Work with your clients to get “good” design feedback

What does “good” feedback mean? (Hint: it means nothing.)

If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re a designer. And, true to the cliché, you’ve probably had a client tell you, “just make this heading/button/whatever really pop.”

If that’s you, you probably already know where this is going.

The word “good,” as a descriptor of many things in the creative world, is meaningless. It’s vague, open to interpretation. It doesn’t help us. Agreeing to do “good” work fools clients into thinking we can read their minds.

With the exception of a few clients, I’m a firm believer that most would create their own websites themselves, if they knew how. Instead, they’ve hired you for your technical skills and expertise. But they are the subject matter experts, not to mention the owners of the eventual creative product. On some level, they have a clear idea of what they want.

So. Since you can’t read their minds, how do you tap their knowledge about their organization, industry, and business goals? Moreover, how do you come up with a design that looks, acts, and feels like what they’ve envisioned?

The answer is that ideally, you and the client would establish a common understanding— speaking the same language— to serve as the best possible foothold for the work you’ll be creating together.

Getting “good” feedback is crucial to your relationship with a client— we just need to define “good” in a way that holds weight. From there, we’ll look at some tips for how to get clear, specific, comfortable, honest, and complete feedback from clients.

“Good” feedback = Clear and Specific

The issue: Your clients don’t know how to say what they mean.

You’re excited to show your client the latest revision to a design you’ve been working on together, but their reaction to it isn’t all you’d hoped for. They aren’t able to articulate it, but something just feels “off.” The client feels underwhelmed, and you’re disappointed and frustrated because your design missed the mark. To top it all off, you don’t know what to fix to make it more palatable to the client, or better for your end users.

The fix: Get clients to give feedback in their own words, but help them drill down into the heart of the problem.

If your experience is like mine, they might start this process themselves — ”the layout feels off balance,” for example— but get stuck when you don’t understand what they mean with their constructive criticism.

This may sound obvious but focus on the problem before the solution. Some clients can get prescriptive with design choices because they saw them elsewhere online. It’s great for them to get inspiration from other designs, but it’s also crucial for the design to solve actual problems and serve actual needs. It’s your job to refocus discussion on the problem at hand, and connect that to the client’s solution if possible. This helps the client think pragmatically, which in turn allows your team to collaborate more efficiently.

The “5 Whys.”

I learned about this method from a book I’ve been into recently, Hooked, How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal. Even though the book relates mostly to app design, I’ve been interested in applying some of the techniques discussed to web design. When a client gives you a piece of feedback that you don’t understand, drop the pretense and just ask: “Why?” They’ll give you an answer, and if you don’t understand that answer, ask again. Keep asking “why” until you get to the heart of the problem. You can read more about this method on good ol’ Wikipedia.

“Good” Feedback = Comfortable and Honest

The issue: There’s interpersonal or political tension in your creative team.

This gets tricky.

Perhaps there are subtle personal or professional disagreements between the individuals seated in your meeting room. Client B must always defer to Client A. Clients C and D know that Stakeholder E would never approve of Implementation X, even though it’s the clear way to go.

Or, alternately, Clients A, B, C, and D have been burned by a web shop in the past. They feel that, for whatever reason, they need to negotiate aggressively with you because that’s the only way they’ll get a good product.

Or maybe you know that Clients A and B haven’t approved of past deliverables you’ve sent them, and you’re wary of working with them.

Whatever it boils down to, you and the client are not able to communicate comfortably or honestly. If that’s the case, then how do you expect to create something that both of you feel good about?

You can slog through the project and turn something out with minimal conflict, or...

The fix: Clear the air.

State, outright, explicitly, that “we are a team.” Really believe it. Exude it. Keep everyone in the room on a level playing field. Even though your team members’ expertise may lie in different areas, be proactive about cultivating a positive, open meeting environment each time you meet with them.

When you hear a suggestion that seems like it may ruffle feathers, accept it gracefully, and make an honest effort explore it; each time you invalidate someone’s opinion in this situation, you weaken the common ground you stand on.

I’m aware this is more of a concept rather than an actionable tip, so here’s one suggestion:

If possible, do introductions and business at the end of the meeting. Having your clients reiterate their positions on the team (from CEO to content editor) reinforces hierarchy, and may hinder helpful feedback if certain individuals feel they must always defer to others— which limits creative collaboration, not to mention putting a damper on the mood.

When you need to level out tension, refocus on a common goal. Remind your team frequently of the problem you’re trying to solve, whether it’s the purpose of a page’s design or the overall message that the design needs to communicate.

The issue: Your client feels stupid (or you do)

Your clients are the subject matter experts on their own business processes, audience and stakeholders, et cetera.

You are the subject matter expert on designing and/or building awesome websites.

It’s natural for your clients to feel like any ideas they posit are naive, unfounded, etc. (read: stupid), just like it’s natural for you to not automatically understand everything about the  organization you’re trying to best represent on a variety of devices.

It is very important that you and your clients come to a mutual understanding that you are a team, that you are working together. In order to do this, the precedent must be set that your goal is to help the client understand how you do what you do, just as they must help you understand how they do what they do.

“But it’s not my job to understand their organization, and it’s not their job to understand how I do what I do.” Fair enough.

The fix: you can do better work together if you, for example:

  • try to teach clients about best practices in web design and development. If a client suggests a possible feature and it's just not a good idea, humor them and try it out, rather than shooting it down outright — and then help them reach a better design decision. Guiding their thinking and walking them through decision making out loud helps them feel invested in the work you’re doing together, and it also helps them learn to make better suggestions going forward.
  • are honest about the fact that you are not a subject matter expert on their organization. Defer to them, and make sure you’re getting their language right. Even if your web-best-practices-sense is tingling, be sure you’re still staying attentive to the client’s business needs.

“Good” Feedback = A Complete Feedback Loop

The issue: Your meeting is boring :(

While you’re trying to get the group to ideate, there’s that one guy intensely scrolling through his phone. He’s really invested in whatever he’s looking at, to the point of looking up only after you specifically address him (and then, after a few seconds). What’s he looking at?

Either he’s really important, he’s looking at peer sites on mobile (good for him!), or he’s totally checked out. In any case, if he’s not paying attention, why is he there? Isn’t he wasting your time, as well as his colleagues’ time, not to mention his own? And it’s making your meeting quite awkward...

The fix: Make sure your focus is on the task at hand, and that that task is engaging.

If you direct your focus to the task with dedicated (not forced) enthusiasm, your clients will mirror that energy. And, most importantly, reward your clients when they do a good job and make sure they feel that their feedback and collaboration is valued. Some practical tips:

  • Try using living documents that you update or edit in real time; bonus points if the clients can collaborate with you as you work. For example, during a peer site critique, build an active moodboard to collect screenshots, colors, and other inspiration.
  • Remove distractions. Try to meet in a room where there won’t be external stimuli like people walking by, machinery, etc. Also, for the bold, ask your clients to put their phones in the center of the table— and if they need to use their phones, ask them to step into the hallway. Thank them for their patience and attention to solving problems with you collaboratively.
  • Have a clear meeting agenda, including a goal to work toward. If your goal is “general design brainstorming,” refine it into something more specific, like “collect inspiration about the look and feel of the design.”
  • Try doing exercises, or other ways to help clients get their hands dirty. Sketching (see above), mental mapping exercises, and the like increase meeting attendees’ investment in what you’re working on as a team.