This is a sample chapter from Mike Monteiro’s book Design Is a Job. 2012, A Book Apart.
Chapter 8: Managing Feedback
Gathering and managing feedback is an essential part of the design process. And next to Adobe updater updates, it’s the thing designers complain about the most. Complaints range from “They’re not telling me what to do!” to “They’re telling me what to do!” to “Oh, God! They sent a PowerPoint comp!”
We’re far enough along in this book now that I bet you can guess what’s coming. That’s right: I love you, but it’s your fault. You can’t assume clients will know how to give you the right feedback at the right time and in the right manner. What you can assume, however, is that both you and the client are trying to get to the same goal: a successful project. So take a deep breath. And let’s figure out how to get what you need.
Setting the Stage for Good Feedback
No matter how smart or articulate a person is, no one intuitively knows how to give useful design feedback. This skill is not part of anyone’s day job—except for art directors. How to give feedback must be taught. And the teaching starts at the very beginning of the project. When you decide to take on a client, and explain your process to them, make sure you explain how their feedback is crucial to making the process work. Both of you have a role to play and the feedback is the rich sinewy connective tissue between both parties.
Has your client bought design services before? How often, how long ago? And what role did he or she play? Get a proper gauge of your clients’ experience with design feedback. And realize that “A lot!” may not be a good answer. Experience working with freelancers may not translate well to working with a large design consultancy, and vice versa. And neither translates to working with a small shop. In the end, you will have to both show your client how to work with you and, more importantly, you’ll have to learn how to work with your client.
Work with your client to establish a feedback cycle that works for both of you. At Mule, we generally like getting feedback no more than forty-eight hours after a presentation so we don’t lose momentum. Some companies have too many stakeholders to make this possible, so neither should you require it, nor should they agree to it in that case. You’d both be setting yourselves up to fail. Come to a good compromise. But make sure they understand that more time for feedback means the project completion date moves back as well.
Some companies move faster, and want to promise you feedback in twenty-four hours. That’s great! Give them forty-eight. Companies that move faster also have to put out a lot more fires, and generally with a smaller staff. Probably the people who are supposed to be giving you their feedback are manning the hose.
Either way, document the agreed-upon feedback cycle in writing and put it in the Statement of Work. It’s a deadline, subject to the typical accolades that come from meeting a deadline and remonstrations that come with missing one.
The Invisible Stakeholder
This is also when those invisible stakeholders you didn’t do a good enough job of ferreting out make their presence felt. We’ve all met these lovely people. They show up during the third week of development with thoughts about the design concept. Or the team you’ve been working with for three months will announce that once the site is ready to launch they’ll unveil it to the board to get their thoughts. You will feel tricked when this happens. You know how you should really be feeling? That’s right—dumb. Because you didn’t flush them out early in the process.
Going into a project, you need to know who on the client side provides input, who gives feedback, and who approves. You may have a better idea of who these people should be than your client. As you meet people within the organization during the discovery phase—because you have one, right?—ask yourself whether they’re someone who can insert themselves into the feedback cycle later. Be proactive and have a discussion with your main contact about involving them sooner rather than later. If they decide they won’t be participating in reviews, then you’ll have to hold them to that later. As important as it is to have a small feedback group reviewing design decisions, it’s even more important that it’s the right group.
The general rule is to involve as many people as possible in early discussions, and make that number as small as possible once you go into review cycles. Often, people on the client side say they want to remain involved, but really just want to tell you the one thing they care about and then get back to their day job. If they don’t get to tell you that one thing, then they will pop up at the end of the project all bent out of shape.
Your Client Is Not an Expert in Giving Feedback
There’s nothing less helpful to the client than telling them you want open-ended feedback. Your clients need your help in figuring out what kind of feedback you’re looking for. They need structure and guidance. And if you provide that structure and guidance ahead of time there’s a far greater chance that you’ll be getting the kind of structured feedback you’ll need to move forward, and save everyone a lot of time.
Most clients tend to feel self-conscious about voicing their opinion about design. How often have you heard “I don’t know anything about design!” That’s fine; they don’t have to. What they do know something about, however, is their business, and what you’re actually looking for here is business feedback. You need to know whether the design work is meeting the business goals of the project. You say “design,” and clients hear “art,” and now everyone’s uncomfortable. Act like the design expert the client hired, remind them—if need be—that they hired a design expert, and their job is to be the business experts. Keep them in their comfort zone and they’re less likely to come back with feedback from a family member who’s got “a good sense of design.”
