If you’ve ever worked with a designer, you’ve likely been in this situation at some point: Your designer is enthusiastically presenting their work, it’s missing the mark, and you’re searching for the right words to say. Whether you’re a client, a manager, or a teammate of the designer, you want to help them get to a suitable solution in a reasonable timeframe while maintaining positivity. Many times, that’s easier said than done. Designers and clients don’t always speak the same language, so during collaboration and feedback sessions, they sometimes encounter friction. Differences in the way people communicate can really complicate the process.
Many things can go wrong in a feedback session from both sides. The designer may not be prepared with specific questions or a clear presentation. The client or manager may be overly harsh or vague in their comments.
To find pointers on how to effectively deal with these situations, I’ve interviewed four people who are at different levels of their career and currently work on various product teams at IBM Design, including Mina Adame, a UX designer at IBM; Matt Eng, a design lead at IBM; Bhavika Shah, a design manager at Watson IBM; and Greg Storey, an executive design director at USAA. Hopefully, this will give better insight into how designers think, thus enabling you to work with them more effectively.
Giving Feedback as a Designer
In this first set of questions, Mina Adame, Matt Eng, Bhavika Shah, and I weigh in on some difficult aspects of the feedback process from the perspective of a designer.
Q: How do you respond to feedback you disagree with?
Mina Adame (UX Designer at IBM): I usually just note it down and try to understand their perspective. Probably get second opinions.
Matt Eng (Design Lead at IBM): When I was early in my career, I would receive negative feedback and realize my designs sucked so I felt bad. As I was learning I would try to figure out ways to avoid that feeling again, and put things into a mental checklist. If someone’s giving me the same feedback consistently, that’s probably a problem on my end.
Bhavika Shah (Design Manager at Watson): I normally explain why I made the decision, if I did research then I’ll bring it up. I believe in the saying “good ideas, loosely held,” if someone has a better idea I’m open to hearing it. The only time I’ll disagree is if I’ve done research and the person giving the feedback doesn’t have the same context.
Q: How do you handle a situation where someone is giving harsh or negative criticism to your work?
Mina Adame (UX Designer at IBM): It depends on the type of person it is and our relationship. Sometimes the tone can really change things. I try not to take harsh criticism to heart and try to be a good listener.
Bhavika Shah (Design Manager at Watson): I guess I just sit quietly and take it, if someone’s being that negative, there’s a reason and at this point it’s not about my work, it’s just them wanting to be in a bad mood. I won’t argue because I don’t think it will go anywhere.
Q: What do you do when the feedback you receive is vague and not actionable?
Matt Eng (Design Lead at IBM): I try to prep for the questions I think they’re going to ask ahead of time and have the answers ready or shown in the design. I try to clarify their feedback and say it back to them. I make sure I get clear direction. Giving feedback is a skill and it should make sense for the person receiving it.
Many times people give solutions when it’s the not the appropriate time to do so. It starts with “Let’s just do this…” people just offer a solution and don’t think about the problem. I usually try to help them see that we need to think about the problem a bit more by reminding them what the problem is and asking them how their proposed solution solves the problem.
Bhavika Shah (Design Manager at Watson): I sit down and make a bullet list with them. I pose a bunch of questions, to force them to give me a strong direction forward. If that isn’t working, I take their vague statements, make them very specific and then ask them if that’s correct.
Occasionally people who don’t know how to talk about design don’t know what they’re trying to say but they feel like they need to say something, so I try to guide them in their comments and help them bring it down to specifics.
Q: How do you prefer to receive feedback?
Mina Adame (UX Designer at IBM): Honestly, critical feedback. I want people to be nice but in the end I want to improve as a designer.
Bhavika Shah (Design Manager at Watson): Constructively, objectively. If i’m going to get negative feedback I want examples and why that was an issue. That makes it more direct for how I can learn and do better in the future.
Q: What is a positive experience that you’ve had with receiving feedback?
Mina Adame (UX Designer at IBM): I received feedback from a teacher that taught me to try to do something extra special to make the work standout, not just solve the problem but go above and beyond. I also prefer either getting in person feedback or silent feedback, having people write it down on sticky notes or comments.
Q: What is a negative experience that you’ve had with receiving feedback?
