How to get useful feedback

"Thanks for the design, please could you make the app black?" was the reply I got from a client recently. I felt like punching my computer screen. First of all the client was making an app for the education industry where the app required its users to read a lot of text (black is not good for this), black is also a BAD color to use in design because it over powers every other colour and lastly the time I had spent designing what I considered was a beautiful app was basically thrown in the trash, and then asked to do what I genuinely felt was bad for the client. I was not happy.

Receiving feedback has always been a love hate relationship for me because I never know what I am gonna get, because sometimes I get some amazing insights and other times it just leaves me annoyed.

A year ago I read a great essay by Paul Jarvis (I cannot find the original but this is a similar one he wrote) about how to get great feedback and my take away was:

Clients should give descriptive feedback as supposed to prescriptive feedback

In order to ensure feedback works for the project and not against it, you have to show your clients how to give good feedback. Be clear – it’s their job to suggest what isn’t working, but it’s your job (as the hired expert) to suggest how to fix it. After all, which scenario do you prefer?

“Change the blue to green.” This is prescriptive feedback.

“This is the same blue that our competitor uses. How can we make our colour palette stand out?” This is descriptive feedback.

Scenario two describes the problem (and why it’s a problem), instead of telling you how to fix an arbitrary “issue.”

~ Paul Jarvis

Since then everytime I am onboarding a client I always send them a PDF telling them that their participation and thoughts are crucial to the success of the project and then educate them on how to give descriptive feedback as supposed prescriptive feedback.

Sometimes they forget like the client that wanted a black app, in her case I went through a battery of questions later that day with her and we both concluded that she wanted a sleek looking app because it was geared towards American teenagers. Once we both understood the motivation behind her previous feedback, I ended up designing a dark (not black) app she fell in love with.

What I have learned is that there are many things a client will suggest that is not good for them, you are the expert and that is why you were hired, so never be afraid to push back on requests, but also present factual evidence of why you think it is a bad idea and align your solution with their goals of the project. Teaching my clients to provide descriptive feedback helped me tremendously in understanding my clients motivations and providing the best experiences to them.