Pocket Field Guide: How to Give Design Feedback When You are Not a Designer
Giving feedback can be messy but can lead to great teams and projects. Here are some tips on how to make it a little easier and more effective.
First let’s make sure we are all using the same words…
Feedback is any type of response. It can be positive or negative, vague or specific, and usually is instinctual and emotional. Feedback is important to give and receive because it provides a sense of grounding about how those making and those consuming the work are thinking and feeling.
Critique is grounded in some type of evidence; whether it is data, design principles, or best practices, it is not simply an emotional response and usually warrants some type of relationship with the main concept.
Review is focused on gaining the stamp of approval and meeting the logistical needs for a project to be ready to shipish (-ish because this could also mean just ready to be seen by the client during a phase and not the end of the project overall).
It’s easy to confuse these three definitions. They are frequently used interchangeably but it’s important to know the value of the difference between them. This is how we will use them but feel free to set your own definitions in whatever arena you will use them in.
Cool. So now let's take a look at what to do and how to do it, especially in a live collaboration.
What to do:
Being invited to a feedback, critique, or review session can be really exciting. It’s a peek into how the work is made and how far it has come. It can also be intimidating when you aren’t sure what to say or how to say it, so here are some guidelines on how to be helpful, effective, and not worry about hurting the designer’s feelings. Remember, these sessions are constructive and serve the purpose of helping move a project forward. They are not about the people showing the work. So be direct. It benefits everyone.
Step 1: Wait!
Hold your thought, really think if the designer has already thought about it and what potentially they did to address it. If you are unclear, ask. If you are verbally processing this information, be sure to indicate that you are doing so instead of implying that you are giving feedback.
Step 2: What’s good?
Start with providing feedback of a positive notion and start with what you like. This is the moment to give opinions. This type of conversation can bring to light how the designer arrived at this iteration. When you start with what’s right, it breaks the ice on the conversation. People will become more comfortable and moving into critique will be more natural. The conversation will shift from feelings to the exploration of how things can be improved based on the logics and goals of the project and more importantly, the session.
Step 3: Crit happens
It’s okay and necessary to give input that is not positive. This is the point at which the roadblocks, problems, issues, and concerns should be illuminated and unpacked. Try to stay focused within the restrictions of the session and project and have evidentiary support. If you don’t have evidentiary support and just have emotional feedback that’s negative, that’s okay too (I personally don’t like purple…etc.), just be sure to frame in that way so the designer knows it may not be something that has to be addressed for the project to move forward.
Step 4: Wrap it up
Finally, be sure to summarize answers clearly to the questions the designer asked for feedback on. If they are seeking a review, provide the stamp of approval or more importantly, the steps necessary to get there.
How to do it:
Feedback and critique sessions can be stressful, even more so in zoom-land. This can be for a variety of reasons. For designers, a lot of it could come from not being able to read the room. To have a session that is comfortable, safe for everyone to feel vulnerable, and help the project, think about different ways to participate. Here are some things to keep in mind...
This can be critical to a designer, especially when it is hard to read virtually. Be sure to engage in some type of way. Nod along to acknowledge that you hear them, take notes, send reactions via your messenger (if that's appropriate for your environment), just try not to sit expressionless.
Whether it is design, content, or feedback, let the designer know where you are coming from. Remember emotional feedback is part of design research; it just has to be presented that way.
Explain your thought process on why you might think what you are commenting on and don’t be afraid. No one is here to judge your experience or expertise. If you are in the room, it is because your voice needs to be heard.
Say what now
Designers get excited about what they make but they aren’t married to everything they create. Even then, they probably have spent tons of time thinking about the project: like in the shower, folding the laundry, or in their dreams. They have an intimate understanding of the work. It can also mean that some information they know may be omitted from the presentation. If what they are saying sounds confusing, ask for clarification and be direct in your comments.
Strong opinions loosely held
You've probably heard this phrase already but make sure you are convincing in your language, but be willing to change your mind. (This goes both ways!)
Don't be scared to be vulnerable. Say the thing you might not know how to verbalize or think “might be dumb” or are not sure how to put “nicely”. It could inspire something really cool. Design is a team sport and the more perspectives, people, and ideas that get incorporated, the better it gets.
If nothing else, just remember this one thing:
The main thing to remember is...try. Insights come when people discuss. So jump right in, the water is nice and warm!