Design Communication Toolkit – Part 2: Giving Design Feedback

ux design communication toolkit - giving design feedback

You worked hard. Maybe you even spent hours toiling over the pixels, the placement, the idea your design was conveying.

And then come those terrible, dreadful, no-good words.

“I just don’t like it.”

Nails. On. Chalkboard.

How is that helpful?! What ever happened to constructive criticism?! It’s all you can do to keep yourself from rebutting with a childish comeback.

| Article by Brenda Buchanan, Oakland designer & writer, as part of the Design Writing Apprenticeship

For design teams to truly challenge one another in collaboration and grow, each member of the team has to learn how to communicate. This isn’t limited to learning how to speak about your own design, but extends to how you speak about other people’s design. Growth starts with you.

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Constructive Criticism

You’ve heard people say, “It’s not so much what you say, but how you say it.” I’m here to tell you it’s both.

Learning how to phrase criticism and feedback will not only build team rapport but also empower your teammates to do the same.

Be Specific

Vague feedback doesn’t help anyone. If you can’t give a reason for why something bothers you, then it’s probably a good idea to sit on it for a bit. Blurting out, “I don’t like it,” “It’s just ugly,” “I think it could be better,” is simply expressing an opinion and bringing everyone to a dead end.

Instead, when you deliver feedback on someone’s design, make sure to focus on the ‘Why.’ This grounds feedback with context and rationale. For comparison’s sake, see below:

Opinion-based feedback: I don’t like the neon colors.
Context-based feedback: I’m concerned that the use of neon colors will be distracting from the main content.

Another example…

Opinion-based feedback: I think this design is stuck in the 90s.

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Context-based feedback: I’m worried that because our company wants to focus on cutting edge tech, that the throwback style might not match their goals.

Negative vs Positive Phrasing

Negative phrasing immediately puts others on the defensive. It often assigns blame and doesn’t offer any path forward. Negative phrasing relies on the can’t, won’t, doesn’t, never word options. In contrast positive phrasing focuses on offering alternative routes and highlights the ability to pivot.

Negative phrasing: I don’t think this button makes sense next to that paragraph.

Positive phrasing: I think that it might make more sense to move this button closer to the call to action.

Subtle change, but big difference!

The “I Feel” Bomb

Many of us have been taught to cushion feedback with that golden phrase, “I feel.”

For example, “I feel that this page layout isn’t consistent with the rest of the site.” If use this phrase once, it’s bearable. But friends, if you start cushioning every piece of feedback with, “I feel,” let me tell you, your colleagues will want to run. This might seem like a break with tradition, but trust me on this one. It’s passive-aggressive and everyone will feel that but you. Be direct and end your feedback with a question for a change.

“I feel” phrasing: I feel that this page layout isn’t consistent with the rest of the site.

Alternative phrasing:  The page layout here strikes me as inconsistent with the rest of the site. What do you think?

When in doubt, ask further questions

Discussing ideas should be exactly that: a discussion. It’s not a dart throwing session. So, if there’s something that you really don’t understand in the design, try asking about it. Clarifying questions will only help the team get closer to a solution.

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Summary: Giving Design Feedback

When giving constructive criticism, remember these 3 tactics for constructive criticism:

  1. Be specific and use context, avoid vague, opinion-based feedback
  2. Find opportunities to use positive phrasing over negative phrasing
  3. Use more direct communication styles versus “I feel” phrasing

Communication is complicated, especially when feelings are involved. Presenting your design and ideas takes a lot of guts and it can be hard to take feedback. Learning how to deliver good criticism will not only bring your team closer, but will improve your design solutions.

To read up more on constructive criticism: