The art of giving effective and useful design feedback

Disclaimer: These insights are not limited to design. They can also be applied by professionals across different fields. The title is primarily to help with SEO and stuff. 🙂

Another day, another dramatic article on product designers and feedback, as if we don’t have enough of those already, am I right? Well, an extra article won’t hurt anyone, as long as the information shared is helpful, applicable and adds value. And hopefully, this one fits those adjectives.

A moment of truth here: I’ve been a Product designer for years, and giving/receiving feedback still wears me out. I’m an empath (as cringe as that sounds), an overthinking one at that — imagine a very toned-down version of SpongeBob with a sprinkle of Lisa Simpson — so it’s a constant mental battle between “They worked their head off on this project. I hope I don’t hurt their feelings” and “I worked my head off on this project. I hope my feelings aren’t hurt”.

Just kidding, I’m more unfazed and Steel-rilized than that. 🦾

(I’m not).

Image of a board meeting with people and one guraffe
Image from Shutterstock

For Designers (UX, product, content, brand etc), receiving feedback comes with the territory. It’s a natural and vital aspect of what we do and is critical to both the growth of our skillsets and behavioural maturity.

“Receiving feedback helps us eventually see the faults or strengths in our work, and makes us stronger designers and collaborators,” Fabricio Teixeria

However, not all design feedback is actionable or even useful. Not all two-hour ‘critique sessions’ (God I hate that term) turn out to be productive for either the designers or stakeholders; the worst-case scenario — no impactful outcomes from the session, wasted time, bruised egos, decreased motivation, subtle conflict… and a group of adults strategizing to have the final say in the next meeting.

So how do you give feedback that can be impactful and beneficial? how do give good feedback that goes beyond the surface-level “good job”, “make it pop” or “make the logo bigger”?

I’ve outlined some best practices for providing and crafting effective design feedback; these tips can be applied when giving feedback within a project context or behavioural context. There are two types of feedback: Positive feedback and Not-so-positive feedback (the naming could use some improvement, but let’s roll with it) and I’ve categorized these practices based on these two feedback types.

Author’s Note: I had intended to group the types into “positive feedback” and “constructive feedback” but after some research, I discovered that constructive feedback isn’t a direct opposite of positive feedback but encompasses a broader range of feedback types, potentially including both positive and negative aspects. So positive feedback CAN BE CONSTRUCTIVE. (I’ve been lied to all my life 🤯)

Giving positive feedback

Be specific

The devil is in the details folks. But in a good way this time. I’ve been privileged to work with design leads and peers who follow this rule religiously. Regardless of the field or role, specific feedback gives the receiver more depth and clarity. Mention what was done well and reinforce that. If you’re struggling to add a teenie weenie bit of specifics in your design feedback, try starting your statements with “I like the…” or “I like how you…” and for behaviour-specific feedback, you can start with “I (admire) (appreciate) your…”; This way they know what to keep doing or maintain.

Now does every circumstance require you to be specific and state how you LOVE their use of #FFF123 on the outer strokes of the avatar components? Well not really, but in those many cases where you can be specific, be specific. Mention and praise what was done well. Go all out. The next tip makes this much easier.

Highlight the effort and/or process

There’s a big difference between “Great work on the research documentation” and “Great work on the research documentation. You’ve evidently put deliberate effort and detail into the document”. A whole landslide of difference right there. With just one statement, the output is praised, the process is recognised, and the effort that went into the process is acknowledged. Does it require extra effort, extra words, and probably more brain cells? Yes. But is it worth it? Absolutely YES.

A cheat code to make your feedback more specific is to comment on the effort, process, or both; briefly or in detail. Highlighting the process when giving design feedback adds more significance to your feedback and shows intentionality on your part.

Ask questions

Peep what was said about intentionality in the previous tip. Asking questions shows interest and curiosity, and helps the designer reinstate confidence in the amount and quality of effort they channel into their work. Asking genuine questions not only rewards and encourages the receiver, but also helps you learn more about their process, rationale and the project as a whole, providing more context. It’s a win-win for everyone.

  • What were your goals for this project?
  • What was the most challenging aspect for you to work on?
  • What was your thought process while working on this?

Extra tip: Say Thank you 🙂

This is one of the core habits I picked up from managers and colleagues I’ve worked with (both past and present). Don’t underestimate the power of a simple ‘thank you’. Showing appreciation is never too extra, over-the-top or unprofessional. You can simply say “Thank you for being a part of the team” or go that extra mile when you can; “Thank you for going out of your way to complete this project despite the insane tight timelines”. Creating opportunities to show your appreciation lets your team members know that they are valued as individuals, and not solely for their work.

Giving not-so-positive feedback

Be specific

Yep. Again.

It’s so important to be specific when you’re providing feedback that requires the designer to improve, change or work on something. It saves you and the designer a lot of mental stress. Communication is clear and expectations are well-defined, leaving little to no room for misalignments or misunderstandings. The designer (or whoever is receiving your feedback) must understand what you’re recommending/suggesting and identify the next steps they have to take to be more effective, achieve a specific goal, and most importantly make work less of a pain.

Acknowledge your own bias

Remember that as much as the designer’s perspective isn’t a universal truth, your perspective isn’t a universal truth either. Across every field, including digital product design, interaction design, user experience design or whatever new term the design gods throw at us, there are fundamental principles that underpin our work. These principles are also influenced by various factors and organisation-specific nuances, shaping what proves effective and what doesn’t.

All of that being said, creative work is still innately subjective. I can’t stress this enough. As much as designing user interfaces and experiences can be heavily influenced by science and data, the creative aspect still plays a major role. So when providing feedback to designers, especially within the project context, it’s important to keep this in mind and base your feedback on user needs, business goals and even technical effort, not just preferences.

Ask questions

It’s pretty much the same when you’re giving positive feedback but with a slightly different purpose. Here, you ask questions to create room for healthy dialogue and clarify aspects of the design, work (project-based feedback), circumstance or performance (behaviour-based feedback) you may not have full context on. Asking questions also prompts reflection for the designer (or anyone receiving feedback), helping them reassess aspects and directions that may not align with the project, team or business goals.

Extra tips

  • Whenever your feedback is taken or followed, and you see deliberate progress made towards the specified goal, don’t be shy to let them know. Recognition has always been a super impactful motivator.
  • Culture Amp phrases the two forms of feedback as Reinforcing feedback (when we want the receiver to keep doing something or maintain a certain behaviour) and Redirecting feedback (when we want someone to improve in a certain area or stop doing Y and start doing X). So you can implement these terminologies instead (besides, Not-so-positive feedback sounds like a mouthful).

I’ve personally seen how offering great feedback influences a team’s culture. When we establish a culture of giving efficient feedback, it creates a safe and supportive environment for every team member. This, in turn, encourages them to recognize their strengths, areas they can improve on, and also become better collaborators.

References and helpful articles on giving effective feedback 👇🏾:

The art of giving product designers effective and useful feedback was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.