Stay Cool: How to Take Design Feedback Strategically

Design is part art and part science. You’re applying your skills and knowledge to solve specific problems and, very often, to support the goals of your clients as well as your end users. At each stage of a project, designers should receive—and should welcome—thoughtful feedback that will help them arrive at an optimal design solution.

Being receptive to feedback, however, is its own challenge. You’re putting your own thought process and creativity up for critique, often by a mixture of fellow designers and laymen alike—yikes. To stay cool, you must learn to not take any reasonable critiques personally. To make it useful, you must be able to interpret and assess feedback and apply it strategically to your process.

I. Preparing for Feedback

Getting quality feedback is essential to the collaborative, iterative design process. And the best way to ensure the feedback you receive is useful is to start with a killer presentation. Nothing will derail a meeting like a confusing detail that spurs a seemingly unending tangential discussion that has nothing to do with your design in the first place.

When you are looking for feedback on a design solution or trying to foment meaningful discussion about a design, your presentation sets the stage. A great presentation illustrates not only your solution, but connects your audience to the process by which you came to your solution. If you’re looking to your audience to weigh in on a number of choices or to offer ideas you haven’t thought of, your presentation should cover the journey so far and present the problem you need help solving.

Here are a few tips to help you prepare a presentation that will invite and encourage your audience to give you valuable feedback:

1. Play to Your Audience

You will look at feedback from your client differently from the feedback you might get from other design professionals, colleagues, or a creative director. They’re looking at your ideas from different angles, and you should, too. Prepare your presentation accordingly.

presenting to a crowd

Feedback from Clients
When presenting to a client, try to anticipate where they will be coming from. The client has an idea of creating something innovative and have entrusted you to not only realize their vision, but to shepherd it through various challenges, guided by your talent and expertise. Their response to your design will be informed by many factors, including their product vision as well as the reality of their business goals. They will be weighing not only the strength of the design, but how well it aligns with these other factors. Your presentation must assure them that you have considered these factors and explain how your design achieves their goals.

For example, if you are discussing a sign-up flow for a site, your goal as a designer may be to provide the most friction-free experience possible. However, your client may feel that your streamlined solution misses valuable opportunities for revenue-generating ad placement. Consider this in advance and speak to this issue in your presentation. Do you have data that proves the smoother experience may encourage more successful conversions than one that requires more steps? Prepare to honestly consider the concerns your audience may offer against what you believe to be the optimal solution.

Feedback from Designers
Fellow designers, developers, and other members of your team will, of course, have different concerns. Other designers will of course be considering the success of your solution and will offer critiques to help make it stronger. Your project manager will want to understand how your solution fits within the requirements and the scope of the project. Developers will be anxious to comment on the feasibility and any foreseeable technical snags of the implementation. Be thorough with your walkthrough and be sure to highlight possible areas of concern for your intended audience and you will be well ahead of the game.

If you’re hoping to get some help from other designers on your team in making a decision about complex navigation for your mobile app, you can rely on their shared understanding of design. Gear your presentation to posing the core question, whether it’s usability or a layout issue, and then walk your audience through some of the solutions you’ve explored. Why are your solutions not satisfying the design need? What questions can your peers answer that might help you get un-stuck and find a better solution? Present the conundrum to an audience of fellow designers by leveraging your common skills and similar experience to encourage the most meaningful discussion.

2. Stay on Point

Have you ever tried to present a series of screens to get feedback on one specific interaction only to find yourself witnessing a 45-minute discussion between two stakeholders on the merits of turquoise? No matter what you do, they are caught up in the high-resolution mockup with all the visual design details and aren’t even thinking about the steps in the interaction. What a nightmare! You’re not only trapped in a meeting that has completely wandered off its focus, but it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that you will get any decent, actionable feedback on your designed interaction.

two people disagreeing

This is why it’s important to avoid presenting details that muddy the waters. Choose the medium of your artifact carefully based on what you want to discuss. If you’re trying to demonstrate an interaction, a lower-fidelity wireframe or interactive prototype would help your audience focus their response on the interaction. Mute colors or go grayscale. Save those highly-detailed screen mockups for focused discussions about visuals and color choice.

mobile feed animated interaction

San Francisco design group Ramotion demonstrates an animated transition here without any extraneous detail. This allows the audience to comment on the transition and animation themselves.
Source: Dribbble

ecommerce swiping animation feature

Here, they are showing a lot of detail, which means they are probably well into the design process and have gotten much of the feedback they need on UI elements such as transitions earlier to get to this point. Showing this to get feedback on the animation might result in a prolonged conversation about snow boots rather than transitions.
Source: Dribbble

It’s also important to establish expectations of what you are going to present. Especially when dealing with a non-designer audience, part of your role in the presentation is to educate. Before showing a room full of business professionals a low-fi wireframe, explain briefly what the artifact is and how it will most clearly demonstrate the specific solution you wish to discuss. They might be impatient to see everything in its shiny, finished form, but a quick overview will help you all get on the same page.

