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Avoid frankensteining: designing a better feedback process

Alan Cho
Posted by Alan Cho on Mar 30, 2017 9:35:17 AM
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Within the design process, there is good feedback and bad feedback. There are no set criteria, nothing written down in a textbook or decreed from on high by Milton Glaser. Though the difference can be difficult to articulate, it’s something designers instinctually feel in their guts. Yet, designers can’t design by guts alone.

Design in all disciplines has become more complex. It requires the hands of a multitude of talented people to take a design from a thought to the real world. It’s why feedback is so essential in the design process. As Tanner Christensen, a product designer at Facebook, wrote in his blog, “It can help get you outside your own head in order to make better decisions, overcome obstacles and strengthen your craft.”

Frankenstein design

While all that sounds great, those new insights and perspectives that help you see your work in a brand-new way also come with biases and judgments. Feedback that’s useful to a designer requires a process that can protect the integrity of the work and give everybody a chance to speak up. Otherwise, you could end up with a Frankenstein design.

Frankenstein designs

In the world of design, frankensteining isn’t when someone confuses the name of a designer with the design. It’s what happens when too many people get involved and, instead of making deliberate choices, every opinion gets incorporated into the work. It’s what happens when the feedback process goes amok, usually because feelings get involved.

Emotional feedback

Despite what an obstinate manager once told you, feedback and criticism aren’t objective. Instead of the right way to do something, there are only the choices we make. Yet, in the heat of the process, those choices can feel intensely personal. As in any creative work, designers impart the work with their personality. So when people point out what they think is a mistake or an error, it can feel like a judgment on your character. And that can lead to a battle of egos constantly trying to define a shifting sense of what is “good.”

Avoiding emotional feedback

It doesn’t need to be this way. A formalized process can help circumvent the emotional stakes in getting feedback while still opening up the work to as many people as possible. Companies like Pixar, Spotify and Facebook have reckoned with the problems of feedback and developed processes that prevents Frankenstein design. While the details may differ from company to company, examining the commonalties can help make your feedback process more effective.

Establishing roles

During the feedback process, it can feel like it’s the designer or design team versus the rest of the world. Companies like Facebook have formalized the roles within the feedback process to deal with that problem. Tanner Christensen, on his personal blog, detailed Facebook’s process and spoke of the three roles involved: presenter, audience and facilitator.

Establishing roles in design feedback

It’s not just about formalizing the roles, but providing rules that guide the behavior of those roles. In these sessions, the designer plays the presenter. Instead of trying to sell or pitch the merits of the work, the presenter lays out the context of the design in neutral terms, including explaining the problems that are trying to be solved. The audience, in turn, isn’t allowed to offer solutions, but can only ask questions. Facebook found that this gave designers an opportunity to present their reasoning instead of defending their work. These prescribed roles ensure everybody is on the same page and operating within the same guidelines (thanks to the facilitator). Instead of competing agendas, the roles bring emotional distance that ensures the focus remains on the work.

Authority vs peers

A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology looked at how people claiming ideas as their own impeded the creative process. Researchers Graham Brown and Markus Baer found that marking an idea as belonging to a specific individual made it less inviting for people to offer any substantive feedback. That need to own an idea is at odds with the fundamentally collaborative nature of creative design.

Authority vs peers in design feedback

In light of that study, Pixar is an interesting company to examine. It is celebrated for its bold creativity, yet not driven by a singular vision. We may know the names of individual directors like Andrew Stanton or Brad Bird, but we don’t think of any of those people as defining Pixar; it’s the other way around. Much of that comes out their collaborative filmmaking process. Edwin Catmull, president of Pixar, detailed the company’s creative process in the pages of Harvard Business Review.

Whenever a problem arises during the company’s creative process, a call goes out to the brain trust, a group led by cofounder John Lasseter and a few high-level directors. The creative might of that group is staggering, but that’s not what makes them so effective. Pixar attempted to create a similar group for the technical department, but couldn’t capture the same dynamic. As Catmull discovered, that particular brain trust had too much authority, too much ownership of the process and ideas.

Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the myriad of other beloved characters that have come out of Pixar aren’t the creations of a single person. How could one person contain so much magic? Everybody makes that magic together; that’s what makes Pixar work and what made the original brain trust work. The brain trust doesn’t get the final say as the director is free to ignore the feedback. As Catmull writes in the article, that peer dynamic “liberates the trust members, so they can give their unvarnished expert opinions, and it liberates the director to seek help and fully consider the advice.”

Themed feedback

Feedback should be more than “make it better.” The more focused and specific the feedback, the easier that feedback is to execute. This can be easy to forget in a less formalized process, as people’s attempt to cover every aspect of the design ends up sounding like “make it better” to the designer.

Focused design feedback

Andy Park, a former agile coach at Spotify, wrote in the company blog about addressing this problem. As a company grows, so does the feedback process as more and more people get involved. To avoid this, Spotify began theming their feedback sessions. Instead of trying to examine a design in its entirety, their process broke down into different sessions covering themes like program management, new content and architecture.

This focused form of feedback not only streamlined the process, but limited the people involved in the process. All the feedback gathered came from a place of expertise and experience. And by spreading those sessions across theme, more people could be included in the process, offering input in a way that doesn’t become overwhelming. It helps shape the kind of feedback a designer receives since everybody knows the specific topics that will get addressed in the session. A designer can come into the process prepared instead of feeling blindsided and therefore scrambling for a rationale.

A formalized process seems counter to unfettered and honest criticism; you can’t speak unvarnished truth when constrained by rules. Yet the opposite is true. Structure and rules remove all the personal elements that get in the way of being creative. You may instinctively know the difference between good and bad feedback, but an effective feedback process can help you get the kind of feedback you can use.


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Topics: Collaboration Design Thinking