Making feedback work for you

4 min read
Jonathan Weber,
Farheen Gani
  •  Jul 26, 2018
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Don’t you just love it when someone tears your work apart, systematically untangling every detail you thoughtfully wove into it?

Yeah, me neither.

We all share a bittersweet relationship with feedback. We know we need it to improve, but we’re rarely thrilled to hear criticism—whether it’s from clients, managers, or co-workers. It’s not only disheartening, but tedious to walk away with a mountain of changes. Plus, there’s that nagging feeling that no one really gets your work.

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

Here’s the thing: No matter how good you are at your job, there’s always a lot to learn and unlearn. That’s why top athletes and musicians need coaches, even at their peak.

For a creative, feedback is even more indispensable. The more you immerse yourself in a creative pursuit, the more you lose perspective. Celebrated opera singer Renee Fleming describes her music coach as her “outside ears.” “What we hear as we are singing is not what the audience hears,” she explains.

As a designer, you need outside eyes, too. What looks like a simple, intuitive interface to you might be overwhelming for the end user.

No matter how good you are at your job, there’s always a lot to learn and unlearn.

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Once you master the art of receiving feedback well, you’ll find it nourishes your work in many ways. But before we dive into the subject of receiving feedback, let’s look at how best to request it in the first place. It could mean the difference between gaining valuable insights and being disappointed.

Be open to feedback from everyone

As much as we’d prefer feedback only from those we trust, it’s inevitable that it’ll come from all angles: your boss, a client, the stranger in the checkout line. Such unsolicited feedback is annoying. As Boston College research psychologist Peter Gray aptly explains, “We don’t want people to tell us something negative unless we ask for it, and are ready to hear it.”

Sheila Heen, author of Thanks for the Feedback, describes these feelings as relationship triggers. When we receive not-so-good feedback from someone, it makes us wonder, Do I like this person? Do I trust them? If it’s feedback from a superior or co-worker, we might feel the person is trying to wield their authority. We discard their feedback without giving it another thought.

But if you resist feedback from people outside your inner circle, you’re only going to get a partial view of your work. No matter where feedback comes from, it should be considered. Though it may seem like it, it’s usually not personal: It’s either helpful or unhelpful, good or bad. Viewing it through this lens helps you evaluate it objectively.

Be specific with your request

You walk into a design critique looking for thoughts on layout and find your team nitpicking about copy. Sound familiar? To be fair, it’s not your team’s fault.

If you don’t outline exactly what kind of feedback you need up front, you’ll get vague and unhelpful advice. Instead of asking open-ended questions like, “What do you think?”, steer your discussion in a specific direction. Ask questions like, “Does the copy sound convincing?” or, “Is the page too cluttered?” Otherwise, be prepared to labor over details like font size and images.

If you resist feedback from people outside your inner circle, you’re only going to get a partial view of your work.

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Present your work the right way

This is also related to the type of feedback you need. If you want to pick someone’s brain over a website’s structure, show them a wireframe, not a pixel-perfect web page. This will help focus their attention and avoid distractions.

Likewise, if you’re looking for suggestions on an onboarding process, you don’t want to present a single sketch. Take your audience on the user’s journey, from the time they sign up to the welcome email.

Katie Dill, Airbnb’s Head of Experience Design, suggests using storyboarding to find out if there’s anything missing. “Does it make sense that a user would do something? Is it comfortable? Is there flow?” Asking these questions will encourage your critics to offer better feedback.

Set the right expectations

To receive constructive criticism, make it implicitly clear where you are in the design process. If you’re putting finishing touches on a project and someone doles out advice on your idea, it’s harder to backtrack. On the other hand, if you present a prototype at the idea stage, you’ll be willing to pivot much more easily.

Jason Freedman of 42floors shares an interesting approach that he learned from his investor, Seth Lieberman, called 30% feedback:

“…he asked if I felt like I was 90% done or 30% done. If I was 90% done, he would try to correct me on every little detail possible because otherwise a typo might make it into production. But if I had told him I was only 30% done, he would gloss over the tiny mistakes, knowing that I would correct them later. He would engage in broader conversations about what the product should be.”

To receive constructive criticism, make it implicitly clear where you are in the design process.

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Set the right context

Context helps those giving feedback visualize the larger picture. Remember, you know the backstory to your idea, but they probably don’t. Unless you help them understand your project’s guardrails, it will never make sense to them. For example, an app for teens looks and feels much different than an app for mid-level professionals.

When sharing work with clients or your team, paint the full picture: the audience you’re designing for, problems you aim to solve, budget constraints, and any other facts you’ve uncovered during the research phase. Once they understand your thought process, they’ll be able to give actionable feedback and help you fill in any gaps.

Katie Dill shares a good example of this. A while back, her team designed a wearable product for fashionable, thrifty women. But the feedback panel included middle-aged men. Naturally, they asked questions like, “Why doesn’t it have a keyboard?” and, “How is she going to write on that device on her wrist?”

So the team showed them images of what the user looked like and how the device fit into her day-to-day life. With the crystal-clear context, they could appreciate the designer’s decisions.

How to better receive feedback

Now that you know how to ask for valuable feedback, let’s deal with the tricky part: your reaction. While this depends in part on our innate ability to accept criticism and failure, it’s possible to fine-tune our reaction so that it’s more useful.

