Giving product design feedback

How to identify what feedback to give, then give the best you can.

ith an array of customer and business needs, technological complexities, and the ice constantly shifting beneath our feet, it’s unlikely that any product designer can hit a home run alone each and every time.

Feedback is a quick and effective way to let ideas fail fast to make way for improvements.

Feedback is based on the premise that other peoples’ point of view may help expose flaws or make valuable contributions. It helps people get out of tunnel vision and see things more objectively; the way others see them.

Perhaps the greatest danger of not giving or receiving feedback is that many avoidable issues will raft their way to the customer. Or perhaps that many opportunities within grasp may be missed unknowingly.

There are dangers associated with giving or actioning poor feedback too. Poor feedback may stir someone towards solving a problem that doesn’t exist. It may be prescriptive and cut fruitful thought short. Or maybe, it could be passed on in such a way that it causes tension and conflict between colleagues.

This article is a humble stab at how to identify what type of feedback is required, together with some helpful, template questions. Moreover, this piece discusses what to avoid and what to do more of when giving and receiving feedback.

How ‘not’ to ask for feedback

  • What do you think?
  • What would you change?
  • Do you like it?
  • Do you think this will work?

When feedback is sought in this manner, there are two paths of thought you (as the person giving feedback) may instinctively follow. If the question is too broad, it might prompt you to think broadly and give a response that is ambiguous and irrelevant. If the question is leading, it might shoe horn you into saying what the recipient was hoping for; therefore no real feedback would’ve been given.

Before giving feedback, it’s worth asking what the project is about, understanding it’s significance and what phase it’s currently at. Understanding the phase helps in giving feedback that is relevant and actionable at the time. With this being said, it’s advisable to also ask the recipient what feedback is required to be even more specific.

Here are three phases to look out for:

1. The value creation phase

In this phase the recipient has framed the problem or opportunity. There has been adequate dialogue with stakeholders and insights have been gathered. Moreover a strategic direction has been set and the following conversations appear to be around the ‘how’.

2. The experience design phase

In this phase the recipient understands the problem or opportunity well. Artifacts such as flow charts, wireframes or prototypes have been put together to transition the objective into an experience. The content is likely temporary, micro interactions may be missing and things may not be polished just yet.

3. The sensory design phase

In this phase the recipient is far down the line and is working on a detail level. The recipient may be fine tuning user interface layouts, components, interactions, copy, and possibly working more closely with a graphic designer or illustrator too.

Some basic rules on giving feedback

Assuming you’ve understood what the project is about and that you’re clear about what feedback is required, you’re ready to help.

Before diving in, keep these guidelines in mind:

  1. Feedback should begin with questions — this helps you understand why certain decisions have been made.
  2. Never prescribe a solution — your solution may not be the right one.
  3. Expose the recipient to new aspects of the problem — this invokes thought and ensures thorough outcomes.
  4. Put your personal preferences aside — they may not reflect customer preferences.
  5. Not all feedback is created equal — If you feel you’re not the right person to provide feedback, be clear about that. Likewise, if you were the one asking for feedback, then pick your sources wisely to avoid biases, irrelevant remarks and blank faces.

Giving feedback isn’t about telling people what to do, but about getting people to find the right path by themselves.

So now you know what to avoid and what to keep in mind. Let’s dig into some standard questions you may begin using.

Giving feedback during the value creation phase

What is the main customer/business problem to be solved?
Forces the recipient to narrow down a complex array of problems to the bare bones that matter most — customer and business needs.

What does success look like and how would you measure it?
Forces the recipient to begin with the end in mind, minimising the chances of going astray. Helps recipient develop success criteria to follow up on after shipping.

What insights are guiding your process? What are some other inputs that might be valuable?
Forces the recipient to question insights gathered and think of additional, relevant insights that may be valuable.

What other strategic directions have been considered?
Forces the recipient to consider alternative directions and assess them side by side. Moreover, this helps recipient articulate what’s deliberately not being pursued and why.

