How a designer should give and receive feedback

Alexey Kulakov

CEO of JetStyle digital agency and Product Director of Rideró publishing service
This article is based on my report at DUMP 2019. Not everything is here, but the main part is.
About 15 years ago, I realized that an art director, a person who creates design using others, does it with the help of feedback. This is how an art director is different from a designer. An art director has other tools – designers, and there are additional goals related to their professional growth. Since then, this has been the main thing that I’ve been interested in.

Feedback is the main engineering skill

There is something happening to us all the time, we live, speak at conferences, do our jobs. Events happen to us, we get experience. If we understand what happens to us, if we learn from this experience, if we make it our own and we are aware of it, then we become better. Most people who know how to gain experience have learned it from someone else.

That's what it looks like when we teach a designer

  • We hire an intern, teach them to receive feedback, and once they have learned to do that, we have a junior.
  • We take the junior, spend about 2 years teaching them how to give feedback, and voila! We have an art director.
  • We take any person, and if they know how to give feedback to themselves, they can do anything.
That's why I think feedback is the main engineering skill, and that's what I'm trying to keep learning.
Feedback is my religion. I think it's the most valuable thing to focus on, because it's what makes us better.

Good feedback reduces the pressure a cognitive channel is under.

Let me show you how a situation is created when a person needs feedback. And, for the sake of clarity, I will start not with design, but with an example of a more motor skill, driving a car. The situation when I am a driver, repeats exactly the situation when a beginner-level designer gets in, when they learn the basics of the profession.
I'm learning how to drive using a stick shift now, and I've counted seven cognitive streams that I need to process while I'm driving around town with an instructor.
1.
I need to turn on my brain to move around in space. Every time I think about what state I need to move this thing on my right to and where to stick my leg. It's not a motor skill yet so I'm wasting my cognitive resources, I have to strain my brain, and my tool is not a part of me.
Besides, I'm not a fly, I don't have 360-degree vision, I can't look back and forth at the same time. That's why I need to:
2.
look forward,
3.
look back. And, of course, I have to be able to react to the flow of events, which comes from the environment  (faster than I can handle).
4.
I need to understand how other cars move on the road,how they switch lanes. This is a completely different way of thinking than the one I am used to. I need to learn how to predict the behavior of others, detect tiny features of their behavior and change mine accordingly. In general, I need to make them predictable to me and learn to be predictable to them.
5.
Besides that, there are road signs. This is a particular character system that requires totally different parts of the brain to work. You need to be able to interpret these signs, quickly, and then correlate them with everything you've seen before.
6.
Another channel of perception is the honking behind, because I’ve apparently stopped in the middle of an intersection and I need to think about it. And a human being is a single task creature, one can think only about one thing at a time. I’ve stopped here, I don't know what I'm going to do, and then channel 7 turns on.
7.
That's my instructor, of course. He wants to give me feedback in this situation, and I have six cognitive channels already loaded, and I can only work effectively with one of them.
But I have a good instructor. And here's how I understand it: his feedback reduces the pressure my cognitive resources are under, rather than adding load. He says to me: "Calm down, take your time. We are already late for this traffic light. Now turn on the hazard warning and turn off the ignition. It’s stalled now because you released the clutch.

What did they do in terms of teaching?

He gave me some time to calm down and think and showed me:
  • what I am doing wrong right now;
  • what mistakes I made (i.e. how I got in the situation I am in now);
  • how to start doing this right, now.

The sooner the feedback arrives, the easier it is to learn.