Ask for more information

In her book, Heen identifies another reaction to feedback: truth triggers. This is how we feel about the feedback itself. We start wondering, Is it good or bad? Fair or unfair? Correct or incorrect?

First off, don’t be in a rush to judge or respond. Instead, listen to their point of view and probe for further clarification. The only way to improve with feedback is to understand where it’s coming from. If someone says they don’t like the structure of a landing page, ask, “Which part did you not like exactly?” or, “Is there anything missing or confusing?”

The only way to improve with feedback is to understand where it’s coming from.

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Remember, the decision to incorporate feedback is yours alone. (If your company or client doesn’t offer this autonomy, you might want to reconsider them.) This will help you be more receptive to negative feedback—and likely produce better work.

Separate yourself from your work

Our identities are often linked to our work. When someone asks what we do, we respond with, “I’m a designer/writer/actress,” rather than, “I design for a living.” Even if subconsciously, it’s implied that we are what we do, and our ideas are an extension of ourselves.

But as Ed Catmull reasons in his book, Creativity Inc., “You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when challenged.”

When you work on a creative project, it’s easy to become one with it—mind, body, and soul. After all, how else would we create anything remarkable? But this process also causes us to lose our objectivity. Catmull describes this all-too-familiar process: “Where once a movie’s writer/director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees.”

The only way out is to invite an outside perspective in, and put your ego and emotions to the side. Admitting that your work may not be great yet is the first step toward creating something great.

This doesn’t mean you ignore what you feel about negative feedback. Make a note of it all: anger, embarrassment, sadness. But then put those feelings away and pay attention to the facts.

Cultivate a growth mindset

Sometimes feedback sets off our “identity triggers.” These are how we picture ourselves in our head. For instance, do you think of yourself as a good designer or a great designer? A responsible employee or an incompetent one? Most people tend to gravitate towards a positive self-image. And when they receive feedback contradicting this image, it shatters them. This is the result of a fixed mindset. It leads people to question their decisions and reconsider if they’re cut out for a particular job.

Admitting that your work may not be great yet is the first step toward creating something great.

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On the other hand, those with a growth mindset take criticism in stride. They are disappointed, yes, but they also see an opportunity to improve. To cultivate a positive, growth-oriented mindset, don’t set your self-image in stone. Know that there’s always scope for betterment, and feedback helps you get there.

Another important aspect is to know your wiring. If you’re aware you have a particularly strong reaction to criticism, prepare for it in advance.

Related: Artist Danielle Evans on food typography, harsh feedback, and Kanyeggs

Lastly, the best way to embrace negative feedback is to think of the larger purpose of your work. Here’s a great example: When asked about the time he felt most broken, former President Barack Obama described how he felt after losing the first time he ran for Congress.

“…the thing that got me through that moment, and any other time that I’ve felt stuck, is to remind myself that it’s about the work. Because if you’re worrying about yourself—if you’re thinking: ‘Am I succeeding? Am I in the right position? Am I being appreciated?’—then you’re going to end up feeling frustrated and stuck. But if you can keep it about the work, you’ll always have a path. There’s always something to be done.”

The next time someone offers suggestions on your designs, or flat out rejects them, smile and say to yourself, There’s always something to be done.

Evaluate feedback

Once you’ve heard a piece of feedback, forget about it for a day or two (if your deadline affords it). If it was a project you worked particularly hard on, it might take a little longer for you to recover. Once you’ve got some distance from it, you can properly evaluate.

Does it make sense? Do you need a second opinion? Does it tie in with your client’s or product’s business goals? This objective examination will help you decide if you want to implement it. Many times, even the most thoughtful feedback is redundant because of where you are in the process. However, if it makes sense and is possible, try to implement it.

Watch out for repetitive feedback

Sometimes we get stuck in a familiar loop of criticism. People tend to give us the same feedback over and over again.

If you find yourself making the same mistake, it’s time to “make the other mistake,” as Mark Rabkin calls it. The reason we’re unable to do this despite repeated reminders could be that the feedback goes against our default setting. For instance, an introvert is advised time and again to share more ideas, or a perfectionist is often asked to stop micromanaging.

Fighting your natural tendencies can seem daunting at first, but it’s possible with small, incremental changes. Rabkin suggests first recognizing what’s stopping you from making a change. It’s possible you’re afraid of failure, or it contradicts your self-image, or you’ve tried it before and it doesn’t work. Whatever the barrier, acknowledge it.

Recognize what’s stopping you from making a change.

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Then, break that mental wall of anxiety. If you’re afraid you might say something stupid at a meeting, understand that not speaking up is worse. The next time a meeting is called, make it a point to raise at least three relevant points. If you’ve attempted to control your emotions in an argument but failed, try yoga or meditation. It also helps to seek support from your co-workers, friends, and family.

Remember that no matter what, you’ll get out of the situation alive. So go ahead and make mistakes.

Getting better at receiving feedback is not about agreeing or disagreeing with an opposite point of view. It’s about asking the right questions, looking past your emotions, and evaluating feedback objectively, irrespective of who delivers it.

If you still struggle with criticism, remember that honest feedback is an act of love. It requires courage, sincerity, and a genuine concern for your work. Appreciate it, savor it, grow with it.

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