The process of receiving design feedback

Profile picture of jeremiah lam

3/29/2021

Illustrations by Anita Goldstein

Embracing multiple perspectives is crucial for pushing creative work forward. Here’s how to truly grow and improve from feedback.

8 min read

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Receiving feedback is a critical part of the design process and can even determine its success. In fact, I’ve noticed a clear correlation between the amount of quality feedback received throughout a process and the success rate of the project.


Soliciting constructive design critiques allows us to view our designs through different perspectives and to make better decisions because of it.


Michael Gough, VP of Product Design at Uber, once said: “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.”


The act of receiving design feedback might seem simple, yet it’s much more than just listening to various comments and blindly acting upon them. In order for the process to be effective, designers must be able to clearly present their design and evaluate the feedback that was given to them, free of personal bias.



Scheduling regular feedback sessions helps cultivate a culture where feedback and opinions are respected and seen as part of the design process.


The importance of design feedback


Design is a collaborative process. Gone are the days where you could work in solitude and impress everyone at the end with your pretty design. Whether you’re working in a large team or as a sole designer, it’s essential to get feedback from your users, team members, and other relevant stakeholders at every step of the design process. In addition to helping you improve your work, there are various reasons why encouraging feedback is beneficial.



Foster collaboration


Designers thrive on collaboration — the act of debating and brainstorming new ideas is a big part of our job as we constantly seek new ways to improve our designs. Scheduling regular feedback sessions helps cultivate a culture where feedback and opinions are respected and seen as part of the design process.


However, collaboration shouldn’t be limited to being amongst designers, as different perspectives and areas of expertise can provide unique points of view.


By involving non-design stakeholders in the feedback session, we’re fostering cross-discipline collaboration among the team. It also gives everyone a sense of pride and ownership by being involved in the design process and knowing that their opinions are heard.



Grow as a designer


There’s only so much you can learn through tutorials, case studies, and articles. By working with other designers and listening to them share their design feedback, you can expand your horizons and learn new things outside of your own discipline.


For example, if a designer specializes in information hierarchy, they will be able to give you feedback based on that particular point of view. The same can be said when talking to non-design stakeholders, as they will bring up ideas relating to the business aspect — something that a designer might not take into account.



Setting the stage for constructive feedback


As a designer, I’ve often experienced colleagues or stakeholders giving me passing comments in the midst of my work process. They would make certain suggestions like, “I think we should make the buttons green to be more eye-catching” or “We should add more placement messages to promote our premium services.”


Although well-intentioned, just wanting to share their thoughts on the matter, their feedback was mostly unhelpful, due to its lack of context. In order to get quality feedback, it’s important to set the stage right. I prefer to schedule regular feedback sessions with relevant stakeholders at each step of the design process. This gives me the opportunity to properly present my design ideas and make clear on the sort of feedback I’m looking for. My presentation normally covers the following key points:

  • What problem are we aiming to solve

  • How do we define success for the project

  • Are there any potential business or technical limitations

  • Was any research done on the topic

  • The proposed solution(s) and justification for it


While this is only an outline, it should provide a good framework for presenting your ideas in an articulate and tangible format. By contextualizing your design with the necessary background information, you’d be able to tell its full story and give audiences a good insight into your thought process.



Understand your audience


Your design presentation should be tailored to the people who’ll be viewing it, and based on their perspective. When presenting to the management team, it’s critical to be business-oriented by showing that you have considered factors such as the product vision, business goals, and potential ROI. They’re probably not well-versed in design, so it’s your responsibility to align your work with those factors in order to steer the feedback towards their areas of expertise.


For example, if you’re presenting a signup process and form design, you might normally focus on how your design improves user experience by providing a frictionless flow. However, when presenting to the management team, consider explaining how this would affect the business. Is there any data showing that a frictionless signup process improves conversion rates?


In comparison, when presenting to fellow designers, you could focus more on the design aspect, cultivating a meaningful discussion on the proposed solution. The objective in this case will be to review the design and seek critiques from different perspectives to optimize it further.


Whether it’s visual, interaction, or usability issues, try to be clear on the purpose of the feedback that you’re getting, and gear the presentation towards it.



Defending your work may be tempting, but it’s important to take a step back and listen. By interrupting, you might cause the speaker to lose their train of thought and derail their original intentions.


Receiving design feedback


Now that you’ve presented your design and solution, it’s time to gather feedback. Remember that you have no control over the feedback that’ll be given to you, and not all of it would be useful or even related to the core issues at hand — which is fine. Below are some tips on how to have the right mindset while on the receiving end:



1. Listen & take notes


This might seem like common sense but from my experience, many people tend to focus on replying or defending their designs, rather than listening fully to the feedback. Defending your work may be tempting, especially if the feedback is negative, but it’s important to take a step back and listen. By interrupting, you might cause the speaker to lose their train of thought and derail their original intentions.


