Design Critics without crushing feelings
Understanding the psychology behind social interactions is a job in itself, but when you’re focused on icons, grids, interactions, it’s easy to overlook that other people have feelings that need protecting – and that you do, too.
Feedback is a necessary evil for creating the end product that satisfies users, but it serves its purpose more efficiently with a proper procedure in place.
Below, we’ve collected some feedback tips from design experts on both sides. We’ve listed them out to help you draw out the beneficial points of feedback while minimizing the harmful ones. Without further delay, here are 5 tips for design feedback that people won’t hate.
01. Don’t shy away from follow-up questions
Feedback should open a discussion, not just be given and then everyone moves on. This makes it seem like a command, which proper critique is not. Asking follow-up questions creates a dialogue that accomplishes several goals.
For starters, it draws out the critique – by understanding every corner, the recipient better comprehends the problem, and if and which parts of it can be solved.
Additionally, probing with follow-up questions can challenge critiques that are suspect. In settings like this, feedback isn’t always honest, there are hidden agendas and personal motives at play. Follow-up questions help sift through what is valid and what falls apart under pressure.
There’s not always a devious undertone, though. Sometimes, the critic actually has a valid point, but can’t, for whatever reason, articulate it. In this case, asking follow-up questions will aid the speaker in actually voicing what they want to say. Some people simply need help expressing themselves properly.
Dustin Curtis recommends forcing yourself to ask the critic at least three questions. He points out that the act of formulating those questions will help you change your own opinion, making this an advantageous tactic for everyone.
02. Always stay goal-oriented
As we described in Design Collaboration in the Enterprise, a lot of the trouble with feedback comes from confusion over the end-goal.
Who is this product designed for? What does it hope to accomplish? The same design element can be either a perfect choice or an awful choice depending on the answers to these kinds of questions.
If the same goals aren’t understood by everyone at the beginning, the feedback will be misguided and ineffective.
Ideally, the goals are decided at the start of the project, but if these were never uniformly addressed, the sooner the better. Once everyone is on the same page about the target users, strategies, styles, and criteria for success, the feedback will be more focused and helpful.
Otherwise, everyone’s pulling the design into different directions, and you’ll end up with something that tries to fulfill every criteria and satisfies none.
Take the time to reiterate the project goals beforehand. If anyone goes off track, you can more easily bring them back this way. Moreover, clearly established goals will more concretely weed out the valid comments from the opinionated ones, and help in clearing up some disagreements.
03. Provide proper context with framing
If implemented by everyone, proper framing can resolve a good portion of feedback problems. What we mean by framing is the approach or angle in which a comment is presented. The same problem can be framed from a variety of angles, but some are more helpful than others.
Yotam Troim suggests presenting a problem instead of a solution. By framing a critique as an issue, feedback sessions take a whole new feel. Let’se, for example, something simple like colour choice.
A proper way to frame the comment would be something like, “I’m not sure the colour scheme fits the mood of the product.” What this does is open a discussion to the group: does this colour scheme actually fit, what is the mood of the product, which colour scheme would work best, etc.
These are all important questions brought to light by the way in which the comment was posed. Furthermore, now the entire group is able to give their opinion on the colour scheme instead of just the first person, and an impromptu brainstorming session begins that incorporates everyone’s expertise.
Compare that scenario to one where the comment was framed only as a solution, “I think the colour scheme should be green-blue.” All the helpful discussion from the first scenario is bypassed, and it now becomes only a question of whether or not green-blue would work.
Now, let’s say the table immediately agrees that green-blue does not work and everyone moves on. The heart of the comment – the colour scheme isn’t working – goes unaddressed simply because the speaker framed his critique from a perspective of personal opinion.
04. Phrase your feedback strategically
Just as with framing, the same critique can be interpreted any number of ways depending on its phrasing. Minor details like word choice can make a world of difference to the person on the receiving end, not the least of which is whether or not they choose to accept it.
There are two important concerns to keep in mind when phrasing your feedback:
- the feelings of the recipient
- the accuracy of the comment
The first is the same lessons of playing well with others that we learned in kindergarten. Proper phrasing incorporates respectfulness and tact. Using softer phrasing like “I didn’t understand this part” will soften the blow far more than, “I hated this” or “This part makes no sense.”
This may be common sense to some people, but others seem to lack this empathetic filter, and so extra care should be placed on wording.
The second concern about accuracy deals mainly with exaggeration. “No one is going to understand that” is a bit inaccurate, not to mention extreme. “I didn’t understand that,” or “I’m worried a lot of people won’t understand that” are more accurate, and more helpful.
Grounding your comments in reality will make them much more actionable.
05. Back it up with facts
Opinions can be discussed and argued all night long, but facts are either right or wrong. Whenever possible, back up your criticisms with facts. This will cut down on time wasted in fruitless debates, but it will also create a better end product because it’s built on something substantial.
Draw on any user studies or relevant research to explain why your criticism is valid. In fact, before the feedback session even begins, present the right context by explaining the rationale behind the design in terms of usability data. If you haven’t yet conducted any research for the project, reference others’ research – there’s certainly enough of it out there.
Even the more abstract topics such as visuals have scientific backing. The Gestalt principles lend validity to claims about layout and spacing.
Numerous studies on the psychological effects of colours can help settle disputes on which colours to choose. And the science of aesthetics we described in the free e-book Web Design for the Human Eye can determine in concrete terms the proper look of a design.
Ultimately, the opinions of your peers don’t matter nearly as much as the behavior of the users. Try as best you can to model your feedback on what’s best for them.
Yes, you should hurt other people’s feelings as little as possible. But feelings aside, collaboration is better for business.
A smoother feedback routine helps ensure the right criticisms get implemented, along with less feelings getting hurt. Like all other aspects of design, how to critique is its own skillset with its own guidelines. Taking the time to work on those will have positive effects on the project just like improving any other design element.
If you’d like to explore more skills and techniques required for great web design, check out the free 109-page e-book Web Design Best Practices. The book explores techniques spanning UX design, visual design, and interaction design. Examples are analyzed from 33 companies including Apple, Spotify, Skullcandy, and others.
Words: Jerry Cao
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