Mobify is a group of awesome and thoughtful people. But even in an a place as inclusive as Mobify, the way we give feedback to each other isn’t perfect. While people always have the best of intentions, we’re not always aware that the words or tone we use can have a significant impact.
We’ve all been there, a meeting to present your latest piece of work. Sometimes it’s a big group meeting, other times it’s a 1:1 or a code review.
I once presented new design to a large group. I was the only remote presenter, with 10 people in a room on the other side of the world. There were only 15 slides to show, showing different design scenarios and use cases. But the meeting got derailed on slide #1. We spent an hour talking about one slide. The conversation deteriorated into everybody offering different opinions on why we should do it their way. The meeting ended with more confusion than when we started. The feedback was often unclear, difficult to act on and full of subjective opinions. It was a frustrating experience for me personally, with no clear path forward.
Feedback comes in many forms, but there are some universal guidelines that can help us be far more productive.
Giving good feedback
1. Be quiet and listen
If someone is presenting an idea, a design, or an approach to a problem, resist the temptation to jump straight in with your opinion. It doesn’t matter if you believe you’ve found a glaring problem. Let them explain their approach, why they’ve chosen this way, and also other solutions that were considered.
You’ll learn far more by listening. Talking only repeats what you already know.
You might learn some use cases you hadn’t thought of or some insightful research or data that lead to this approach.
I’ve been in presentations where my initial reaction was this really isn’t the right design. Resisting the urge to interrupt wasn’t easy. But over the course of the presentation I got a much better understanding of the problem itself, and as a result, the solution. By the end, I was totally surprised at how I’d been persuaded, without even voicing my concerns. I was now fully behind this being a great approach. Resist the urge to talk for talking’s sake.
2. Understand the why
After you’ve listened, you need to understand. Ask questions. Why? What? How? Who? When?
- How did you come to this solution?
- What problem are you trying to solve?
- When do you think users will do this?
- Why did you put that [text] there?
3. Be respectful
It’s often the subtleties that can make people unhappy when receiving feedback. When someone comments negatively on something you’ve worked hard on, that can be a personal thing. It shouldn’t be, but we’re human ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
There are extremes we obviously must avoid. Nobody likes to feel disrespected or to be told that their work is terrible. Never (seriously, never!) say something is bad, crap, sh*t, awful etc.
But it’s not always so clear cut. Your tone, your expression, your language can impact people and their feelings. Even if you don’t realise it, or intend it. Regardless of what you feel about a piece of work, be respectful of people, their time, hard work, and effort that they put into something. Choose your words carefully and try to avoid negative language. People will be far more receptive to your feedback if it’s delivered in a thoughtful way.
4. Phrase it as an opportunity
Instead, phrase your feedback as an opportunity to make it something even better.
“Have you considered trying X instead? That might help solve issue Y that you mentioned.”
5. Make it clear and actionable
Have you ever heard someone say “I don’t like it” or “I’ll know it when I see it, but this isn’t it”? That type of feedback is very hard for someone to act on and just isn’t helpful. It doesn’t identify why you don’t like something — or what they can do to address it.
If you can’t give a clear reason or justification, think it over until you can. You’re not ready to give feedback yet.
Try something like: “Thanks for your work on this. Let me think on this for a bit and I’ll get back to you tomorrow.”
6. Highlight the positives too
A study done by Harvard Business Review found that on average, top performing teams give each other more than 5 positive comments for every criticism. In stark contrast, the worst performing teams gave almost 3 negative criticisms for every 1 positive.
There can be a perception that feedback = ‘things that should be changed.’ Feedback should include both praise for work well done and constructive criticism. Even if you think something is not perfect, call out the parts that you believe are well done. Giving only critical feedback can lead people to think that everything they’ve done isn’t good work.
Try not to add a but at the end. This is also known as “The Sh*t Sandwich,” where negative feedback is sandwiched between two pieces of positive feedback (bread).
Just call something out for being great. Compliments with no strings attached are the best kind.
7. Leaders talk last
If you’re a leader or senior team member, your opinion can have a powerful effect on others.
There can be silence in a meeting, while everyone waits for the manager to give their verdict. Many people won’t be comfortable to openly take an opposing view to a senior team member. They might think that their opinion is wrong or that their feedback won’t be as good. “This person has way more experience than me, so they must be right.”
If you’re a leader with many years of experience, you can probably offer feedback on most things. But that doesn’t mean you have to or that you should. You’ve probably seen a similar problem before. However, you should be especially quiet and give other team members the opportunity to talk. Your job as a leader is to help others develop. Giving effective feedback is an important skill, and to do this, they’ll need to feel comfortable.
Let quieter team members offer their opinion. If some people dominate the conversation, ask a quieter team member for their opinion. “Hey Sasha, you’ve got experience with this. What do you think?” Over time, people will grow to be more comfortable offering their opinion.
After others have offered their feedback, then it is the time for you to give your input. There’s a good chance that it’s already been covered by other team members.
Setting yourself up to get good feedback
There are some small, simple approaches to help you get good feedback.
Frame the conversation
Before you show your work, explain to people exactly what you’re looking for feedback on. More importantly, call out what you’re not looking for feedback on today. By adding ‘today’ at the end, it shows that while you do care about other feedback, now is not the right time.
Try something like:
“Thanks again for coming. I’d love your feedback on this new layout as a way to improve usability. I’m not looking for feedback on <the new branding> today.”
Push back on poor feedback
At one stage in your career, you’ve probably gotten vague feedback or feedback that expresses a personal preference. Something along the lines of “I don’t like this colour/style/design.” If you receive feedback like this, always ask questions. Push for more details, more evidence, more clarity. Seek to understand the underlying issue.
If you still don’t agree, it’s a good idea to get some more opinions. Maybe this feedback raised a valid point that you’re blind to. However, if you can’t find any grounds other than personal preference, don’t be afraid to politely push back.
Look past solutions and find the problem
People often describe solutions, rather than the underlying problem. Always look past this and seek to understand the problem first. People aren’t always aware of it, so you might have to tease it out of someone. When someone asks you to “just make this bigger,” ask simple questions. “Why?” and “What is the problem you want to solve?” A designer’s job is really that of a problem solver, and you need to fully understand the problem before you come up with a solution.
You don’t have to act on every piece of feedback
Early in my career, I felt the need to address every single piece of feedback. It was like a to-do list of things to change. Now I realise that if you put 10 people in a room, you might get 10 different opinions. In an attempt to satisfy everybody, you can end up with a product that is a blur of everybody’s ideas, yet effective at nothing.
Take all feedback onboard, but you don’t have to action everything. If you don’t agree with some feedback, first ensure that you fully understand it. Conducting user research is a great way to test if something is really an issue.
Make a call on whether to action it or not, but always keep track of it.
“Thanks, we’ll take that onboard.”
If a piece of feedback comes up more than once, or from more than one person, there’s probably some merit to it. Time to start investigating.
Over the course of my career, I’ve slowly gotten better at giving and receiving feedback. It’s a skill, just like any other. You need to develop and improve it over time. It’s helped me to better facilitate critique sessions and set them up for success. It can make a world of difference over the course of a project. It also creates a strong and inclusive culture where people focus on doing their best work.