Giving constructive design feedback

Imagine this situation: Someone comes to you and asks:

“What do you think of this design?”

You then see that what they’ve created doesn’t look very good. In fact, it looks so bad you don’t even know where to start with your feedback.

All designers have been in this situation several times in their career, sometimes on things that can be, erm, quite painful to look at for a trained pair of eyes. From being angry and almost in despair to being mature, serene and genuinely try to help, we, designers, have some techniques to help giving constructive and useful feedback.

These are techniques I use every time I’m asked to evaluate someone’s design work (and that I also find helpful when someone is giving feedback on my work):

1. First: Look for the positives

Start by looking for all the good things and things that work in the design. And then give your feedback on those. By giving positive feedback first, you’ll show respect for all the work they’ve done and it’s more likely that they’ll to be open to hear the following criticism.

2. Think before you speak

Take your time, don’t rush to speak immediately. And look carefully. Keep in mind that what you see has probably been done by conscious decision by whoever created it.

3. Pick 1 thing

If you had to pick 1 thing that would make a major difference on the design, what would that be? Things to look out for: colours, position and alignment of elements on the page,  hierarchy of information, general concept and idea, visual style, sizes of elements.

4. Understand why

Once you picked the thing, understand why it’s been done the way it is. Consider the fact that the person might already have thought about what you are going to say and may have made a conscious decision. It could be for technical reasons, requirements restrictions, time, all sorts of things. Ask them.

5. Say what you think the problem is

Don’t try to solve it, say what the problem is. For example, “this button is not prominent enough”, “this colour is not in line with the rest of the design”, “this area is a bit confusing”. Be tactful on how you say it. You might want to use sentences like “Maybe this…” “I’m not sure about…” “Do you think this could be…”

Repeat 3-4-5

Repeat 3-4-5 as much as you need. This process may sound like it’s long but in reality it’s a quick thought process and conversation. Once you’ve done this a few times, it’ll just come naturally.

I’ve gone through phases with running…

I’ve started running a few months ago and I’ve gone through these phases so far:

1. Running is really boring! Will I ever be able to do this?
2. Running is boring, but the feeling afterwards is amazing. I’ll go again and see how I feel.
3. Running is addictive. I just need to go for a run!

… 6 months (24 runs) later…
I now really enjoy running!

Good example of user interaction on a phone call

I recently had a good user experience when I called for a cab. The call was through an answering machine and because of that I was surprised it actually worked. And it worked well.

The call started like this:

Welcome from [Company name] taxis.
To be picked up from [my address], press 1
To be picked up from [another address I use often], press 2
Or please hold to talk to an operator.

I pressed 1.

To confirm your booking from [my address] for as soon as possible, press 1
To book a taxi for later today, press 2
To book a taxi for tomorrow, press 3
Or to speak to an operator, press 0

And so on.

Why I think this worked:

  • The service learned my behaviour
    The service learned where I like to be collected from. By not having to type or say anything, it made it easier, quicker and convenient for me.
  • It reassured me along the way
    During the call, I was constantly reassured that what I chose was understood correctly by the machine. At various points in the call, it repeated my choices. When it ended they repeated and asked me to confirm. After the call they sent me a detailed text message. Feedback and reassurance are important for users to feel they are on the right path.
  • Concise text
    The machine only says what is necessary. By doing that, it saves users’ time and make it simpler for them to make the right decisions. User’s time is precious, especially in services like this one when users might be in a hurry.
  • Tasks were broken down into small simple tasks
    It made it easier to make the right decisions when the tasks were broken down into a small number of tasks and decisions points.
  • Simple steps for basic users. Elaborate tasks for advanced ones.
    Users who want the basic features, in this case, to book a taxi for now from their address, will accomplish the task very quickly in just a few presses away. Users who wants more advanced features will need to go a bit further. Their tasks are a bit more complex, therefore requires more exploration.
  • At any point I could talk with the operator.
    I could choose the way I want to interact with the service, either by talking with an operator or by following the steps, whatever I feel more comfortable with.

I found this a good example of user experience. The part that most got my attention was the fact that the service learnt users behaviour and by doing that it improved an ordinary activity which made it stand out from the crowd.