Tracey Thompson

Product Design Leader, SF Bay Area

Work in progress tacked up to a wall. Stickie notes are placed on top with generic feedback on the work.

Giving and receiving design feedback effectively takes practice

It’s not always easy to give and receive design feedback. A negative past experience might make a designer hesitant to ask for or participate in a review. Unfortunately, we can’t produce good work without getting or giving feedback.

Practicing giving and receiving feedback will help us grow as a team. This guide provides an overview of behaviors to strive for in a design review. We don’t have to get them right each time, but making an effort counts.

Best practices for giving feedback

The goal of giving feedback is to help evaluate a design in terms of how well the design meets its objectives. As feedback givers, we have a duty to our teammates to be thoughtful. There are several ways we can give thoughtful feedback:

Lead with questions

Asking questions about the design helps us give informed feedback. It shows the designer you’re interested in both their work and the reasoning behind it. Delivering feedback on an incorrect assumption could take the conversation off track. Asking questions helps you determine if your assumption is accurate. The resulting feedback is more likely to be relevant to the objectives.

Some questions you might ask:

  • Tell me more about what your objectives were for….?
  • Why did you choose this approach?
  • What other options did you consider?
  • Where can I help you the most?

Filter your initial reactions

We all have gut reactions, but they’re not always actionable or helpful. Think about where your reaction is coming from. Is it a personal opinion? Does it relate to how well the design does or does not accomplish its objective? Are you problem-solving? Is there a question you could ask to help the designer discover a solution rather than prescribing one to them?

If you need more time to articulate your thoughts, that’s okay! You can say “I’m not quite sure why I feel this element isn’t achieving the design goals.” It’s reasonable to ask to give additional feedback once you’ve had a chance to think things through. Be mindful of the recipient’s deadlines in doing so.

Talk about what’s working

Critique doesn’t have to be all about the negatives. Letting the designer know where they are meeting the design objects is equally important. Elements and ideas that work well in one area of the design may help strengthen another. It’s also helpful for the designer to know what to prioritize when making revisions so that good work isn’t tossed out. Remember to keep your feedback objective. Use language like “This design is working well because X element helps it meet goal Y” rather than saying “I like Z.”

Consider your perspective

It can be difficult for us to remember that we are not necessarily the user of the product we are designing. When giving feedback, it can be helpful to think about whom you’re reviewing the design as. Is it yourself? If it is, consider walking through the design again as one of the personas. How is that persona’s view different from your own?

Avoid problem-solving

It may seem odd to go through the process of identifying problems with a design without also proposing a solution but resist doing so. Proposing solutions to a problem switches the conversation from an analytical one to a creative one. It derails the evaluation of the design and robs the designer of the opportunity to solve the problem for themselves. If you feel the urge to jump to a solution, work backward and think about what the issue you’ve identified is and how it’s not meeting the design objectives.

One exception to this guideline is when a designer asks for this type of help. It’s okay to brainstorm solutions if both parties have agreed to have this type of conversation. If you’re not sure if a designer is asking for this type of help, ask.

Best practices for receiving feedback

When asking for feedback, we are taking a step back from the generative phase to look critically at our work and how well it meets our design goals. As feedback receivers, our duty is to listen and remember that critique is about improving the design, not a judgment of us as individuals. There are several ways we can engage as feedback recipients:

Remember that critique is about the design, not you

We’re here to understand and improve upon the design. It can be hard not to take negative comments personally but remember: this isn’t a test. The design presented is one hypothesis. There’s no perfect solution. We’re here to reflect on the design, not you as a designer. Receiving critique well takes humility and restraint.

Listen, think, and ask questions

Try to actively listen. When you receive a point of feedback, don’t jump to authoring your response. Keep listening. If you don’t understand a comment or don’t agree with it, ask questions. Prompt the reviewer to go into further detail about how a design element is or is not reaching the design goal.

If a reviewer is prescribing a solution, ask more about what issue this solution is in response to. Ask how that issue relates to the objectives of the design. If they’re unable to articulate the issue, or the team gets hung up on exploring possible solutions, consider tabling the topic for a future discussion so the team can return to analyzing the design. Another option is for the team to agree to switch from a critique to a pairing session and return to the critique at another time.

If this is a follow-up critique and the reviewer contradicts their earlier feedback or feels the changes you’ve made didn’t address their concerns, ask questions to try to understand their concerns more clearly. If the reviewer is unable to give you more to work with, ask them what is working to get the conversation moving again.

If you’re struggling to both listen and take notes, consider having someone take notes for you. Another option is to take notes on a whiteboard or in a document visible to the team. This visibility will also help you and the team be sure you’re on the same page.

If you want praise, don’t hesitate to ask: “What about this design is working well?” Don’t expect a design review itself to be a source of praise.

Participate

You’re allowed to critique your work, too. Try picking one of the personas and imagining what this design might be like for them. Are they able to meet their goals? This activity helps you practice critiquing skills and strengthens your ability to switch between the creative mindset and the analytical mindset. It can put the other reviewers at ease to see you talk openly about your own work.

Stay on target

If you feel like your discussion is getting off-topic or you’re getting feedback that seems out of left field, refer to the context you set in the beginning. Is everyone on the same page? If they aren’t, we either need more alignment, or we may need to reevaluate our foundation.


Sources

Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry, Discussing Design (O’Reilly, 2015.) Available in handy cheat-sheet form: http://www.discussingdesign.com/downloads/Critique_CheatSheet.pdf

Adam Connor, Discussing Design without Losing Your Mind (Slide Share, 2014.)

Elaine Lin Hering, Thanks for the Feedback: Skills for Receiving Feedback Well (Meetup, 2017 based on the book *Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well* by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen (Penguin Books, 2015))

Tom Greever, Articulating Design Decisions: Communicate with Stakeholders, Keep Your Sanity, and Deliver the Best User Experience (O’Reilly, 2015.)

Sheila Heen, “How to Use Others’ Feedback to Learn and Grow” (TEDx, 2015)

Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, Difficult Conversations: Find the Coaching in Criticism (Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2014)

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina 🇺🇦 on Unsplash