Deconstructing Design Feedback

Feedback and critique are indispensable tools for product designers. When used effectively, they leverage the collective power of differing viewpoints to directly improve design quality. Use them poorly, however, and you’ll not only lose out on design quality—you’ll lose out on creating the emotionally safe environment necessary for creative innovation.

Asking intentional, thoughtful questions can help you keep your empathetic curiosity whenever you’re giving or receiving feedback. Pair the questions with attentive listening, and you’ve got the recipe for a valuable feedback session.


I’m willing to bet that everyone within the sound of my voice has experienced a “design critique” that made you feel uncomfortable. It may have been in a group setting at work, or through an unsolicited Slack DM from a coworker, or in a client review meeting, or in a college class or a UX bootcamp. Maybe the feedback was unhelpful, or maybe the delivery was offensive, or maybe it was just insightful in a way you hadn’t even considered.

There’s no level of emotional detachment strong enough to prevent a designer from wanting to get to the right answer sooner rather than later. If you care about your craft, you’re going to experience that moment of uncomfortable tension when you learn there’s more work to do.

That moment of uncomfortability is possibly the most universal experience for designers of all kinds. It’s a rare professional context in which we can all empathize with colleagues across this budding practice of ours—though, it’s crucial to remember that not everyone experiences that uncomfortability in the same way. The harm caused by poor communication is not equally distributed. We’ll come back to that.

For now, we can probably agree: in design work of all kinds, but especially for product and web, designers are tasked with creating solutions that render the intent of customers in a way that aligns with business goals. In a dream world, both customer intent and business goals would be in some magically canonical document that always has exactly the right amount of information and context for everyone who needs to read it. Even with that perfect context, design would still be a professional guessing game about human behavior and outcomes at scale.

In this sense, the uncomfortability is inherently unavoidable. The effective task of design is to publicly ask questions to the right combination of people to satisfy known and unknown requirements. It’s about finding the paths not to take, to increase the likelihood of success. We know logically that there’s no such thing as a “right” or perfect design.

So, we’re forced solicit feedback in some form or another. We regularly invite that shared experience of uncomfortability, knowing we will have to go through it to do our jobs. Those who care deeply about this craft often discover a positive correlation between feedback frequency and design quality.

In other words: more feedback means better designs, faster, time after time.

This holy grail design equation is great on paper, but you’re probably already thinking about at least one problem: not all feedback is equally valuable.

And oftentimes, the human beings delivering that feedback do so in a way that makes you want to set your laptop on fire and retire to the woods in a cabin with no internet. Sometimes, we are the people who deliver the feedback in that way, even when we don’t mean it.

That risk of encountering useless or poorly delivered feedback affects us all, but like I said earlier, the harm is not equally distributed. To put it extremely lightly, we know that people experience more toxic behavior in the workplace when their gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, neurodiversity, and more differs from the statistically average American white dude. We also know that all of us carry our own stories and burdens, and that you’ll never know what someone else is going through.

That’s important context for all of us, because if we want to do our jobs well, we’re going to have to be vulnerable in trusted environments with a diversity of viewpoints. We’re going to have to reverse engineer the willing solicitation of feedback by ourselves and our design teams, in a way that doesn’t burn them out emotionally or physically. We ourselves must be present and self-aware enough to manage our own emotional responses, in the moment and over time.

The way we give and receive feedback matters deeply, and directly contributes to the effectiveness of our work and career. It’s a skill that can grow through thoughtful practice, but requires a sense of personal responsibility.

Beyond that sense of responsibility, the only thing you’ll need are good questions to fall back on. That’s what we’re going to talk about for the rest of our time. No matter who you are or how long you’ve been a designer, finding a way to stay curious in difficult moments will unlock deeper insights and cultivate a trusting environment. But it can be hard to find the right words, especially in tense moments.

So, I’m going to give you questions you can reliably use when you’re not sure what to say next. They’re going to apply to 4 common contexts for designers:

Receiving design feedback, Giving design feedback,
Receiving career feedback, Giving career feedback

In some moments, these questions may be helpful resources in times of high anxiety or uncertainty. That’s perfect. In other moments, these questions might be best deployed when you’re noticing others are giving unhelpful or unclear feedback, and you want to steer the conversation.
This talk is based on a lot of thoughtful feedback from folks I’ve worked with, so my hope is that these questions are useful for everyone. They aim to open up conversation and reintroduce curiosity in a way that’s safe and caring for everyone.

We can’t prevent the harmful communication of others, but we can be responsible for ourselves.

