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How to Manage Feedback – Guide to Clients’ Hearts and Minds

How to Manage Feedback – Guide to Clients’ Hearts and Minds

Knowing how to gather and manage feedback is one of the keys to retain your clients. Polished process for gathering and managing feedback will help you make better design decisions and understand your client. You will gain better insights into their needs, wants and desires. Also, the way you understand and manage feedback also says a lot about you as a designer and as a person.

Is there a good feedback?

One of the most parts of design process is how to gather and then manage feedback. This is also one of the most difficult parts of any design work. Another thing that makes the ability to manage feedback even more difficult is that it is hard to draw precise line for quality feedback. Meaning, there are designers complaining about their clients not giving them any feedback at all. Then, there are other designers complaining because their clients are acting like control freaks.

The good news is that there are also designers who greatly appreciate their clients and feedback they got from them. Therefore, there has to be something designers from the previous two groups (and other people working in creative industries) can do to get themselves into the third group. There has to be something that will help you gather and manage feedback in a way that will have the potential to improve your work. This process starts with setting the ground.

Setting the ground for good feedback

We are not born with library of knowledge about how to give or manage feedback. We have no frameworks for such a skill. Another issue is that the ability to gather and manage feedback is not part of the majority of jobs. This makes this skill overlooked by schools and training programs. Some designers have the luck of learning this skill while studying design. Others have to teach themselves this skill on the job. Your first lesson starts right in the beginning of the project.

When you take on new project, you should do two things. First, you should explain your design process to your client. Doing so will help your client understand all the parts and pieces that needs to be put together in order to come up with desired outcomes. Explaining your design process will also give your client a better idea about how much time each phase of the process is going to take. Lastly, it will help your client understand what will you need to get the job done.

The second thing on your to-do list should be explaining how important feedback is to make your process work. The majority of client will expect doing some kind of revision or review. Despite that, it is still a good idea to make it clear that, at some point, you will need to gather and manage feedback from your client. This will help you avoid potentially uncomfortable situations. You may assume that your clients know that you will need his feedback, but your client may assume something different. It is always better to say it explicitly.

Understanding the past for better future

A good thing to do is asking your client if he hired designer in the past. If the answer is positive, ask how long ago it was. Next, ask your client how often he works with designers. In case your client has no experience with hiring a designer, ask him whether he has any experience with giving feedback in general. Do this also if your client has experience with hiring and working with designer. You need to understand what your client perceives as a feedback.

The fact that your client has a decent amount of experiences of working with freelance designers may not actually be good news for you. The reason is that many freelance designers have different approaches to feedback. I worked with only a few freelance designers. Despite this small sample, I was already able to find designers who didn’t care about asking for feedback, not to mention learning how to manage it. These designers were working in vacuum, which is probably one of the reasons their designs didn’t work and clients hired me.

Anyway, what I want to say is that clients may have different perceptions of good feedback because there is no established “best practice” for how to gather and manage feedback. Maybe this article will help create it. You need to learn about clients experiences to find and fix any gaps or weaker places in client’s perception of good feedback. Only when you have an overview of client’s experiences and fixed the gaps you can move to the next step and establish feedback cycle.

Establishing feedback cycle

The goal of establishing feedback is creating a process that will help you gather and manage feedback. It is important to make sure this feedback cycle will work for you as well as your client. Feedback cycle is composed of three simple steps. The first step is presentation of your outputs. The second step is client’s review of your outputs. The final step is taking the feedback, applying it to your outputs and iterating (repeating the cycle). The key of this cycle is about mutual agreement on how long it will take your client to give you feedback after presentation of your work.

Let me give you personal example. In my work, I like to create feedback cycle that is based on forty-eight hours. This means that when I present any output to my client, he has forty-eight hours (response time) to review it and tell me his thoughts, options and suggestions. Then, I will change or adjust the outputs and repeat the cycle.

The main benefit of establishing feedback cycle with shorter response time is that it will help you sustain momentum and keep the project going. The problem may arise if you are working with bigger company that has more stakeholders. This is something I have to deal with now. The only acceptable and sustainable solution is to find a compromise. You have to sit down with all stakeholders and find response time for feedback cycle that will work for everyone and still allow the project to meet the deadlines.

