Creative work — be it designing, writing, coding, or managing — is a collaborative practice. At least two parties are always involved: The maker (a designer, developer, or manager) on one end, and the audience on the other.[^1] Feedback between the maker and the audience is absolutely critical to the success of the work: makers demonstrate their skill and expertise by facilitating focused feedback, and clients & stakeholders build great relationships with creatives by providing high-quality feedback.
In my experience as both a maker and an audience member, I’ve developed a few ground rules that have helped me provide and receive great feedback. At Planetary, we use this approach every day to build better products:[^2]
We use two questions to determine if feedback is good or not:
Is it clear & concise? Feedback should be terse. If you’re trying to articulate something, and are uncertain about it, it’s okay to say so, but be very certain of what you’re uncertain about, and use as few words as possible.
Examples ✓ The color of this element is too bright. ✗ There’s something about the way this moves that reminds me of some sort of animal.
Is it action-oriented? Always give feedback with action in mind. You don’t always have to boss the maker around, but always give feedback that can be acted upon.
Examples ✓ This text isn’t the same size as the other text on the page. ✗ I don’t like the way this layout feels.[^3]
In addition to overall quality, it’s important that feedback has a consistent structure. Consistency helps to create and maintained a shared language, and keeps translation errors to a minimum.
I suggest each piece of feedback have three main components: Matter, Attribute, and Process.
This is the subject of your feedback. Often times, feedback is dead on arrival because it’s not about anything in particular. I’ve seen (and, at times, given) feedback that is just a suggestion to the maker “Make this bigger.” “Change this picture.” This isn’t actually feedback! This is telling the maker how to do their job. And nobody likes being told how to do their job.
Be specific as specific as possible! When you say “the logo,” which logo do you mean — the one on the front page? Or the one on page 17? When you say “the colors,” which colors exactly are you referring to?
This is a quality of the matter you’re focusing on. It’s usually some visual quality, but it can have analogues in the other senses: loud, soft, fast, slow, crisp, soft. You can answer the question “How?” with the attribute. It describes the Matter.
This is where you get to use fancy words. Again, be specific, but the more descriptive you can be, the better.
This is the process by which the Matter and Attribute occur. Think of it as the “Why” or “When” in our equation. This is probably the most complex aspect of feedback, because sometimes it’s just taken for granted: The process is “Why? Because I looked at it,” or, “When? When I went to the website.” But sometimes it’s more involved in that. And that’s when we start using words like “User Experience.” If your feedback comes from a specific process, try to elucidate that. And again — be specific.
Examples The loading time (Matter) is slow (Attribute) when the user clicks “Submit.” (Process)
The outline of the logo (Matter) looks too thick (Attribute) when printed at small sizes. (Process)
The model in the stock photo on our homepage (Matter) looks very sad (Attribute) and causes our users to feel sad. (Process)
Sometimes, simply writing down a sentence of feedback or two will suffice. But often, it’s hard-to-impossible to describe a particular piece of matter, a quality, or a process. In those cases, you can use an image! There are great tools to capture images, even giving you the chance to add some text or a drawing to the image.
This is the most basic way to get an image of the thing you’re providing feedback on.
On Mac OS X, you can save an image of the whole screen by pressing command + shift + 3. To save just a portion of the screen, use command + shift + 4.
On Windows, you can copy an image of your screen to the clipboard using the PrtScn (print screen) key. Once copied, simply paste the image into a document in the Paint application, and save it.
There are tools to help you add information to your screenshots. This will allow you to be more specific, and save your thoughts together in a single place.
Skitch, from the makers of Evernote, helps you add information to screenshots in the form of drawings, shapes and text.
RedPen is an online, cross-platform tool that organizes comments and tracks the progress of documents and images — think of it like “track changes” for creative work.
Sometimes, a screenshot can’t capture the Matter you’re trying to address: if it’s an interaction or an animation, it helps to be able to record a movie or animated GIF.
LICEcap is a tool I use almost every single day. You simply drag the window over the area of the screen you’d like to capture, and hit record. The program will generate an easy-to-share image file of the movie that can be viewed in any web browser.
Quicktime Player comes installed on every Mac, and can be used to capture short movies. Open the app, and select File > New Screen Recording from the menu bar. From there, hit the record button, and you’re set! You can even add audio commentary, which can be absolutely invaluable to the feedback process.
Facilitating efficient feedback between makers and clients/collaborators can mean the difference between a painful, failure and an inspired success. By dedicating yourself to providing or facilitating concise, action-oriented feedback, and by agreeing on a common structure with which to build that feedback, you — as a maker, or as a client — can become a more efficient and successful partner in the creative process.
[^1]: The audience can be the client for whom the work is done, or it can be the users of the product designed, or it can be the stakeholders or investors who will fund further development.
[^2]: This is not a one-size-fits-all solution! Use it as a starting point to find your own method of soliciting feedback.
[^3]: A note on feelings: I have banned the phrase “this feels …” from my feedback vocabulary. It’s often a crutch of feedback, and a pretty crummy one at that. I tell my collaborators “This doesn’t feel! YOU FEEL! Tell me how you feel!” They think this is pretty funny.