How to give constructive design feedback

Constructive feedback helps build a safe environment for designers to grow. I believe we should give feedback the way we want to receive it.

Illustration with small plant growing out of a speech bubble

Giving and receiving design feedback are crucial skills, yet often overlooked. The feedback we get helps us improve our work and makes us better designers. In return, the feedback we give helps other designers improve their work, as well. Feedback helps build trusting and collaborative relationships with those we work with. Given how important feedback is, the delivery and receptiveness of feedback are just as important as the feedback itself, and I believe that we should give feedback the way we want to receive it. In a HBR’s article about feedback and performance, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman suggest that “when it comes to giving the gift of feedback, it’s worth the effort of putting yourself in the receiver’s frame of mind.”

In this post, I’m going to focus just on giving feedback and will share my thoughts on receiving it next time.

First, who is receiving the feedback?

The audience I’m focusing on are designers who share or present their work at design reviews. However, I believe some ideas in this post also apply to broader audiences in other situations, as well.

Next, let’s look at some misunderstandings when feedback is poorly delivered.

  • Feedback may be perceived as personal and may hurt the designer’s feelings.
  • It can be thought as overly negative and can diminish the designer’s good work.
  • It can be misunderstood as a request and creates an environment where the designer may not feel they can be creative or think outside the box. The designer may lose the feeling of ownership.
  • When the feedback is not clear or actionable enough, the designer may not know how to move forward.

Now let’s consider the needs and emotions of the designer receiving feedback.

The designer may feel close to the work on a personal level.

They may have already invested time considering or addressing your feedback in another way.

They may need to move forward quickly and want clear and actionable feedback.

They are often under pressure while presenting their work.

Let’s explore ways to give constructive feedback based on those needs and emotions.

1. The designer often feel close to the work on a personal level.

Don’t make it personal: It’s about the work the designer is sharing. It’s helpful to start with this mindset: I’m here to help others improve their work — not judging them.

Avoid “right” or “wrong” feedback: We may have more knowledge, insights or experience on the topic but just because we’re able to spot holes in their work, it doesn’t mean we’re always right nor our ideas are better. There are often no right or wrong solutions to a problem, just the solution that works best for the scenario.

Focus on solving the user problem: While it’s perfectly ok to share our opinions, it provokes more thoughtful discussions if we focus on how the feedback can solve the user problem in a better way.

2. The designer may have already considered or addressed your feedback in another way.

Ask questions: Often-times there are reasons behind the design decisions that the designer made. To get a better understanding of their rationale, ask questions and give them an opportunity to share their thought process. Reviewers often lack the context and reasons behind the design decisions. So it helps to be curious and open-minded to learn more about others’ ideas. Research study indicates that the more we listen, the better we are thought at giving feedback.

Give your feedback in the form of questions: Starting with something like “Did you consider…?” can be a great way to start the conversation. If the designer already tried what you’re suggesting, you would hear the reasoning why they didn’t end up going with it. And if they haven’t considered that already, they’ll probably be happy to receive suggestions.

3. The designer may need to move forward quickly and want clear and actionable feedback.

Be clear and specific: Share what you think can be improved and the reasons for it. Also make sure to suggest any alternatives or point them to that direction. Clear and actionable feedback helps the designer improve their work and move forward. In fact, according to research constructive feedback is more preferable even if it’s critical.

For example, just commenting that the user flow is too long or has too many steps is not actionable enough. On the other hand, suggesting to combine the first two steps or removing the last step because it’s not relevant to the users is more specific and helpful.

Be flexible: When there’s no agreed upon solution, move forward by proposing the next step to take in order to resolve any outstanding sticking points. For example, suggest collecting extra data to further validate the idea.

Have no feedback? It’s ok! If you don’t have any feedback to share, don’t feel pressured to say something — or instead just give your compliments.

4. The designer is often under pressure while presenting their work.

Be nice and respectful: Being nice and respectful go a long way in helping create a safe and trusting environment for more sharing and collaboration.

Provide rationale for feedback: Unless feedback is backed by data, ultimately it’s just opinions.

Be aware of voice and tone: The way we deliver our feedback is just as important as the feedback itself. We don’t want to unintentionally create more pressure and trigger the designer into being defensive of their work. Randy Conley suggests that to help avoid defensive behavior, “be moderate in your tone, even-tempered, empathize with their concerns and be respectful.”

Give compliments: Compliments go a long way and boosts the designer’s confidence, so be more generous in giving them. Be sure to also call out and reward out-of-the-box thinking to encourage future innovations.

Wrapping it up

It takes practice, self-awareness, listening skills and understanding of the person on the other end in order to give constructive feedback. Sharing feedback with each other is a great way to build trust within the team. Only when feedback culture is established, can our team can grow, succeed and be really happy.

I believe that we should give feedback the way we want to receive it.

Help me improve this post: I’m writing this post as a way to learn and practice giving feedback myself. I’m sure there are many other perspectives and techniques not listed above. Be sure to let me know in the comments your thoughts and suggestions!

Want to work with people who give great feedback? Join our awesome design team at MongoDB! We’re currently hiring Product Designers and UX Researchers.

A big thank you to these amazing MongoDB Product Designers Dipesh KC, Yunyun Chen, Diancheng Hu for working with me on this. Plus huge thanks to the awesome Creative Operations Leader Sarah Kasch for your help with the content. Also thank to Helena Seo for the inspirations!

I'm a designer and leader of Cloud Platforms Design Team at MongoDB

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