Sean Dillingham presenting design work.

Helping Non-Designers Give Great Design Feedback

Use these four tactics to feel more confident when giving design feedback.

In 2019, I started giving a talk at Signal Sciences called “Giving Great Design Feedback” for people who work with the product design team: product managers, engineers, stakeholders, and executives.

I give this training because I want to increase both the quality and quantity of feedback designers receive from the entire business. To achieve that, we need to help non-designers become more confident in sharing their reactions to design work.

Useful vs. unhelpful feedback

It’s pretty easy to tell the difference between helpful and unhelpful feedback when you’re on the receiving end. It gets much harder to discern the difference when you’re the one giving feedback. This difficulty is sometimes where people start holding back: “I have feedback to share but don’t know how to articulate it constructively, so I’m going to stay silent.”

We try to ease this discomfort by defining the characteristics of helpful design feedback. At Signal Sciences we believe good feedback has one or more of these attributes:

  • It’s actionable: Great feedback helps move the design forward by pointing out specific areas for improvement.
  • It sheds new light: Great feedback arms designers with new concepts or information that help illuminate the problem.
  • It seeks context: Great feedback often starts by trying to understand the decisions made to arrive at a proposed design.
  • It transcends ego: Applying your personal preferences to a proposed design is inevitable, but also unhelpful to the designer.

If your reaction to a proposed design doesn’t have at least one of these characteristics, it’s not useful feedback. I liken it to the Buddhist concept of the four gates of speech (“Is this true? Is it kind? Is this the right time? Am I the right person?”). Sometimes it’s enough to say “I can’t articulate the ‘why’ behind my reactions to the design yet.” That leaves space for you to contemplate your initial reactions and transform them later into feedback that will help improve the work.

Demystifying design

Non-designers sometimes hesitate to give feedback because they often assume “good design” is highly subjective. The aesthetic dimension of design can obscure the more fundamental—and evaluable—problem-solving nature of design work.

To help demystify our work and our process, it helps to define what design is. There are two quotes about design I use to make it less intimidating to non-designers:

“Design is a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.”

—Charles Eames

“Design is the rendering of intent.”

—Jared Spool

There’s a lot to unpack in these quotes, but they’re also disarmingly simple and approachable. They also open the door to discussions about how a designer’s ability to “render intent” or “arrange elements” is not just about innate talent, but also about a consistent design process. Like engineers, architects, and other creative disciplines, designers use process as a way to consistently frame problems and create solutions. By sharing the way we approach problems as product designers, we can create a common language with non-designers to discuss the different aspects of a design.

For years I’ve been a big fan of Intercom’s four layers of design (Outcomes, Structure, Interaction, Visual) as a framework for articulating the different layers designers operate at/move between on any given project. But these days I opt for Peter Merholz’s ”Strategy, Structure, Surface” framework. It works well for socializing design across the org because three layers is easier to comprehend than four, and because Intercom’s model can get fuzzy when trying to explain where “Structure” ends and “Interaction” begins.

Four effective feedback tactics

Once we’ve built a foundation for good design feedback by defining its characteristics and creating an understanding of design process, we then arm non-designers with four practical feedback tactics:

1. Understand the goal

Often the best place to start when giving design feedback is making sure you and the designer share an understanding of what problem we’re solving, who we’re solving it for, and how we’re masuring success. Common questions include: “How will this make things easier or better for our customers?” “Who will be using this?” “If we ship this, how will we know if it’s successful?”

2. Understand where the designer is in their process

If a designer is still working on designing the structural aspects of a feature or product, then giving feedback on type sizing or button colors will pull them up into a different layer of design that’s outside their current focus. It’s easy to align your feedback with where a designer is at in their process by asking: “Where are you looking for feedback right now?” or “What were other options you considered, and why did you choose this one?”

3. Ask clarifying questions

If something about a design doesn’t appear right to you, ask the designer to explain their rationale behind it. Designers should be able to explain the thinking behind their decisions, and it’s often more productive to constructively disagree about the rationale behind a design decision. This also leaves space for the designer to iterate on a better solution. Examples of good clarifying questions: “Why did you choose to make that button green?” or “Can you tell me more about why you chose to place [element A] above [element B]?”

4. Describe your experience

The first three tactics use a Socratic approach to create shared understanding or uncover problems with a design. But great design feedback can come in the form of declarative sentences, too. Describing your reactions using objective language keeps personal preferences or biases in the background. The goal here is to help a designer understand how you’re experiencing a design, so they can assess whether that aligns with the experience they’re trying to create.

Using this tactic, great feedback sounds something like: “It wasn’t clear to me when I first saw the navigation how I would change the site’s blocking mode,” or “The red delete button was the first thing that grabbed my attention, but as I studied the page more I realized the warning copy was the most useful element to me.”

Better feedback supports shipping better design

We know inviting non-designers into a more inclusive conversation around our work is one of the best ways to make our designs better, and can also increase design’s impact. We want designers and non-designers alike to have a stake in the design work we deliver to our customers. By improving the quality and quantity of feedback we receive, it’s easier for designers to ship great work that everyone at Signal Sciences feels invested in.