How to give and receive great design feedback
A comprehensive guide for designers and their clients to provide frustration-free feedback and create better design outcomes.
If you’re a designer, feedback can be a frustrating part of every project. It may feel like a battle against your clients — leading to a compromised design outcome — when it should be a productive alliance of ideas that elevates the final design solution to something better than you alone could have mustered.
Communication is full of subtleties, and design critique is no different. Just like any other important discussion, design feedback can quickly turn into a painful experience when the process is not properly defined, or egos get in the way.
If you’re a freelance designer like me, or a remote employee, mastering this important form of communication is even more difficult, as you often have to guess at tone and meaning without the aid of face-to-face understanding.
After 17 years of designing for clients large and small, here’s how I’ve learned to give and receive better design feedback.
Giving useful feedback
If you’re a client or project manager who needs to provide feedback to your designer, keep these guidelines in mind.
Start with a foundation of trust
The best design feedback I receive comes from people who I trust, and I know they have equal respect for me. Trust is a two-way street, and it must be established before a designer will receive your feedback with open arms.
Show faith in me by never impeding on my ownership of the design process. Show that your goal is the best design outcome for your project, and it’s never muddled by personal preferences or competing agendas.
Frame your feedback with context
The most important thing about design feedback is that it must always remain framed by your project goals and metrics for success. So it goes without saying that you and I must clearly understand and agree on these goals before we begin the project. When you give feedback, make sure its underlying motivation is aligned with these goals. If it’s not relevant to those goals, it probably falls into the category of personal aesthetic preference, which isn’t all that useful. See stay objective below.
Be clear and specific
Nothing is worse than vague feedback. “I’m not feeling it”, or “It doesn’t pop”are worthless statements. First, make sure you frame your feedback and describe precisely what it applies to (is it colour, layout, content design, usability, etc.). Tools like InVision help a lot here, allowing you to leave very contextual feedback directly on design prototypes.
Second, be clear. Speak your mind, but stay concise. However, if in doubt, it it’s better to say too much than not enough. Use terms that are concrete, not wishy-washy. Keep everything connected back to your context. “I don’t feel any emotional connection to this hero image. I worry it won’t engage our core audience” is far better than “make it pop”.
Describe problems, don’t offer solutions
This might be the most common offender. Client’s get too prescriptive with their feedback, and it drives designers nuts. Instead of providing the how, provide the why.
When you’re supplying design feedback, it’s natural to want to offer solutions. But if you knew the best design solutions, you wouldn’t need the expertise of a designer. This goes back to showing trust and respect. Trust that I, with your help, will come up with the best solution.
So your job isn’t to offer solutions, it’s to frame problems by asking question. Instead of the prescriptive request “make the logo 50% bigger”, try “as a new company with little brand recognition, we need to make sure potential customers become familiar with our brand as much as our products. What can we do to make our branding stand out more?”
This doesn’t mean offering suggestions is off the table. But you need to frame them as suggestions for one possible solution to explore and compare, rather than a prescriptive demand.
Be prepared to explain your thinking
The design feedback process should be a discussion. Rarely do I receive feedback and never reply for clarification. As a designer my job is to question everything. So if you come at me with “make the logo bigger” I will always say “why?”. If you give me a vague “I don’t like this”, I’ll ask “why not?”. Or I may even say, “but how will your customers react to it?”. Be prepared to answer that why every single time. If you don’t have an answer that ties back to your project goals and customer needs, then question whether that piece of feedback has any merit at all.
Better yet, provide the why right from the beginning, so I don’t have to ask.
Serve up a love sandwich
To soften the blow of negative critique, try presenting it as a love sandwich. The two pieces of bread are praise, and the filling in the middle is the negative feedback.
Start by explaining something you like about the design. Perhaps like “Nice colour choice on the links. They really draw attention to the primary calls to action”.
Then move on to any area that you have concerns about. “However I’m concerned there are too many competing actions here. We don’t want to overwhelm customers with choice. Can you think of a way to narrow this down to a single primary action?”.
And lastly, follow up with praise again to end on a positive note — either as a repeat of the first praise or something new but related, like “The way you’ve visualised the core message is so simple and compelling. Let’s get that same level of simplicity in the interaction too”.
If you don’t have much positive to say, at the very least, stay kind and respectful at all times. It may take a few rounds of feedback for you and I to get in the same headspace. Be patient. After all, we both have the same goal. We might just disagree on how to get there.
This one can be really challenging for some people because our personal preferences are so innate to our decision making process. But you are not your customers. Your preferences have very little weight unless the product you’re designing is made for you as the sole user. When providing feedback, it’s vital that you remove from the equation as much of your own aesthetic preference as possible.
Instead, focus on what your customers will like. What makes them feel they can trust your company. What makes their lives easier. Your subjective impressions rarely impact heavily on those goals. There should be very little need for comments like “I don’t like this”. Instead, think in terms of “our users may not understand this”. Stay objective and aligned with your project goals at all times.
Also, keep feedback about the work not the designer. Refrain from using many personal pronouns to describe the design. Use “The screens looks unbalanced due to the weight of this content”, rather than “I don’t like how you’ve laid out the content, it looks unbalanced.”. The difference is subtle, but it separates the work from the designer, so when I receive that feedback it feels like a critique on the design but not on me personally.
