Design feedback

Sometimes designers receive very weird requests and feedbacks. How should you handle them?

“The green sky” story

So once, about 14 years ago, the client asked me to change the sky color to green. Without the context, that sounds a bit crazy. Even knowing it, most of you will find it strange. This was a huge corporate website. The team had worked on it for 4 months already, and we were close to ending the project when this request came up.

To keep the story short, after hours of negotiations, we defined the reason behind this request: the sky is blue, the client’s color is green, the competitor’s color is blue. The client’s manager wanted to avoid this similarity with competitors, so rather than telling us his fears, he tried to fix the issue himself by giving us the solution: the green sky.

Many clients believe that proper feedback is prescriptive, they tell a designer how to fix something. The sad part that designers are put in a position of carrying out client’s design decisions.

All those funny feedbacks come from situations where clients try to fix the problem without actually naming the reason.

The truth is that no matter how good your pitch was, you’ll get feedback, and probably some of the remarks will be negative, and some might be prescriptive.

Your goal our designers should be to calm people down, establish rapport, gain trust, make people voice their needs, and persuade them empathy to find the right solution (and keep the sky blue).

1. Keeping a discovery mindset

Feedback is not an act of battle; it’s a process of discovery. The goal is to uncover as much information as possible.

Don’t take negative feedback as a personal attack.

You should always remember, that you’re both, you and your counterpart, are working toward the same goal with the best of intentions.

Negative feedback is an essential part of the process and a part of the client’s job. It’s human nature to react when we get negative feedback. The key is distancing your emotional self and taking the remarks as you would listen to a doctor’s advice that you eat less salt.

2. Create feedback guidelines for your clients

No one is born with the knowledge on how to give useful design feedback. You need to teach your clients how to do that. Both of you are striving for the same goal. That should be a clear mental vector that navigates the feedback process.

Remind them again in the written guidelines that you are hired to find a solution, so the client should name the problem, not find the solution for it.

Create a list of things they should focus on and what should be ignored, e.g. when I show wireframes to the client, I’m asking them to focus on overall goals, not colors, specific labels and body copy and so on.

Stay away from questions ”Do you like it?”. You weren’t hired to make something they like, you should be hired to solve their business problems. Ask your clients to comment specifically on the things you want them to address.

3.Accusation audit

The concept of “accusation audit” — it’s essentially a negotiating tactic where you list all the negative things the person you’re negotiating with can claim about you or your work, and use labels to diffuse their power. That’s exactly what Eminem did to defeat Papa Doc in the final 8-mile rap battle!

The reasons why a counterpart is not going to make an agreement with you are often more important than why they are going to make an agreement, so focus first on removing the barriers to an agreement.

Denying barriers or negative influences gives them credence.

The magic is that when those accusations are voiced over, your client starts to listen to your reasoning and becomes more open to discussion.

So what could be the accusation audit to your design? Is it the strategy? Or maybe it’s the size of the header? So shoot that:

“We understand that the header is bold. It might look too big, too vibrant, and it might freak you out”

Pause. After you label a barrier, let it sink in. Don’t worry, the other party will fill the silence. You might receive an emphatic nod from your clients or they might deny your statement, then you can continue reasoning the solution and encouraging the client to share their thoughts with you. Add open-end questions “What else is there you feel is important to add to this?”. By labeling the fears and asking for input, you’ll able to elicit a piece of important information on how to make the agreement on the header, color, flow or any other element. The faster you name the fear, the faster you can generate feelings of safety, well-being, and trust.

4. Listening

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.

For those who view negotiation as a battle of arguments, when they’re not talking, they’re thinking about their arguments, and when they are talking, they’re making their arguments.

Often those on both sides of the table are doing the same thing, so you have a state of schizophrenia: everyone just listening to the voice in their head.

The best way to receive feedback is to listen and actually hear what’s being said.

5. Controlling your emotions and tone of voice

Use your voice and facial expression as a tool. Put a smile on your face. When people are in a positive frame of mind, they think faster and are more likely to work together and solve problems (instead of battling and resisting). Positivity builds mental agility for both you and your counterpart.

Psychology professor Albert Mehrabian created the 7–38–55 rule.

That is, only 7 percent of a message is based on the words while 38 percent comes from the tone of voice and 55 percent from the speaker’s body language and face.