We experience difficulties whenever we step into any new field of study. For example, I was not involved in generative design. God, forbid me to get to JavaScript and start learning it.
Then I'll have a question: what am I going to pay attention to right now? What kind of environment should I have? How do I check if everything is okay? I have never written a JavaScript code. I don't know what to focus on. That means I won't understand what's going on and how bad or good my attempt is. By the way, I don't have any answer to the question yet, and how exactly to measure this "good" and "bad".
Thank God, modern interfaces give feedback very quickly. I don't have to wait for this thing to render. And if I make a mistake, I can see it right away. Here the speed of feedback is very important, and it is best to get it right after the action. The one that says, "Here's what happened." That's why amateurs are so fond of WYSIWYG*-editors— because as soon as you do something, you immediately see what it will look like in the end. You don't need to unfold abstractions in your head and maintain the connection of the code and the abstractions that could tell you what the end result would look like.
One of the most important things that an art director does to a designer is reducing the feedback loop.
If there is no art director, you can understand that the design is bad only when it does not work and when it turns out that it doesn’t work already during production. Several months can pass before that. And, most likely, the feedback (if it comes at all) will not reach the designer, and they won't learn anything in the end.
Once again, the designer will never know if their design was good. And he or she won't change as a designer in any way. The results of this experience won't come back to them, so they won't learn anything.

Feedback is about helping gain experience

There are different interpretations of feedback, but here’s how I interpret it, I'm only interested in the feedback that helps a person gain experience.
What does it mean, "gain experience"? Something has happened to a person, they have gained experience, and we help them benefit from this situation, learn how to do it better, cope with the difficulties that arise in this situation.
With the help of feedback we help a person make the result of their actions their own.
Once again, the purpose of feedback is to help the person benefit from what has happened to them. So, the only criterion for quality feedback is how this feedback has advanced the person you are giving it to, how it helped them reach their goals. And to do this, you need to know their goals, or you can't give good feedback at all.
And by the way, if you give feedback to an intern, or a junior, they probably don't realize what their goals are, and you need to agree on these goals first to make sure that these are truly their goals and not that you've imposed them on this person. And then you can give them feedback.
If you're a professional and know everything you need, if you have much better skills and give them excellent quality feedback, but they don't take it and don't get closer to their goals, then it wasn't feedback, it was nonsense. Despite all your expertise, it wasn't good feedback. The only criterion is the student’s progress towards their goals.

How do we even learn anything?

There is a theory called "Wanderer’s Ladder" - a sequence that a person can use to learn the field that is called "life".
I learned about this scheme a long time ago when Misha Kozharinov taught me how to develop role-playing games. It has 7 steps, let's talk about each step in detail.
1

Object

When a child is less than three years old, they understand that there are objects in the world: apples, poo, mother, wallpaper. Just separate things.
2

System

A child of three to six already understands that these separate things are somehow united in space. You can take an apple and move it around the table. And you can draw on the wall with poos. Then the mom will come and something will happen. By the way, around this time the child gets the idea of "I" — the point of view from which the child looks at all the other objects in the space.
3

Sequence

At about 6-7 years of age, a child understands that there is a sequence. For example, if you smudge porridge on a table, then there will be no cake later, because your mother will not give it to you. Porridge on the table = no cake.
4

Communication

Approximately at the age of 9-12 years old, communication becomes important to a child. Not only does the child communicate, but their attention is focused on how they shape the dialogue. Communication becomes valuable for the child.
5

Deed

Normally, this stage starts at 14 years old. We're doing anything to make the world notice us. Basically, all the guys know that I broke a window in my school. And teachers know about it too, but not quite like the guys, they only know that it was some unknown hero who did it. It's important that we didn't just do something. We did something that theworld noticed. This is a serious outrage. Children of this age really love to throw rocks to make a lot of noise. By the way, doing something surprising by means of destruction is the easiest way to create something amazing at that age.
6

Theory

At about 18 years of age, a person begins to generalize all this experience. They look back, and they have a theory that the whole world is arranged somehow "like this". Anyway, it happened to me at the age of 18, and I came up with a lot of these theories.
7

Paradox

A human being realizes that a theory is just a theory. It is a model and the whole world doesn't fit into this theory. On the one hand, this is the case, but on the other hand, it is different. For example, Zenon's aporias are paradoxical judgments that have contradictions in themselves, because the thinking model is not the same as the world. Achilles will never outrun a turtle, because if you take their movement apart moment by moment, you will need a little more at every moment. But we do understand that in reality he will outrun it, right? And now we see two models that contradict each other, and at this stage we like to find such inconsistencies.

