How to Give UX Feedback and Save Troy

a close-up on a woman pressing her face against a horse's head

Until not so long ago I believed in the power of direct, straightforward feedback. As someone who sees mistakes as part of the game called life, I assumed everyone would feel as comfortable as I do when talking about their blunders. We’re all learning in the end, right?

Honesty and straightforwardness were my way of showing respect to work and the people I work with. By being open, I showed I cared about the project and I believed in my colleagues’ ability to handle the situation. I felt they could separate their self-worth from the results of their work.

What I’ve learnt is that we all have bruises which leave their marks. In fact, if you think of the projects you’ve been part of that failed, you’ll see a lot of them fell through because of the complexity of people’s characters, their soft spots and rough edges.

If you don’t want your project follow that path, mind that giving feedback is challenging a status quo and so is bound to meet with resistance. And criticism, even when given with good intentions, is difficult for most people to take in.

As a UX designer, you’re either giving or receiving feedback all the time: You exchange feedback with your peers while working on a design, you get it  from users while testing your solutions (I hope you treat them as wonderfully humbling lessons ;)), and finally, you give feedback to the business owners of projects while recommending changes in solutions.

For the success of the projects you’re working on, it’s critical that you master handling both giving and receiving feedback. It this blog post I want to talk about how to communicate criticism in a way that doesn’t divide people but pushes projects forward.

a woman's mouth with a pink lipstick

No one was born a Jedi. Giving feedback to UX designers

I love UX designers. Some of the UXers I have the privilege to know are the biggest givers I’ve ever met. Those I’m blessed to know are also very humble types. They seem to completely buy into the idea that it’s not about their egos, but rather about users’ needs. They know how to listen and seem to be in a giving mood most of the time – ready to get down to solving the problem you’re working on. However, I’m pretty sure that even those Master Yodas of humility waged plenty of their own emotional battles with accepting negative feedback before they mastered the skill.

How do they do it?

First of all, they’ve wholly bought into the notion that designing user experience or interaction is a work in progress all the time. There’s no solution that couldn’t be improved. Since user testing is part of the job, finding flaws in the designed paths comes with the territory.

They know that UX design means constant learning. So, when receiving feedback on their teams’ designs, they don’t just launch into self-defense mode immediately after hearing criticism. This would mean they’re not learning from their own mistakes. Rather, they grab pen and paper, humbly note the feedback down, and address it after giving it serious thought.

Finally, they take care of “feedback hygiene” when working on a project. They refrain from expressing criticism based on strictly subjective opinions, apart from those rare occasions when they are faced with ghastly examples of aesthetic decadence 😉 They are specific, and use tools that help them get right to the point when communicating with people remotely.

Some of them would also agree that… 

colorful fruit and snacks on table

Sandwiches are hard to swallow

You must have heard of the sandwich method of giving feedback. Basically, it’s sandwiching the corrective piece of feedback in between two fresh-baked pieces of praise. This method has been around for years and is recommended by both psychologists and business professionals.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been in two minds about it. Blame my pathological love of honesty, but the intro preparing the ground for correction usually feels too manipulative for me to get out. Blame my gluten sensitivity, but also as a receiver, I hardly ever feel the correction is easier to swallow just because it’s squeezed in between two slices of praise full of refined sugar. On the contrary, the praise in the sandwich makes me feel much worse than if it wasn’t there at all.

While this is just my personal experience, there is data validating my way of thinking. Adam Grant, the author of ‘Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World’ and a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, seems to share my dietary choices 😉

His recommendation is, instead of serving a sandwich, be transparent and modest. He says to get off the high horse of being the “expert,” ditch the authoritative tone, draw context of the feedback giving session, and present your solution as a suggestion for opening a discussion.

The way you do it as a UX/UI designer depends on whether you’re talking to designers or to the business. Either way, back up your words with data, quote sources, and leave the business side room for decision-making. (They love it! ;))

Communicating with business stakeholders may be like walking on quicksand. You need to balance the needs of end users with those of business stakeholders who may have overblown expectations, or who may feel overly attached to the solution as it is.

a woman making a baloon with a chewing gum

Look around before you speak

The Director of Human Resources and Development at Bemo Motors, Sylwia Cantillana Valencia, recommends getting a feel for a company’s culture before starting a project with them. This will let you be more effective when presenting your recommendations for changes.

So, do some thorough desk research about the company: What values do they communicate? What is their organizational structure? Who among the stakeholders is the decision maker? Try to understand who else can have a say and what is important for them. Is it a corporation with core procedures to follow? Or maybe it’s a company run as a family business?

Adjust the way you speak to fit the organization’s model. The fact that it’s a corporation or a startup is not very telling yet. Organizations are made up out of the leader’s personalities and values, which means you might be dealing with a clan organization in stealth form. Taking things at face value when gauging the organizational culture may generate misleading conclusions.

Gauging your partners properly will help you speak on the same wavelength and achieve buy-ins. For example, if you conclude that the company has traces of a clan, mind that the decision makers can feel very attached to their product. If that’s the case, they’re likely to be more sensitive to criticism than others. To help them accept your feedback, you’ll have to go the extra mile stressing the positives.

So as not to resort to using sandwich and coming across as insincere, start preparing the ground right after walking in the door, before even your team begins working on the project.

Show how much you know about the company, and show appreciation for the solutions they’ve developed in-house. As Adam Grant says, step down from the pedestal. Speaking down to people from the position of an expert who knows best is the last thing you want to do, and can seriously jeopardize the success of the project.

a chess pin knocked down

Strategize your UX feedback

According to a UX researcher and designer, Anton Nikolov,“good feedback is very specific and not vague! It provides clear and actionable information.”

To avoid being vague and personal, look for data that will help you prove the value of the solution you suggest. Presenting data will also help you level with the people you’re talking to. You’ll sound less authoritative, and therefore less intimidating.

Providing actionable information is self-explanatory. Being actionable is the very thing that makes your criticism constructive. Instead of focusing on mistakes that have been made, talk about the solutions you suggest implementing and quote data that will show what potential gains their implementation will give.

Remember that even if finding mistakes in the system is your job and something you’ve been invited to do, it doesn’t mean it’s easy and natural for those who listen. On an emotional level, which is where decisions are made, your criticism is hard to swallow.

It’s safer to assume that the author of the mistakes is in the room. So, even if you’re not serving the traditional feedback sandwich – again, which I don’t necessarily recommend – you want to make sure you drop a compliment on a solution now and again. This will ease the pain inflicted by your criticism.

We’re only humans. We all have sensitive spots. So, be appreciative of them.

Just think of it: If only Cassandra had had less passion and a better strategy, Troy could still be standing tall! 😉 Don’t let your Troy fall down. On top of knowing where a mistake is, know how to make your prophecy get through to the decision-makers in a way that makes it easy to swallow.

Do you have any tried-and-tested ways of communicating constructive criticism? Feel welcome to share them with us in the comments section! Is there anything you disagree with? Tell us! Let’s put feedback giving to work! 😉

I'm a service designer and a digital marketer, passionate about human-centered design and storytelling. To my own surprise, I frequently find myself writing about motivation and organizational culture. Why? This could be the human factor at play...

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