How to give designers feedback they can actually use

4 min read
Jes Kirkwood
  •  Oct 4, 2018
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As a design leader, it’s your responsibility to develop your team’s talent and help them grow their careers. Constructive feedback about both their designs and their work behaviors is a vital part of that process.

“Receiving feedback is a natural part of the design process,” explains Fabricio Teixeira, Design Director, Work & Co. “You show the work. People comment. You learn about what their needs are.”

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“Design feedback is critical to the growth of designers and the successful execution of products. We do this in two ways at GoFundMe. First, I encourage fluid feedback. We use tools like InVision to socialize and gather insights from other stakeholders at anytime. Second is a weekly experience review session. These are intentionally set up to enable a designer to gather the insights THEY need to move forward. We focus at the altitude and on the area the individual needs at that moment to make decisions. The team is committed to helping them move forward. It’s time for them. Not for us. The key is to focus on providing clarity, not ambiguity.”
Derek Kohn, Head of Design, GoFundMe

But this process doesn’t just benefit businesses, who end up with stronger designs; it benefits employees, too.

“Taking feedback as constructive criticism will help you eventually see the faults in your work, and make you both a stronger designer and collaborator,” Teixeria explains.

Unfortunately, any old feedback won’t do the trick.

For example, research shows that being criticized for past behavior has the opposite effect. Instead of motivating employees to do better, it causes them to feel disengaged.

“Design feedback is critical to the growth of designers and the successful execution of products.”

Derek Kohn, Head of Design at GoFundMe
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Plus, a 2018 study from Harvard Business Review shows that when people are given negative feedback, they intentionally distance themselves from the giver, then go in search of others who offer more positive feedback to make themselves feel better.

That said, there’s one exception: If they feel genuinely valued by the giver, causing the relationship to feel secure, they’re able to accept the criticism without feeling rejected.

Related: Designers share the worst client feedback they’ve ever gotten

People “need to know that they’re valued and that their contributions are generally positive,” explains Scott Berinato, Senior Editor, Harvard Business Review.

So, in order to improve your company’s performance and help your team grow, you must first build rapport.

“The key to good feedback is a balance of heart and mind. I don’t care if we are talking about designers or dog walkers, the same rules of feedback apply to any type of employee. First, you have to really care. A person needs to feel that you really care about them before they’ll be receptive enough to receive your feedback, so start there. Second, put rigor and clarity into your communication so you are specific and direct about either the praise or the criticism. Most of us fail to be direct enough because it feels so risky, but that uncomfortable feeling is the sign you’re on the right track.”
Ryan Donahue, VP, Global Design, Zendesk

What’s next, you ask?

Offering specific, future-focused feedback that helps them achieve their goals.

2 types of feedback to give your team

Culture Amp recommends thinking of feedback in terms of “reinforcing” and “redirecting” feedback, as opposed to positive and negative feedback.

“Reinforcing feedback means that we want someone to keep doing a certain positive behavior,” explains Lexi Croswell.

For example, you might say, “I really admire how receptive you are to feedback. By being proactive and soliciting feedback from your teammates, you’re able to produce much stronger designs.” In making this statement, you’ve identified a positive behavior and pointed out how it’s benefiting the individual’s career. As a result, they’re more likely to continue the positive behavior—in this case, asking for feedback from their peers.

“The key to good feedback is a balance of heart and mind.”

Ryan Donahue, VP of Global Design at Zendesk
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When you identify a behavior someone needs to change, offer redirecting feedback, Croswell argues. But keep in mind, redirecting feedback isn’t the same as negative feedback.

“If we gave someone strictly negative feedback, we’d only be telling them to stop doing something. With redirecting feedback, we’re telling someone that we want them to stop doing X and start doing Y.”

For example, you might say, “Instead of taking my critiques as direction that you need to action against right away, I’d love for you to ask clarifying questions to better understand my feedback. That way, once we’ve gotten to the core of the issue, we can discuss possible solutions together. Would that be possible?”

“The thing most people get wrong when giving feedback is making it personal. Saying ‘I think’ or ‘you have’ gets you nowhere. Comments need to be descriptive, inclusive, and informed by both the brief and the process the designer has gone through to get where they are. It needs to be a discussion. Above all, avoid being the hovering art director.”
Ian Shying, UX & Design Director, Edelman

Pro tip: When the individual makes progress toward that goal, let them know! Recognition motivates people to keep up the good work.