Mina Adame (UX Designer at IBM): Most of the negative experience I’ve had were because I didn’t set up what I was trying to do and didn’t figure out how to ask for feedback on specific things. The person giving feedback didn’t know what to expect. It really helps to prepare what you want feedback on beforehand.
Giving Feedback as a Design Lead
In these next questions, Matt Eng, Bhavika Shah and Greg Storey talk about giving feedback from a lead perspective.
Q: What are some general good practices to giving feedback to designers when their work isn’t quite up to par?
Matt Eng (Design Lead at IBM): I try to approach it in terms of a long term relationship. Think about where are they, and where could they be in their career. Make sure there’s an understanding of requirements and problems, and try push it to an objective standpoint.
What I like to do is set them up to pitch it and say what are they doing, what are they trying to solve and so it goes back to the problem and separates them from whether they are talented or good enough.
Bhavika Shah (Design Manager at Watson): I start with things they’re doing well, the critique sandwich of good bad good. I sit down with them and make sure they know where my expectations lie and what they should do.
If it’s something that doesn’t hit what I’m expecting I’ll start by asking questions about the design and where it came from and how they came to this direction. I’ll ask if they’ve explored other directions and if I can see those directions. If they didn’t do that, I’ll stop them and ask them to go back and do more iterations.
If they went completely off track I sit down with them and work out the flow with them. It’s a lot of one on one mentorship, I don’t want anyone to feel bad for the work they did, I just want them to realize where they should be.
Greg Storey (Director at USAA): I generally try to start off with what I see people doing well, I try to find something. If you come in identifying all the things that are wrong that could be so deflating, there’s a tipping point and any more negative feedback could shatter their confidence. If it’s really bad work then I would say just stop and lets have a different kind of discussion.
I remember in studio art in high school, my art teacher forced me to work with water colors and I hated it. One time he came over and said, “dear God almighty, put the brush down, you’re done.” There are times where you made need to just say, “stop, we need to reset.”
There needs to be some kind of established trust or connection, that enables you, the feedback provider to indicate to the designer, “I trust that you can get this done, but there needs to be some changes.”
I try to assess quickly, how many things need changing, if that number is high, I look for themes rather than nitpicking every little thing pixel to pixel. Identify what are those big issues. Generally I try not to get into, “here’s the 48 things I see wrong.”
I try to provide the type of feedback that enables the designer to see from my viewpoint. If I can get the designer to see overall what I’m seeing, then I know it’s going to get taken care of. That usually means they need to step away from the work at large. When you’ve been designing for days on end and you’re stuck on art board to art board you get lost in those details.
In the end I want to build the designer, I don’t want to dictate my changes, because at that point the designer is just turning into a mouse, and then as a leader you’re a failure to some degree.
Q: How do you balance giving constructive criticism and pushing designers to come up with a good solution while maintaining a positive relationship?
Bhavika Shah (Design Manager at Watson): I try not to be a dictator, I tell them it’s coming from a place of objectivity as much as possible and I’m just giving feedback about the work, not about them as a person. I try to make it clear that if I do get too personal to stop me and tell.
I have a relatively open relationship with all my designers and tell them from the beginning not to take their designs to heart because at one point everything could change. It’s also helpful to be aware of someone’s emotions and how much work they’ve put into it. If a meeting becomes tense it’s all about knowing how to diffuse the situation. I’ll make a joke or stop the meeting and tell them we’ll come back to it later. I like to set up one on one sessions to talk to them more personally.
Greg Storey (Director at USAA): Depending on the situation and your existing relationship, I never come in just yelling at somebody. I’ve been on those reviews.
Once you’ve established a competitive relationship, contentious, like it’s me the feedback supplier to you, the feedback receiver, or me versus you, then it’s over. At that point you’re likely dictating details, and that’s not feedback.
Establishing some ground rules helps. Just like you would when creating a design you have to time box it. Take five minutes to say hello and check in. Establish some empathy both ways.
Feedback is about the work, not about the designer. As designers, we’re little sensitive snowflakes, sensitivity is always an issue. It’s important to remind everyone, this isn’t about the designers skill set it’s about the work in front of us.
Remind everyone what the objective is, what’s the problem, what we’re trying to do with this work. Then all the feedback should be centered on, does the work accomplish the objective?