"The Wanderers’ Ladder" as applied to a designer

Depending on where the designer is on this ladder, these questions will correspond to their place.
1


Objects

What are these things, fonts, contrast, buttons, layouts? What kind of bricks are there in Lego?
2

System

What's the difference? Why are there fonts with or without serifs? How do we look at them? What is the difference between them? And how can you combine them?
3

Sequence

And in what order do I need to assemble the construction set so that the individual Lego pieces that we learned from create a design?
4

Communication

At this point, the designer has a visual language, they’ve realized what the design consists of and how these pieces are different. Now we need to take the instruction manual for the Lego and learn how to assemble a plane, just as it is written in the instructions.
5

Deed

Then the designer says to the art director: "I've come up with the idea that it's possible to make an underwater elephant out of Lego pieces and not a plane. I have an original interpretation of the design. How do you like my ideas? Why don't you treat me like I'm an equal person? I'm an adult now." And they want to hear from the art director: "Yeah, kid, you're really cool," or better yet, "Kid, you've outdone me, I admire you." But usually, the art director says something else, often the opposite. It’s very important at this stage to give room for this action, so that the person makes their own mistakes and with the help of an older friend gets experience from their (often unsuccessful) attempts. It's even more important to be noticed and appreciated.
6

Theory

When a designer learned to create things that their colleagues regard as "cool", they can go further and say: "Great, I have a theory. This is how the world of design works." At that moment, they start attending conferences and making their first reports.
7

Paradox

"Still, it's not the way I see it. The way I understood the design was only a part of it. Design doesn't end there. There are other views of design. For example, I once learned how to make polygraphic design. And then I found out that there is also interface design, it's different again. I learned how to design interfaces, and then I found out that it wasn't it and it was just layout design, and there is also  user scenario design. We can go on forever: the design of business models, processes and institutional structures, and these are different professions. In general, during your career you will go up this ladder several times. The first passage usually takes 3-4 years. Then it gets faster.
And every time you realize that it's not the same. You realize that you have to go back to the beginning, see what other objects there are in that field, and then go through it all again. Each time you go up the ladder anew, and from time to time you find yourself in a state of "look, I understand it all". I myself have walked up the design ladder four times.
Schematically, it looks like this:

How, when, and what kind of feedback shouldn't be given?

Together with my colleagues I teach project mentors at Ural Federal University and FEFU. I make all the participants (and all my friends) fill in one form.
There are 6 questions and no wrong answers. People write what they want, in what situation feedback is needed, from whom and how they want to receive it. And the most interesting thing is who they don't want to get feedback from, how one shouldn't give feedback, and in what situation they are not ready to accept feedback.
I have made a half of the report from the answers to this questionnaire, and I have learned a great deal from it and I continue to use it. Here's what I found out.

How should you not give feedback?

Here are quotes from the answers to the questionnaire:
People say we don't have to give biased feedback: without immersion, aggressively, snobbishly and amateurishly. By the way, amateurism is a very frequent word in the answers to the questionnaire. I don't want to get feedback at a wrong time or in the form of "everything is crap". I don't want words like "fine" and "okay" if it's the whole feedback (by the way, I do that).
And now, in orange, I'll highlight the feedback mistakes I make myself.

As a source of feedback, I do these unpopular things.

I sometimes give advice instead of feedback, a common thing with art directors. This is when instead of analyzing the situation that the designer’s in is now, you speak, from the height of your experience, of that it' s not necessary to do this at all, but “you have to use this method instead”.
"Here you have a mistake in your leading, here's a piece of advice, take it," you say, looking at the design, instead of analyzing it.
That is, you did not react to the experience of the designer; you just got something from your experience and showed it to them. By the way, it's not always a bad thing. Juniors need it sometimes. But first we have to ask ourselves the question: what is a better way to promote a designer now? A ready-made method or analysis of their own actions? What goal is he or she going to achieve now? What makes me think that it is really this goal?
Of course, I don't give feedback at the right time, because I was walking past the designer, and I noticed something and went: "Well, show me what's here. Here's your feedback, you're welcome."
There is another vice and it's evaluative judgments. I try very hard to avoid them, but I have given evaluation instead of feedback, and more than once. It's very difficult to hold back from evaluative judgments when you look at the design and want to say everything you think about it right away
"It can't be used in my situation, using my resources". Here we mean advice in the form of: "Mice, turn into hedgehogs. How? I have no idea, my job is the strategy." Sometimes I am guilty of this, but I honestly try to show the technique that explains exactly how to do it, the one that works in my case.
Personal attacks — it’s been a long time (I hope) since I made this mistake from very early days in my career
"You never", "You always" — i swear I won't give you feedback with those words, but I've done it before. And, I'm afraid, I'm might do it a few more times. Generalization is a very persistent cognitive distortion. These are very harmful forms of feedback.
But there is one very common word on this list that pisses everybody off, and I won't try to eliminate it
I'm going to continue to give subjective feedback. Because objective feedback doesn't exist at all and it is because we are all individuals. You just have to be aware of your position being subjective and not pretend that what I say is the truth