5 tactics for giving great feedback

1. Focus on one thing at a time

Imagine hearing criticism, after criticism, after criticism from your supervisor during a regular weekly 1:1. Not only would you walk away feeling bruised, but you probably wouldn’t retain much of what you heard. For these reasons, it’s best to share one piece of feedback at a time. That gives you a chance to explain your feedback in full, and your employee a chance to listen and reflect.

2. Direct your feedback to the design, not the designer

When giving feedback to a designer, talk about their work, not their personality. For example, “I could be wrong, but it seems like this design could use some whitespace. What do you think?” Otherwise, they may feel like you’re attacking them personally. Not only would that evoke a defensive response, but it may cause irreparably damage your relationship.

3. Highlight real examples

“Whether providing reinforcing or redirecting employee feedback, specificity is important for learning,” explains Lexi Croswell. Be sure to ask yourself, “Which behavior did I appreciate? Which behavior do I want to see more of? Why?”

4. Make it timely

“Whether the feedback is positive or constructive, provide the information as closely tied to the event as possible. Effective feedback is well timed so that the employee can easily connect the feedback with his actions,” explains HR Expert Susan M. Heathfield.

5. Give feedback regularly

If you want your best talent to stick around, it’s important to give feedback regularly. Weekly 1:1s are a great time to share feedback about work behaviors, while design feedback should be given during critiques and retrospectives.

…and one technique to avoid

Sandwiching negative feedback between two pieces of positive feedback was once a popular technique. However, its popularity has made it predictable. As a result, many employees simply ignore the positive feedback, seeing it as insincere, and focus entirely on the negative feedback, which they perceive to be the only reason they’re receiving feedback.

It’s also a selfish approach. “No one likes to be seen as ‘the bad guy’ or a heartless leader,” explains Claire Lew, CEO, Know Your Company. “So you pepper in the ‘good stuff’ around the ‘bad stuff’ to make you feel more comfortable delivering the news.”

“A design critique is for you, but not for you. It is for you to look at your design from different perspectives; it is not for you to attach your personal feelings to. Take any type of feedback, as the harshest feedback could be the most insightful.”
Shawn Lan, Head of Design, Zoom

Related: Read the Design Leadership Handbook

How to prevent designers from becoming defensive

“Some designers get really defensive when hearing feedback about their work. They take critique as an insult,” explains Fabricio Teixeira, Design Director, Work & Co.

But, the thing is, “knowing how to receive and act on feedback is part of a designer’s job.”

If your team struggles with this problem, try using one of these two strategies for preventing defensiveness:

Help your team feel ownership. People are more receptive to ideas they came up with themselves. Instead of imposing solutions on your team, ask them to help you brainstorm ideas for resolving the problem. That way, they’ll feel ownership over implementing the solution and, by extension, their own professional development.

Acknowledge your own subjectivity. Creative work is innately subjective, which is why it’s important to avoid framing your feedback in terms of right or wrong.

“Instead of imposing solutions on your team, ask them to help you brainstorm ideas for resolving the problem.”

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“Your perspective is not a universal truth,” confirms Claire Lew, CEO, Know Your Company.

In a study that analyzed nearly 2,000 pieces of feedback, researchers found that people who recognized the subjectivity of design critiques better leveraged the feedback they received to enhance the creativity of their designs.

“When providing feedback to creative workers, signal that your opinion is exactly that: an opinion,” recommends Spencer Harrison, Associate Professor, Organizational Behavior, INSEAD.

Use statements, like, “I could be wrong, but it seems like there’s not enough whitespace in this design. What do you think?”

Your team will share their thoughts on the matter and prevailing wisdom will dictate what action to take next.

“Give your people space to experiment, fail, and learn from their experiences and their peers. As a design leader, you should focus on setting direction and clearing obstacles, as opposed to prescribing an exact solution. It’s easy to for us to become overly protective of our people and outcome, but this can limit the growth of your team in the long term. Your feedback loop becomes much more constructive when discussing opportunities and coaching your designers through them, as opposed to asking them ‘why didn’t you solve the problem this way?’”
Diego Perez, Head of Design, Reddit

How to create a culture of feedback

Creating a culture where feedback is always welcome helps your team learn and grow faster, produce higher quality designs, and push the boundaries of their own creativity.

