Here’s what you should (and shouldn’t) do when giving formal feedback

4 min read
Aarron Walter
  •  Jan 14, 2020
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Feedback is arguably the most important design resource: It helps skilled designers hone their work faster, gives junior designers the opportunity to learn from more experienced team members, and, when done well, helps everyone stay focused on goals and outcomes.

Yet, despite all this, establishing a healthy culture of feedback within a design team isn’t necessarily easy—even when it is formally integrated into the design process. Criticizing each other’s work in design reviews, standups, retrospectives, and postmortems can feel intimidating, but that shouldn’t mean acceptance of non-optimal feedback. Instead, teams must practice their feedback skills so designers can get comfortable expressing and hearing differing ideas.

Here’s a solid place to start: In the early going, I recommend tempering your criticism and leaning towards encouragement. It’ll help establish momentum, rapport, and trust. Over time, you’ll find you’ve developed a framework and language for thinking and talking about design more clearly, and feel freer to express direct criticism, too.

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In hopes of making the process as successful as possible, I’ve put together some do’s and don’ts on ways to optimize your feedback in four common formal settings: design reviews, standups, retrospectives, and postmortems.

The do’s and don’ts of formal feedback

Design reviews (Meetings to provide in-depth feedback focused on project goals.)

  • Do schedule these reviews early, midway and at the end of a project.
  • Don’t include more than about seven people.
  • Do bring in experts from other teams.
  • Don’t use a design review to reveal finished work.
  • Do choose a facilitator and ground rules for the conversation.
  • Don’t let designers pitch ideas or explain too much.

Design standups (Quick check-ins to keep team members on the same page.)

  • Do establish a fixed time for everyone to participate in daily standups.
  • Don’t let stand-ups turn into design critiques.
  • Do answer three questions: What did you do yesterday? What will you do today? Is anything in your way?
  • Don’t sit down. Stay on your feet and keep things moving.

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Retrospectives: (Meetings to analyze a project after launch or a sprint after completion.)

  • Do include everyone who participated.
  • Don’t skip this opportunity to integrate lessons learned.
  • Do consider using a survey before retrospectives to gather all voices.
  • Don’t forget to reflect on what did and didn’t go well.

Postmortems: (Meetings to evaluate a project that has gone poorly.)

  • Do rely on an impartial moderator for the discussion.
  • Don’t start without some ground rules.
  • Do focus on a timeline of events and facts.
  • Don’t descend into finger pointing.
  • Do send out a summary email after the postmortem
  • Don’t quit the process without clarifying lessons and action steps.

Now, in all formal situations, I’d recommend paying careful attention to the language you use in giving feedback. For example, if you think a layout misses the mark, talk about the “design” and not the person who made it. I’ve found criticisms are easier to swallow when they do not feel overly personal.

For a deeper look at all four of these feedback processes, check out chapter four of the Principles of Product Design.

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