effective design feedback

Putting an End to, “I Can’t Put My Finger on It, But …”

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In the Star Trek universe, there is a device called the universal translator that enables the denizens of the future to speak to each other without having to learn each other’s native tongues. And I’ll be honest — there have certainly been times when I’ve felt I’ve needed one when processing effective design feedback from a client or team member. Sometimes, it can just feel like we’re speaking different languages.

However, giving effective design feedback doesn’t require a universal translator or Rosetta Stone. Instead, it requires taking the time to understand and pinpoint exactly why something isn’t working for you. In her upcoming talk at Managing Editor Live, Aon Director of UX Design & Communication Ave Shalom will break down how marketers can better provide design feedback. We spoke about some of the basic principles of effective design feedback — and what designers also need to do to bridge the feedback gap.

Why Do People Struggle With Giving Effective Design Feedback?

I think it's because designers think in a visual way. There's a certain vocabulary that you grow up within the design world that is very visually oriented. I think marketers who are building campaigns are thinking about things in a different way about content.

And I think a piece of it is fear, too. People are afraid of saying the wrong thing because it almost feels foreign. For example, if I was talking about a written piece of content, I would say the tone of this needs to be more compassionate or the structure of the narrative needs to flow this way. When you talk about visuals, you’re taking those words, and you’re putting it into a design or building a concept based off of it. Suddenly, it becomes this other being — it’s almost more of an organism of sorts. There’s just a little bit of a disconnect between not knowing the words or saying something wrong — and maybe you don’t know how to describe what’s right and wrong in the first place.

What Do People Get Wrong When They're Trying to Give Feedback?

I want to avoid the word “wrong” because of what I was talking about before. It’s fear of right or wrong. So let’s label it non-constructive feedback. Some examples of feedback that’s less constructive are feelings or “I can’t put my finger on it, but it just isn’t ...”

I had one recently where someone sent some feedback on a design and said there are too many circles. Because I’m experienced, I can understand that she was trying to express that there was an imbalance. But for many younger designers, that interpretation layer doesn’t exist yet.

How Can We Give More Constructive Feedback About Design?

Instead of being vague about your feedback, oftentimes there are very tangible things that you can identify that are driving why the design is ineffective.

There are really practical ways that you can start looking at design and give valuable feedback without being super vague. If an issue is subjective, like not liking a color, then you can start saying things like, “Well, let’s refer to the brand guide and determine what colors match within the brand.” It's less subjective that way; You're taking that personal element out of it.

The other thing I think you can do — and this is something I’m really pushing at Aon — is if there is a discrepancy and it seems really personal, let’s test it. You have two designs with two different colors and get five people to look at each design and give feedback. Then you can say, “Oh, you know what? People responded really well to this design versus that one.” It’s no longer a subjective problem. It becomes a data-driven solution.

People Are Often Surprised at How Long Design Projects Take. How Can We Better Bridge That Gap?

That's a very valid point, and it is a difficult thing. I think there’s a couple of things that cause that.

One of them is that design is sometimes seen as a service versus an integral element to business success. So the minute you change your attitude about what design means to your content, that helps a little bit. It’s partially respect — respect each other's core jobs and that there’s value in them. Let’s say I was an analyst, and I was pulling together data sets out of all the different campaigns that we’re running. That takes a lot of time to consolidate data, analyze it and figure out the meaning within it. So, if your job takes time, then, therefore you can expect that someone else with different expertise has time-consuming parts to their job, too. This is not just a service where someone's just cranking out repetitive graphics. It’s actually an expertise.

The other piece of it Is being more collaborative. Sometimes, we’re too focused on getting it done, and there’s a negotiation that needs to happen — and I think that happens on both sides. So oftentimes I’ll get a design that has too much content, like too many words. If I can solve that through the design, awesome. But if I can’t, I need to go back to the writer and say that we need to work on this together because this isn’t working, and it’s taking away from the power of the touchpoint. So sometimes you have to collaborate just to make the content a little bit stronger with fewer words so that the design can hold it. Otherwise, it falls apart, and you end up just kind of spinning with revisions. But you never really conclude with anything that’s as good as it could have been if you had collaborated on it.

And from a design perspective, you have to be really honest with how long something is going to take you. You always have to add feedback loops into that, as well. When I was younger, I would give estimates, and they would be too short. I’d be like “Oh, I can do that in a couple of hours” — but then there’ll be six hours of feedback loops, because someone had to add something, or the client came back with something that needed to be changed on your end. All of a sudden, it’s a whole day later, and you’ve also got other projects running at the same time. If you look at that psychologically, any time you shift gears from one subject to another, it takes you about 15 minutes to get your mind around what you’ve just shifted to. So there’s a cognitive load that you have to think about with estimates, as well.

Any Other Common Misconceptions?

Sometimes, people think things are harder when they're actually easier with design! I had feedback on something just yesterday where I was asked to remove all of the data points from a report because they wanted to refocus it a bit. And they were like, “I know that’s going to be really difficult to do,” and really, it wasn’t. The hard part is if you wanted to rework the template. Taking out the data points or rewording something? That's relatively simple.

So, there can just be a misunderstanding as to what is hard and what isn't. But I  think the hard things are coming up with concepts and making something complex into something simplified. Those are always going to be hard — no matter what you do for a living.

Watch Ave's Managing Editor Live session now!

Anne Ruder is Rep Cap's creative director. Over the years she has acquired experience in graphic design, copywriting, SEO, social media strategy and marketing for various industries. The amalgamation of these experiences led her to develop a unique perspective when finding creative solutions. Anne currently resides in Minneapolis with her boyfriend and fur baby — a cat named Nara. When not dreaming up layouts, you can find her at the gym, reading, exploring the city or tending to her small jungle of houseplants.

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