The last condition is important. All stakeholders have to understand that longer response time in feedback cycle can result in moving deadlines and project completion date. Sometimes, longer feedback cycle can also result in budget increase. The reason is that there are phases in design process where every iteration has its cost. One example can be user research, or user testing. The longer the cycle, the more time you need to pay to participants of the research or testing. Make sure your client understands this. Lastly, put your agreement on feedback cycle into your contract.

Unexpected stakeholders

It is often safe to say that the number of stakeholders is higher than you think it is. Meaning, you may think there is only one person you are dealing with. Then, you will almost accidentally find out that there is someone else behind the curtain about whom you didn’t know. Some freelance designers will tell you that this is almost common practice. You take on new project. Everything works well and smoothly. Then, you send your client first results of your work. This is the moment of surprise. Your client will tell you that he needs to discuss it with his partner.

This moment is avoidable to some degree. At the beginning of every project, you need to find out who on the client side provides input, who gives feedback and who approves everything. As you will gain more experience, it will also be easier for you to find out people who may decide to step into the project later on. My advice is that you should discuss this with your client and make it absolutely clear whether they will be involved or not. Then, you have to remind your client this decision when he will change his mind.

One approach that will help you gather and manage feedback, I learned from Mike Monteiro, is to involve as many people as possible in the early phases of the project. Then, when you should decrease this number of stakeholders when you get to feedback cycles. Keep in mind that there will be a lot of people on the side of your client who will want to stay involved just to push their ideas. Some of them may not even care about the project so much. They just want to be heard.

The problem with these people is that they can cause troubles in the end of the project if they are not allowed to share their ideas. If you want to avoid unnecessary delays in finishing the project, I suggest that you let these people share their ideas in the beginning. Then, you and your client can discuss these ideas and decide whether to use them or not.

Clients and giving feedback

Telling your client that you need their feedback is useless. It is like asking someone who never used thermostat to set temperature. Sure, no problem. Just tell me how your thermostat works and what temperature do you like. The same applies to getting feedback from your client. Your client need you to tell him explicitly what kind of feedback are you looking for. And, please don’t use terms such “open-minded” or “constructive”. This will not help your client at all.

If you want to really help your client, you should provide him with guidance and structure for feedback. And, the sooner you will provide your client with this guidance, the higher is the chance that you will get the right kind of feedback. Providing your client with guidance for feedback will give the project momentum and keep it going. Feedback guidance can also save a lot of time that could be otherwise wasted.

It is important to assure your client that it’s completely fine that he knows nothing about design. Whether your client has any knowledge about design is irrelevant. Tell your client that you need his opinion on area where he is an expert. This area is his business. Design is successful only if it meets the business goals set for the project. This is the only thing that matters in the end. It is also why you are always choosing metrics in the beginning of the project.

Another reason that your client may not be comfortable providing you with feedback is that for him “design” is almost synonym for art. This perception can make many people feel uncomfortable. In order to make it easier for your client, remind him that you are looking for opinions of business expert, and he is an expert on his business. You are the expert on design. Client who feels comfortable will be less likely to look for help among his friends and family. He will focus on business and goals for the project.

Guidelines for feedback

The goal of guidelines is to specify what is helpful to talk about, what is important, what needs clarification and what is a waste of time. Remember that clients will appreciate your effort to save their time. Therefore, providing your clients with guidelines for feedback will make them happy and more satisfied with your services. Happy client means higher chances for more work in the future. Let me give a few examples of what to focus on in your guidelines for feedback.

First, discuss with your client the overall tone of the design. Is it congruent with his brand? Or even better, does the website evoke the same feeling like his company? Can he feel the same atmosphere and emotions? Does he have the same experience? Second, discuss with your client the voice. Is the design using the right form of language in the right way? Is it friendly? Is it trustworthy? Is it playful? Or, is it boring? Is it serious? Is it bold? Or, is it conservative? Is it authoritative?

Third, discuss with your client the structure. Is the structure of the design too dense? Is it not dense enough? Is the structure laid in logical way? Is the structure easy to understand? Is the structure missing anything? What feelings does it evokes? These are just a few examples you can ask your client to focus on. I’m sure that you will find dozens more. Guidelines for feedback should also say what your client should ignore at the moment. Again, I will give you couple examples.