Of course our dirty little secret is that while we’re telling our clients to be objective, and to keep personal preferences out of it, there’s nothing we want more than them to like it. The first step in getting objective feedback is to make sure we’re giving objective presentations and keeping our own feelings out of the mix.
We prepare feedback guidelines for the client before presentations. We tell them what’s helpful to talk about and what’s not. They’re thankful for the guidance and it saves them a lot of time. Clients love it when you save them time. We tell them what decisions are relevant at this point, what to ignore, and what may require further clarification. We also reiterate key points made during the presentation so they don’t forget.
For example, let’s say we just did our first visual concept presentation for a Web site. If we did it right, then the comps we showed were loose and sketchy and focused on tone, not specific functionality. And they were probably done before site architecture was finalized. The last thing we want is a lot of feedback about missing functionality. So the feedback guidelines might say:
Overall tone—Does this site feel like your company?
Voice—Is it using language the right way? Is it friendly? Authoritative? Trustworthy?
Structure—Too dense? Not dense enough?
Specific labels and body copy—Why is everything in Latin?
Missing elements—Where’s my newsletter signup?
Things we did not show you—I have comments about the company history page
It’s also a good idea to address personal preferences before any feedback is given, rather than after, at which point you risk making people feel dumb for liking green, which although not the right color for this project, is a very lovely color in and of itself. Unlike mauve.
Feedback guidelines should be short enough to be helpful, and not long enough to be considered additional work. Go over them with the client during the presentation and make yourself available should they require more clarification. Make sure every member of the team gets them so they’re all playing under the same rules.
And know that they’ll give you feedback on everything you asked them to ignore anyway. Clients will gravitate toward what they’re worried about the most, or what they’re most comfortable with. Feel free to ignore it until the time is right.
The Most Important Feedback Guideline of All
Many clients believe that proper feedback means telling a designer how to fix something, or what is known as prescriptive feedback. Many designers complain about prescriptive feedback, unless they don’t get it. At which point they complain they don’t know what the client wants. Yes, our reputation as being difficult is well-deserved.
Let’s remember that clients aren’t experts in giving design feedback and—I’m gonna go out on a limb here—venture that most of the time they’re the problem solver on their teams. Let them know that not only are these your problems to solve, but that they’re paying you to solve them.
You need to start holding this line during presentations, as clients jump in with suggestions on things they’re not happy about. Impromptu prescriptive work sessions during presentations can eat up a lot of time, and put you in the awkward spot of having to tell clients that their suggestions may not be very good. So let them know ahead of time, “If something isn’t working, tell us why and we’ll fix it. We want to earn our money.” Remind them again in the written guidelines.
You don’t want to put yourself in a position of carrying out your client’s design decisions. If you allow them to start designing for you, you have no one to blame but yourself. If they insist on prescriptive feedback it’s time for an account-level conversation. Anyone who hires you because they thought you could do the job and then doesn’t let you do it has lost respect for either you or the design process.
Can you put “no prescriptive feedback” in the contract? I suppose you could, if you really wanted to. But ultimately I think this is one of those times you just need to be able to work without a net. Keep the contract to legal issues, and use your design skills and backbone to support your design process.
Getting Feedback on Time
As I mention above, set up a deadline for turning feedback around. Any time you’re requesting feedback, remind the client how much time they have and get them to commit to meeting the deadline. (The success of every project is the hundreds of little commitments made along the way.) Let them know that if something comes up that might put the deadline in jeopardy, they should let you know right away. That goes for both parties. The minute a deadline is in jeopardy notify the other party. There are many reasons for missing a deadline, but there is only one for not notifying the other party. (That’s a free life tip, kids.)
The longer clients are taking to get you feedback, the more likely that they’re not just pointing out issues, but working out solutions. You, or your project manager, need to get them on the phone. Ask them if they need your team’s help with anything. Remind them to come back with questions, and not solutions. That usually goes a little something like this:
“What’s up with our feedback, Bob?”
“We’re not happy with global nav, but we’re not sure how to fix it.”
“Well, just tell us why you’re not happy with it. We’ll come up with something. That’s why you’re paying us, Bob.”
“That’d be swell. Cause we’re stumped.”
