How I Manage the Feedback Process

As a designer, feedback can come in many forms. It can come after you present a concept to your client, after you have presented your portfolio to a potential employer, and even from a project manager working alongside you.

How you understand and manage feedback says a lot about you as a designer. When handled correctly, it immediately shows employers and clients what value you bring to a project. When handled incorrectly, it can showcase your inexperience and perhaps dilute your value on a team.

Every designer remembers those moments when they learn the hard way what can happen when they don't manage the feedback process with their clients. I’m no exception.

My Experience:

I remember this particular project very clearly. We were hired at Greenline Creative to develop a brand, email marketing strategy, logo, and an e-commerce website. It was a dream project. The budget and timeline weren’t an issue, and the client was a referral from a great friend of ours. But boy was I wrong.

From the beginning this project was a feedback nightmare. It’s hard to stomach, but we managed to burn through most of the design budget, just on the first two deliverables. Even worse, one of those deliverables was just a simple temporary “Coming Soon” page.

Things became even worse. I soon found out that the feedback we were receiving wasn’t from the client at all, but a “designer friend” of there's. This lead to a direct conversation between me and the client around trust and quality. They admitted of their wrong doing and that this was not an issue of trust, nor quality, but more of an insecurity on their end. They said that they wanted to make sure that they were giving us great feedback. We came to an understanding and decided to continue with the project.

Needless to say throughout the rest of the design phase this project never really got better. I laugh now, but I can’t believe how many variations of a single color we explored and how many brand boards we created. I even recall us mailing color swatches to this client’s office twice because they wanted to ensure it was the perfect hue.

Even during the development phase of this project, feedback was a constant battle. As you may, or may not know, it’s never fun making last-minute changes in code. I know many of you are probably asking, “Why didn’t you just let them go immediately if it was that bad?” I’m not going to make any excuses, I’m just going to say it straight. We felt an obligation to finish this project, and we were holding onto hope that this was going to still be something we loved in the end. We simply kept our heads in the sand, waiting for it to all end. We waited for the day that we could just cut our losses and learn from the mistakes we made. Surely this site had to eventually launch and the nightmare would end right?

Well in the end the website finally went live. It was way over budget, and included many sleepless nights. However, we did let the client go. Now with my head out of the sand, I keep an eye on this project from a distance, watching as each new designer tries to hit the same moving target as I was. It serves as a clear reminder of the designer I used to be vs. the designer I am today.

What I’ve Learned:

  • There’s a difference between feedback and a critique:Feedback generally comes from someone who is paying you to solve their problem through your designs. A critique generally comes from a peer who you’ve asked to help you better your design. It’s important to know the difference so you can be sure to respond accordingly.
  • Feedback is subjective: What one person may like, another will not. Your job is to create a solution that your client will not only love, but also produces results. The best designers keep an eye on both.
  • Feedback is not to be taken personally: We put our whole heart and soul into a solution, so it’s natural to become attached to whatever we are working on. However, feedback is never personal. Yes, you should try to “sell your ideas,” but if the client doesn't like it, he or she simply doesn't like it. By keeping perspective on what your responsibility is on a project, it can make it easier to handle the feedback process.
  • Feedback will only make you better: You can learn a great deal about where you stand as a designer through feedback. When reviewing the feedback that you receive, look for patterns. Have you been using the same fonts, colors and layouts on all of your designs? It’s easy to find a crutch and if you’re getting the same feedback over and over, perhaps you need to vary your design and search for more inspiration.
  • Ask for the appropriate feedback: One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned after working with clients over the years is to only ask for the feedback that you need at a given time. I’m not saying clients can’t focus, I’m just saying that they are eager to take part in the design process. When they get excited, it’s easy for them to start giving you feedback on color, when what all you really want is feedback on content. It’s up to you to keep your clients focused on what’s important at any given time. You’ll have more efficient meetings and leave focused on the end goal.
  • Feedback must always be constructive: A client simply saying, “ I don’t really like a font,” and not giving you a reason why, doesn’t really count as feedback. It’s important to make sure your client gives you very clear and constructive feedback. Great feedback should always be actionable and lead to a discussion between you and the client. Don’t be afraid to dig deeper and ask them why?
  • Make sure you understand the feedback: Similar to making sure all of the feedback you receive is constructive, it’s important that you truly understand the feedback that you are receiving from a client. The truth is, most clients won't interpret your solution through your lens immediately. It may feel like it at first, but through feedback you may find that either they or you may not be on the same page. Before responding by saying, “Yes I can do that!”, make sure you digest the feedback for a day (if possible), and that you truly honestly understand what they are asking for. Remember, you and the client are searching for the same outcome, don’t be afraid to ask the right questions.
  • Avoid feedback from the committee: If multiple people are a part of your client’s team, you want to make sure you try to limit your feedback source to one person, two at most. As a bonus, make sure that person is as high on the chain of command as possible. By doing so, you’ll avoid design by committee, and you’ll also receive the feedback you need much quicker.
  • Feedback is not a buffet: It’s very easy to let your guard down as a designer and end up in a feedback thread that has no end. The easiest way to ensure that you avoid this is by placing a cap to how much feedback is allowed during a project. I found by limiting feedback to a set number of hours works best. This ensures that the feedback you receive from your client has been evaluated as meaningful feedback vs. feedback just to give feedback. If they choose to go over the hours allotted, you are at least then getting paid for that time.

My Takeaway:

Managing the feedback process is simply a part of the job. Am I perfect at it? No. However, it’s important that I at least try. Learning to manage the feedback process is an ongoing struggle for even the best designers and design firms. Just like no two projects are the same, no two clients are either. The interesting thing about feedback is that if you do learn to tame it, there’s potential to turn a mediocre concept into a great concept. Try to keep an open mind towards your clients' feedback. You never know what will come out of it. By letting them be a part of the process it allows you to build a trusting relationship with them and creates for a great collaborative experience that everyone is enjoying. Collaborative doesn't mean that you just execute on every bit of feedback they send your way, it means you work together towards the same shared goals giving and taking along the way. Whether you are building an online product, selling posters or selling websites, feedback from an outsider is inevitable. Some of it will be positive, some of it will be negative. It’s important that you keep your eye on the target and goals set. When you do that, you then get to decide what feedback is worth listening to and what feedback is just noise.

Communication and feedback is very important to me, so I’d love to continue the conversation with you all on Twitter. What did you guys think of this lesson? What horror stories do you have that you’d like to get off your chest? How do you manage the feedback process with your clients?

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