Let me quickly mention that you should not use lorem ipsum or any other placeholder content in your design. As we discussed in Web Design Process Pt3, you should always work with real content. If your client has older content, you can use that in your design. If not, ask your client to take care about it or you can create the content (and charge for it) if you are really good at copywriting. Otherwise, ask your client to hire professional copywriter. It will be good investment.

Anyway, if you are using some placeholder for content, ask your client to ignore it for now. The same applies to specific labels. Second, ask your client to ignore any missing elements in the layout. You need feedback on only those parts that are present in the design. Third, ask your client to ignore anything you didn’t show him. Don’t talk about or contact page if your presentation doesn’t include neither of them. Focus current feedback session only on what is included in your presentation. Don’t waste time with something else.

Tips for guidelines for feedback

Last couple things for guidelines for feedback … Before you ask your client for feedback it is good idea to discuss his personal preferences. Personal preferences can and probably will influence client’s opinions and feedback. It is good to know about these preferences so you can spot them and double-check everything with your client. On one hand, guidelines for feedback shouldn’t be too long. It should not give you additional work and it should not take your client a week to read it.

On the other, these guidelines should also not be too short. These guidelines have to contain enough information so your client will understand it. Otherwise, it will not help you gather and manage feedback. It is about finding the happy medium. If you decide to create and use these guidelines for feedback with your clients, which I recommend, be prepared that you will have to adjust these guidelines for every client because every client and project is different.

The upside is that, despite the necessity of doing these adjustments, these guidelines will save you a lot of time and potential headaches. The best way to find out how much adjusting is needed is by going over the guidelines with your client. Don’t leave this to email communication. There may be parts of guidelines your client will think he understands and, therefore, not ask you about. It will be during the first feedback cycle when you will see that something is wrong. It is always better and safer to discuss these matters either in person or via video hangout or call.

Let me give you one last tip for guidelines for feedback. Your client will often, if not almost always, give you feedback on things you asked them to ignore. The reason for that is that these things that should be ignored at the moment are often those that disturb your client the most. It is almost like asking your client to not to think about blue elephant. They can’t help, but think about it. The best is to accept it and say thank. Then, you can ignore these information until the time is right.

How to deal with prescriptive feedback

It will happen quite often during your design career that your clients will give you ideas to ix problems instead of feedback. This is also known as prescriptive feedback. I would say that there are two types of designers. Those who complain about this type of feedback and those who didn’t get it yet. The problem with prescriptive feedback is that it harms your ability to gather and manage feedback in a way that will benefit the project. How do you want to find a solution for any problem if your client is telling you his solution instead of telling what the problem actually is?

In situations such as these, we should remember that our clients are not experts in giving feedback. What’s more, clients are often the ones who are solving problems in their businesses. Therefore, it is natural for them to provide you with potential solutions instead of feedback. One way to avoid this is by letting your client know that he hired you to solve these problems. Let your client know, in a polite way, that when something is not working he will tell you about it and you will take care about it. Make it clear that you want to earn your money.

You can put all this in your guidelines for feedback. In a fact, I would recommend that you that, just to make sure. The same applies to situation when client is trying to make design decisions for you. In other words, when your client will start to talk to your work. This can happen for three reasons. First, your client doesn’t trust you. Second, your client doesn’t trust your design process. Third, your client thinks he has to do it all by himself (he doesn’t trust you or anyone else).

Possible solution for the first two reasons is having serious conversation with your client. You have to find out what is the problem, what is the thing your client has doubts about. If your client doesn’t trust your design process, find what phase causes problems. Then, educate your client again about your design process. Go over everything and clarify it. If your client doesn’t trust you, you have to find out why. Has he no confidence in your abilities and skills? Is it something personal? Is there any problem in communication?

Professional as usually

Solving these issues is nothing pleasant. However, ignoring them and continuing in the project will lead to much bigger issues. It can also result early termination of your contract. Therefore, it is worth the discomfort to dive deep, find the hidden problem and fix it before it is too late. One advice I got when I started in design and web development was to never take business-related things personally. I suggest that you do the same.

