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Giving feedback or critiquing someone’s work is easy. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean we are helping the author or providing any value. There are some characteristics or attributes great and valuable feedback must have. Otherwise, it is useless. In this article, we will discuss these characteristics and take a look at five simple tips to embed them in our feedback. Let’s take a look at how to use feedback to improve work of others. I hope you will enjoy this article.
1. Know the goal
Before we can start review any work or project, we have to make sure we know its background. Everything that is created is usually created with some goal or purpose. Just thing about it. Whether it is piece of art in a gallery, movie, book, device, app, website or a building, there is something more. This purpose might be making certain task easier or faster, telling a story, selling or promoting something, educating, connecting or pure entertainment.
When we are about to give feedback, it doesn’t really matter what the goal or purpose of the project is. What matters is that we know about it. Knowing that goal is critical if we want to evaluate the project correctly. Sure, we can review the project only from the visual side, or only the functional. However, this will never allow us to give a complex and actionable feedback. We can’t review just one aspect of the project because this one aspect doesn’t make the whole project.
Let’s say someone asked us to give a feedback on new health application. There are many “small” parts we can look at. For example, we can give feedback on the design of the app. We can also give feedback on functionality of the app. Or, we can give feedback on the experience we got from trying the app. The problem is that none of these parts may be essential.
Know the goal, know what is essential
Is design essential for that app? I don’t know. What about user experience? Is that essential? Maybe. Then, it has to be functionality. It can, but what function are we talking about? There are probably dozens of functions. Opening and closing the app, reading data, saving data, probably also analyzing available data and so on. Which function is the one? We can’t answer this question, and give valuable feedback, unless we know what the goal is, of the app in this case.
Let’s get philosophical for a minute. We may argue that we can give feedback on all these parts. As this can increase our chance that we will provide a valuable feedback. If you like to play a lottery, go ahead and try this approach. It may work, but it will take longer and results will be questionable. Or, you can try to understand the goal first. I believe that understanding the goal leads to better, more nuanced and more valuable feedback faster.
Let’s say the goal of our health app is to help user analyze her data, such as blood and lifestyle, and warn her about potential health issues. Now, knowing this one goal (job to be done), we know exactly what we should focus our feedback on. We will still evaluate all parts, design, experience, functionality as they are all important. Think holistically. However, we will now evaluate these parts in the sense of how they help user achieve the main goal, or finish the main job.
That was an app, but how can we apply this to web design? Again, we have to start with learning about the goal or purpose of the website. In other words, what is the outcome we want? Do we want to sell one product, or more? Is our goal educating people about some topic? Should the website provide entertainment? Or, is it promoting or presenting something? Then, when we know the goal, we will again evaluate all the parts in the sense of how it helps achieve that goal.
There is often one thing that prevents us not only from providing valuable feedback, but also accepting it. It is our insecurity. Some people like to say it is ego, but I disagree. Ego on its own is not an obstacle. It is when we have some insecurity or fear we are afraid to show, our ego will help us keep it out of sight. In this case, our ego can become an obstacle. If we decide to overcome that insecurity, we can use our ego to help us do it. Ego, on its own, is neutral. We are the problem.
Anyway, having insecurity is one thing, knowing about it is another. And, dealing with it, in a good way, is also something different. We may have some insecurity we don’t know about. However, it is still strong enough to change our thinking and force us into a defense. This makes insecurity dangerous and hard to control. Therefore, when we want to give a valuable feedback, we should avoid triggering any insecurities that may be hidden under the surface.
One solution is to never evaluate, mention or address the author. In other words, never use the word “you”. We should always keep our feedback focused solely on the work. Instead of asking: “Why did you use this color and placement?” ask something like: “What is the reason for using this color and placement?” or better:“What makes this color and placement a good choice?” “What makes this typeface the right fit?”
Don’t say “You chose color that doesn’t fit the rest of the palette.” “This color doesn’t play well with the rest of the palette.” Or, “Your choice of typeface doesn’t reflect the mood the website should convey”. “The typeface doesn’t reflect the mood the website should convey.” We are always focusing our feedback on the element or aspect itself, never the author. This way, we are not unintentionally forcing the author to defend himself and his decision.
Let’s think about it for a second. It is not author’s decision what we are evaluating, it is always some specific element. What we are doing is taking the personality of the author out of the equation. It is almost like giving feedback on work to someone who has no connection to it. Like standing in the gallery, talking about painting with another visitor. When we say something about the painting that visitor will not take it personally because we are talking about the painting.
Next time someone will ask you for a feedback, try this. Address all your thoughts, notes, concerns, objections, questions and ideas to the specific element you are talking about, or work itself. Imagine you are alone in the room. Take the author of the equation.
3. Be specific
Did you notice something on the observations and questions we used in previous section? There is one common theme. All of them are specific. First, we always talk about specific element, or its specific characteristic. Second, we always talk about specific issue we see, or a specific reason why we think this or that element is not a choice. I think that this is the foundation of great and valuable feedback. It is always specific.
When we giving feedback, we are trying to help make something better, to find hidden flaws. There are people who see feedback as an opportunity to tear someone’s work to pieces, sometimes to ridicule the author. Or, both. These people don’t understand the real purpose and value of feedback. Feedback is a tool to improve someone’s work. In other words, we can help make things better by sharing our opinions, thoughts, ideas and critique.
