How to give a designer good feedback? Six Tips for non-designers

If you’ve hired a design agency or team of designers to help bring your product vision to life, your ability to give constructive and actionable feedback is probably one of the most overlooked factors in what makes a project successful or not.  

As an expert in your business, designers will be looking to you to provide the inputs that will inform and drive their design decisions. These inputs might include everything from details about the core behavior of your users to what the highest priority features should are. 

Sounds pretty easy, right? Ok, perhaps you’ll be a wiz, but I’ve seen many a CEO struggle with this part. So if you get into it and realize there’s more to this feedback stuff than you initially thought; this will still be here when you need it. 

You hold the most valuable inputs

If you ask any designer, they’ll most certainly tell you that no feedback is worse than lousy feedback. Silence from a Client is a bad omen, sending the less experienced into a spiral of self-doubt. 

A while back, a Harvard survey concluded that respondents overwhelmingly (to the tune of 92%) agreed with the assertion, “Negative feedback if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.” (link)

Tip #1: Mentally ready yourself to have to answer a lot of questions. If you’re working with a good group, they should keep you on your toes with questions that even you will find challenging to answer. Use these as an opportunity to share your knowledge with them. 

Control your personal biases

Knee-jerk reactions are not uncommon when it comes to perspectives of design. Accept that you’ll have some of your own that you may not even be aware of. Purple, for example, might be a color that rubs you the wrong way. Will you be able to put your preferences aside in favor of what your users want? 

Assuming other stakeholders from your team also give feedback, look out for biases stemming from individual roles and responsibilities. For example, someone in sales will likely have a different set of objectives than someone representing engineering. Letting one single stakeholder’s perspective dominate can also be problematic. And if you are the CEO or main decision-maker, make sure it’s not just what you say that goes. 

Tip #2: When design decisions come down to a matter of personal opinion, it’s easy to lose sight of the original goal. The best way to check for bias is to refer to the goals you set at the project outset. Then, in cases where there’s any disagreement amongst people on your team or with design, referring back to that original definition of success will everyone stay aligned on the north star. 

Be specific

You can expect you will be asked to clarify any feedback that is not actionable. Before putting it to paper, ask yourself if it makes sense to you. It’s hard to go anywhere hearing, “I don’t think it looks modern.” What precisely is or is not modern? Is ‘modern’ how you would describe what your target user is expecting to see?

Try to step outside yourself and think about what you’re asking a designer to do. In the case of the example above, if ‘modern’ is what you’re after and you can’t think of any better way to explain it, find some examples of what you’re talking about and share those links with your feedback. Yes, it’s tough to do this, so if it’s frustrating, that’s good; you’re on the road to giving better feedback!

Tip #3: Read your feedback back to yourself, keeping in mind tip #2. Does it make sense? If you received such feedback, would it be immediately apparent what action is required? If not, reassess until your message is clear and always, always share examples. 

Know what’s in play, ask if unsure

Depending on what stage of a project you’re in, the feedback you need to give will be different. For example, an early conceptual stage will require input from the production stages, where many of the design styles are already defined. 

A designer should always be clear at the start of a presentation what you are looking at and what precisely they need feedback on, and even what kind of feedback they need from you. In doing this, the designer can get the actionable feedback they need. For example, during conceptual stages, they may share mood boards or collages of images and ask which one resonates with them the most and why. Later on, once things have been defined, it may be more specific questions like the average number of words in your article content. 

Suppose you’re ever in a situation where a designer launches into their presentation, and you’re off-the-bat you find yourself a bit lost. In that case, you should feel free to interrupt and ask them to clarify the goals for the session and what precisely they’re looking for in terms of feedback from you. 

Tip #4 If it’s ever unclear what’s being asked of you, always ask for clarification. Communication is complex, and presenting work to a client is never easy, so any help you can provide by asking questions will always lead to a better job and a more effective team. A good design review should result in decisions on a way forward or enough momentum for the designer to keep working on a problem. If you reach the end of a session and are unsure if you’ve provided enough feedback, a quick “do you guys have enough from us to keep working?” will usually do the trick.

Don’t solution 

If you’ve hired design experts to do a job, let them be responsible for their work. If you’re clear on the problems you need to solve, you should be able to leave the solutions to them. With this in mind, avoid giving feedback that’s prescriptive or feels like a directive. This doesn’t mean you should refrain from sharing ideas for a way to solve a problem; just frame them as suggestions for one potential approach to consider versus a prescriptive order. 

Throughout a project, you’ll learn that design will evolve and change, and the answer is not always obvious and figured out on the first attempt. It can take weeks of iteration to get to something feeling right and meeting all the objectives.

Tip #5: Leave the designing to designers and if you find you’re getting stuck, ask how you can help. The best place to start is usually going back to the ‘why.’ Rephrasing the problem with any extra context you can offer is usually enough to help a designer get on the right track. 

Be constructive

Remember that designers are people, and a little motivation goes a long way. But by no means does this mean you should be over complimentary, but remembering that people are people goes a long way. And to be honest, the more enthusiasm a client shows for their product, the more this rubs off on a designer. 

Tip #6: put yourself in the shoes of your designer and help them get excited about your product. If you can focus your feedback on the problem you’re trying to solve together, the more open and honest the process will become, ultimately leading to strong collaboration.  

Conclusion

Given so much of our world is digital, great design can solve so many problems, but getting to that final result is a process. The best way to prepare for success is to be clear on your goals and always keep those top of mind. While design is the vehicle being used to solve the problem, it’s up to you to make sure you’re focused on solving the right ones. 

If you found this helpful, I’d love to know.