Feedback That Gives Focus

I have harbored a lifelong dislike of feedback. I didn’t like it in sixth grade when a kid on the bus told me my brand new sneakers were “too bright.” And I didn’t like it when a senior executive heard my pitch for a digital project and said, “I hate this idea.” Turns out my sneakers were pretty bright, and my pitch wasn’t the best idea. Still, those experiences and many others like them didn’t help me learn to stop worrying and love the feedback process.

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We can’t avoid feedback. Processing ideas and synthesizing feedback is a big part of what we do for a living. I have had plenty of opportunities to consider why both giving and receiving feedback is often so emotionally charged, so challenging to get right.

And here’s what I’ve found to be true.

When a project is preoccupying us at work, we often don’t think about it as something external and abstract. We think about it more like a story, with ourselves in the middle as the protagonist—the hero. That might seem melodramatic, especially if your work isn’t the kind of thing they’d make an inspirational movie about. But there’s research to back this up: humans use stories to make sense of the world and our place within it.

Our work is no different. We create a story in our heads about how far we’ve come on a project and about where we’re going. This makes discussing feedback dangerous. It’s the place where someone else swoops in and hijacks your story.

Speaking personally, I notice that when I’m giving feedback (and feeling frustrated), the story in my head goes like this: These people don’t get it. How can I force them into thinking the same way I do so that we can fix everything that’s wrong with this project, and in the end, I don’t feel like a failure?

Likewise, when I’m receiving feedback (and feeling defensive), the story goes like this: These people don’t get it. How can I defend our work so that we keep everything that I like about this project, and in the end, I don’t feel like a failure?

Both of these postures are ultimately counterproductive because they are focused inward. They’re really about avoiding shame. Both the person giving and receiving feedback are on opposing sides of the equation, protecting their turf.

But like a good story, good feedback can take us out of ourselves , allowing us to see the work more clearly. It can remove the artificial barrier between feedback giver and receiver, refocusing both on shared goals.

Change your habits around feedback, and you can change the story of your project.

Here are three ways to think about feedback that might help you do just that.

Good feedback helps us understand how we got here

Here’s a story for you. I was presenting some new wireframes for an app to the creative leads on the project. There were a number of stakeholders and advisors on the project, and I had integrated several rounds of their feedback into the harmonious and brilliant vision that I was presenting in this meeting. That’s the way I hoped the story would go, anyway.

But at the end of the meeting, I got some of the best, worst feedback I have ever received: “We’ve gotten into our heads a little bit with this concept. Maybe it should be simpler. Maybe something more like this …” And they handed me a loose sketch on paper to illustrate a new, simpler approach. I had come for sign-off but left with a do-over.

I felt ashamed. How could I have missed that? Even though that feedback was hard to hear, I walked away able to make important changes, which led to a better outcome in the end. Here are the reasons why:

First, the feedback started as a conversation.Conversations (rather than written notes) make it easier to verify assumptions. When you talk face-to-face you can ask open-ended questions and clarify intent, so you don’t jump to conclusions. Talking helps you find where the trouble is much faster.

The feedback connected the dotsbetween problems in our process so far (trying to reconcile too many competing ideas) and how it led to the current result (an overly complicated product). The person who gave the feedback helped me see how we got to where we were, without assigning blame or shaming me in the process.

The feedback was direct.They didn’t try to mask the fact that the concept wasn’t working. Veiled or vague criticism does more harm than good; the same negativity comes through but without a clear sense of what to do next.

Good feedback invites each person to contribute their best work

No thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another. … Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem … first hand … does he think.

John Dewey,
Democracy and Education

Here’s another story. I was the producer on an app-based game, and the team was working on a part of the user interface that the player would use again and again. I was convinced that the current design didn’t “feel” right. I kept pushing for a change, against the input of others, and I gave the team some specific feedback about what I wanted to see done. The designers played along and tried it out. But it became clear that my feedback wasn’t helping, and the design director (gently) stepped in and steered us out of my design tangent and back on course.

John Dewey had it right in that quote above; you can’t think for someone else. And that’s exactly what I was doing: giving specific solutions without inviting the team to engage with the problem. And the results were worse for it.

It’s very tempting to use feedback to cajole and control people into doing things your way. But that usually leads to mediocre results. You have a team for a reason: you can’t possibly do everything on your own. Instead, when giving feedback try to remember that you’re building a team of individual contributors that will work together to make a better end product.

Here are a few feedback habits that help avoid the trap of using feedback to control, and instead, bring out the best in people.

Don’t give feedback until the timing is right

Feedback isn’t useful if it’s given before the work is really ready to be looked at. It’s also not useful to give feedback if you have not taken the time to look at the work and think about it in advance. If you rush either of these, the feedback will devolve into a debate about what could have been, rather than what’s actually there now. That invites confusion, defensiveness, and inefficiency.

Be just specific enough

Good feedback should have enough specifics to clearly identify the problem. But, usually, it’s better to not give a specific solution. The feedback in this example goes too far:

The background behind the menu items is a light blue on a darker blue. This makes it hard to see some options. Change the background fill to white and add a thin, red border around each square. When an option is selected, perhaps the inside border should glow red but not fill in all the way.

Instead, feedback that clearly identifies the problem is probably enough:

The background behind the menu items makes it a little hard for me to see some options. Any way we might make it easier to read?

Give the person whose job it is to solve the problem the room to do just that. They might solve it in a better way that you hadn’t anticipated.

Admit when you’re wrong

When you acknowledge a mistake openly and without fear, it gives permission for others on the team to do the same. This refocuses energies away from ego-protection and toward problem solving. I chose to admit I got it wrong on that app project I mentioned above; the designers had it right and I told them I was glad they stuck to their guns. Saying that out loud was actually easier than I thought, and our working relationship was better for it.

Good feedback tells a story about the future

In my writing, as much as I could, I tried to find the good, and praise it.

Alex Haley

We’ve said that good feedback connects past assumptions and decisions to current results, without assigning blame. Good feedback also identifies issues in a timely and specific way, giving people room to find novel solutions and contribute their best work.

Lastly, I’ve found that most useful feedback helps us look beyond the present state of our work and builds a shared vision of where we’re headed.

One of maybe the most overlooked tools for building that shared vision is actually pretty simple: positive feedback. The best positive feedback acknowledges great work that’s already complete, doing so in a way that is future-focused. Its purpose is to point out what we want to do more of as we move forward.

In practice, I’ve found that I can become stingy with positive feedback, especially when it’s early in a project and there’s so much work ahead of us. Maybe this is because I’m afraid that mentioning the good things will distract us from what’s still in need of improvement.

But ironically, the opposite is true: it becomes easier to fix what’s broken once you have something (however small) that you know is working well and that you can begin to build that larger vision around.

So be equally direct about what’s working as you are with what isn’t, and you’ll find it becomes easier to rally a team around a shared vision for the future. The first signs of that future can be found right here in the present.

Like Mr. Haley said: find the good and praise it.

Oh and one more thing: say thank you.

Thank people for their contributions. Let me give that a try right now:

It seemed wise to get some feedback from others when writing about feedback. So thanks to everyone in the PBS KIDS family of producers who generously shared their thoughts and experience with me in preparation of this article. I look forward to hearing your feedback.

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