrenched in the work and therefore doesn’t really add any new perspectives.”
So, what is the right amount of context to give stakeholders and reviewers? Katie says there are only really two pieces of information you need to provide people for them to give you useful feedback:
- Give context about where you are in your roadmap/process. “I think that where you are in the process helps to give some insight as to: should they start nitpicking on word choice? Or is this design review one, among many several rounds of refinement, and so we don’t need to waste our time on that discussion?”
- The intended goal or user behavior. “That way, the person who's reviewing can internalize your goal and give you critique based on whether you’re hitting those specific goals or not, or even whether those goals are relevant anymore.”
Remember the key to framing up what kind of feedback you need is simple to remind everyone in the room of where you’re at and where you need to go.
4. Become an excellent feedback facilitator
Even if you set the perfect conditions for a feedback or review meeting, there’s always a tendency for people to go down a rabbit hole on the wrong topic. Which is why Katie advises that every presenter be prepared to facilitate when conversations inevitably derail.
“You've got to develop your ability to say yes and... thank you for that,” says Katie. Yes, that includes curtailing conversations even when the culprit is the CEO.
If you’re stuck on what to say or how to say it, Katie loaned us some useful phrases:
- “That’s a good thought. Let’s put that over here in our ‘parking lot’ and circle back.”
- “Yes, and that’s an important consideration. We’ll be tackling that when we move on to the next phase.”
- “Thank you for that. For today’s meeting, I want to really make sure we get into this topic. So, what are your thoughts on [insert pointed question here]?”
The key to facilitating a feedback meeting is to validate people’s perspectives and contributions, but continue to keep the conversation focused on identifying the insights and data you need to confidently move on with your work.
5. Embrace and absorb the feedback your receive
Let’s not forget that collaboration tools have paved the way for asynchronous feedback. To the degree that your review sessions can be done asynchronously, Katie has no problem with mixing approaches between asynchronous and in-person feedback gathering.
Whatever the medium, you need to control the conditions of review meetings and frame up your feedback, or else you risk getting a deluge of unstructured thoughts and opinions.
“No matter where you’re at, in terms of seniority, I think we should work much harder at being good at reviews and gain confidence getting feedback,” says Katie. “I do think it is a very challenging thing to get right.”
The other challenge is absorbing the feedback you get once you’ve collected it. Katie’s a realist and she knows that design work is an emotional experience, so she’s not going to tell you not to take feedback personally.
But, she reminds us what a true gift feedback can be, as trite as that might be to say. “It truly is a blessing and it will make your work, and you, one hundred percent better.”
This post is part of an ongoing series featuring snippets from our podcast: By Design — a show about designing exceptional digital products and experiences. Each episode, our host and co-founder Josh Brewer dives deep into every stage of the product life cycle along with industry experts.