What are the customer/business consequences of inaction?
Forces the recipient to understand how inaction will negatively impact the customers and business — if at all. Sometimes this can challenge a project’s validity.

Where is this most likely to fail?
Forces the recipient to think about critical areas that cannot be compromised. This also helps in unearthing where to spend more time and effort and what to monitor closely.

After asking a question, you may be hit with a deep and thoughtful reply or discover that a decision was made on sandy foundations. Do your best to continue asking questions which get the recipient to think deeply about what matters most.

Giving feedback during the experience design phase

Which customer segments is this for and how do their needs differ?
Forces recipient to think about groups of customers with different problems, needs and who may also navigate the product differently.

How does this design solve the main customer/business problem?
Forces the recipient to map the design back to the main objective. Helps ensure that the main problem is in fact addressed and that there’s no work that’s out of scope or off point.

What assumptions are you making about customer preconceptions?
Forces the recipient to think about what is and what is not known about customer expectations. This may help a person realise where they’re relying on gut feelings and should perhaps rope in some data or marketing fellows.

Where do you think the system may be further simplified?
Forces the recipient to look at the system from a distance and asses where further simplification may be made as far as journeys, flows and architecture go. This may help reduce product bloat, customer friction and development effort too.

May you ask me to complete a task using a prototype?
Stirs the conversation into a practical, hands on demo where ‘you’ may walk in the customer’s shoes and empathise better. Feedback may be based on whether the task was successfully accomplished or not and why.

What are some edge cases you’re anticipating and how do you plan to cater for them?
Forces recipient to think about what may go wrong or how the system may be misused or cheated. Then allows recipient to avoid or minimise such scenarios.

There’s no right number of questions however bear in mind that the recipient will have to prioritise what to action — so be nice and leave fluff out.

Giving feedback during the sensory design phase

Have you run this by anyone to gauge it’s usability and understandability?
Reminds recipient to put prototypes in people’s hands to gauge whether the designs are usable and understandable. Needless to say, this includes user testing to receive customer feedback too.

Have you run this by the engineers to assess it’s feasibility?
Forces recipient to run the design by engineers early to get feedback around technical feasibility — especially around any bells and whistles.
Sometimes engineers will be limited due to tech stacks and code bases, sometimes they’ll surprise you with technologies that are up for grabs.

Have you checked how this will work once localised?
This question applies to products that will be available in multiple regions and languages; or for products were content changes drastically from region to region. The question forces the recipient to design with all the regional content requirements in mind.

Have you run an accessibility check on this?
Forces recipient to cater for people with sight or hearing impairments by checking contrast rations, colour combinations, font sizes, and avoid over reliance on audio and motion.

How will this adapt across platforms and breakpoints?
Forces recipient to think about how the design will be received by people with different device preferences. This also helps recipient make modifications where different platforms bring different interaction models or conventions.

Is this in line with our UI and brand guidelines?
Whenever it appears that something doesn’t quite ‘fit’ from a visual perspective, it may be that guidelines have not been observed. This question forces the recipient to follow UI libraries, brand guidelines and product values in general.

Feedback in this phase may be very specific to the project so feel free to zoom into project specifics and provide feedback accordingly.

Feedback forms a part of company culture; some companies insist on it and others perceive it as optional or worse — a waste of precious time.

Whatever your company’s stance may be, you have nothing to lose by asking for and giving it. In cultures were it isn’t the norm, asking for feedback doesn’t indicate weakness, it can make you stand out as a professional who’s serious about your practice. Likewise, giving feedback won’t make you come across as condescending, if given considerately you may only brand yourself as a team player with the customer and business objectives close to heart.

Providing and receiving feedback can help you grow as a professional. It forces you to exercise your analytical muscles, helps you become more articulate and improves your ability to discuss design.

Simply put, everyone gains from a culture of feedback which is why it’s so worthwhile.

Product Designer and practicing writer

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