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How to give better design feedback

Find out how to give designers feedback that will strengthen their design process and skills, plus make you a better design leader.

Cassandra Naji
May 31, 2017
Design process

Giving good design feedback is hard. No surprise there. After all, designers put their all into their work, and no one wants to sink design-team morale.

But giving effective design feedback plays a major role in any successful project. Because design is a collaborative process, designers need clear direction just as much as they need the space to be creative.

In fact, according to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, employees actually want to hear critical feedback. In a survey of almost 1000 employees, leadership consultancy Zenger/Folkman found that a massive 92% of respondents agreed that negative feedback, when delivered correctly, was helpful.

If design and UX managers give good feedback, they’ll end up with a better design and a stronger team. If they give bad feedback, or none at all, they clients will do it for them. And that rarely turns out well!

With that in mind, here are 6 tips for giving design feedback more effectively, inspired by insights from Justinmind’s in-house design team. These tips and tools should help both your team, and you, improve the design process.

Critique impersonally

Let’s tackle the hardest part of giving feedback first: being critical without being brutal.

Whether you’re a manager, collaborator, or client, you want to avoid beating up on your designers when you give feedback. But you also need to be critical. This fine line is hard to tread, and can result in managers giving half-hearted feedback or even the dreaded “yeah, looks fine.”

In the face of this difficulty, many of us fall back on the feedback “sandwich” — squeezing in critique between praise. Unfortunately, this kind of feedback tends to be ineffective: designers can either fail to act on the negative feedback because it gets lost in the general positive vibe, or can feel patronized by the sugar coating.

So instead of sandwiching, try depersonalizing negative feedback and personalizing positive encouragement by:

  1. Approaching constructive criticism in the passive voice. I.e., asking “Why was it designed this way?” rather than “Why did you design it this way?”
  2. Explaining how the designer’s unique strengths can help improve the design

Weave positive reflections on both the design and the designer’s process into the constructive criticism. This kind of depersonalized approach should result in fewer redesigns and a more positive feedback experience.

Listen and learn as much as you talk

Providing feedback isn’t just a way to improve a design and help a designer grow — it’s also a learning opportunity for you.

Enter the feedback session prepared, but keep an open mind. Even though you’re the one providing feedback, you don’t have all the answers.

“We all make mistakes all the time,” says Justinmind’s Head of UX, Sergi Arévalo. “It’s not weird, or even bad — making mistakes is a necessary part of growing. Someone who doesn’t recognise their mistakes can’t learn from them.”

So ask your designer questions about their design process and how they arrived at solutions. They may have seen something you didn’t see. As management expert Robert Witherspoon points out in the Harvard Business Review:

“Difficult feedback is rarely about getting the facts right. It’s about conflicting views, feelings, and values. Reasonable people differ about all these things.”
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Ground your feedback in data

To outsiders, design can seem like a subjective discipline where everyone just picks their favorite color and wham, the project’s done. But everyone involved knows that’s a fallacy. Successful designers work with data to improve their process.

That’s why a bald, “I don’t like it” is never helpful for the designer, says Elena Roca, designer at Justinmind:

“Purely subjective comments don’t bring anything to the table and don’t help improve the design. Using evidence and descriptive terms is a lot more helpful.”

So when you’re about to give feedback on a design, ask yourself, “Is this feedback objective and data-based, or opinion-based?” Imagine yourself as a kind of design detective, gathering evidence on the viability of a design.

Evidence can come from a variety of sources:

  • The design team’s collective experience and knowledge
  • Case studies
  • Design principles
  • Findings from usability testing

Come to the feedback session armed with this evidential rationale, but don’t forget to ask the designer for their quantitative data as well. They might surprise you by having something game-changing up their sleeve — and if they don’t, they’ll start making evidence-gathering part of their process too.

Use all the tools

Design critiques done in writing can be misunderstood, and email chains of feedback get lost or missed way too easily. So always give your feedback in person, if possible.

But that doesn’t mean that managers can’t use new tools and tech to improve their feedback. Collaborative prototyping tools like Justinmind and annotation apps like Red Pen allow multiple design reviewers to comment on a UI in real-time, and speed up the review process, particularly when one or more team members are remote.

If you’re looking to track how designers respond to your feedback, try a tool like Culture Amp, which allows managers to run performance reviews and see feedback trends over time.

Feedback is for life, not just Christmas

For feedback to be fruitful, you need to support the designer after the feedback session. This is easy to forget — everyone’s got work to do, after all. But feedback is most effective when approached as a process, not a one-off.

After any feedback session with a designer, make sure they have:

  • Notes on what was discussed and what changes need to be made
  • A timeline for changes to be made
  • A scheduled follow-up review
  • A scheduled postmortem/reflection session set for after project launch

Build ongoing employee feedback into your team’s culture and you’ll find that giving good feedback starts to come more naturally.

Be honest, be open, and (always) be learning

Finally, giving good feedback is all about attitude, says Justinmind’s Head of UX, Sergi:

Be honest and keep learning. Everyone can teach you something. Observe the people around you and if they can teach you something. Don’t dismiss that. Curiosity and willingness to learn will always be your best allies in becoming a better design manager.

Done right, feedback can motivate

By following these tips, you can make the feedback stage(s) of your design process one of its most powerful and effective elements, simultaneously motivating your designers to produce better work and reducing the need for redesigns.

We all need practice to hone our feedback skills. By implementing the tips above, you can build a culture of critique, learning, and skill-sharing.

And remember: designers want feedback, as long as it’s constructive. Give them what they need and the whole team will benefit.

Cassandra Naji

Cassandra Naji is the Marketing Content Editor at Justinmind, a prototyping tool that allows you to prototype web and mobile apps so you can visualize and test your software solution before writing a single line of code.

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