Most clients try to fix things because they believe it’s the right thing to do. And unless you tell them it’s not you have no one to blame but yourself.
How to Read Client Feedback
Eventually the blessed day will come when the client sends you his feedback. Oh, did I tell you to get it in writing? You need to get it in writing. An email is just fine. Immediately acknowledge getting it, thank them for sending it. And sit back. Relax. It’s important that you’re relaxed when reading client feedback. Open your mind to the possibilities that you might be going on a journey. Client feedback has a way of taking you to places you never dreamed you’d go. But, honestly, remember two very important things:
You’re both working toward the same goal with the best of intentions.
Most clients haven’t been trained in how to give feedback. (Well, except by you.)
First off, do yourself a favor and just read the whole thing straight through at least once. Resist the urge to read it aloud to the rest of your team, if you have one, because mocking a client’s feedback reflects poorly on you. They’re gonna say some weird stuff. They’re honestly trying. Give them a break. Don’t share the feedback with anyone else until you’re sure you can do it in a calm, reassuring manner. (Pro tip: sometimes my partner Erika withholds feedback from me for days. We’re totally in a “do as I say, not as I do” zone here.)
Your job is now to take the client’s feedback and put it into an actionable form.
Your first job is to separate the actionable feedback from the non-actionable feedback. Sometimes clients just like to document their thought process. Your job is to sift through and find the actionable from the non-actionable.
“At first I thought this work reminded me of something I didn’t like, but then it didn’t and then it did again and then the reason I thought it did was because the typeface was similar, but then I changed my mind again and realized it was because it was blue.”
There is absolutely nothing you can do. Let it go.
On the other hand, “We’ve changed our strategy!” is not feedback. Nor is anything that even hints at it. It’s a shift in goals to be addressed immediately at the account level.
Having separated the feedback from the non-feedback, it’s time to make three lists.
No-brainers. Stuff you can change immediately.
Things that run counter to the goals of the project, disrupt the design, break conventions, or don’t jive with the client’s brand. Or, they’re just bad ideas. Don’t do bad design! Prepare to make your case to the client about every issue on this list. You’re going to have to convince them. It’s usually not as hard as you think. Clients listen to reason more than you give them credit for. You’re just going to have to persuade them. Part of the job.
If you don’t understand something on the client’s feedback list, pick up the phone and ask them about it. Don’t try to read their minds. Once you’ve gotten clarification on this list, move to one of the other two lists.
If you have a team now is a good time to go over the list with them. You’ll be organized and relaxed, and seeing that you’ve called out issues to discuss further with the client will probably keep your team relaxed as well.
Let’s get on the phone.
Going over Feedback with Your Client
Have we talked about how awesome talking to your client in person is? Every time you deal with your client in person is an opportunity to build trust. And to remind each other of why you chose to work together. So whenever possible, meet with your client in person, especially if you have a long list of feedback you disagree with. When that’s not possible, get them on the phone. Hear each others’ voices. The last thing you want to be is another in a long list of emails. Everyone hates email.
Start by thanking your client for the feedback. Go over the no-brainer list. That’s a quick win. Mention any particularly good suggestions they made. You need to build up some goodwill for what’s coming.
With one exception: tackle the elephant in the room immediately. If one of the items on the discussion list is big enough to derail the schedule—or undoes some previously-agreed to decisions—dive right into it. Make sure your client knows the impact this issue has in terms of time and cost.
Your strategy with all the discussion items is to present your case rationally. Tell them why you disagree, use the research you did, use data, use relevant writing on the topic. Let them know how their decision might run counter to the goals of the project. And, yes, use aesthetics. That’s one of the reasons they hired you, right? Make the business case, but also make the design case. After all, you can’t always talk someone out of using Copperplate for business reasons.
You won’t win all the fights. But you might find yourself winning more of them each time you try. More importantly, you’ll learn which ones are worth fighting for and which ones you can win. You’ll also learn the fine art of horse trading. I once argued with a client for an hour over an issue I didn’t care about—eventually letting him win!—because I really cared about the next issue coming up. At that point, he was so tired out and savoring his victory that he gave in almost immediately. Arguments are also things to be designed.
After going over feedback with your client, make sure you detail all of your decisions in writing, and have them reply with an acknowledgment so you’re both on the same page as to where to go next.
When Clients Comp
You thought maybe I wasn’t gonna address this? I just saved it for dessert.