No matter how obnoxious your client may become, for whatever reason, you have to stay calm and maintain your professionalism. Instead of yelling at your client or writing angry emails switch your focus from yourself and your emotions to your client. First, ask yourself whether you did something that could cause your client to behave in this way. Did you missed a meeting or deadline? Should you send him your work for review and feedback? Did you accidentally add one more zero to the invoice? Maybe your client misunderstood something you wrote him.

Go through last few days and think about what could make your client angry. What if you will not find anything that could make your client angry? Well, there is almost an infinite number of factors not related to you or the project that could make your client angry. Can you control these factors? No, but you can control your own reactions. Remember that it is up to decide how will you respond when your client will write you angry email.

One option is to let yourself be carried away with your emotions and do something you may regret later. Another option is to stay cool and act like a professional. Then, you will be able to assess the situation, analyze it objectively and find out what the problem is. It will sometimes look like you are rather a psychiatrist than designer. Get used to that. As a designer, part of your job is to deal with people and their emotions. So, a little bit of knowledge from psychology will be useful. One last thing. Remember that you can always walk away if the work becomes unbearable.

How to get feedback on time

Getting feedback on time is crucial to gather and manage feedback. How can you increase the probability of getting feedback on time? As we previously discussed, the best way to get feedback on time is to set a specific deadline for feedback and create feedback cycle. Then, any time you will ask your client for feedback, remind him how much time he has to review your work. The key to successful (web) design project is absolute commitment to meeting the deadlines on both sides.

We often talk about commitment and meeting deadlines only from the side of the designer. I think that this is a mistake. We need to acknowledge that there are always at least two parties included in the project. Designer is only the first half. The other half is the client and other stakeholders. Fifty percent is often not enough to get the project from start to finish. This is achievable only when both sides of the table are willing to commit to project and work together.

Let your client know that if something happens, that might impact the deadline, you need to know about it. It is also a good idea to ask your client in the beginning of the project whether is the project tied to any other event. Client’s projects can be tied to launch of a project for example. The same thing applies to you as well. If you know that there is something that may delay the work, let your client know about it. There are many acceptable reasons for missing the deadline. There is none for not telling your client that you will not be able to meet the deadline.

If you find yourself in situation where reviewing your work takes your client too long (more than five or six days), it can be sign of two things. First, it can be sign that your client has something more important to do. In that case, I suggest that you do two things. Get in touch with your client and discuss with your client how important the project is for him and what priority it has. Then, depending on client’s answer, you can continue in work in the same fashion. Do this if the project is really important for your client and he wants and needs to get it done.

Otherwise, you should start to think about this project as something secondary. If the project is not important for your client, you can almost think about it as a side project. Next, find another project that will allow you to make enough money to cover expenses. It is possible that the project you are currently working on will not be capable doing it. It is also possible that this project will take more time than you think. The less important the project is for client, the less he will push it.

The second reason it takes too long to your client to review you work is that he is trying to find solutions. In this case, get in touch with your client and remind him that you want him to comeback with questions and things he think doesn’t work, not solutions. Also, offer him your help. Many clients will try to fix the problems immediately instead of telling you about them. It is up to you to tell them that that is your job and they just have to say what doesn’t work.

Reading client’s feedback

When you finally get client’s feedback, it is time to sit down and get into it. I forgot to mention this. Always ask your client to write down the feedback. It can be in text document or right in the email. Never accept spoken form of feedback. One benefits of written feedback is that writing helps organize thoughts and explore them more in-depth. Second benefit is that you can always go back to feedback with fresh eyes and mind. This is something every designer should do.

The most productive way to manage feedback or “use it” is by going through it couple times with breaks or various length in-between. This will help you create more objective and less biased opinion. You will be also able to get more from it if you are fresh rather than exhausted after whole day of hard work. Sometime, for some designers, even time when you read the feedback can make a difference. It may be better to read it in the morning, afternoon or evening. Experiment with different approaches and find what works best for you.

When you decide to read client’s feedback, make sure you are relaxed and rested. Always keep in mind that you both are working toward the same goal. Your client is not trying to make your work harder. Although, it can look like it sometimes. When it comes to quality of the feedback, remember that there is no training for giving feedback. You are probably the first person who gave them any training at this skill. So, take it easy and stay calm.

