Getting Better Feedback: Questions, Preparation, and Attitude

“So, what do you think?” How many times have you opened design conversations this way? If you do, and your meetings go anything like mine, you don’t get much direction. Participants may not know how to respond to open-ended invitations for feedback, staring blank-faced and maybe a little bewildered.

Cartoon of someone presenting to a group of people who have no idea what to say

One of my personal goals for 2012, and a goal for everyone at EightShapes, is to get better at feedback, both getting and giving. This blog post talks about:

  • Questions: Asking direct questions about specifics
  • Preparation: Establishing a framework for critique at the beginning of the conversation
  • Attitude: Setting the tone of the meeting as a dialog, not a one-way presentation

Design = facilitation

Being a good designer requires facilitating a conversation around your ideas. This does NOT mean whipping away the cover, standing back with an over-confident grin, and saying “So? So?” Facilitation means asking good questions, turning vague comments into meaningful direction.

Cartoon of someone saying something garbled and someone saying something structured

Most designers have this skill: they ask good questions to understand the design problem. By the time they’re recommending a solution, however, they’ve forgotten how to do this. Perhaps they’re so invested in the design that they’re confident the design can speak for itself. But designers need to remember their role isn’t just to come up with great ideas, but to facilitate discussion about them.

Ask the right questions

These days, we at EightShapes make the design process as collaborative as possible, so we’re generally reviewing designs that aren’t new to participants. That said, we still face situations on every project where people around the table nod and smile, but don’t offer useful feedback.

I go into my design reviews with questions prepared. Those questions draw from four principles:

  • Differentiate: Ask people to compare and contrast
  • Focus on gaps: Ask people to compare what they see to what they imagined
  • Reduce the scope: Eliminate the noise
  • Make it real: Put design decisions in the context of real life, sometimes by asking them to imagine real people using it

These principles intend to spark questions that are both open-ended and direct. Open-ended questions permit participants to express more than a binary yes-no. At the same time, the principles draw on psychological tendencies that allow us to be concrete and specific.

Diagram illustrating the four principles of good questions: differentiation, gaps, scope reduction, and making it real

Here are five questions based on these principles:

1. What would you have done differently? (differentiate, gaps)
You’re really asking “what doesn’t work?” But by personalizing it, you’re showing that you’re not defensive and empowering participants to have some control.

2. Pick one thing you don’t like. (reduce, gaps)
You’re simplifying the conversation by getting them to focus on one thing.

3. How do you think users will respond to…? (reduce, real)
Fill in the blank with a particularly controversial feature. Or, break the ice by asking about something obvious. “How do you think users will respond to the log-in form dominating the page?” You’re making the design real by asking participants to think about it in terms of a specific group of people. This works best if you’ve done some user research and have user profiles you can refer to.

4. What’s missing? (gaps)
You’re acknowledging that you’ve had to leave some stuff out, and that there may be a gap between their expectations and what they see.

5. Is there another product that does this better? (differentiate, real)
If you’re struggling to get participants to criticize the design, you can get them to identify a related product. Through this comparison, you can surface the issues they have.

You can ask any questions you want, but don’t settle for silent assent. Use the four principles to come up with questions of your own.

Prepare your introduction

Even the best questions can’t guarantee great feedback. Designers must present the design in a way that invites feedback. Compare these two approaches to introducing a design:

Approach 1
The new structure for the intranet is based on three things. First, I used a two-dimensional structure: topics and content types. Second, I simplified those categories to a short but broad list to reduce maintenance. Third, I designed the interface to allow categories to ebb and flow, but keep certain important ones fixed.

Approach 2
Here are the new pages for the intranet, and they show the structure. The global navigation consists of content types. Topics appear throughout, usually in the main body of the page. You can swap out topics depending on what’s important to your organization at the moment.

The first approach explicitly states the design decisions. The second approach addresses them, sure, but doesn’t differentiate them clearly. Confronted with the second approach, meeting participants may struggle to find something to respond to. In the first approach, the designer invites critique of three specific design decisions.

Cartoon showing someone stating a structured introduction to a design

Good feedback depends on knowing what to respond to. This is more than just asking “What do you think about X?” It’s showing your work, explaining how you arrived at X, such that people providing feedback can zero-in on its parts. This framework provides a vocabulary for the entire conversation. After hearing some feedback from participants, the designer might summarize what she heard:

You said you’re not sure where the flexible schedule policy would go, right? Remember I said I used a two-dimensional structure? There’s a “policies” content type, that’s the first dimension. Flexible schedule is part of the HR topic, under scheduling. That’s the second dimension. HR topics will be fixed in the design, so users will always be able to find that information on those pages. Do you think that will be a problem for employees?

Position the conversation

Besides questions and preparation, the last ingredient for better design reviews is attitude. I sit in design reviews all the time where designers get to the end of their presentation and behave as if they’ve accomplished the meeting objective. They see the presentation as the most important part of the conversation, not the subsequent discussion. Sometimes, they take up the entire meeting time describing the design without allowing time for discussion.

Designers must instead set the tone at the beginning of a meeting and during the presentation that they’ll be interested in feedback. A slight shift in attitude can set a different tone, and encourage designers to prepare equally for the design presentation and the ensuing feedback.