Artificial Conversations: The Art of Feedback

This week we discussed this article from THNK School of Creative Leadership on receiving creative feedback.

Critique is an important part of any design process, yet it’s not something we’re formally taught to do, and it’s something many companies don’t take seriously. Critiques can cause anxiety, they seem to encourage reactiveness, and they might even result in rifts amongst design teams.

Get feedback early and often.

Manjari brought up how important it is to get critique when you’re able to do something about it. As the maker of the thing being critiqued, it’s your responsibility to solicit feedback so that you have time to incorporate feedback. If you’re not getting feedback, be afraid. It’s likely that the feedback is still there, waiting to be uncovered.

Ariane brought up that critiques aren’t just a moment for getting feedback, they’re also important for inclusion. Getting people into a room together means hearing voices that might not always be heard. With many voices comes some risk, so it’s important to help everyone understand what feedback is useful.

Manjari doubled down on this point. Scale is important. Getting big-picture feedback as the details are being worked out can cause major disruption, and may need to be disregarded to maintain the project’s schedule.

Hans observed some cultural differences with critique – and how the Dutch seek consensus, while Americans lean towards progress. Critique sessions should not only be about gathering input, but also about making that input into something that has clear next steps to maintain momentum.

Manjari mentioned how valuable it is to end a feedback session by enumerating next steps. This ensures both alignment and that actions will be taken.

Understand where feedback is coming from.

Not all critique is created equal. Natalia mentioned that she frequently disregards feedback that considers only the giver’s tastes without consideration for the user or the design system. Hans agreed. To fail to consider the context is lazy. Ariane believes the critique should be civil. After all, being aggressive towards a person isn’t likely to make the work better. Manjari added that ambiguous critique like “Maybe you should try something else.” fails to provide insight into either the problem or the solution.

Good critique considers its context, and it seeks to help the person presenting their work move forward. But what else? Ariane added that she’s more likely to trust the critique that comes from a person that she trusts. In other words, someone with expertise is more likely to speak from that broad knowledge rather than their own narrow perception.

Natalia mentioned how important it is to write feedback down even if you don’t agree with it. Not only can this help keep the presenter from getting caught up in the reaction, it also provides documentation to come back to later – even if it’s only to say, “This was bad feedback.”

Ariane mentioned how critiques provide an opportunity for discussion, and how important it is to use this time to understand the why behind a person’s feedback. Getting to why isn’t always easy, and sounding inquisitive without coming across as reactive to criticism can be a struggle.

Be considerate when providing feedback.

One of my favorite quotes about critique comes from the Pixar movie Ratatouille.

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

As someone offering critique, it is important to remember that the person being critiqued has likely thought about the work more than you. Your critique is not only of the thing you’re looking at, but also the intentions behind it. For this reason, it’s important to seek an understanding of their reasons when providing feedback.

Natalia pointed out that much criticism focuses on the negative, and that pointing out mistakes is not only demoralizing, it’s often not terribly helpful to improving a design.

Ariane mentioned that providing feedback with a reason is important. It’s likely that the presenter has their own reasons, and hearing the why behind a piece of criticism can help refine intentions, not just the output.

Ariane also mentioned that providing good feedback means understanding the context. Often a thorough understanding of intentions and decisions can lead to more compelling feedback.

Did this conversation change anything for The Artificial? I suspect our already strong critique culture will just get stronger. As a studio, we seek feedback often, and we’re considerate when providing it to each other. When sharing work, we’re good at integrating new ideas and exploring opinions that don’t agree with our own, even if it’s only as a counterexample to the choice we’ve made.

It’s only natural that our internal attitudes towards critique extend towards our external relationships with clients. We work closely to maintain an open channel for feedback; we seek to create opportunities for conversation between teams; and we provide teams with provocations that drive decisions. And much like a critique, listening and understanding why is vital to making good decisions on behalf of our clients and users.