My last advice for reading client’s feedback is to read the whole document in one sitting first. Read it at least twice and do it in private. Never read the feedback in front of your team or anyone else. Also, remember that making fun of your client will only harm you. You should be grateful that your client took the time and at least tried to help you. He had no obligation to do that and it was not something he would love to do. Take all of this into account and your clients will love you.

Making sense of feedback

You got the feedback from your client. You got through it couple times. The next step to manage feedback in the right way is to make sense of it, or organize it. This requires that you separate actionable feedback from non-actionable. When you find areas where your client was basically documenting his thought process, feel free to quickly skim it. There is small amount of lessons you can take from client’s thought process.

Learning about client’s thought process can help you understand how he perceives the design and how usable it is. However, your client will probably not be the user of your design. If you want to learn about usability of your design, you need to get right to the core and do user testing. At this moment, you have to focus on the actionable parts of the feedback. When you have all the actionable feedback on one place, it is time to create three simple lists for further work.

The first list will contain all changes, adjustments or additions that needs to be done. All these items are clear and you don’t need any additional information to get them done. The second list will contain everything that goes against the goals of the project, design conventions or client’s brand. This list is also place where you can put bad ideas that are just not realistic or useful. Next, prepare solid reasons why you shouldn’t follow the idea for every item on this list. You have to convince your client to drop these ideas. You can do that only with solid and reasonable support.

The third list is for issues you don’t understand. A good advice for every designer is to never try to read client’s mind. If you don’t understand something in client’s feedback, put it on this list. When you finish the feedback, take this list get in touch with your client and ask for more information about every issue on the list. It is good to take a break before you do that. Sometimes, some issues will become clearer when you give your thoughts time to settle. If not, get ask your client.

Reviewing feedback with your client

Many designers will never get back to client’s feedback after reading it and doing some adjustments or changes. This is a mistake. Don’t do that. If you want to manage feedback in the right way, you have to work with it continually. Part of this work is getting in touch with your client again and going over the feedback with him. Don’t be afraid of being too “talkative”. Your client is much more likely to appreciate your effort and pay for your services if you are communicative person.

Also, every time you get in touch with your client is huge opportunity to build trust and strengthen your relationship with your client. The best way to get in touch with your client is in person. Phone or video call are second best options. What you want to avoid is long thread of emails or messages. You can’t sustain this way of communication in the long-term, definitely not in the terms of feedback. Another reason for reviewing feedback in person or vie call or hangout is that nobody likes email. Show me at least three people who love to go to their mailboxes every day.

Anyway, let’s get back to feedback review. Always start the review by thanking your client for providing his feedback. Next go through the first list with issues you can fix or change immediately. It is better to start with something that’s quick win and that will make your client happy. Trust me, you will need to work client’s happiness and mood for next two lists. There is one exception to this rule. If you know about any issue with significant impact that needs to be solved first, don’t delay. Discuss it first, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

Next step of this review and manage feedback process is going through list number two. This list contains items you either disagree with or go against the goals of project or your client or design conventions. Present every issue on this list with rational reason why it is a bad idea to do that. Support your claim with evidence gathered through search for relevant information. Then, describe your client how this or that can go against or harm his business or brand. Make brief case study for every issue with sufficient amount of possible consequences.

The last step is going through the third list containing issues you didn’t understand. Approach every issue on the list with question starting with “what” instead of “why”. Questions starting with “why” are useful, but can also push your client into defense. So, instead of asking “Why do you thing …?” ask “What makes you think that …?” Remember to keep the conversation comfortable for your client. Don’t make him feel the need to defend himself or his opinions. Instead, be curious and ask for what reasons lead him to think in that way. Your clients will love you for that.

It is probable that you will not win every time. There will be times when your client will insist on changes you don’t like. This is normal. Take it as an opportunity to learn which issues are worth fighting for and which you can win. This is part of learning how to manage feedback … Knowing what to hold on to and what to let go. The final step is to write all decisions on which you agreed with your client and send it to your client so you both are on the same page. That’s it.

Closing thoughts on how to manage feedback

Learning how to gather and manage feedback can help you make your work and communication with your clients easier than ever before. Creating guidelines for feedback will help your client understand what information are you looking for. As a result, the process of sharing feedback with you will become more comfortable for your clients. The happier your clients will be, the more pleasant it will be to do the work. This is the win-win situation we as designers should strive for.

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