How We Give and Take Design Feedback

A few days ago, after creating the initial design compositions for one of our own projects, I shared them with the Vesess team for their comments. This is always my first step in refining a design: I’m guaranteed to get great feedback from a group of people who really understand what works well on the web.

This is what our front-end engineer Amila had to say:

Slack chat screenshot: Amila is not impressed with my design
From a Slack chat at Vesess

Amila doesn’t sugar-coat it, and I don’t get offended.

Perhaps this sort of clear communication comes naturally when you have worked together for almost ten years, when mutual respect is a given and there’s virtually no room for misunderstandings even with text-only communication.

However, I think our design process has something to do with it as well.

Art and Design

Designers are notorious for having fragile egos. We treat our designs as extensions of ourselves. Comments about those designs are often seen as opinions about our skill and judgement. It’s human nature to feel this way, but this leads to pointless resistance from designers even with regard to sensible feedback.

Design’s affinity to art is one cause of this problem. Art is intimately tied with the artist, and it is reasonable for artists to take feedback personally. Design, however, differs from art in one important way that makes it essential to separate the designer from the design.

Design is mainly about getting things done, about serving business and user goals. Aesthetics are important in this process, but unlike art, they have less to do with self expression and much more to do with creating delightful experiences for the users.

In the best of cases, the products should also be delightful and enjoyable, which means that not only must the requirements of engineering, manufacturing, and ergonomics be satisfied, but attention must be paid to the entire experience, which means the aesthetics of form and the quality of interaction.

— Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, p. 4

Unlike the artist, the designer is constrained by a project’s requirements, and his work is intended to achieve specific, measurable objectives. For example, we would eventually be able to verify how well our design performs by analysing usage data, giving us a way to review our design decisions. Since design always has a specific goal, keeping this in mind makes it easier to give and take design feedback.

Scene from Mad Men, Season 3 Epsode 2: “You’re not an artist, Peggy. You solve problems.”

A Goal-oriented Design Process

Design is a collaborative venture. Amila—he of the unfettered feedback—will lead front-end development based on my design compositions. Our engineers will develop the system. It will have to go through QA. All of us will have ideas on how to make the site we are designing work best.

The success of the project depends on its business and financial goals are met. To reach them, the site will have to deliver a delightful experience to potential and current customers. That’s the design goal we try to keep in mind at all times. Everything else, from what colour I like best to what typeface Amila prefers, is just a step toward that goal and rather inconsequential in and of itself.

UX design process diagram
UX design process by Stephanie Sawchenko

This, of course, makes perfect rational sense, but we’re emotional beings. When you’re passionate about your creation, there’s a natural inclination to be possessive. The way to avoid such needless and counterproductive emotional attachments is to be passionate about the goal rather than individual artifacts.Goals are abstract whereas artefacts are concrete. It’s difficult to be passionate and possessive of a goal.

Success, in a design sense, requires the entire team to be well-informed about its goals, and also empowered. All team members should know—and feel! the feels are important—that they can make a meaningful difference to the outcome. Their work should genuinely add value. Small teams seem to have an advantage here as each member is more likely to “own” the final product.

Bomb Comments at Vesess

Dilbert comic strip on web design feedback
Dilbert’s Asok channeling Vesess’ Amila

This tradition of giving candid feedback goes a long way back at Vesess. During those early days when we were operating from our co-founder Asantha’s home at Maharagama, our then-lead designer and co-founder Thivantha coined the term “bomb comment” to refer to feedback that nuked design decisions. The first such bomb comment put an abrupt end to a design Thiva himself was working on.

Ever since then we have tried to nurture and encourage the spirit of the bomb comment. Thus, there’s no right or wrong way to give design feedback at our company. If you think your idea or its phrasing might hurt the feelings of the designer, you can preface them with a bomb comment alert. Even if designers receive “harsh” comments without prior notice, they’re expected to interpret them as bomb comments, and go after the meaning rather than the phrasing. As seen in the screenshot above, this happens quite naturally for us.

Vesess and our clients have benefitted greatly from this culture which encourages giving and receiving candid feedback without any need to make it palatable. I’m sure you’ll find it useful too, especially if you work in a small team.