17 Design Feedback Techniques that Influence Others and Win Meetings

Ryan wrote this on May 10, 2013 in , . It has 8 comments.

Picture this. The designer on your team has spent the last week whipping up lo-fi wireframes that highlight solutions to the user and business problems you're trying to solve. She's worked through all the interactions. Then she presents to the rest of the team. But she flounders, stumbling over her words. Everyone has a deer-in-the-headlights look on their faces. She's lost them. And it ends with the dreaded four words, "what do you think?"

The designer hasn't asked specific questions, highlighted the process or exposed weaknesses, because you didn't coach her through it. If the team comes in at the middle of the design process, they won't have anything to say. Well, except, "looks good" or "like it" or "wouldn't change a thing." Now the designer on your team is stuck. Unsure. Is it really good? Does it really work? Are there no changes to make? And if the team comes in at the tail end of the process, their feedback could derail all the hard work that's been done with one little, "we like it ... but ... (insert major change here)."

After 15 years of design critiques, we've figured out how to mitigate experiences like this. Know this: soliciting and giving feedback isn't as simple as walking into a meeting and asking for an opinion. Without clear direction from the project lead and the designer on your team, a feedback session can crumble like an overcooked falafel. But design feedback can help you ensure you don't cook up a bad batch.


1. Stop the Yammering

A lack of clear direction can stymie a design critique, wasting the team's time. Without a clear agenda, everyone on the team will be left fiddling with their laptops or phones, more concerned with the ticking of the clock than what's being said.

Solution:

Outline to the team the types of feedback that's being sought in a critique. The designer on your team needs to articulte the benefits of what they've done and give people enough time to review the work. At ZURB, we send out an email the day before a feedback session that does just this. We include a link to any prototypes, wireframes or any work we've done, with clear explanations of what we've done and why.


2. Quit Inviting Everyone to the Meeting, Especially at the Wrong Time, Which Happens All the Time

Having more than a handful of people involved results in feedback from those that have no stake in the project. People will bombard the designer with feedback because they feel as if they have to contribute. Worse, it doesn't help move the project forward at all because the designer will be integrating feedback that won't improve the product.

Solution:

Target specific people on the team that can provide valuable insight. Who on the team has a stake in what's being worked on? Who is it that can provide actionable feedback? Say the designer is working on a responsive design, then she might want to target peers who have had experience doing it. At ZURB, we find the optimal project size is made up of no more than 5-7 core people.


3. Win Over the Devil's Advocate with an Orgy of Evidence

A design devil's advocate challenges assumptions, arguing for qualitative results. Sure he might be seeking better answers, or he may be difficult to work with. But a design devil's advocate isn't a bad thing. He can expose flaws in a designer's logic and a good spirited debate can yield answers.

Solution:

The designer on your team can win over a devil's advocate with quantitative rationale. Provide supporting evidence for their design decisions, either through experience or case studies. The designer on a team can basically bury the devil's advocate with data supporting why she's right. Soliciting the opinion of others in a feedback session can also provide counterbalance to a devil's advocate. At ZURB, we use Verify to compliment our design decisions with quick data points. It's worked wonders to get clients to back our ideas.


4. Don't Treat Design Work as Abstract Art

It's hard to give feedback on something folks don't understand. The designer on your team isn't presenting a Jackson Pollock work. She can't throw something up without a clear explanation on the goals. The rest of the team won't know how to give feedback properly or will lose interest completely, elevating uncertainty.

Solution:

Coach designers to be problem-oriented in their presentations, even if it's a creative solution. The team needs to know the benefits of what's been done, understanding how the work meets both business and user goals. In other words, the team needs context. We provide thumbnails of the work during client projects with clear explanations of the work, explaining our decisions. Those thumbnails link to a larger image, so that a client's team can view the details. This leaves the client knowing in what context to give their feedback.


