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This article was published on April 22, 2020

How to get constructive feedback as a designer

How to get constructive feedback as a designer
Sungjoon Steve Won
Story by

Sungjoon Steve Won

Steve is a product designer, previously at Microsoft, Samsung, and NAVER. His passion spans across design, productivity, and future of work. Steve is a product designer, previously at Microsoft, Samsung, and NAVER. His passion spans across design, productivity, and future of work. You can follow him on Medium and Twitter.

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Feedback is a popular topic in design. You can find great insights out there highlighting the importance of feedback, different ways of giving them, handling common types of feedback from others, and more. Feedback and critiques are an integral part of the design process.

To get the best out of feedback though, I realized that walking into a room with confident designs and a growth mindset isn’t enough. Looking back, I began wondering if there is a structure to facilitate time to be well-spent.

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At a high level, there are two types of feedback that can have a significant impact on your design.

Constructive feedback will clarify how to move the design forward. It can uncover clues to answering open questions, gather sentiment adding momentum towards a direction, identify new blockers critical to the idea’s success, and more. This doesn’t necessarily mean positive feedback. Both negative and positive feedback on your design can be constructive.

Destructive feedback will cloud how to move the design forward. It can mislead the design by asking tangential but unrelated questions, make an unproductive use of people’s time by derailing discussions, make it difficult to tease out what matters by adding noise, and more. These are more ways to identify bad feedback.

It’s clear which type of feedback will help your design grow.

Design how to get feedback

What you want to aim for is taking the energy of the crowd and channeling them into constructive feedback that can fuel your designs.

Here are a number of steps that can help establish the tone and structure to get there. These are largely based on past experiences and also great practices I’ve witnessed from others.

1. If you have pre-reading, put weight behind it.

Lens focusing into a direction and blurring all else
Source: Unsplash

Setting context is important when asking for feedback. If you don’t, each person can have a different understanding of how far along your design is and also be keen on giving feedback to different parts of the design. Bigger or more diverse the crowd, easier the critique can get out of control. These can easily turn into destructive feedback.

Rather than spending the first few minutes of the critique catching everyone up to speed, pre-reads can be incredibly helpful. If you have content worth sharing out as a pre-read (it doesn’t have to be necessarily long), prepare and put weight behind it. It can set a baseline context, so everyone starts with a coherent framing from the start.

What to do

In the pre-reading, mark the following.

  • Mark the goals 

Point out which aspects you are looking for feedback on.

  • Mark the non-goals 

State non-goals that are out of scope for this design. For example, “Given the priorities for this sprint, optimizing for mobile is a non-goal for this design. We will start on desktop and design for mobile based on the learnings after.”

  • Mark the stage in the design 

Indicate how far along the design is, so you can level-set expectations with the audience. Different design fidelity will matter at each stage, and calling that out prevent the risk of going down the rabbit hole. For example, visual feedback can derail the conversation if you are only at the wireframing phase asking for feedback on the high-level structure.

  • Mark open questions

Call out open questions that are being thought out by the core working group but have not been solved yet, so people can provide relevant insights or focus on asking other questions.

  • Mark who’s finished going through the pre-reading 

Call out pre-reading is crucial, and allow for an easy way for people to mark that they’ve finished reading. Start the critique once enough people have finished reading.

2. Be intentional about who should be invited

Spacious outlook into the sky with a round bound
Source: Unsplash

To receive a lot of feedback, it’s important to set a tone where people feel the freedom and the openness to share. While openness is good, not all feedback is equal. For feedback to be relevant and constructive, it’s also important that they come from the right people. As Google Ventures also shared as an example in their guide to design critiques, “Rather than include folks with big titles (CEO, CTO, etc.), think about who has the best data to inform the design.”

What to do

  • Designate who’s mandatory in the audience

They could be people who need to be aware of this work, who you need buy-offs from, who you need to collaborate with, who you will be unblocking, who you are being dependent on, and so forth.

  • Designate who’s optional in the audience

Allow the bigger group to join as optional but set an expectation — while their feedback is appreciated, it may carry a different weight from those mandatory to participate. This allows others to feel involved in the process and prevent missing out on learning from a wider set of perspectives.

  • Don’t over-invite

You may feel the urge to build a consensus by getting everyone involved or to get everyone’s thumbs-up. Resist the temptation to over-invite. Scope to the core participants who can deliver the feedback your design needs— And in some cases, this will be everyone.

Throughout the design critique, having clear roles such as the presenter, the audience, and the facilitator will also help keep things on track.

3. Use the power of the group to prioritize

Thumbs up expression
Source: Unsplash

Active critiques are great, but you may run out of time to cover all the input. Lack of clear criteria on what to cover can lead to missing out on an important discussionor lead people to feel as if the discussions are being moderated in a biased way. One of the best ways to determine prioritization is leaning towards what the group is most interested in discussing together.

Here’s a simple way to harness group thinking to set an unbiased way to prioritize discussion topics. I’ve learned this from witnessing others in action, and it has proven to be quite effective.

What to do

  • Step 1: Set up a visible space for each person to add their feedback and questions.
  • Step 2: Allocate time for every participant to go through the list and upvote on the ones that they find impactful, relevant, or important discussing together.
  • Step 3: Go down through the list from the most upvoted. Most upvoted doesn’t mean that is the correct answer or feedback but indicates the ones many people resonate with it or would like to discuss together.

4. Watch out for derails

Even a great piece of feedback may be irrelevant to the topic you want the group to focus on. If the feedback is insightful and people get excited about it, that can derail the current topic — it’s not just the destructive feedback that can break the flow. In either case, it’s important not to derail nor get defensive.

What to do

Harnessing group input should help de-prioritize feedback that is less relevant. But for others that still come up, measure the relevance based on the goals you’ve stated and the type of feedback you believe the design needs.

If the feedback is insightful but less relevant to the current focus, stay on track by indicating that you will respond asynchronously or spin-off a dedicated discussion as the next steps. Show that the feedback has been duly noted, not ignored. — “This is great feedback, but we will follow-up through XYZ so we can keep the current session on track.”

Getting to what your design needs

Just like there’s food that is good and food that is bad for the body, not all feedback is helpful to the design. Understand the type of feedback your design needs, and hone the skills to drive conversations towards what’s constructive.

While writing this article, I’ve learned that Coda provides templates that can bring many of these practices alive for your team. Here’s an interactive document with a combination of those templates. Feel free to give it a try.

If you have other ways that have worked well for you, I would love to learn about them.

This article was originally published on by Sungjoon Steve Won, a product designer, previously at Microsoft, Samsung, and NAVER. His passion spans across design, productivity, and future of work. You can follow him on Medium and Twitter.

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