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Archive: edUi 2014

Sept. 29 - Oct. 1

Richmond, Virginia

The Problem with Feedback

by Adam Connor

We’ve all been there…

Whether you’re a developer, project manager, designer, business analyst, etc. it’s more than likely that you’ve been in a meeting where the topic of “design” has come up explicitly or otherwise. If you’re on a project that involves the creation of something – a tool, a service, a product, a brochure, a logo, whatever it may be – you’re going to be involved in conversations about how it works, what it can do, what it contains, how it looks and so on.

Collaboration and coordination are critical elements in the success of projects in most (if not all) modern organizations. There isn’t a single individual who will be responsible for coming up with an idea, designing it, building it, selling it and supporting it. Instead these responsibilities and the expertise that come with them are divided amongst a variety of contributors who each bring their knowledge to the team. So we need to work together, combining our skills and expertise. And to work together, we need to talk with each other. We need to discuss what it is we’re creating, why we’re creating it and how it will all come together.

But as many of us have witnessed, these conversations can turn painful. In most cases, as these discussions go wrong, the worst they do is delay progress. But in some cases they can become much, much worse. As people talk about what they think should or should not be a part of the design, it’s not uncommon for their emotions to become engaged. And for some this can be difficult to control, which can lead to people getting defensive, tempers flaring, yelling, berating and lines being crossed.

The problem with “feedback”

Conversations about what we’re creating in our projects can come about through a number of ways. One of the most common ways design discussions are initiated is for a team member to ask for feedback on something they’ve created. They might just grab someone at a nearby desk because they want to take a break from putting something together and think about what they’ve done so far. Or it could be part of a planned milestone or date in the project’s timeline, often called Design Reviews.

It’s not that either of these is a bad time to get other’s thoughts. Rather, the first real problem we encounter is from the word “feedback” itself. It’s a word that’s become engrained in our vocabulary. We use it all the time, a la “I’d love to get your feedback on something…”

But what is feedback?

The issue with the term “feedback” lies in its broadness. Feedback itself is nothing more than a reaction or response. Designers talk about feedback and feedback loops all the time in their work. The user of a system or product interacts with it in some way, perhaps by clicking a button, and the system changes in one way or another. It could be that an animated loading bar appears while some new data is fetched and displayed, or maybe some elements in the interface move their position.

That reaction by the system is the feedback. It is the system’s response to what the user has done. Feedback is a reaction that occurs as a result of us doing something. In human-to-human interactions like the conversations we have in our projects, feedback can be nothing more than a gut reaction to whatever is being presented. And to be quite honest, even though we might not want to admit it, that’s often all it is.

Gut reactions might tell us a bit about how someone feels about what has happened or been created, and that can be useful in some cases, but it also presents us with some challenges. A reaction doesn’t go far enough to be really helpful in allowing us to improve our creations and move forward in our projects.

What we really need is critical thinking

Critical thinking is the process of taking a statement and determining if it is true or false. When we’re designing something, we’re doing so to meet or achieve some set of objectives. When looking for feedback on our creations, what we should be working to understand is whether we think it’s true or not that what has been created and the way in which it’s been created will work to achieve those objectives. We’re looking for a form of analysis to take place.

And that’s where critique comes in.

David Poteet, the president of Blacksburg web design and marketing agency NewCity, at edUi in 2009.

Defining critique

Critique is a form of analysis that uses critical thinking to determine whether a creation is expected to achieve its desired outcomes. Those outcomes can be any number of types of things. They can be about utility, for example giving someone the ability to complete a task. They can be about metrics and measurement, as in increasing the number clicks on a donate button or views of an online exhibit. Or they can be experiential, for example making someone feel excited or surprised by something new they just learned.


Is a reaction (impulse). Critical thought isn’t inherent

Tends to be in the form of a statement

Can be about anything, including the critic’s preferences or objectives


Is an analysis. Critical thought is a requirement.

Tends to involve an evolving series of questions and answers (dialogue)

Focused on how and why the creation is or is not likely to produce its intended outcomes

Knowing what we want and what we’re asking for makes all the difference in how our conversations play out. It may seem like little more than semantics, and it’s damn hard to let go of using the word “feedback” when asking to talk with people about a creation. But it’s important is to understand the difference and to use that understanding to inform how you ask people and facilitate the resulting conversations.

  • Critique builds shared vocabularies improving communication and collaborations
  • It aids in building consensus naturally around the strongest options
  • It informs and drives iteration in the design process

Unfortunately, critique is often overlooked for a number of reasons, but by recognizing its value and spending a little time understanding what it is and how it fits within our teams and processes, we can improve the quality of the conversations our team members have and make critique a natural part of our communication and process.

About the Author

Adam Connor

Adam Connor never tires of explaining why collaboration and critique are critical elements of the design process. And this is a perfectly awesome characteristic of an experience design director at Mad*Pow.

Adam also is a renowned artist and illustrator with more than a decade of experience in creating digital designs. He speaks regularly on the power of critiques at industry conferences from IA Summit to Web 2.0, and his vocal support for Design Studios continues to positively influence the way designers work today.

At edUi 2014 he’ll be presenting the keynote Discuss Design Without Losing Your Mind.


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