There is nothing less helpful than getting feedback in the form of a comp—whether committed in Photoshop, PowerPoint, or Word. Nothing. I mean it. We’ve been in business at Mule for almost ten years now, and this is the only thing we’ve ever fired a client over. (It happened once. The client refused to stop after being told on numerous occasions it was counter-productive, not to mention a contract violation.)
Your best bet is to nip this in the bud before it happens. Yes, put it in the contract. Now put it in your back pocket for safe keeping. As we’ve discussed before, your contract is your safety net and your life support. You should be able to avoid this problem by using something from your design toolbox. Namely, your amazing skills of persuasion.
Remind your client when requesting feedback that if something isn’t working for them to point it out and go into as much detail as possible as to why they feel it’s not working. Ask them to tie it to the goals agreed to earlier in the project. More than anything, their reasoning is critical to solving the problem. Being told to just do something a certain way—or worse, getting a comp of it—only means you have to reverse-engineer the whole thing and find out what you were trying to solve. Lost time, lost budget.
They might do it anyway. Now can we whip out the contract and beat them with it? Not so fast; your goal is always to come to an amicable solution first. There’s nuance at play here.
There’s a difference between comping to communicate and comping to substitute.
If your client took your comp and haphazardly started chopping it up and moving things around and even adding things from other sites, they’re probably just trying to communicate with you. Yes, there’s a better way to do it, for sure. But these are the acts of someone trying to get a message across. You yourselves are probably more comfortable showing solutions than describing them, right? That’s what’s going on here. It’s not malice. It’s still a pain in the ass, though; and it deserves a reminder that, while it may be the most comfortable way for them to get their point across, it’s the least helpful way for you to receive it.
It’s worth a sit down. Have them walk through the comp and explain to you why they made the changes they did. This can be used as an exercise on both sides. Either they felt like they couldn’t get their point across verbally, or that you wouldn’t understand it. A walk-through can solve both of those problems.
On the other hand, suppose the client delivers their feedback in the form of a totally different comp than the one you presented. “We were hoping for something more like this.”
More often than not, this happens when there’s an internal designer on the client team who’s not happy about outside help being brought in. Put yourself in their shoes. You might even do the same thing. Don’t. (We’ll cover working with internal designers in more detail later in the book.)
My first question to you is whether you knew this designer existed already or not. If so, you needed to make an ally out of him earlier in the process. If not, you didn’t do your due diligence. Either way you’re in a spot.
You are now in a position where you’re competing for a job you’ve already earned. That is unacceptable. Do not, under any circumstances, discuss the new comp with your client. Once you do you’ve validated its existence. Pull them aside. If you’re working with a team, this is a job for your team leader to handle; it’s account level. Remind the client that they’ve hired you for this job, and if they feel that you’re no longer capable of fulfilling it, then a larger discussion is needed. See if the client is willing to play by the rules, as they signed up to do; if they are, great. You’ll still need a strategy for dealing with that designer. I’d suggest keeping them close. If you can’t come to an agreement then be ready to walk away. Never, ever, threaten to walk away from a job. You either walk away or you don’t. But if you were hired to do a job and are now being asked to compete for it, then the job has changed. Your next call is to your lawyer.
Let’s End on a Happy Note
Ninety-nine percent of your clients are good people with honest intentions. They may not give you perfect feedback every time, but their intent is good, and you share the same goal of doing kick-ass work together. As long as there’s mutual respect you can get past a couple of hiccups in the process. There are always hiccups in the process.
In ten years of business at Mule, we’ve dealt with a lot of client comping. Only once did we terminate a project because of it. And we gave the client multiple opportunities to stop. It was a great lesson to get out of the way early. You may never have to deal with it yourself, but if you do, you’ll have the tools to handle it.
Mike’s company, Mule Design, is an interactive design studio whose work The New Yorker called “delightfully hostile.” In early 2011, he gave a Creative Mornings talk titled “F— You, Pay Me” that not only uplifted the downtrodden the world over, but fueled his first book, Design Is a Job, which was published by A Book Apart. He is the author of You’re My Favorite Client, also from A Book Apart. In 2014, Mike won the net awards Talk of the Year for “How Designers Destroyed the World,” a screed about designers’ taking responsibility for their work. You can hear Mike weekly as the co-host of Let’s Make Mistakes. None of the terms Mike has coined are printable on a family Web site. Read More