5. Tangents Are Good, Except When They're Not

In Design Thinking, tangents are great when the team's opening up a problem, exploring all the options in front of you. But if a team's trying to close down a problem, it can lead to muddled feedback.

Solution:

Keep in mind what stage of the process the team is in. The team can't shy away from tangents in the early stages of product development. The designer on the team might be cutting herself off from a potential solution. On the same side of the coin, she can't go down a thousand roads when she's trying to close down a problem. At ZURB, our design leads coach and train our designers to know when to open and close down problems through constant, iterative feedback.


6. Don't Screw Yourself with Useless Questions

Broad questions, such as "what are your thoughts," can expose you to random, unimportant feedback that doesn't connect to the direction of the design. The feedback will be unfocused, which will lead to a muddled product.

Solution:

Coach designers to ask specific questions of the team. If the designer is working on a mobile layout, she should ask if her interaction decisions make sense in that context. Ask the team if they would actually want a particular function in mobile that they already have on the a desktop view. Or if they would even want a toggle to collapse a stream on a mobile view, like we did recently for our Forrst redesign. Specific questions lead to actionable feedback.


7. Build a Relationship with a Designer's Ego

Designers may ignore feedback, which doesn't help propel projects forward. If a designer is unwilling to listen, then she won't notice gaps in her thinking. It takes an outside view to spot those. Without that, a designer can become myopic — she can't see the movie when she's inside of it.

Solution:

Build a relationship with a designer's ego. Make it a conversation rather than a passive agressive exercise. Relate to the designer's plight. After all, we've all been at the receiving end of feedback and that experience can help you coach a designer through criticism. At ZURB, design leads are designers themselves. They use their past experience to guide them on the best way to express feedback or ideas.


8. Email Gets the Feedback Going, But Won't Finish It

Email is great for starting a feedback loop, but not so much for closing it. The product design feedback can quickly get lost in a chain of emails going back-and-forth between several people. Context is lost. But email can create sparks among the team. Email can be used to outline the benefits of the work that's been done and link to prototypes or wireframes. But getting back a novel of bullet points can be meaningless without context.

Solution:

Forcing people to articulate feedback out loud often helps them boil it down to what's necessary and not worry about the nitty-gritty details. Context is everything. If you can't meet face-to-face, feedback can still be giving contextual through tools like our app Notable, where the team can easily annotate screenshots.


9. It's Not What Design Work Says, It's How It's Presented

The design work can be solid, but a poor performance can sink it. Uncertainty in a designer's presentation will cause the team to lose confidence in what she's trying to accomplish. A study of why nonprofits get this wrong reveals that a lifeless presentation can kill ideas. They found that those surveyed gave a C- to most presentations they attended. A staggering 66% of 2,501 surveyed got nothing out of a poor performance.

Solution:

The designer on your team needs to present work with confidence so he can solicite the right kinds of feedback. She needs to own the work, telling others clearly what he did and be able to explain his choices. Stand tall, work the room and make eye contact with everyone. It's key to project and vary vocal tones. A louder, more excitable tone gets an audience excited. A softer, duller tone puts them to sleep. A designer won't get useful feedback if they can't connect with the rest of the team.


10. Even Babe Ruth Struck Out

Babe Ruth had a batting average of .342 with 714 home runs, which meant he missed most of the time. Understand that designers aren't always going to hit it out of the park. They're going to swing and miss. Things that they thought would work might not.

Solution:

Iteration is about working through the wrong answers. Feedback helps a designer recognize what those are, allowing them to push forward. At ZURB, designers iterate quickly on ideas, seeing what works and what doesn't. A culture must allow designers to fail fast, so they can move past bad ideas and on to winning ones.


11. Designers Rarely Have the Right Answers

OK, this isn't suppose to be an insult, it's the nature of the job. Stubborn designers can sabotage a project. Designers are wrong a majority of the time (remember Babe Ruth above?) as they work toward solid solutions. If they accept this, then they'll be receptive to feedback. But they need feedback from the right people. If not, then they'll build something that is a patchwork made up of useless advice.

