Putting work in front of others for criticism isn't easy. After all, creative-types, including product designers, put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into their work. Sometimes it's hard to separate the work from the person. And it can be emotionally challenging to not think of negative feedback as outright rejection. But feedback is meant to elicit constructive criticism from others to move a project forward. It's about the work not a reflection of your talent as a professional.
Feedback is a vital part of the design process that makes us better at our craft. Unfortunately, it's one of the most underrated professional skill in business. Continuous feedback helps to create efficiency. Not only that but it's educational, informative, gets good ideas going and can be a boost to employee morale.
But we've been taught to neglect feedback. For instance, American schools don't encourage students to give feedback to one another. Instead, feedback comes only from the teacher. As we grow up and enter the real world, we expect feedback to come from our bosses and don't seek it from our peers.
Effective feedback takes work. And that can be a drag when it's not always clear what benefit someone will derive from providing feedback. Then there's the potential minefield of constructive criticism, where feedback can be taken personally. Most people avoid being critical for that very reason. However, feedback is crucial for creating transparency and a key ingredient to making people feel satisfied with their work.
When it comes to building product, we need to get feedback early and often. We need to get feedback from the team and from potential users as we build. If not, we risk failure.
But, as we’ve said already, soliciting feedback can be tough for designers. Moreover, it can be a struggle to incorporate other team members' feedback without disrupting your own creative vision. There are a few simple steps, however, that can allow us to successfully get through the potential powder keg of getting feedback from someone on your team or a customer.
Highlight exactly what answers you’re looking for. Don't leave your questions open-ended. If you're meeting in person, give your teammate or client a written outline of the feedback you're looking for before showing a concept. Explain the benefit of each section every step of the way, and how it fits into the larger design. If it's over email, or a feedback tool like Notable, make sure the questions are contextual.
Choose specific people you'd like answers from. Don't leave it up to whomever the customer or teammate wants to show your concept to. The marketing team might have some valuable things to say, but your customer’s Aunt Flo might not nor will your teammate's plumber. Be directive — and proactive — by calling out specific people for different types of feedback.
Make sure the feedback you get is directly related to moving the project along. There's no need to revisit the issues or concerns about work that has already closed down. Make sure you specify a time limit on when you expect feedback because ideas need continuity.
Create a directive with specific examples and questions. A specific question makes it easier to take away feedback that can be acted upon.
Seeking feedback from your team gets them invested in your ideas. When you follow up with teammates, they'll not only get to see the progress you've made and how you've integrated their feedback, but they'll become more invested.
Getting feedback as early as possible as gets buy-in from the team, building momentum for your ideas. Seek out those team members who can visual concepts and offer ways to improve your idea, something we did for Verify.
When Verify had only been an idea, a concept, Bryan engaged individual members early on in the process. He would have short, five-minute conversations, soliciting their opinions. Those session later grew to 10, 20 minute conversations that outlined ideas and sketched out concepts. He'd go back and forth with individual teammates, showing the progression of the concept and how he integrated their feedback. Then he'd ask for more.
By doing so, Bryan wasn't just soliciting the team's feedback on Verify, he was building a meaningful relationships between the idea and the team. Getting the team involved in bits and pieces got them to see firsthand the value of the idea, making them feel apart of the process, not just on the sidelines completing a task.
Soliciting feedback on Verify, however, didn’t stop with the team. We got feedback from others while we were building the app. In fact, that was only the beginning of getting feedback on Verify.
We then took Verify on the road with workflow sketches, low-fi wireframes and mockups, showing the concept to 10 of our closest friends and customers. We demoed the static screens using paper or Powerpoint and got some great feedback on what our customers were looking for, what resonated with them and where we could best focus our efforts.
The feedback we got from friends and colleagues came in handy when we showed Verify off at DEMO2010. Take a look at the video below of our demo:
Potential users gave us some great feedback and several investors recommended it to their startups. We then started to eat our own dog food and used Verify for our customer projects, which not only showed us the value but allowed us to better demo it and speak to the app. We then released it privately to a few hundred users. That helped us identify not only operational concerns like load and scaling, but also got us tons of great feedback from users. Even after we released Verify, we still collected feedback.
However, not getting feedback can cost you time and money. BeenVerified's Josh Levy and Ross Cohen learned that lesson the hard way. They blew $550,000 in funding without getting a single customer because they developed a product in silence first then tried to find a market later. If only they sought feedback while they built their product … if only.
As we've said, feedback can be intensely personal. It’s hard to separate yourself from the work sometimes. You've spent a lot of time and fully invested yourself in your design. It's understandable that your initial reaction is to take it personally. After all, it’s your baby. It’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction, but it won’t help your work in the long run. After all, feedback is about the work, not you personally or your abilities as a professional.
Keep a few of the following next time you're dreading getting feedback:
Be willing to admit you're wrong. When you're close, you're biased. By admitting you're wrong, you'll end up asking specific questions, which will more easily ferret out potential solutions to problems.
Be willing to fight for your ideas. Admitting you're wrong doesn't mean you have to put away the boxing gloves. If it's something you firmly believe in, something you're passionate about, be prepared to back up your choices with concrete numbers or competitive examples that have either worked or failed. However, you won’t win your fight if you constantly highlight that the other person is wrong and argue for the sake of arguing.