If you are presenting the whole breadth of a design package at once, organizing your foci is key to framing your proposal. Try to organize the chapters of your presentation that relates the big picture but also guides the audience through some of the finer points. If you present the holistic solution, then highlight the major components that make it work, and finish with a return to how the whole big picture works; even clients seeing the package for the first time are usually able to follow and comment on the balance.

3. Your Thesis Is Your Mantra

How does your design solve the problem at hand? After several rounds of discovery, sketching, refining, and testing, you’ve arrived at a solution you believe will fulfil the need. However, after all that work, it is easy to forget that your audience does not share a brain with you. This is a natural habit that even seasoned design professionals can lapse into.

take a deep breath, don't get angry

As you present your concept, remember to remind the others in the room of how you think it addresses the design problem, even if it seems obvious to you. Your audience may not have seen all the steps and been part of the thinking that went into arriving at your solution and it is unlikely that they are all mind-readers. This is especially essential when presenting to non-designers, who may not have the same understanding of design.

Regularly and confidently validating your ideas against the core design problem is part of the iterative process, so it makes sense to do so when presenting your solution. By articulating the reason you made your design choices vis á vis the core requirements, you are reminding your audience to consider your ideas based on those criteria as a priority. At the end, the questions or concerns they may have will help you refine your concept even further and come up with the optimal solution.

II. Receiving Feedback

Now that you’ve presented your solution, it’s time for the crucible! Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but you do want to brace yourself for impact. If you’ve made sure to present your ideas confidently and clearly to your audience while anticipating their specific needs, you will likely get focused critique and useful suggestions. That doesn’t guarantee, however, that everyone will love your idea—and that’s ok. Just remember these few tips while you’re on the receiving end:

1. Keep Calm and Take Notes

Hopefully your audience members have followed your reasoning, taken notes, and will be able to respond to your design just as clearly as you presented it. You’ve opened the floor, and are eager to know what they think. Remember, they are offering you a valuable asset to your process. As such, you should listen to each point in its fullest, and take notes if necessary.

take notes in a meeting

Depending on the responder, they may give a succinct summation or they may prefer to walk through each detail of your presentation with comments, questions, and suggestions. It’s tempting to jump in and argue or defend a specific piece, but you might derail what could be a useful line of critique. What if your interjection cuts off what was shaping to be a valuable suggestion the person was building up to? You’ve effectively subverted your own goal of applying the feedback you receive to arrive at the best solution. Take a deep breath and make sure you’ve heard the full breadth of their reasoning before you respond.

To avoid getting flustered or losing a critical point in the response, try to jot down a few notes as your audience weighs in. A side bonus to taking notes is that it will mitigate your impulse to interrupt. Highlighting key takeaways from the discussion will not only help you organize how you respond in turn, but will help you strategize and apply the feedback to your next design iteration.

2. Ask Yourself: Is This Quality Feedback?

In the same way that some design is better than others, so feedback also varies in quality. Great feedback will help you strengthen and improve your design. Bad feedback—if handled improperly—can be the distraction that undermines your entire design.

Assess the quality of the responses you get and whether or not there is a direction to be uncovered within. Sometimes the feedback you receive will be clear. Sometimes what comes back will not be immediately actionable, but a good designer has learned through experience that there may be something you can use within.

finding a gem

You may be presenting a brand identity concept to a client and asking for feedback ahead of the next iteration. “I don’t like orange” would be less useful feedback because it tells you very little about the design and seems to stem from personal preference rather than reflecting a core brand proposition. “Orange is too modern for our brand as we wish to present a more traditional face as a 30-year old company” is much better feedback in that it elucidates why your design choices do not solve the design problem and gives you a starting point to refine your concept.

Try to match assess the feedback against any discovery or user research you conducted to judge whether or not it makes sense. If someone makes a design suggestion that seems to contradict the research, you should probably reevaluate before implementing that suggestion.

