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How to ask and apply feedback

Dear designer, you are not alone. Let's admit it: feedback is uncomfortable, and we struggle with it more often than we should. However, as with everything, if something is fearful is because it's worth it.
October 8, 2021
Message bubbles with question mark check and cross

Let me depict it for you. We are afraid of feedback because, at the core, it means someone is judging your work. Which in turn means judging you. And that can easily crush both your value as a designer and self-worth.

Thus there is a step before knowing how to ask and apply feedback: reversing its meaning. Feedback is your ally, not your enemy. It's not even constructive criticism; it's an indispensable part of any design process.

Feedback is not triggering; your ego is triggered by it.

We, designers, are problem-solvers. A complex problem is handed over to us, and an elegant yet simple solution is expected. It is inevitable to feel excited when you get an aha! moment throughout this process, when you give the first pass at an idea. It seems as if we hit the nail on the head, and we often cling to that.

The tricky aspect about bonding with your ideas is that we ascribe them to our sense of self. A part of our identity becomes entangled with it so that our "solution" taps into the ego, which acts as a shield, wired to protect yourself from any sign that shouts danger. Have you ever got defensive when someone gave you feedback? You think This person doesn't get it, and that's your ego taking it personally as a critique. You are trying to avoid the shame and the feeling of failure.

But you have to teach your ego to recognize feedback as something beneficial.

How to cope with feedback?

There is no magic trick. Unfortunately, no one will do the work for you: it's all about your mindset. Go read Mindset by Carol Dweck if you haven't, but I'll give you a bit of a spoiler.

A fixed mindset presumes that what you are capable of today is how competent you are, which means every time you get feedback, you interpret it as a judgment on your person. This idea of yours isn't great converts to I'm not great. If you feel related, you have to flip it around to a growth mindset, which states that you can improve no matter where you are now. So instead, you think, Okay, that feedback was helpful; it'll help me do better next time. The difference is that you start craving input because you realize it's the fastest way to make progress.

Feedback makes you a better designer.

The best way to make a design stronger is by testing it. Testing a solution can get it closer to being bulletproof. And that translates into sharing. When you share, you are letting people express their opinions freely. But that is being a designer: your work will always be subject to critique by others. Without feedback from other people, you cannot be sure your work will be appreciated and understood by anyone other than yourself.

But your work is not yours alone; it's a shared project where feedback is a tool to reach the common goal. The lesson here is to evaluate feedback on whether your work will get to its stated purpose instead of how gratifying it is to your self-esteem. It's not about your intrinsic abilities as a designer but rather how you can turn that feedback review into a working session to set a new direction.

Designing things that don't entirely solve the problem is the necessary first step into designing something that does. If a client or colleague tells you the design isn't quite there yet, they do you a favor. They want you to succeed and are helping you figure out how to get there. Getting negative feedback doesn't make you a lousy designer; learning how to get it will make you a better one.

How to ask for feedback?

Especially true for digital products, asking for feedback at an early stage of the process will prevent us from going back and redoing something before we get too attached to our ideas. You've invested time by then, being more reluctant to change your design after all.

Sharing work throughout your entire design process helps keep feedback focused on the most relevant problem at each stage. It allows you to move on to the next step, confident that the foundation you're building is already solid enough.

Whenever you ask for feedback, keep in mind most people are not masters of communication. There's a chance you will be getting generic, unclear feedback, blaming the other person for not giving you anything actionable. But you can help them do so.

Feedback calls for an environment suitable for thinking clearly and critically. How do you create it?

  • Give people advanced notice and ample time to review your work. Have you ever come up with something insightful when being rushed into it? You'd probably say something to seem valuable and smart. To get a considerate answer, we all require time to give sincere thought to what's being demanded from us.
  • Tell the other person precisely what you're looking for —we all need constrained focus to perform well. If you don't instruct people on what you seek from their feedback, they'll settle somewhere on the safe side, which won't be helpful.
  • Ask specific questions—Broad or open-ended questions lead to broad answers. We are confused about what the asker wants to hear. What do you think about this text? can turn into Is this text legible on this background?. The person answering will get confident since they have a guideline of what you want to know. More confidence means more insight, and more insight means better feedback.
  • Limit their options. Oh, the pain of having too many options. Is this the best color for this button? We are not that perceptive. When there are only a few alternatives, it is easier to make a pick.

How to apply feedback?

We are, and we will be exposed to bad feedback. And it's your job to filter it out. How can you detect it?

  • Bad feedback focus on the solution, not the problem. Instead, you should use a navigation bar—a comment that jumps right away into the solution is not contributing; ask what the issue they see is, not what they imagine the solution to be.
  • Bad feedback is subjective and includes personal statements. I like, or I don't like, are red flags that can pollute the objectivity of the discussion.

Now, the feedback you get is yours to resolve. Conveying feedback doesn't necessarily imply changing all the design right away; it's a break-down-all-the-facts exercise. How to unpack the input?

  • Reflect and discuss with your peers how actionable it is.
  • Identify the key points that should be addressed versus those that don't—either because they do not add value or shouldn't be prioritized.
  • Create an action plan. How can the feedback be put into place?

Design isn’t about self-expression—it’s about solving problems and making something easier to understand and use. That’s why having insight into how others might perceive our work is critical. Fellow designers, let’s embrace feedback.

Paula Carbajo

I am endlessly creating myself. UX/UI enthusiast. Endorphins-lover. The sea is my best friend.

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