Yes, feedback is another way we can add value. However, there is one critical condition for giving feedback that has some value. It has to be actionable. In other words, our feedback gives the author material he can act upon and improve his work. This is possible only because we are always specific. When we give a feedback, we always talk about specific issue we see and specific reasons why we think it is an issue.
This is also why we don’t like to hear comments such as “that design is ugly” or “that font is weird” or “I could do it better”. None of these comments can help make that work better. And, I think that none of these comments are a real feedback. These are just comments, or shouts in the dark. Avoid them. They will never help anyone. When you want to give a feedback, or “share your thoughts”, be specific. Address specific part. Then, say specific reason why you think it is an issue.
4. Ask questions
Another way to give great and valuable feedback is by switching from statements to questions. We already used this approach in the section about evaluating the work, not the author. Do you remember? Instead of saying that we see some issue, and why we think it is an issue, we formulated it as a question. “What is the reason for using this color and placement?” Or, “What makes this color and placement a good choice?” Or, “What makes this typeface the right fit?”
This way, not only we can address some issue we see, we can also find reasons that lead to this issue. And, when we know the reason, we can help find a better solution. Or, we may find that the reason itself is based on wrong assumption. Then, we can help the author realize this and then correct it. Usually, we look for the right answers. The problem is that we don’t take even a second to think about the question we want to answer. What if the question is wrong?
Let me give you one example of a feedback on a website design. What makes this typeface the best choice? It is readable, legible, it conveys a playful mood and it is also modern. So, you were looking for readable, legible, playful and modern typeface? Yes. So, the website should be playful and modern as well? Is it for young audience? Well, not exactly. The target audience is actually older and quite conservative audience. Maybe, a different mood and style could be better.
See? The problem was not typeface itself. It was the reason that lead to that typeface that was wrong. We chose wrong mood and style of our design. I know that this is a very simple example. However, the point is that questioning the issue, instead of just describing it, can reveal a different mistake we made and we would missed otherwise. Next time, try questioning the issue.
5. Write it down & let it rest
I initially wanted to discuss this tip with you as two separate tips. However, they are related and one without the other can be hard to implement. It is simple. Write your feedback down and let it rest, one day will be sufficient. There are two reasons for writing your feedback down. The first reason is that, it can help us dig deeper in the work and provide our feedback with more ideas, suggestions and issues.
Have you noticed that sometimes when you start writing, it is like turning your brain and mind into idea machine. Well, at least sometimes. We start our feedback session with a blank page and no idea what to write. Then, we notice the first issue and so we describe it and question it. With every new word on the paper, or in the writer, we dig deeper into it. We may find more issues related to the one we are thinking about. We may find some deep-rooted issue we would have miss otherwise.
Writing is thinking
Some people like to say that writing is just another form of thinking. We may start with a single sentence or a word, or issue. And, before we realize it, we have almost one page full of ideas. This is especially common among writers and bloggers. We start with a blank page and nothing to write about. Yet, we force ourselves to start. We somehow write one sentence. Then, a full paragraph. Soon, we are in the middle of the page. The best thing is that we feel like this is just the beginning.
As we write, we explore new ideas and connections. Our brain is getting information from all the things we have in our memory. The result can often be surprising. How is this related to giving valuable feedback? As we discussed, valuable feedback is specific and actionable. Not only it shows the issues, it also suggests solutions. This is the first place where writing can be useful. We can use writing as a way to brainstorm ideas for solutions.
We find an issue and get an idea for solution. So, we write it down. We get another idea for solution and write it too. Then, we realize that we can connect the previous two solutions and create one that will be even better. And, since we write all your ideas down, we don’t have to worry about forgetting any of them. We can go on and on.
Also, there is a benefit more related to giving feedback. Writing everything down helps us keep track of what you already reviewed. No longer do we have to think about what parts we already reviewed. Everything is on the paper or in the document. This also helps us spot minor issues we may miss, or forgot to address, the first time. Writing can also help us control the direction of our feedback. We can choose to focus on the bigger picture first and then on the details.
Sleep on it
The second way to use writing, and the second part of this tip, is to let our feedback rest. How many times did we say or write something only to regret it later. This is especially true in our daily lives when we let our emotions take charge. How many times did we hear that advice “tomorrow is another day” or “sleep on it”? And, how many times did we ignore it only to regret it later? I found it useful to follow these advice also in the case of feedback.
Writing your feedback down and letting it rest for a day allows us to see our feedback with fresh eyes. We can reformulate what we said, maybe remove something or add something new. Writing your feedback down and letting it rest allows us to think about what we wrote and maybe improve it. As a result, we can create feedback that is better and provides more value. So, give let’s our minds a bit more time to revise and reflect on our feedback and thoughts.
Closing thoughts on giving great and valuable feedback
I mentioned this in the beginning and I think that it is worth repeating. Giving feedback or critiquing someone’s work is easy. However, that doesn’t mean that doing so helps the author or provides any value. And, that there is another type of feedback, better and more valuable. I hope this article gave you information to distinguish between those two types. And, that you will use those five tips we discussed to start giving the second, better, type feedback. Now, it is up to you.
Do you have any questions, recommendations, thoughts, advice or tip you would like to share with other readers of this blog, and me? Great! Please share it in a comment. Or, if you want to keep things more "private", feel free to contact me on twitter or send me a mail. I would love to hear from you.
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