One of the best ways to encourage the development of a culture of feedback is to solicit feedback from your team.

“Feedback flows both ways. Smart managers ask team members for insight into how they could serve the team better,” explains InVision’s Aarron Walter and Eli Woolery.

By showing them that you respect their opinions and demonstrating how to accept and act on criticism, you’ll set an example that your team is likely to follow.

Another way to encourage a culture of feedback is to make it a team sport. Before shipping anything, gather your team and ask these 2 questions:

“Constructive, empowering feedback is more about asking questions than providing solutions.”

Michael Gough, VP of Product Design at Uber
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  • “What do we love about this design?”
  • “What would we change about it?”

The first question will spark a discussion that recognizes individuals for their contributions and helps the team feel proud of their work. The second question will encourage contributors to critique their own work, which surfaces areas for improvement without making anyone feel threatened.

As the design leader, you can decide if it’s worth the extra time investment to make additional tweaks based on the team’s feedback. Either way, this exercise will help you build a culture where feedback is a normal part of daily processes.

“Feedback is as much art as it is science. Like any other form of communication, it is not as much about what is said, as what is heard, understood, and acted upon. Constructive, empowering feedback is more about asking questions than providing solutions. As a senior leader, you have to watch out not to ‘suggest’ answers, since they are likely to be interpreted as directives. This is a problem, not just because you have less context or day-to-day experience than the people doing the work, but because it’s disempowering. A highly dictatorial style can lead to designers just… waiting around for the answers.”

–Michael Gough, VP, Product Design, Uber

5 tips to share with your team

Because they have less experience, which is typically accompanied by less confidence, junior team members are more likely to struggle with receiving feedback. Coaching these employees on how to accept and act on feedback can help you improve both engagement and performance across the entire department.

Here are a few good strategies to share with your team:

Learn to let go. When designers get attached to certain aspects of their designs, it gets them nowhere, fast. That’s why it’s important to help your team learn to let go.

Start every critique by revisiting the objectives of the design, rather than evaluating its aesthetic value. And, if things get off track, refocus the conversation. Once they’re able to separate themselves from their designs, they’ll find it much easier to accept feedback.

Ask open-ended questions. According to Harvard Business Review, curious people who ask open-ended questions receive more and better feedback. They also produce higher quality designs.

“How we ask for feedback influences the scope and type of feedback we receive,” explains Spencer Harrison, Associate Professor, Organizational Behavior, INSEAD.

Unlike closed-ended questions (like “Do you like this design?”), open-ended questions (like “What do you think about this design?”) don’t limit the person giving the feedback. Without restrictions, they’re much more likely to share valuable insights that can help any designer improve their work.

“Advice is about lending someone a hand. When someone gives you advice, they’re just looking out for you.”

Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company
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Ask clarifying questions. The better your team understands the feedback they’re given, the more they’ll benefit from it. That’s why it’s important to coach them on how to respond to feedback.

One essential step is to ask clarifying questions. In doing so, they’ll get to the core of an issue, which will help them more accurately iterate on the feedback. Because this will reduce the number of revisions that are required, it will also result in a more efficient design process.

Take plenty of notes. Feedback is only helpful if it’s actionable—and you can’t act on feedback you can’t remember.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to encourage your team to take copious notes while listening to feedback. That way, they can review their notes again after getting some distance from the discussion.

Ask for advice, not feedback. Unfortunately, most people associate feedback with criticism. For this reason, when asked, the idea of giving feedback makes some people uncomfortable.

Coaching your team to instead ask for “advice” can help them get what they need.

“When you ask for advice, it’s an invitation,” explains Claire Lew, CEO, Know Your Company. “You’re signaling that another person has expertise or knowledge that you find interesting and valuable.”

“Advice is about lending someone a hand. When someone gives you advice, they’re just looking out for you,” she concludes.

This post was inspired by a discussion at a recent Design Leadership Forum dinner. Do you know someone you’d like to nominate for the Design Leadership Forum? We’d love to know about them.

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