Hardly anyone likes asking for comments on their work, but the process is critical to career development and good results, says Jonathan Smiley
Designers are incredibly egotistical. We’re pretty sure we have all the answers, the best skills and the keenest eye. That’s good for pushing things forward, but it shouldn’t get in the way of creating the best solutions, and good solutions require feedback. As creatives, we don’t know everything, even if it’s sometimes our job to work as though we do. Criticism is key to improving your craft and keeping clients happy and invested.
This external evaluation is a crucial element of design and implementation, yet one that’s sometimes overlooked and often misunderstood. It’s a complete nightmare if you have nitpicky or ill-informed customers – it can blow projects out so that they run way beyond scope, and can even lead to hostile client relationships. The key is knowing when to get opinions, how to ask for them and what to do with them.
Timing and method
If you’re concerned about people’s comments, you might be tempted to leave it as long as you can to ask for them: “I’ll wait till I’m almost finished, so that if there’s feedback, it’s too late, and I don’t have to worry about it.” If you follow this rule, you’re doing a disservice not only to your client and your company, but also to yourself.
Ask for assessments early, and often. If you’re working on a new site or application, start getting comments as soon as there’s material to be looked at; this will mitigate trouble down the road, and improve your design sense and skills to boot.
One of the main reasons for feedback being neglected is that it so often leads to problems. Part of the issue is understanding how to request opinions. Ask for exactly what you’re looking for. Open-ended questions such as, “What do you think of this?” broaden the discussion too far. If you’re getting feedback in person, have an outline ready. If it’s over email, make sure to give context and frame the conversation.
Choose who you want to approach. There are times when colleagues are ideal, and situations when clients are better. Plan for the responses you want, and don’t be afraid to shut people out – unsolicited input can too easily be unproductive.
Don’t look for or accept feedback just to tick it off the list; the goal is to improve and move forward. It’s easy to get too much or too little criticism, or comments that don’t move things forward. Getting constructive results is an art form, and it takes practice, both from those asking for them as well as those giving them. Try approaching people at multiple stages of your projects. You’ll find there are valuable opinions to be had on everything from sketches to code.
Dealing with responses
Now that you’ve asked for and received feedback, what do you do with it? Acting on comments can be the most challenging aspect of design, but also the most rewarding.
Don’t blindly implement all changes, especially in client relationships. It’s your job to determine what will lead to a better final product. And don’t ignore feedback. In many cases, it can be easy to, especially when it goes against your design, beliefs or ego. Balance your own artistic sense and skills against those of the person who gave you criticism, and stay humble. There’s almost always something to learn and work on. Look for it, and show that you’ve listened.
Practice asking for and acting on people’s opinions frequently, so that you can learn when and how to ask for them, and what to do with them. We’ll always think we’re right – the right designs, the right copy, the right interactions, the right code. Feedback helps us be correct, and stay so, while learning more about our craft and the people we work with. Don’t be afraid to face up to it; your ego will be just fine.
This article originally appeared in issue 215 of .net magazine - the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.