Design is subjective. There are no right or wrong solutions. There is always a spectrum of options and possibilities and with experience, we learn how to make better decisions earlier in the process.
Regular, candid, and critical feedback enables us to see shortcomings in our choices, pushes us to explore other ideas, and shows us new perspectives. Essentially, the more feedback you receive, the better designer you can become.
And here is a tricky part: While you can learn how to give good feedback, receiving it may always be hard for you. Some people can take criticism and move on, others can get hurt or start to question their abilities and skills and give up. We are all different. But in general, as designers, we learn how to be sensitive and open to other people, so we can design better products for them. The exact skill that makes us good designers also makes us terrible at receiving feedback.
In this article I want to focus on the techniques that work for me when dealing with critical feedback on my design work.
Why is receiving feedback difficult?
There are two factors that will define how you experience feedback — external and internal.
External factors include whether critical feedback is delivered to you publicly or one-on-one, how it was delivered (in person, by phone, via email, through comments in a document), and whether the person giving feedback cares about you as a person, and your growth as a designer.
Internal factors include your individual perception of the criticism, your attitude to the feedback giver (are they an authority figure, do they have more or less experience than you?), and your own experience in the domain.
You obviously can’t control external factors. But almost everything inside you is under your control.
To illuminate all the external factors, let’s imagine an ideal situation, in which a person who gives critical feedback does it in the best way possible. Why may it still hurt? Here are few reasons:
- You are seeking feedback that confirms your talents and intelligence.
- Now your flaws are revealed, and you feel like an imposter.
- You believe that your skills and qualities are insufficient to address the feedback.
Five strategies to influence your reaction to feedback
1. Decide if you want to take the feedback. Think about the source of the feedback, and the intention. Is it from someone less or more experienced than you? Is it from someone with useful experience in the same work area? Is it from a user of your product, or just someone curious about it? Is it from a person from a different culture, and thus a different life experience? Is this person driven by personal goals (for example, to be recognized as smarter or superior)?
You don’t have to act on all the feedback you receive. You decide whose perspective matters for your growth or your product, and it is your right to decide if you want to ignore someone’s comments.
Shortly after joining a new team, I had to introduce a proposal for a project redesign. I wanted my first presentation to the leadership to be flawless, so I spent tons of time preparing the story and polishing the slides. During the Q&A part, a designer from another team categorically stated that the way I chose to display diagnostics results in the UI was incorrect. I had high aspirations for this meeting, so it was frustrating to get critical feedback. But once I realized that the designer who gave this feedback didn’t have enough domain knowledge to make credible recommendations, I had an easier time getting over it.
2. Expand on the feedback; get to its specifics. How feedback is delivered can determine how effective it is. But as we discussed before, you don’t control the external factors, and if the critic is obnoxious and overly negative, you may want to ignore it entirely, or you may become defensive. But what if your critic has offered valuable insights?
First, try to hold back your reaction. Give yourself a moment to process the feedback and decide if you can learn from it. Second, assume good intentions. Perhaps your critic had difficulty communicating their feedback more effectively. Finally, invite discussion. Get more specific by uncovering the root cause of the critic’s reaction. Help them focus on the specific element to which they are reacting.
Asking “why” in various forms can help to reveal the cause and rationale behind negative feedback: Can you tell me a little bit more about why you think it is wonky? What aspects of the design make it hard to use? Why do you think it will confuse users?
A product I had been working on for almost a year started getting attention from the leadership once we hit an important milestone. Stakeholder feedback was rather direct and critical but also shallow. They didn’t ask enough questions to understand the product or its users and made a lot of wrong assumptions. My first instinct was to ignore this feedback, but because the opinion of this person would be important for the product’s future, I chose a different tactic. Over the course of a few discussions, I learned where the misconceptions came from and how to help steer them away from similar misjudgments in the future. I was able to make them more positive and better informed. Instead of being an opponent, they became one of the team’s allies.
3. Calibrate your intent when seeking feedback. I had been working on the design of a product with very limited resources, under extreme time pressure, and with a high level of ambiguity. I was proud of the experience I designed, despite all the complexity and constraints. However, when I presented it for UX critique, I got critical feedback from fellow designers. I felt down, incapable, and unworthy. The recommendations given to me were mostly constructive and useful, but it was hard to perceive them as helpful when what I’d really wanted was unconditional praise.
People are motivated by recognition and praise. It is a universal aspect of human nature that has enabled us to develop complex hierarchical societies. Today we know that feelings of pride and self-esteem are related to levels of the serotonin neurotransmitter in the brain.
Failure and negative social feedback inhibit the effects of serotonin and lead to lower self-esteem. So the desire for validation and status is rooted in human biology, and it is fully understandable why it often drives us.
But getting recognition is not why you ask someone for feedback. If everyone around you admires you and your work, you won’t grow. Remind yourself that you can learn from criticism. It helps you to grow, to become a better designer, and to learn how to improve your work.
4. Receiving criticism may be painful; this is okay! You put hours of work into your design, thought of every little detail, polished your copy, and a desire to be praised for it is absolutely natural.
However, your design may still be imperfect. You may have missed some data item about users, or used a new design pattern that causes usability issues, or the level of your design craft may not be there yet.
It is hard to hear about flaws in your work. This too is an absolutely natural feeling. But you don’t need to eliminate it, or try to minimize it. Let it stay with you for a while, embrace it, and let it go when you are ready.
“Presenter seemed extremely nervous; they didn’t project very well. However the content and presentation was very good.” I received this feedback after giving a talk at a large design conference around seven years ago. And it was right to the point—I couldn’t tackle my anxiety during that speech; my heart was pounding and my voice shook. I knew it hadn’t gone well, but hearing it from others was devastating. I felt miserable. There was nothing I could do to fix this. All I could do was embrace the feedback, accept my feelings, and make sure my next speech would be better.
5. Don’t let criticism (including self-criticism) define you. When I was new to UX design, I was very critical about everything I created. It was useful in that it helped me to see where my work could be improved, and it pushed me to learn new skills and explore new areas of craft. But at some point, I stopped seeing any possible improvements. I didn’t know how to move from “this might be okay” to “this is awesome.” I decided that I would never master design; therefore, it was not a career I should pursue, and I left the field.
Feedback may be harsh and devastating, and if the gap between your current skills and what you need to learn is too big, you may be inclined to tell yourself that you will never be very good. You may feel stuck, unworthy, and incapable. It could get worse if your chosen field is full of stereotypes, biases, and a lack of role models.
But many skills and abilities can be improved with perseverance, strategy, and support.
Think of any example of how you became good at something in the past: speaking a foreign language, running uphill, or playing a musical instrument. It didn’t happen overnight. It took time, effort, and planning. Maybe someone helped you along the way. Maybe you gave up—only to return to it.
This is how my story goes. After I left design, I tested myself in other areas like product management and marketing. I even spent a few months as a founder of a small startup. I began to understand what my skills and passions are. I needed a few years to realize that design encompasses everything I love: problem solving, creativity, and creation. So I got back into the profession, strongly believing that I do belong to the design world and that I will master my craft, no matter what. I am still on my pathway to mastery but I already have a healthier relationship with my inner critic.
Anna Iurchenko (anatinge.com) is a designer and visual thinker. She works at Google Health where she creates user-centered AI products that improve the availability and accuracy of healthcare. Iurchenko focuses on designing experiences and services that help people live better, healthier, and more fulfilled lives. She also serves on a board of directors of the San Francisco chapter of the global Interaction Design Association (ixdasf.org), which is committed to advancing the practice of Interaction Design.