Follow through. We have to take action, implementing feedback and iterating on our designs.
To accomplish that last part, we have to prioritize feedback. You may get a deluge of feedback and find yourself scratching your head, asking yourself, “now what?” One way to keep from feeling overwhelmed by your feedback and allowing yourself to take action is by asking questions, such as:
It's easy to get caught up in business goals and forget about the user. While it's important to focus on your company's overall goals, don't get too focused on them to the point that it interferes with decision making. Staying focused on improvements that will benefit users most will help avoid a collision of ideas.
Small wins might not be worth the effort if they don't contribute to a noticeable change in any key metrics. Along these lines, be sure to keep in check any gratuitous changes that are made simply to keep management happy or morale may suffer. Small wins, on the other hand, can work as long as the team sees how they fit into the overall goal. To keep motivation high, breakdown your projects into tangibles that can be tracked — money, time and excitement.
Set aside temporarily any change that seems as if it doesn't need to be made immediately. Hasty decisions can take twice as long to recover from if users become too accustomed to them. The end result is headaches and hair pulling from customer service issues.
Asking these questions not only helps you prioritize your feedback (and your workload too!), but it also keeps you and the team motivated.
The biggest challenge, however, when faced with a lot of feedback is figuring out who to listen to. After all, there are a lot of personalities that give we'll give you feedback. Let's take a look at four different personality types and the kind of feedback you'll get from them:
Role Player — This team member wants the project to succeed. He's someone that can be your advocate, so look to leverage his positive attitude. His idea might come across as being passive because he softens his feedback. You'll have to keep an ear out for subtle thoughts, ideas and "off-the-record" answers.
Loud Mouth — This person is full of thoughts and wants to be heard. Going against his ideas may bring yours into sharper focus, or the team may ignore his suggestions wholesale. It's best to acknowledge the feedback this type of personality offers, even if you think you won't need to act on any of it in the end.
Devil's Advocate — This team member challenges every idea on the table. Maybe his looking for better answers or he may just be difficult to work with. Look at where he exposes the holes in your logic, however, and make sure you're not overlooking valuable feedback or just dealing with a blowhard.
Corporate Climber — This person has an agenda and plans to move on it. Pay attention to what his agenda is and try to asses his goals. Corporate climbers usually have goals closely aligned with corporate strategy, which makes their advice worth listening to.
You might encounter a few other personality types when it comes to feedback, but there's no magic bullet in dealing with them. Best advice is to step back and consider each person's goals and agendas before tossing out or acting on their feedback.
At this point, you're probably saying to yourself, “I know how to receive feedback and how I should process it, but I sure as heck don't know how to give feedback without coming across as a punk.” Well, don’t insult and give a fair critique. OK, it’s a bit more than that. Over the years, we’ve worked extremely hard to understand and learn how to give good feedback. It's not enough to give critique. Feedback must be meaningful and push our projects forward.
There's an art to it and when it comes to your turn at the feedback bat, keep in mind these four questions to prevent your feedback from seeming random and unfocused:
Your feedback must have a call to action. A designer must be able to follow through on most or all of the suggestions you make. Also, make sure you spell out what changes you want now, and what you consider are future changes. Don't leave it up to the designer to guess what you want. Let them know what you want. Like we said above, make sure that deadlines and timeframes are reasonable enough to allow your feedback to be implemented.
The designer should be able to quickly identify what your suggestions mean. That's why Notable is a great option where you can put feedback directly on a screenshot and annotate it with notes.
Get people excited about your insights, remove any roadblocks and save any cutting or extremely negative remarks for a private conversation. This helps empower the team to get results. Don’t, however, sugar coat mistakes or problems.
Don't just pile a lot of feedback on your team without making sure they have adequate time and the right skill set to execute on it. Make arrangements beforehand if any part of the project requires special attention or a specialist to chip in. It also helps to break down the feedback and expected actions into smaller, obtainable chunks. This will expose any potential challenges that occur when the changes you request doesn’t match the designer's skill set. Remember, just because it needs to get done, doesn't mean the person you're talking to is the one to do it.
Despite the amazing digital tools out there for feedback (like Notable, which we're kinda fond of), sometimes feedback is best giving in-person. Meeting in-person can provide much better insight, such as body language and tone of voice, which can be very revealing. You'll get a sense with how comfortable each of you are with what's being said and you'll better understand the scope of the discussion.
Face to face, you can get a feel for the intent of the feedback, which in turn will allow you to understand and get to the heart of the matter. More than that, you'll build and create momentum with positive reinforcement, which is easier to appreciate in person than on a computer screen sometimes. Around ZURB HQ, we tend to favor a hybrid approach, eating our dog food with Notable and taking things out face-to-face. We also tend to switch back and forth throughout the day.
It's hard to see the flaws in your own work because you're too close to it. Getting feedback can help you make your designs more awesome and you'll be able to rapidly iterate so that you can achieve that big win in the end. After all, we like to win and to do that, we need help from our teammates and our users.