When do you need to refrain from giving feedback?

Everything is clear here, there is a lot of pain that is caused by the fact that it' s not the right time. When there is no time for this feedback. Remember? Please don't give me feedback when I'm stuck in the middle of an intersection, and all my channels are overloaded.
And I'll tell you what: I've given feedback in all of these cases. When people were busy. When there was no coming back. At night. Right after an event. When everything was crap. In each case, I tried to help people gain experience, and sometimes I managed to do it.
And by the way, I don't think all of these cases are inappropriate. People who say they don't want feedback in some situations mean something like this: "I don't want you to make me think even harder when I'm already overwhelmed." But actually I know how to give feedback in a way that makes it easier. So even though they don't want me to, I'm getting involved.
Let me highlight in green the cases when I consider myself entitled to continue giving feedback.
When there's no time, when the designer is busy, and when one of the sides is in a state of affect (this is one of the most useful forms of feedback, and that's when you need to give it). I'm going to give feedback when everything's okay, and so on. Why? Because this experience is most valuable, and it's the experience that we have to keep.
But it would be less green here if I was just a coach of this person and not their boss. Let me show you the words that are here because I'm their boss, and not just someone who cares about making them a better designer.
To make it clearer, let's leave these only.
In these situations, I give someone feedback because I'm their supervisor. These are the situations when there is no time, you look at what the designer does, and you realize that the price of a mistake is too high and we are going to screw up an important contract.
So, despite the fact that this designer is uncomfortable now, and for their training it would be useful to let them spend some time and make a mistake, the manager gives them direct instructions on how to change their behavior. So they make a decision for them, i.e. they sacrifice their learning for the sake of the result.

So, there are two reasons to give feedback to a person:

1.
you want the person to gain experience,
2.
you need them to give you results.
If the result is more important than growth, feedback can and should be given when there’s a lack of time.

Who aren't you ready to receive feedback from?

Most often, we don't want it from a "mister-all-know", a "bastard" or a "fool". We don't expect this communication to promote us. We are not ready to consider it feedback.
Just in case, what’s in red pisses me off too:
And I myself try to be ready to get feedback from what’s in green:

But let's try this again

Most of the time, in all these cases, we say we got feedback from an insane person. But such insanity is our assessment, not an objective category.
This is the answer to the question on from what position we are not willing to accept feedback. For example, when a person who gives us feedback has not received such a permission to do so from us. Like this:

You are giving me feedback, but you are doing it without respect.

To make it different, you have to deal with these 3 positions: feedback from Seniors, Equals and Juniors.

What's the best position for giving feedback?

Equals

These are people who understand that there is no such thing as objective feedback, that we live in a subjective reality, i. e. each of the participants is not sane to some extent in relation to the reality, and our world views differ. If we are adults, we must be able to synchronize our world views. These are the efforts that we must all make together.
If you don't consider cases when you have different goals or religiously different opinions about the journey to a common goal, then after you eliminate the differences of the world views, you' ll be fine. You will become one collective subject, and you will be on the same wavelength. Actually, this is the target state of the team, when people can think using each other, get into the minds of their neighbors.
Equal gives feedback to Equal

