Managing Design Feedback

Managing Design Feedback

A look at how to manage client feedback without sacrificing the goals of the project.

January 30, 2014

Facebook Tweet Design featured an excerpt from David Sherwin’s book ‘Success by Design’. It makes some great points about managing difficult design feedback from the designer or agency’s perspective.

The article is full of great advice for how to deal with bad feedback once it’s been given. But wouldn’t it be easier to simply not receive difficult feedback in the first place? It’s our responsibility as design experts to educate our clients on the design process and encourage a healthy communication cycle at all points in a project process. Teaching our clients the ‘why’ behind the design is just as important as delivering the ‘what’.

We start every process with an introduction to the design process and feedback loop, but this step is still conceptual for our clients: they haven’t yet had the opportunity to provide feedback in practice. Once we move into the feedback process, we can reaffirm the importance of constructive feedback by respectfully categorizing each piece of feedback into one of four categories:

Personal preference

When a client understands that this type of feedback carries little weight unless it can also be categorized elsewhere, they begin to start screening their comments. We’ll hear less and less “I think…” or “It may just be me, but…” and more well-considered feedback.

Example: ‘I don’t like that font.’ We’ll explain and defend the decision we made, using anticipated user experience as justification.

Anticipated stakeholder preference

Usually, we’re working with a project manager on the client side who reports to a larger group of stakeholders. When feedback can be categorized as anticipated rejection from the stakeholders, we need to dig a little deeper. What is the cause of that rejection? Personal preference? An aversion to change? We have to consider the resources or tools that we can give the client liaison to be able to effectively communicate the value of our design choices and direction.

Example: ‘My boss will never go for that’.  We’ll ask why? Is it because the client thinks that they won’t go for such a big change? Then we’ll justify our decisions and give the client liason the tools to explain why we made that particular design decision. Is it because the stakeholder has an understanding of the target audience that was missed during discovery? Then this doubles as anticipated user experience feedback and should be taken into consideration.

Anticipated user experience

This is the most valuable type of feedback, because the product that you’re creating needs to ultimately resonate with its target audience for it to be a success. Articulating the target audience at the beginning of a project is crucial, because it allows us to screen feedback from the target audience’s perspective.

Examples: ‘Our target audience is primarily couples nearing retirement. They may have trouble reading some of the smaller elements on the site.’  Even though the client may not have any difficulty with the sizes that we’ve chosen, she’s providing valuable feedback from the perspective of the target audience.

‘Switch the orange to red.’ We might interpret this as a personal preference statement and defend our color choice. However, if the client explained that their competitor uses orange and the audience might already have an association between that color and the competitor, this would be noted as a valuable piece of feedback given from an audience-aware perspective.

Table and test

Finally, there’s feedback that just needs to be tabled. Maybe there’s a disagreement about the anticipated user experience. Maybe we’re not confident in your prediction of the users’ interactions. Either way, we take note of the feedback, proceed with the process, and see how the audience actually does react. There’s no one better than than the audience itself to provide feedback. We just make sure that we’re prepared to react and adjust if the response calls for it.

Example: ‘Users won’t know to click on that element.’ Our design experience tells us that the users will know what to do. Our client is pretty sure that they won’t, but they don’t have any justification to back up their hunch. We take note of the feedback and monitor user actions when the project launches. If we observe a negative trend, we’ll make adjustments to encourage the desired action.


A very old picture of the AWP team during an internal review. We apply the same kind of feedback screens whether we're reviewing internally or with the client at the table.

A very old picture of the AWP team during an internal review. We apply the same kind of feedback screens whether we’re reviewing internally or with the client at the table.

Categorizing feedback like this allows everyone to keep the greater project goals in mind throughout the entire project process. The intention behind each piece of feedback becomes clear, allowing the design team to actually solve the challenge that you set out to solve. Promoting this type of effective feedback allows us to produce products that are in line with our clients’ greater communication goals and that increases their brand value. In addition, the level of expertise that the client perceives in your organization should rise when you defend your design choices in an educational and respectful way.