We can be honest, direct, and kind—all at once. We can keep the shared outcome of the group in mind and stay focused on the goal.

When ready, we can speak with intention, and then listen with attention.

Let’s start with the most common context, especially at the earliest career stages: receiving design feedback. We’ll break this down into two common sources:

Feedback from users/customers (testing)

Feedback from coworkers (critique)

Luckily, the relative toxicity of user feedback is low. Our more common problem is getting clear, valuable feedback from human beings who are terrible predictors of their own behavior. That means user testing can be a relatively healthy environment to practice soliciting feedback about your work.

For many folks including myself, regular user testing is where it begins to “click” that feedback can not only be valuable—it can be designed. You begin to see that the goal of the study isn’t to “validate the design”, it’s to extract insights that increase your confidence in the work.

That’s key: there should always be feedback for you. Take it from Nielsen Norman Group:

"In short, if your user study did not find any issues, something is wrong with your study or with your team. The perfect user interface has not been seen yet, and it’s unlikely to make its first appearance in world history during your current project."

So, what’s a magic question that can generate feedback in an apparent vacuum?

“How do you feel about that?”

Even in a strict usability test with clear task completion goals, we can uncover a quantum world by asking open-ended questions about personal experience. Think about it this way: there’s a huge difference between someone who completes a task with confidence and someone who completes the same task with anxiety or uncertainty. They will have the same apparent behavioral outcome in the test, but would diverge quickly at scale.

As a designer, “how do…” or “how did you feel about that” contextualizes the behavior in a way that deepens the insight.

You can certainly reword the question to match your style and context, but it’s important to keep it open-ended and neutral. Don’t assume any feelings on behalf of the user—such as frustration—as that will shape their response.

As well, don’t ask hypotheticals, like “how would you feel…?” None of us are very good at predicting our emotional responses, much less verbalizing them for a stranger.

If you suspect there’s deeper insight to be had, follow up with “why” questions, like “Why did you feel that way?” Your aim is to ask open-ended questions to draw out more insights without biasing their responses.

Obviously, this guidance does not minimize the work of research professionals, who are experts at contextualizing questions and guiding conversation without bias. Their collaboration is a gift! Respect their input and craft. Learn from their expertise. Read books and articles on user research.

With that said, this question of “how do you feel about that?” helps designers be less afraid of doing research “wrong”. I, along with many others, would encourage product and web designers to be able to design and execute user testing effectively. This is a simple way to build that muscle of soliciting feedback and engaging it with curiosity.

Let's shift to receiving feedback from coworkers and consider a different question for it, because for many of us, asking coworkers “how do you feel about that?” is exhausting just to think about. Getting design feedback from your team and other coworkers can get messy fast. Hidden pressures and incentives affect the way people behave, and group dynamics can be a real trip on top of that.

Plus, we have to acknowledge that in many countries—like America—employment is a crucial yet fickle thing. Our livelihoods and families and healthcare are all tied up in our employment, to say nothing of the emotional toll capitalism can inflict on top of that. Most of the time, we want to keep our job, and our ability to keep our job depends on certain people not firing us. Many times these are the exact people we need to get design feedback from. It’s a lot.

We’ll talk briefly about self-care and identifying toxicity, but let’s focus in on a question that can help no matter how healthy the critique is, and regardless of how public the forum is.

“Can you say more about that?”

You might be thinking to yourself: there are many people I never want to ask to say more about anything. That’s fair. But this question is about redirecting energy through curiosity, and it’s especially helpful when someone has just communicated terribly. You’re giving them a new opportunity to reframe or rephrase, or to defuse a tense situation through providing more context.

Even in a worst case scenario, a poor communicator doubles down on their original statement for you and anyone else to clearly hear. That may not make the feedback easier to receive, but it does add clarity.

In most cases, though, asking fellow designers especially to “say more about that” invites people into the conversation and gives them permission to express themselves more fully. Anything from a passive “this design is fine” all the way to “this design will clearly fail” can gain context and clarity when more is said.

In many ways, it’s like asking “why”, but neutralizes some of the defensiveness that can come along with that response. Demanding that others explain themselves or defend their feedback will not create a healthy, fruitful environment for design critique; yet, we need to be able to accept well-intentioned feedback that may not be helpful or applicable.

Remember, we need vulnerability in trusted environments from a diversity of viewpoints. Your design teams and your cross-functional coworkers need to see and feel that feedback is welcomed in the right environment, and not everyone sees and feels in the same way. It’s important to keep an eye on our own behavior and consider how we may be coming across.