Junior

The people at the bottom of the "ladder" (remember? They haven't mastered the paradox yet) don't know that there are other pictures of the world that aren't like theirs. Before a person has mastered the level of paradoxes, they have one picture of the world and it's their picture. If you say something to them and it doesn't fit in this world view, they won't accept your feedback, because you're talking nonsense. Until they move to the top of the "stairs", including the field given, they think that your world view is arranged the way theirs is. It's the only one that exists.
If you want to give them feedback like a senior, you have to act in the borders of their world view, because only there they will receive any feedback from you. You have to understand what their terms and values are, and what goals they have. And when you enter this picture of the world, you have to understand what mistakes they make in their terms and their goals. That is, to find any gaps in their world view and talk about them in their language, in their interests.
Junior receives feedback from Senior

Senior

The advantage of a senior is that they are able to reconstruct the model of thinking of a junior. Maybe, in their terms and on the basis of their assumptions, they can detect and show inconsistencies. They can understand how the other person's world view is organized, enter it and help solve problems in this world view.
And, let’s say, an art director applies it not only to designers, but also to clients. An art director must reach that very high speed at which a designer enters the picture of a client's world and the speed at which they go up the ladder. You need to be able to enter the picture of the client's world in a couple of days, or better, in a couple of hours.
Senior gives feedback to Junior
Equal gives feedback to Equal
Junior receives feedback from Senior
Senior gives feedback to Junior

Inadequate Feedback: which, when and why

We call feedback inadequate when, for example, a Junior gets to the position of their boss with the words: "So, I'll tell you the right way. It is my world view, it's the only one you'll have from now on."
Just in case, I'll emphasize it again. Being a senior is a position in the dialogue, the ability to get into someone else's skin, to understand how the world of the opponent is organized. A chief is a position in the administrative hierarchy. And problems arise when a chief is unable to be a senior and behaves as if they know the truth and have a monopoly on reality.
There are three situations when this is possible:
army
prison
school
Thank God, IT is not one of those three situations. And by the way, in all three situations, it is not feedback (I mean, not help in gaining experience), but just the adjustment of behavior according to the standard. We can't allow ourselves to do that. First of all, the HR market won't allow us to do that. And secondly, this way we won't get independent middles and seniors.

Most communication problems follow the "School fight" pattern.

Two very adult bosses who don't know the whole story about equality say:
The funny thing is, at this moment they think they act like adults.

How to give feedback when you're Senior

1.
Get the permission for feedback, provide a request for feedback.
It is usually enough to ask for help. When you need someone to take feedback from you, show them your problem. Often, when I have to do that, I say, "Look, I have a problem with our design. At the moment, it doesn't solve my problem, and I need to make sure that the user wants to go further with it. Help me." In this sense, I actually become a Junior.
2.
Make sure you act for the person you are giving feedback to and that they admit it.
If they don't admit that the action is really good for them, then it doesn't count. That is, you can't say, "Joe, I know you have to wear a hat." It doesn't mean you're doing anything for him, mom.
3.
Show that they're important to you.
It is important! This item is not about insincerity. If you want to be able to give feedback, learn to feel emotions. One of the most difficult skills of an art director is finding something to enjoy in the word "world" written with poop on a wall. It's important to find something to admire. By the way, it means that if a designer is not important to you, you won't be able to be a senior to him.
4.
Understand the barrier they have reached and show them a way to overcome it and the place for the next step.
If the person has reached a barrier, it means that they are in a situation when they are unable to think for themselves (use a skill they have already mastered) and they have to reflect (strain their mind). They have to spend their cognitive resources.
This is our task here:
  • to show them what the barrier is and how it works;
  • to suggest a method with which the barrier can be overcome;
  • to see how they use the technique and give feedback on the attempt to help assess the success of the attempt and help learn the technique.
I. e., to make sure that next time they do it, they don't have to strain themselves in such a situation and so they can just apply the technique.

Chief ≠ Senior.

If you impose a picture of a world without demand, you won't give good feedback! If you want to give feedback, get deeper inside.

How to give feedback when you're Equal

The first three points are exactly the same:
1.
Get the permission for feedback, provide a request for feedback.
2.
Make sure that you are acting in the interest of the person you are giving feedback to and that they admit it.
3.
Show that they're important to you.
And after that:
4.
Together you are a collective subject. That is, it is not important how each of you acts, but how you act together. Therefore, you must show each other that you are important to each other.
5.
After that, it is only necessary to determine what you have reached, where the border that prevents you from taking the next step is, and go together to the next step of the "ladder".