The ability to distinguish good feedback from bad is essential to the collaborative process—especially as a designer. In a way, feedback is its own design problem. You must hone your skills of interpretation and translation, as well as a keen sense for disarming ever-present focus bombs.

3. Don’t Take It Personally

There will be times in every designer’s career spent on the receiving end of some harsh criticism, and it is natural to get defensive. The work you deliver represents your intellectual and creative output, after all. This is partly why negative or critical feedback can get under your skin so easily and feel like a personal rebuke.

We’ve all been there—a stakeholder questions the thinking behind your design. Another person notices that you didn’t account for an obvious use case. Yet another calls out the enormous typo on the button copy and it’s only a matter of time before someone makes you hand in your designer card. You’re getting embarrassed or annoyed and you just know it’s starting to show on your face!

getting angry

Take a deep breath and try to ease back the feeling of being attacked before you begin to respond. The essential thing to remember is that this isn’t about you and no one is questioning your value. Whether you’re on a large team of designers or the sole consultant on a client project, you are collaborating with others to arrive at the optimal design to solve a specific problem—one part of a whole.

III. Responding to Feedback

Unless—and even if—your feedback amounts to a glowing green-light followed by a standing ovation, you should likely take an opportunity to respond either in the same meeting, or later by addressing the feedback (from your notes) in a follow up:

1. Get Crystal

First, make sure you and your audience are on the same page about what they said in their response. A good place to start clarifying is by reiterating the feedback (easy if you took notes) to ensure you understood their point. Just as your presentation benefits from clarity, so does the receipt of valuable feedback. I love doing this in an email (if possible), as I can then use it as a handy checklist for any updates or changes to the next design iteration.

giving a great presentation

This is also a good time to ask questions to clear up any confusion or to press for feedback on items they might not have responded to specifically. You said the checkout flow was too long—what did you mean by that? What did you think about adding the animated transition on the submit button? Which of the two prototyped interactions did you prefer and why? Asking questions is especially helpful if your audience gave you scant feedback and you were hoping to get something that would inform the next design decisions you need to make.

2. Defend Your Decisions… Like a Boss

You may think your audience clearly missed your point, or that their counter-proposal is suboptimal. Did they got hung up on the wrong details? Did they not understand the research you presented to back up your interaction model? In any case, there are ways to defend your solution without getting defensive.

person defending his solution

Never argue or attack the audience’s feedback. If what they say seems to miss the point of your concept, try to see if you can reframe your explanation of why you’ve arrived at that solution in particular. If they seem intractable and you disagree with their feedback, just say that you will give more consideration to what they’re saying as you move forward—you should do so anyway! Even some of the feedback you may disagree with could be useful, so don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater by ignoring it completely. Begin your response by thanking them for the feedback and explaining how you may incorporate their input into the next iteration.

Never apologize for your design decisions as if they are mistakes—even if they are a misfire on your part. This comes off as amateurish and can shake your client or audience’s confidence in your work. Sure, everyone has had the dreaded typo in a presentation, but if someone questions your decision for a smaller CTA button size, you should not respond with “sorry.” You had a reason for making that decision, even if you end up changing your mind after discussion.

3. You Got This

Positive feedback doesn’t always mean your solution cannot be improved and negative feedback doesn’t mean your ideas are terrible. Whatever the audience reaction, it is important to be open to their feedback while still being confident in your own perspective. In the end, you’re the expert. You were hired to solve the design problem in front of you based on the quality of your work, the creativity of your talent, and the value of your experience.

man wearing a t-shirt that say's "you got this"

If you prepare carefully and focus your attention on getting the feedback that will be most useful to developing your design further, you can be confident that you’ve set yourself up for quality feedback. If you’ve considered the edge-cases and implications of your design, you give your audience confidence in your thought process. If you take even the harshest criticism professionally, everyone involved can be confident in your process to iterate and evolve your solution efficiently.

“Aspiration leads to success (and adversity). Success creates its own adversity (and, hopefully, new ambitions). And adversity leads to aspiration and more success. It’s an endless loop.” – Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy

Ultimately, design is a conversation. Whether it’s designing one small component as part of a larger team or delivering an entire UX/UI package for a complex mobile app, each round of feedback adds to your own design practice. The best startups and companies know how to take a range of feedback, whether it’s from clients or colleagues, and turn it into refinement. By listening and responding carefully, you will improve creatively, professionally, and even personally.


This article originally appeared on Toptal.


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