Let’s pause for a moment on the topic of defensiveness, especially for the benefit of designers still early in their career.

You’ve probably heard a fellow designer or industry leader tell you you’ll need to get “thick skin” so that you can learn to “deal with” the amount of critique you’re going to receive throughout your career. Designers who went to art schools are especially familiar with this concept as a rite of passage.

There is very important and valuable truth in that maxim. If a designer appears overly defensive when receiving critique, they will likely discourage others from giving honest feedback in the future. They will tend to either protect your feelings and shield you from harsh criticism, or worse, begin excluding you from conversations based on their judgement of your behavior.

Let’s be very clear that developing “thick skin” should not mean you also must tolerate toxic work environments or harmful communication. Again, we can all be honest, direct, and kind, all at once. We’ll talk next about how to be all of those things while delivering feedback to others, but I want to make a note here for early career designers especially.

Pay close attention when you feel yourself becoming defensive, or when you hear other trusted people tell you that you seemed defensive. It’s worth investigating that moment after the emotion has died down. Try not to label difficult feedback as “toxic” too quickly, especially with someone who hasn’t shown a pattern of poor communication.

With that said, please know that I—like many of you—have been in situations where design leaders and cross-functional partners caused real harm, and design critiques provided a platform for their awful behavior. I have seen my own good intentions and vulnerability weaponized for someone else’s benefit.

There are absolutely terrible situations that must be dealt with, and there can be people who should lose their privilege of providing feedback. But it’s important to check in with yourself as you come to this conclusion, and get the input of other safe, trusted coworkers. Sometimes, the feedback isn’t actually harmful so much as it’s difficult to process emotionally, for any number of reasons. Those situations call for self-care and reflection.

Now, I’ve given you a couple of questions to use when you’re receiving design feedback from customers and coworkers. Let’s shift now into giving design feedback, especially difficult or critical feedback.

As a design professional, I would encourage you to consider that giving design feedback is a critical skill that you’ll need to nurture and develop throughout your career. Design executives, people leaders, and senior ICs all need to use feedback to drive design quality in their teams, and to help grow the knowledge of designers downstream.

The feedback you give literally teaches designers how to grow in their craft, yes, but in that moment you’re also demonstrating how to set up and deliver feedback.

I’m actually going to give you two key questions for this context, but if you only walk away with one, here it is.

You’re going to ask the designer seeking feedback:

“What do you want feedback on today?”

Unless the answer to this question is immediately and abundantly clear, it’s worth asking, every single time. It is way too easy to pull up a Figma file with one billion frames on a million pages and try to “walk through the design” in a group meeting.

Sometimes designers will do this because what they’re actually wanting to show is how hard they’ve worked. That can be a valid need, but it’s not going to help get focused feedback on the work.

When designers don’t clearly define the scope of the discussion, there’s too much space for unhelpful tangents and distracting questions. Counterintuitively, telling a group “any feedback is welcome” will tend to draw out subjective opinions, as people struggle to take on the context of the work the designer has been heads-down on for days or weeks.

So, help your fellow designer by asking “What do you want feedback on today?”, and give the group an opportunity to align on the goal of the critique. Ultimately, that goal should be about rendering user intent for the benefit of business goals, but the actual focus might be a specific interaction.

Without an answer to this question, critiques can quickly turn into an unhelpful pile-on. I’ll give you another question that comes in handy when things become overly negative, or when you’re helping a designer who’s experiencing a lot of defensiveness.

“What’s working really well in this design?”

We already said that there’s no perfect or ideal design. But the inverse of that doesn’t exist either—every design has aspects of it that are absolutely the right direction. This question helps the designer highlight what’s going right about the work, and re-opens the discussion with a lighter form of curiosity.

Now, let’s turn to something more nuanced that I haven’t heard discussed nearly as much at conferences and in design books: feedback on design careers. Product and web design is still so new that we haven’t really developed industry-wide best practices for advancing in your career, especially as an individual contributor.

And yet, we need honest, practical feedback on our skills in order to improve and grow. For that matter, we need it to get promoted. Otherwise, you end up in a sea of subjectivity, driven primarily by whoever happens to be your boss and whatever incentives they’re driven by. Most of you have probably had at least one experience in your career so far where the criteria for a promotion is neither clear nor actionable.

That’s a big, gnarly problem with design careers that isn’t going to be solved in this talk. What we can do together is, once again, is deploy some strategic questions to guide discussion and promote genuine curiosity.