What to do if you're Junior

1.
To get feedback, you have to ask for feedback.
"Mom, I can' t write the word “peace” on the wall. What do I do?" Mom has received a lot of information now, although it was only a request for feedback.
2.
You have to name your goals and make sure you are understood.
If Mom doesn't understand what you want to write on the wall, she won't help you.
3.
Show respect.
Otherwise you will get something directly opposite to what you need.
4.
You have to name the barrier you've reached:
"A pencil broke," or "I can't write the word “peace”. And ask them to move you where you want to go, otherwise they will move you somewhere else.

A Junior is, ultimately, a strong position.

For example, a girl wants something from a guy, and now he is in this position: "Damn, I have to behave like an adult, speak using her terms, move towards her goals." And why? And because she stepped in and became a Junior. Only this kind of feedback can be effectively given without demand.
If you are the boss, you are forced to work using a Senior’s point of view, and you do it with the permission of a Junior. Only a Junior can do it without asking.

Feedback or no feedback? 4 situations

I have a simple plan, and you can use it to guide yourself easily.
1.
They ask for feedback and we have a goal to change their behavior
1If we have a goal to change their behavior and they ask for feedback, we just need to be useful. We need to understand what their goals are and move them towards them. Besides, they asked for it.
2.
They ask for feedback and we don't have a goal to change their behavior
2If we don't have a purpose to change their behavior, but they ask for feedback, it's also simple: if you're compassionate, if they're very important to you, you can give them feedback. It's also important to know that you don't have to give them feedback. You do this only if they are important to you as a person. If they're not, then don't give feedback, it won't do any good
3.
They don't ask for feedback, but it is important for us to change their behavior
3If they don't ask for feedback, but it is important for us to change their behavior (this is very often the case, especially when you are a supervisor), then, in order to give feedback, we need to organize a request (see "How to give feedback when you are a Senior"). By the way, this is the main idea of the whole plan.
4.
They don't ask for feedback and we don't have a goal to change their behavior
4If they're not asking for feedback and we don't have a goal to change their behavior, then this is where feedback is most often given. To be more precise, here people often say it, thinking that they give feedback. But this is not feedback. Here they speak out because "someone is wrong on the Internet." They aren' t trying to move people towards their goals, they're not trying to give good feedback, they're trying to assert themselves. They know the truth and want everyone else to know the truth. Nothing useful will come out of it, just don't say anything.

Not every argument is feedback.

Feedback is when you return information about a person's experience and you are interested not in the truth, but in how they move forward with their experience.

About "amateurs" and "experts"

Most often you give feedback, because someone came to you for advice, and therefore you are not considered an amateur, they think of you as an expert. But this does not mean that you are allowed to speak on behalf of the highest truth. The fact that you are an expert does not mean that you can't be wrong. Therefore, in this case, it is worth speaking from the position of an Equal.
I must say, I consider "expertise" to be a harmful concept in general. If I think I give feedback as an expert, I will most likely get into cognitive error because I will defend my authority as an expert. I will try to impose my own world view on a person, and this will not advance them regarding their experience. Don't do this.

The most effective mind trick I have is to remain a beginner.

Whenever I see a subject area or a word I don't know, I say "I don't know", despite the fact that it may undermine my authority. It's very cool to be able to handle the situation when talking to a person and trying to become an Equal.
You should always be prepared for the fact that you are wrong. And in order to do that, you have to assume that you don't know everything and don't try to argue like "Joe, I've been working in UX for 25 years, so trust me." It's not feedback. Although I've been actually doing it for 25 years, it doesn't improve the quality of my statement in any way.

Cards with Feedback Techniques

And we also printed a deck of cards with our Feedback Techniques. The first batch was prepared for the Web Summit 2019 conference in Lisbon, and suddenly we discovered great demand for them. One of the most popular responses from the people we gave them was that this is the best merchandise they have received in years.