How to give great feedback

At &yet we often talk about our design and development process as being highly iterative. To iterate, as we all know, means to do something repeatedly. But doing something once, then again, then again, and again, doesn’t singularly ensure that the project is moving in the right direction. It’s the rounds of feedback, sandwiched between iterations, that ultimately dictate the quality of the product.

The thing about feedback is, when given effectively, it is literally the only thing getting you from shitty first draft to shipping a truly quality product.

The first step is asking for help

Before we talk about giving great feedback, it’s important to mention that feedback is made valuable not only by those who give feedback, but by those who seek it as well. Most often, rounds of feedback happen when someone on the team says, “Hey team, look at this thing I’m making. Help me make it better.”

But it can be amazingly hard, especially in the early phases of a project, when things feel so rough and incomplete, to lay your work on a table, expose it to your team, and look at it under harsh light. It can be easy to feel the compulsion to polish the work that much more before you share it. Especially in the early phases of design and development, discussion should be largely conceptual, big-picture decisions. But at this phase, feedback is especially necessary, as it gets you moving in the right direction as early as possible. Just put it out there. Trust me, your team understands. And their feedback will be invaluable.

Feedback is powerful

The tricky thing about feedback is that it’s powerful. And with great power comes great we all know.

While feedback cycles have the power to help guide good beginnings into a great product, it’s also possible to shift course in the wrong direction. I’d like to think the most seasoned designers and developers have excellent intuition when it comes to feedback, but it certainly doesn't hurt to look at feedback as something deeper and more complex than sheer intuition.

What good feedback is

  • In context – This may seem obvious, but it is quite important, and therefore worth pointing out. Good feedback bears in mind all contextual information. This can be everything from user information, size, format and medium, to how users encounter the item being discussed, to maintainability and clarity of code.
  • Often, a question – Questions are a valuable part of the feedback process. Whether you are seeking to understand context, or simply inquiring of the designer or developer’s intentions, it’s always productive to ask.
  • Empowering – Honesty doesn’t have to be brutal. Feedback that is honest, but also empowering, acknowledges the intention and choices that the designer or developer has made, reaffirms the established goals, and often includes ideas or guidance on how to better achieve them.
  • Specific – It’s easy to say that something just ‘isn't right.’ Having the vocabulary to identify and explain the friction points is invaluable.
  • Actionable – A good feedback session should leave the designer or developer with a clear plan of action to move the project in the right direction. It reaffirms goals and offers very specific guidance on how to better achieve them.
  • Paced correctly – Sometimes you need quick feedback, and sometimes feedback cycles span over weeks and months. Choosing the right tools and processes (or lack thereof) can hugely influence the quality of feedback and efficiency of the project.

What good feedback isn’t

  • Opinion – You may be thinking, “Isn’t most feedback someone’s opinion?” Well yes. But, no. Your own opinion can be informed by solid design and programming principles, so after a while they can feel intertwined, but choices should never be suggested simply because you personally prefer one method over another.
  • Absolute – Feedback is about discussion and the give and take of ideas. No piece of individual feedback can ever be perceived as a complete and perfect solution.
  • A product of groupthink – Groupthink is an interesting phenomenon in that it tends to affect very cohesive teams. It reveals that people tend to subconsciously stifle their own beliefs in order to active consensus among a group. Is your feedback based on the desire to gain approval from the team, or does it reflect your honest response?
  • Personal – Don't focus on the person seeking feedback. Focus on the project's collective objectives. Feedback is about collaboration, not criticism.

Useful feedback tools for a distributed team

There are many applications that promise to offer an easy and streamlined method of curating iterations and feedback. This is a tricky one because tools can be burdensome and impose undue process on an already process-heavy task. When choosing tools to facilitate feedback for our team, it’s important to ensure that feedback be documented, if necessary, and easily accessed by everyone involved. But we also recognize that projects move fast and the relevancy of feedback expires quickly, so the need to archive feedback discussions beyond several days, in most cases, isn’t important.

  • Talky Talky is great because it enables you to have a face-to-face video conversation with anyone, anywhere, anytime. It’s hard to get around the fact that commenting on someone’s work can elicit an emotional response at times. Being able to have meaningful feedback conversations face-to-face is invaluable - and made totally simple with Talky.
  • Slack Where Talky is used more for in-depth conversation, we tend to use Slack for more casual feedback. “Can I get your thoughts on this real quick?”-type stuff. Being able to seek quick smell checks and +1s here and there is a totally valid way to move projects forward efficiently.
  • GitHub GitHub issues are the natural choice for code feedback and UI feedback that is at the implementation stage of design. The ability to use markdown to create a task list with checkmarks is especially handy in giving actionable feedback.
  • Dropbox comments – Dropbox commenting is the least ephemeral of the design feedback methods we use. Comments in Dropbox live with a file for the duration of its life, and are especially useful for projects that involve longer, more drawn-out feedback cycles in which people drop in and out of the conversation over long periods of time.

Go forth and empower

Whether it be a formal session, or a quick exchange of ideas, feedback is a hugely important aspect of working as a team. And when you really think about it, to some degree, a large percentage of the communication between team members can be qualified as feedback. It has the power to empower a team to ship great products.

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