So, when you have the opportunity to receive feedback on yourself—as it relates to your skills and career—here’s a question that can help.

“What do you see that I might be missing?”

This helps frame the discussion in a few key ways, hopefully increasing the likelihood of valuable insights.

The first half—”what do you see”—frames the conversation as a direct and sincere request. (You will need to actually sincerely want this feedback for this question to work.)

But, it also frames the request as the opinion that it is. You want to hear someone’s point of view. You are not asking them to describe objective reality.

The second half—”that I might be missing”—can be a helpful constraint for focusing the feedback. It asks the other person to apply some empathy from their end by considering that you’re already a professional who’s likely already aware of areas you can improve.

But it also frames your question as an exchange of unique value, and a tiny moment of connection and vulnerability that can build trust. You’re asking for someone’s help in seeing something new about yourself.

Let’s carry that vibe over into giving others feedback on their skills and career.

Your thoughtful, honest, emotionally-aware feedback can be a gift to others. You can help them become better versions of themselves through encouragement and trust.

It is a truly humbling opportunity and one actual way you can make the world a better place specifically and directly.

Of all the ways I’ve invested my own time and energy into career growth, focusing on becoming a trusted, safe coworker—especially for fellow designers—has paid off the most, and has fed my soul. Designing websites and widgets can be weird and honestly a little existentially bleak sometimes. Hearing from someone that I helped them think about something differently or believe in themselves more is “the real work” in my view.

But even on a baser level, gaining trust with teammates and coworkers will inherently give you and your team more context to produce better design work in nearly every situation.

It’s important to note that trust is built even when those specific people aren’t around to hear what you’re saying. If you’re going to make a statement about someone’s work or skillset to another person, do so with intention and kindness, regardless of where you’re saying it. Throwing shade will come back to you.

When you’ve got an opportunity to deliver that feedback to the right person, you can build trust quickly. We can do this by asking:

“What’s the best way to give you feedback?”

This question will work in person and in email and in Slack and however else you communicate. Part of the magic here is that it gives that other human being a chance to reveal a little more about themselves and their emotional state, along with the ways they feel safest communicating with you.

Responses to this question can be all over the place, which is awesome. Sometimes you learn people actually want feedback delivered in a 1-on-1 conversation, because it can be hard to interpret things without some additional nonverbal communication, or the ability to ask clarifying questions.

Other times, someone might actually prefer that you write it down and give them a chance to look it over privately, so that they can sit with the feedback, read it multiple times, and not use all their energy monitoring their reactions.

Like our other questions today, these also serve as moments to check in with others and see if they’re needing something we’re overlooking because of cultural differences or neurodiversity or accessibility needs.

Even if they don’t have a response to the question, you’re still building trust. They’ll remember you asked this and might take advantage of it in the future. Because hopefully you’re asking this question, in some form, every single time.

To say it plainly: all of these questions can be repeated every time you enter that context. I’ve found some folks are worried they’ll sound mechanical or insincere if people notice they ask the same questions over and over.

I totally understand that concern, but if you’re being sincere, people will see that. Obviously you can tweak the phrasing to sound more natural coming from you, but stay committed to the intent and structure of what we’ve discussed. Use them in each context when you’re not sure where to go next, or where to begin. If they work for you, others will notice, and eventually try using them, too. This is The Way.

Thanks for hearing me out on this. Once again, here are the key contexts and questions we discussed:

Receiving design feedback from users: “How do you feel about that?”

Receiving design feedback from coworkers: “Can you say more about that?”

Giving design feedback to coworkers: “What do you want feedback on today?” and “What’s working really well in this design?”

Receiving career feedback from coworkers: “What do you see that I might be missing?”

Giving career feedback to coworkers: “What’s the best way to give you feedback?”

If what we talked about today interested you, here’s a set of resources I’d recommend to dive deeper in key areas:

Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights (Steve Portigal)

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (Kathryn Schulz)

Discussing Design: Improving Communication and Collaboration Through Critique (Adam Connor, Aaron Irizarry)

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships (Marshall Rosenberg)

Your licensed therapist 😉

I hope you’ll keep all of this in mind as you grow and advance in your own design career. I hope you’ll embrace the opportunity to give and receive feedback in a thoughtful and valuable way.

I hope you’ll remember that you can be honest, direct, and kind—all at once.

I’ll leave you with a final question: “How do you feel about that?”

I’d sincerely love your feedback, however you want to deliver it.