Solution:

Know who to pull into the feedback loop based on experience. Building relationships with other members of the team is crucial. Get to know their strengths, their interests. Recognizing those skills can help in deciding whose feedback to seek. Say a designer is having a tough time with a code bit. Who is it on the team that is a code junkie? That person might yield the better feedback. A team leader should be able to pull that person into the conversation by appealing to her interest directly.


12. But Designers Shouldn't Be Pushovers

Designers shouldn't be just implementors. Clients and stakeholders don't just want someone who likes to be told what to do. They want problem solvers who can work through solutions that meet the needs of both the business and the user.

Solution:

Designers on a team need to ask questions, seek answers. They can't just accept a list of feedback. They have to think through that feedback, what it means and determine what's important. They have to consolidate it and be able to project it to the rest of the team. At ZURB, our designers ask "why" five times, which helps them get to the root of a problem rather than treat the symptom.


13. Design Work is Like Theater

Nothing stinks more than when a designer or project manager who just tunes out during a feedback session. Team members have given up their time. Don't waste it. After all, the designer has sought out their opinions. A team can lose faith if they feel they are being ignored.

Solution:

The designer on the team needs to project back concepts and ideas from others. They have to be able to pick out key points and broadcast them confidently. At ZURB, designers practice this through design critiques. They also use creative problem solving during our Friday15 challenges. And they get coaching from our design leads.


14. Memory is a Harsh Mistress

Even if you do pay attention, a designer isn't going to remember every piece of feedback. And negative feedback can shut a designer down. She'll keep churning that negative comment over and over again in his head, missing out on other feedback that might be crucial.

Solution:

Designers should take notes, jotting down the big ideas from the feedback. This helps them channel that nervous energy into something productive. It forces them to focus on the page and not internalize a negative comment. There's also one side benefit of taking notes — it shows investment in what others are saying even if all the ideas don't end up being used.

Designers at ZURB have different ways of doing this. Some take notes by hand, listening for key points and jotting them down. Others open up a Google Doc and type down big ideas. Some also rewrite their notes during a feedback session so they can better articulate their next steps.


15. Design Assumptions are a Double Whammy

Everyone makes assumptions. But assumptions in design can result in crappy products. Consider this: A designer is unclear about a piece of feedback, thinks she knows what's right then implements it. What she's done might not solve the problem doing more harm than good.

Solution:

Designers should assume nothing during a feedback session. If something is unclear, they should be trained to ask for clarification. Ask why five times. By doing so, they'll be challenging assumptions that they might no existed.


16. Design Feedback Isn't a Menu

After a feedback session, there'll be a laundry list of suggestions and ideas. This can be overwhelming for a designer and she can seize up. But design feedback isn't a menu of options. A designer can't act on all of them, or else they'll noodle instead of iterate.

Solution:

Designers need to triage feedback and prioritize goals. They should ask what is actionable and what isn't. At ZURB, designers prioritize by figuring out the key takeaways from a feedback session. If it's something tactical, say a button, then they might implement it right away. But if it's more conceptual, say an entire footer, they might go back to sketching or photoshop to work through ideas then seek another round of feedback.


17. Designers Shouldn't Be Introverts All the Time

Design isn't a solo journey. But designers can easily get overly focused on the work. But they can't work in a vacuum. Design, after all, is collaboration.

Solution:

Designers on your team need to quit being introverts all the time. Understand that they need to seek out feedback from others. Follow through on that feedback and iterate based on what you've received. Show others the impact they made. Engagement and buy-in happens when others can see the fruits of their labor.


Become a Master of Feedback

We've practiced the art of giving and asking for good feedback over the past 15 years. If you find some of these techniques interesting, your team might want to sign up for our Mastering Design Feedback online course.

Topics include:

  • Soliciting meaningful feedback
  • Prioritizing feedback and iterating
  • Giving good feedback to others

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