There are three voice tones available to negotiators according to Chris Voss (ex FBI negotiator):

1. The late-night FM DJ voice. Inflect your voice downward, keeping it calm and slow. When done properly, you create an aura of authority and trustworthiness without triggering defensiveness.

2. The positive/playful voice: Should be your default voice. It’s the voice of an easygoing, good-natured person. Your attitude is light and encouraging. The key here is to relax and smile while you’re talking.

3. The direct or assertive voice: Will cause problems and create pushback.

6.Slowing down

When you slow the process down, you also calm it down.

Moving too quickly is one of the mistakes that all negotiators are likely to make. If we’re too in a rush, people can feel like they’re not being heard. You risk losing the relationship and trust that you have built up.

7. Being a mirror

Mirroring, also called isopraxism, is essentially imitation. It can be done with speech patterns, body language, vocabulary, tempo, and tone of voice.

It’s a phenomenon (and now technique) that follows a very basic but profound biological principle:

We fear what’s different and are drawn to what’s similar.

It’s almost laughably simple Chriss Voss writes: for the FBI, a “mirror” is when you repeat the last three words (or the critical one to three words) of what someone has just said. Of the entirety of the FBI’s hostage negotiation skill set, mirroring is the closest one gets to a Jedi mind trick.

Psychologist Richard Wiseman created a study using waiters to identify what was the more effective method of creating a connection with strangers: mirroring or positive reinforcement.

One group of waiters, using positive reinforcement, lavished praise and encouragement on patrons using words such as “great,” “no problem,” and “sure” in response to each order. The other group of waiters mirrored their customers simply by repeating their orders back to them. The results were stunning: the average tip of the waiters who mirrored was 70 percent more than of those who used positive reinforcement.

8. Being empathic

You can’t always deliver solutions, but you can always deliver empathy.

By putting yourself in the shoes of a customer, you also get the context that helps you do your job.

The beauty of empathy is that it doesn’t demand that you agree with the other person’s ideas. You don’t need to feel their pain, you can label it.

Labeling is a way of validating someone’s emotion by acknowledging it. Give someone’s emotion a name and you show you identify with how that person feels. it’s a shortcut to intimacy.

Labels can be phrased as statements or questions. The only difference is whether you end the sentence with a downward or upward inflection. But no matter how they end, labels almost always begin with roughly the same words:

It seems like …

It sounds like . . .

It looks like . . .

e.g. It seems like this project is very important to you. It sounds like you have your own view on this issue.

9. Asking calibrated questions

Asking questions helps eliminate the appearance of defensiveness and keeps us from immediately jumping in to justify our actions. If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers.

The easiest way to persuade your client is to guide them to your idea with calibrated questions.

Your questions should start with “what,” “how,” and sometimes “why.” Nothing else.

“why” is perceived as accusatory So it can backfire. The only time you can use “why” successfully is when the defensiveness that is created supports the change you are trying to get them to see. e.g. “Why would you ever change from the way you’ve always done things and try my approach?”

Having just two words to start with might not seem like a lot of ammunition, but trust me, you can use “what” and “how” to calibrate nearly any question. “Does this look like something you would like?” can become “How does this look to you?” or “What about this works for you?” You can even ask, “What about this doesn’t work for you?” and you’ll probably trigger quite a bit of useful information from your counterpart.

10. Getting to “That’s right”

I’m sure that sometimes you got a “Yes” from your client that later turned out to be a “No.” This is not an uncommon experience.

This happens because there are actually three kinds of “Yes”: Commitment, Confirmation, and Counterfeit. According to Chris Voss:

One great tool for avoiding this trap is the Rule of Three.

The Rule of Three is simply getting the other guy to agree to the same thing three times in the same conversation.

This method uncovers problems before they happen.

How to avoid sounding like a broken record to get those 3 yes?

The first time they agree to something or give you a commitment, that’s №1. For №2 you might label or summarize what they said so they answer, “That’s right.” And №3 could be a calibrated “How” or “What” question about implementation that asks them to explain what will constitute success, something like “What do we do if we get off track?”

Or the three times might just be the same calibrated question phrased in three different ways, like “What’s the biggest challenge you faced? What are we up against here? What do you see as being the most difficult thing to get around?”


That’s it, folks. Remember it’s your job to keep this sky blue.

About the author 

Zbignev Gecis

Zbignev has been a product designer for nearly 20 years. He has worked on hundreds of projects and offered his expertise on everything from SaaS and eCommerce to marketing and branding.

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