The art of giving feedback A crucial but often overlooked skill for designers

Design sketching

I remembered one of my teammates at school presented her video work to our team. I thought there was large room for improvement, so I pointed out what I didn’t like about the video, using another teammate’s work as an example. After finishing my comments, I immediately felt the tension in the air. My teammate replied: “If you don’t like my work, I’m fine with passing this task to someone else.”

Ouch! That’s the moment when I realized that I sucked at giving feedback. My design career had been mainly focused on developing my technical skills, and very little on how to effectively and constructively deliver my opinions to others.

I joined Google during this time when I had this realization in mind and was seeking ways for improvements. Working at a “big” company gives me the opportunity to be exposed to different teams, roles and how different individuals communicate. It strikes me that successful teamwork doesn’t just happen by paying lip service to its importance or by locking everyone up in the same room. Instead, it has to stem from an open and transparent culture, as well as every member’s participation in giving quality feedback. To achieve this, to be precise, it can be boiled down to the following five tips based on my observation in the company:

1. Focus on the work or behavior, not the person.

The purpose of feedback is to help the recipient grow, not to diminish his/her value. Therefore, the overall direction of the feedback should be framed as facilitating the recipient’s further development of skills required for the task, rather than telling the person that they don’t possess the innate skills to do a good job. If a person feels his/her worth is questioned, the natural inclination will be to take the defensive stance and shut down the door to listen and absorb. Instead of flat out disagreeing or pointing out the flaws, here are the alternatives:

  • “It’s an interesting proposal, and I hadn’t thought of it that way. I personally feel the different way because XXX.” is better than “I don’t think this is a good idea.”

  • “It’s an interesting idea…I’m not sure if I’m convinced because XXX.” is better than just “I disagree with your view.”

  • I’m not crazy about this idea.” is better than “I think it’s a bad idea.”

  • The team will benefit from you doing XXX more.” is better than “I think you should do XXX more.”

2. Mention both merits and ways for improvement. If you can’t think of any merit, at least acknowledge the effort.

Probably the biggest mistake I’ve made was that I only mentioned things that can be improved. No matter how solid the argument I have, overall it still sounds negative because I provide no motivation for change. At Google, all feedback I’ve gotten has been pretty “digestible”, because I feel my effort is recognized and I’m constantly encouraged to do more. Here are some statements I’ve heard:

  • “It’s nice that you tried (good point), but at the same time this makes (bad point)”.

  • “This is a great exploration. Why not push this further by (improvement)”.

  • “One thing that stands out to me is that you’ve done (efforts). This is a great starting point. What you can also try is (improvement).”

3. Begin with asking open ended questions.

Sometimes it’s hard to not neglect something that you think is obviously “wrong”. Instead of immediately pointing out the negative and throwing in the arguments, another approach is to first ask questions:

  • What’s the reason that made you decide to do XXX?”

  • Have you considered XXX scenario?”

  • I wonder what it would look like if you try XXX?”

I was often asked many questions by my coworkers after my presentations. While I’m answering those questions, sometimes I recognized I overlooked some use cases. Sometimes, I realized immediately the deficiencies in my logic. Other times, it turned into a little brainstorming session and we came up with a better solution collectively. Since it all started with one simple question, there’s neither hard feeling, nor the hostile vibe.

4. Be specific and concrete.

Perhaps a lot of designers have shared the same frustration, when after a meeting, we still have no clue what to do next, or what the client wants. If we switch roles and become the feedback giver, we should definitely minimize the frustration that the recipient might have because of the unclear message. Here are some ideas:

  • Articulate the reason: “It looks weird, because it reminds me of …(something)” is better than just “It looks weird to me”. The goal is to make the message have as little room for interpretation as possible.

  • Give examples: “I think it would be nice if the interaction look like how XXX app does (Show the app).” This works the best when the chosen examples have already been proven successful.

  • Make actionable suggestions: “Based on what we’ve discussed, I think these are things you can try, (1st thing), (2nd thing) and (3rd thing)”

5. Be honest and empathetic.

The whole point of giving feedback is to help the recipient discover his/her blind spots, and thus they have opportunity to see other perspectives. No matter they decide that eventually they want to take in the feedback or not, they can grow by reflecting on things with a wider lens. With that said, it would lose its purpose if the feedback is given dishonestly or overly sugarcoated.

When a person is absolutely convinced that s/he is right, it becomes very difficult to communicate things that are against his/her belief. In this case, it’s necessary to first actively listen to his/her reasonings, and stress that his/her points are heard and understood. Furthermore, it’s vital to take the blame on the person out of the conversation. For example:

  • I understand where you are coming from. If I were you, I might think in the same way. However, another perspective you can also consider is (improvement)“

  • It doesn’t matter if the solution is right or wrong. What matter is that the solution you proposed is perceived confusing by others, which would undermine their trust in the product.”

In retrospect, after watching my teammate’s video, I should have first mentioned things I liked about the work (there were definitely some things that I liked) and also thanked her for her efforts (I truly did) before easing into things that could be improved. Furthermore, I should have put some effort into finding “concrete” examples to clarify my suggestions on specific frames, rather than expecting her to imagine “my taste” based on only a very rough description.

It occurs to me that effective communication has to work both ways. It all comes down to establishing trust and opening up a genuine conversation. The above-mentioned tips have shown not only to be useful for advancing my career, but also helpful for enhancing my personal life. To this day, there are still past conflicts that I wouldn’t change my position on, but I can definitely see how the situation could have been significantly improved if I were to deliver my message in a different way.

(This article was also published on Medium)

Leave a Reply