Cultivating a habit of taking down notes is a good way of relieving the urge to speak up as it forces you to listen instead. Taking notes can also help organize your thoughts, so don’t hesitate to add your own ideas and opinions right alongside the comments you're given.



Listen & take notes, with an illustration of a piece of paper with notes


2. Be specific & goal-oriented


As mentioned above, it’s crucial to be clear on the sort of feedback that you’re looking for. This is especially important for non-design stakeholders as they are not as accustomed to the design critique process, hence don’t always know what is expected from them. As designers, it’s our job to guide them in providing the relevant feedback that we are looking for.


Be sure not to ask questions that are too vague, like “What are your thoughts or feedback on the design” or “What do you think about the design.” These will lead to an ambiguous discussion, touching on everything from the look and feel to the UX copy and information hierarchy. Instead, ask your audience to focus on one primary objective and provide feedback around that topic.


For example, you can make it clear that you are looking for feedback specifically on the user flow rather than the aesthetics elements. Ask pertinent questions such as “Do you think users will find this flow confusing,” or “What would you change in this flow to improve user experience” to guide their thought process.



Be specific & goal-oriented, with an illustration of 3 smiley faces with only one being in focus


3. Stay open-minded & patient


As designers, we take pride in our work and it can be intimidating to receive feedback from others, especially if it’s negative or just different. It happens to all of us — a stakeholder or team member voicing their opinion, questioning a design decision, or calling out a mistake that we made.


While it might be hard, remember that design feedback isn’t personal and everyone is just trying to help create the best possible product for the user.


Stay open-minded when receiving feedback. Even though there might be conflicting opinions and thoughts, it’s beneficial to hear your colleagues out and understand how they may see your design from their individual perspectives. This might allow you to unearth new insights that you would have otherwise missed out if working in silos.


Be patient and know that some people might misinterpret your work and comment upon it. For example, they might mention that it would be good to allow the user to favorite an item when that feature already exists. Don’t rush to correct them immediately. Instead, hear them out before asking the reason for the misunderstanding. This will allow you to better understand your design and improve it as a result.


If a mistake was called out that’s obviously your blunder, acknowledge it and move on. That’s the whole point of asking for feedback — to uncover potential errors before passing the design on to the development team or releasing it to users.



Stay open-minded & patient, with an illustration of a smiley face with an open head


4. Ask & clarify when in doubt


When presented with a new design, we’re often quick to form opinions and want to express them. “I think it’s better to position the button here.”

“Can we make the signup form shorter.”

“We should make it easier for users to go through checkout.” This might lead to certain feedback being either too general or too subjective. If that happens, it’s important not to make any assumptions and instead ask for clarifications.


As designers, we should never jump to conclusions and base our decisions on unclear feedback. In order to get quality suggestions, ask clarifying questions to prompt your audience to elaborate on their thoughts and reasoning.


For example, questions such as “How would positioning the button there improve the design,” or “How would you make the signup form shorter”. Continue doing so until you understand the thought process behind every piece of feedback to the fullest.



Ask & clarify when in doubt, with an illustration of two faces with no mouth and a question mark


5. Justify & defend your decisions


In some cases, some feedback might not make sense — like changing the color of a button to something outside your team's design system. However, it’s important to never get defensive and patiently explain your design decisions.


If the feedback seems to be subjective and baseless, try to reframe your explanation on how and why that particular solution was selected. There are a few alternative ways to effectively defend your decision:


  • Referring to any guiding principles or style guidelines as a foundation

  • Bringing up user research, either quantitative or qualitative, to back up your decision

  • Using case studies from reputable sources as guidance for your design

  • Proposing to get back to the feedback after the meeting, giving you more time to think it over


If you disagree with the feedback or the proposed solution, don’t just shut it down. Instead, show how it would work as compared to yours — which might even lead to a better solution during the discussion process.


Thoughtfully talking over the comments you’re given shows your audience that you’re listening to their ideas rather than just dismissing them, which would make them feel ignored and annoyed.



Justify & defend your decisions, with a graph going from question mark to exclamation point


6. Evaluate & prioritize your feedback


Depending on your audience, you might be receiving feedback from many different perspectives and multiple parties. It would be inefficient and redundant to address every single comment, even if all of them are valuable.


At the end of the feedback session, take some time to review and evaluate each piece of feedback. Categorize them into groups based on their priority level. Always go back to the primary objective of the meeting and use it as a guideline when determining the importance of each comment.


After determining its relevance, the next step is to assess the quality of the feedback. Use any prior user research or case studies to cross-reference and evaluate how valuable or cost effective it would be to implement. If the feedback seems to contradict the research, cross it off the list. Be sure to inform the relevant stakeholders of your decision and reasoning.



Evaluate & prioritize your feedback, with an illustration of a graph showing a list of tasks