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The Design Review: Learning How to Accept Feedback

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Have you ever been eviscerated in a design review? Laura Ward, Design Manager at PayPal, explains why, instead of getting mad or upset, you should use a design review as an opportunity to be curious, solicit feedback, and get better.
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It was my first year as a graduate student in architecture school in New York City.  I had been up for 48 hours straight making models, drafting plans, and creating elevations and sections.  It was my first review with a big name published architect.  I was nervous and tired.  I started out my presentation by walking through each drawing on the wall: “This is what it looks like from the street, this is what it looks like from inside.” I then stood in silence, relieved that what I always feared the most—the presentation—was over.  I just had to live through the review that would follow. 

Mr. Published Architect then said, “This design is awful.  I’d like to just set it on fire and throw it out the window.”   I was stunned.  I didn’t verbally respond to his feedback, but I was furious. 

After the review, the teaching assistant took me aside. “You shouldn’t have been so mad during your review.  It reflects poorly on you.”  This feedback caught me even more by surprise.  I didn’t realize that, without a word, I was showing my reaction to how this critique made me feel. 

As I left the review room, the whole situation felt strange.  First, I was angry with the scathing review.  And then, the feedback from my teacher about my natural reaction was disarming.  Aren’t we always supposed to be open and honest with our feelings?  What kind of a person would fake how they feel about a conversation they are having with someone else?  And isn’t good design borne out of an open and honest dialog?

I didn’t understand the lesson that day, or even that first year, but I eventually came to realize that I didn’t have to fake my feelings or pretend to be unaffected to receive feedback on my work or performance.  I had to learn how to invite critique, to stand unafraid by the prospect that my tireless effort could be torn down in an instant.

This technique is often described as not taking things personally, and it can be a great skill to learn.  You say to yourself, “This person is talking about the work, not about me,” and it will help overcome that gut reaction that wants to scream when someone dishes out a particularly scathing piece of feedback.

But, what if the feedback is personal?  What if it’s about how you interact with others?  It might be something you need to stop doing, or a behavior you need to modify in order to improve your performance.  How do you deal with that type of feedback?  The first step is to invite it from the person who is giving it.  It’s quite likely that the reviewer does not find comfort in providing this information.  Start by telling yourself, “I want to hear this.  If I listen, I can become a better designer.”  Give permission to the reviewer for the feedback, and you will find that it angers you less. 

Even so, there is still the possibility of shock: “I can’t believe you’re saying this about me,” or disappointment: “Why am I just finding out about this now?” when asking for honest feedback.  But the information is incredibly useful.  It points to areas where clients or co-workers are not completely satisfied.  And, armed with this information, you have a choice.  You can choose to get better, or direct them to someone who does the task better when they need the job done. 

Delegating tasks that don’t match your strengths is a great strategy for leaders.  But as a designer, there are some skills that you simply cannot delegate to someone else, no matter how you wish to avoid them.  You must absolutely excel in the following:  sketching, storytelling, critiquing, presenting, and facilitating.  (See Jared Spool’s Article, Five Indispensible Skills for UX Mastery).  If you want to be a rock star designer, you must be adept in all these facets.  You must practice them frequently and become excellent at receiving feedback about your performance in these areas.

So, let’s say you are ready to improve and are braced for lots of feedback.  How do you avoid getting angry when people offer you their opinion?  When you invite feedback, you don’t have to fake your reaction.  Instead, you will be curious.  You will want to know why they think that, or you will want more detail on what could have been better defined to arrive at the best possible design.  Then, there is a reason to answer their questions, and you will feel confident in supporting your ideas because you won’t be distracted or put off by their comments.

It sounds almost too simple.  As with all good design, it is surprisingly simple, but it takes a lot of practice.  Putting yourself out there with the risk of experiencing the pain of criticism isn’t easy.  But you will find that the more you place yourself in those situations, the better you will become.  Perhaps you will even begin to relish opportunities for feedback and seek them out.

A few months ago I was fortunate to attend a coaching session for women at PayPal, where I am a design manager.  Our coach explained our first exercise: draw a large sketch representing an accomplishment at the company, present it to the group, and then listen to feedback on your presentation from the other women in the class.  All the women in the room had the same three thoughts: “I can’t draw!  I can’t present!  And I sure as hell don’t want to hear feedback on those two things!” 

Take a moment to put yourself in this situation where you are asked to make a cohesive drawing in a few minutes and present before two dozen other managers and directors in your company.  Now, ask yourself one question.  Would you be the first to confidently raise your hand when asked to present?  If you said “No way,” or even paused a moment and then thought, “Well… I probably would,” then you can do more to become open to feedback.  You should be thinking, “Yes! Pick me! Pick me!” You’re ready to accept feedback when you find yourself seeking these opportunities like a child hunting for candy-filled eggs on Easter morning.

I raised my hand that morning and delivered my presentation of a very messy sketch about the relationship between architecture and web design and the influences of both in my work.  Most importantly, I am happy to report that no one requested my sketch to be set on fire.

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