When I was studying art, everyone around me lived and breathed design. I had found my tribe. I never had to explain the value of my work because everyone got it. Designers just get it. Fast forward a few years when I joined my first organization, I naively expected the same. After all, studying design was meant to prepare me for real-life situations, right? The reality was quite different.
Every time a non-designer would come across my work, we’d talk about it, hoping to improve it. The person would quickly turn into a critic armed with good intent. Sadly, the conversations were focused on minor details, leaving essentials topics untouched. I ended up with countless improvised hovering art directors telling me I was using the wrong shade of blue. Or to move an element a few pixels to the left.
While one probably needs an engineering degree to analyze code, everyone with a pair of eyes feels qualified to scrutinize designs. It’s human nature to talk about what we see.
The good news is that we can use this as an advantage, as we need feedback to build better products.
What if it is our fault that these feedback conversations aren’t going well?
Let’s explore how we can take back control and improve these situations.
Tip #1: Set the scene
Early in my career, I’d always ask the infamous “What do you think about this design?” while chatting about my work. Let me get this straight, it never works. It doesn’t give any context or boundaries, so people will just tell you how they feel about it. “I like it” or “I don’t like it”. It’s pointless.
It’s crucial to set the right context while asking for feedback. It should give enough information so people can provide specific criticisms.
Talk about the problem you’re solving and the target audience. It’ll help understand if your design achieves its goals.
Explain the type of feedback you need based on where you are in the project. If you just started exploring ideas, you will need a different conversation than if you’re polishing details before shipping your product. “I’m looking for feedback on the flow, ignore visual design for now” or “Visual design is almost ready, I want to make sure it’s on-brand, and the copy is on point”.
Be transparent about your assumptions and the known potentials risks. Paint the difference between the facts observed from your customers and what you assume is true. People might assume risks where there’s none and the other way around.
Laying down these foundations will help steer discussions in the right direction.
Tip #2: Someone keeps pointing risks
I’ve been in situations where a person would raise so many risks that it would paralyze the conversation. I’d try to address all the issues straight away, but I would quickly get overwhelmed. The discussion wouldn’t go anywhere, and I’d leave feeling down with no real clues on what to do next.
Over time I realized that you don’t have to solve the problems in the feedback conversation. When someone raises a risk, just thank them and take note of it. You can evaluate the risk later on, and address it if needed.
People will feel heard, and you will get dedicated time to assess if you need to fix the issues. No one expects you to take these decisions without taking the time to think about it. Hasty judgments are rarely good ones.
Tip #3: A stakeholder disagrees solely based on their belief
If you end up with a person using seniority to push their ideas, chances are they’ll have the last word if you’re only arguing with opinions or feelings. If you want to avoid this situation, focus the discussion around facts.
Facts can be qualitative or quantitative data about your customers’ behaviors, the competition, the opportunity space, etc. Things you’ve learned from your clients and can prove.
While it’s easy to argue an opinion, it’s a whole different world to challenge a fact.
If you don’t have any data and can’t have a fact-based conversation, it might be time for you to do more research on your project.
Tip #4: Someone pushes a different solution on you
It can feel disorienting when a colleague suggests a different solution. Instinct can be to persuade why your design is better, but I’d like to recommend something different.
You want to understand the problem they’re solving with their solution because they might try to solve a different issue than you. If you’re both addressing a different question, the discussion won’t go anywhere.
You may realize that they’re seeing something worth solving that you didn’t notice. And if that’s the case, it’s far more valuable for you to agree on a problem to resolve rather than a solution to build.
Tip #5: Deciding what to do post feedback
I used to think that I had to implement every piece of feedback received. It’s the wrong thing to do. You’ll only end up with a design by committee, which won’t be ideal.
Your only commitment is to listen and evaluate which piece of feedback you should address. Ultimately, you’re in charge of the result.
You can start implementing these changes by setting the scene every time you discuss your design. You can have informal feedback conversations at different stages of your project (early, middle, and end).
Invite engineers in those talks, as designers-engineers collaboration has become increasingly important.
If people are pushing back on your designs, embrace it. Having diverse ideas and thoughts help to build better products. It might sound counter-productive, but it’s been proven numerous times.
Keep in mind that you still need to have feedback sessions with design peers. They’re not mutually exclusive.
By taking back control of informal design conversations with non-designers, your collaboration will definitely improve. Being a good team player is as important as being a good designer!