Receiving design feedback
Designers, follows these steps to make your feedback process pain-free and maximise usefulness.
Set a process and clear expectations
If your clients suck at providing feedback, much of the blame falls on you for not educating them in how to do it well. Remember that many of them aren’t used to this process — they may never have done it before — and you need to guide them to provide feedback that is most useful to you.
Before you ask for your first round of feedback, explain this to your client:
- Precisely what you want feedback on (so your client focuses on the right things). At this stage in the project, are you worried about navigation, layout, typography, content, colour, etc. Don’t ask for feedback on “anything that comes to mind”. Ask for specific feedback with a specific goal in mind, something like “Please comment on this proposed navigation wireframe. Do you feel this layout will allow your customers easy to access your most important information?”
- What type of feedback is most useful? (see Giving Useful Feedbackabove).
- Who is providing feedback? It this a single person or a committee? Is there one point of contact who will be responsible for consolidating all feedback for you? Is there one person’s voice who has the power to overrule the others? You need to understand the dynamics of the feedback group. The bigger the group, the more likely that it will have conflicting feedback, so encourage your client to downsize that core group as much as possible to keep things focused.
- How do you want to receive feedback? In-person? By phone or email? In InVision comments? Consider how you are you most comfortable receiving feedback, and also what format is most efficient for your design process. I often say “Please consolidate all of your feedback and post it as InVision comments, so we can keep discussions in a single place, and in-context.”
- What timeframe you expect the feedback to be complete? Twenty-four hours? One week? These timeframe greatly impact on the project’s momentum and should have been agreed upon as part of your initial engagement. I usually request “Please provide feedback within 24 hours. If that’s not possible, please notify me so I can adjust my schedule accordingly.”
Your clients aren’t mind-readers. It’s your responsibility to set these expectations and continue to remind your client about them until you feel that you’re both on the same page and have a mutual understanding of what is needed for successful design process.
Start early and ask often
Gone are the days of the big reveal from the celebrity designer, when you present a nearly finished concept to your clients and hope for a “wow” response. Especially with digital products, it’s essential to start the feedback and iteration process as early as possible, because the best work is deeply collaborative. Don’t head too far down any path without feedback first. This keeps thing efficient and on-budget, which will please your business-conscious clients.
Aim for frequent small updates and continuous feedback rather than large chunks of work with occasional feedback between. This has the added benefit of making your client feel more involved too.
Don’t be afraid to pull in others for feedback right from the get-go. Your developer(s) should have eyes across the design and UX early on, to help pinpoint areas that may cause dev headaches and cost overruns.
Stay open-minded and don’t take it personally
Take critique with grace and dignity. Never get defensive. Remember your client is only trying to help you create the best design outcome. Critique of your design is not personal. Your client may see things from a very different perspective than you, and that perspective is valuable. The feedback process is the most important way for you to improve as a designer, so take everything constructively and try to learn and grow from it.
Lose your ego and stay open-minded to ideas no matter where they come from. If you have to shoot-down an idea, use data and experience to justify your thinking. Stay polite at all time, even if you feel your client isn’t.
Clarify and find the root of the cause
Ask why? all the time! If your client doesn’t provide adequate justification for their requests, demand it. If feedback gets too prescriptive or subjective, focus back to goals and metrics for project success, and frame your clarifying questions in those term to force the ensuing discussion down the right path. Don’t end that discussion until you’re satisfied you fully understand the motivation behind that piece of feedback.
Question your own assumptions too! As a designer it’s easy to get stuck in a rut and keep reusing the same design solutions over and over. But the right solution for one project mat be wrong for another. Learn to step back from your work from time to time to question yourself.
The best designers are business strategists
The old days of “visual design” are long gone. We need to think much broader & deeper to solve today’s design challenges.
Present better solutions, and know how to justify them.
If your client requests a design solution that you believe is inferior to your ideas, show it to them anyway. And then present your “better” solution along with it as comparison. This ensures your client that you’re listening to their ideas rather than dismissing them, so they feel they don’t lose control of the outcome.
You must be able to clearly articulate why you think one potential solution is better than another — and please leave out the design jargon and buzzwords. Talk in a simple language your client will understand. Remember, you are encouraging your client to keep things objective and goal-oriented, so you must do the same. You’re not allowed to say “I like this option better” without backing that up with a strong mixture of:
- UX logic
- Industry experience
- User testing
- Hard data from other sources
- Industry best-practices
If you take this approach, more often than not your client will agree with your preferred solution. And after repeating this process a few times you will earn their trust and find they allow you more freedom in your design decision making.
Take praise with grain of salt too!
Sometimes you’ll have clients who seems to love everything you produce, and offer very little feedback. This can feel wonderful and make for a quick and smooth design process. However, does it produce the best design outcome?
Even the best of us don’t always get things right the first time around. Critical examination through someone else’s eyeballs is an important part of the design process, and it often forces us out of our comfort zones to discover better design solutions.
If your client is too full of love and not enough critique, push them a bit harder to uncover the more subtle concerns they may have. They might be too polite to bring something up. They may not be thinking in the right terms, because you haven’t set expectations clearly. Force them to play devil’s advocate or view the design from a different perspective to find areas that could use improvement. The final design will be better off with as much scrutiny as possible.
Do you have any more tips for giving and receiving design feedback?
Please add to this discussion in the comments.
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Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 17 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.
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