Also, if someone doesn’t know how to talk about design, try to frame some particulars on what people can give feedback on.
Q: Imagine you were on a tight deadline and the designer wasn’t getting to the solution you need. What do you do?
Matt Eng (Design Lead at IBM): If we’re in a crunch I at least try to preface my feedback by telling them the constraints and giving them three things to focus on. I never say ‘you,’ or ‘what you did,’ I say ‘we,’ because I have to help this person.
Greg Storey (Director at USAA): There are times when there’s design fatigue, if they’re not getting it we need to get the the objective one way or another. As much as I can I try to get the designer to understand what they need to do to improve. Sometimes I’ll ask if I can riff with them, not just like ‘move!’ and I just sit at their desk, but like ‘why don’t you give me some time to play with some things and see what I’m thinking.’
I use that word riff because I’ve had designers take my direct involvement to mean that I don’t think they can actually do it, but it’s more a way of working together. If it’s still not working, find another way to do it. Sometimes that means staying up all night and getting the job done.
Q: What do you do when someone wants to argue and not receive feedback?
Matt Eng (Design Lead at IBM): It happened more when I was newer to design, it took me a while to think, why are they arguing? Now I think there’s something not in their words but deeper, about why they need to say certain things, and it’s usually imposter syndrome or insecurities, so that’s actually the problem.
For a team it’s unsustainable to constantly have interactions where they don’t want to receive feedback.
I try to put it in an objective way and say, this is what we need to solve, show me how what you have solves that. And then I try to put it in another sense, you’ve solved it, can we make it more effective? Avoid subjective words like “better.”
If that doesn’t work, try to do some one on one time with this person and figure out what’s going on in the relationship.
Bhavika Shah (Design Manager at Watson): This has happened quite a bit, I always ask what their reasoning is, and ask why they feel so strongly about it. You don’t know what’s going on in someone’s head. The problem could be personal or emotional. If it is a personal thing then I want to stop the session and hash it out individually in a non-critique session.
If we do get caught up on something that we can’t agree on it helps to take a step back and think about how important the decision is. If it is important then we figure out a plan to either get another opinion or do more user testing. It’s important to stop an argument before it gets personal.
Greg Storey (Director at USAA): I’d point back to what we’re trying to do today. There’s the overall objective of the project but then there’s what you’re trying to get done in the review.
If someone’s being argumentative, ask them how their argument fits within the objective for the day. If there’s still miscommunication I’ll stop the meeting and talk one on one with the person to find out what the hell is going on. Anger gets misdirected, frustration gets misdirected.
I’ve been in situations where people don’t know or feel comfortable providing their perspective on design work because they themselves are not designers. That is very uncomfortable, they don’t feel like the have the words, vocabulary, the background, sometime frustration comes from not being able to have that dialogue and actively participate in a dialogue at a level that they feel comfortable or they feel smart.
Q: How do you help someone without a design background feel comfortable with talking about design?
Greg Storey (Director at USAA): For starters just establish some sort of relationship with them, more than just the five minute relationship. There should be something that everyone can kind of talk about in the room.
Instead of people just talking about designs, get people standing up and writing or using remote collaboration tools to write comments and notes. Give them a different means to provide feedback.
I had a client who learned English as a second language in high school and was extremely intelligent. He could talk at length about any of his million products or cars or appliances but when it came to giving design feedback he kind of froze because he didn’t have the language for it. After a series of failed meetings we finally figured out this guys doesn’t feel comfortable. We printed out all of the work, we talked about our intentions with the work overall and called attention to details. We would tell him, ‘here are things in our own work that we’re not confident about’ to in some degree expose some of our own vulnerabilities, so that he didn’t feel like he was the only one in the room that had vulnerabilities.
Any other thoughts on giving or receiving feedback?
Greg Storey (Director at USAA): Receiving feedback is always difficult, I’ve been doing this for 25 years and even now it’s hard. no matter how long you’ve been in the business, people like to respond to visual things. Even if you’ve got decades of experience you can’t take it personal, the feedback is about the work, not about your ability to do the work. Take it for what it is, its people responding to your work not people responding to you as a human or as a designer and sometimes that’s hard to differentiate.