Practicing What We Preach
One of the most basic but frequently overlooked components of being a designer is the need to be a deft communication facilitator. As we discussed in the first article in this series, initiating a dialogue with users can be difficult and it’s within those first interactions that we either make or break our relationship with them.
Once we’ve sparked that initial engagement we must use an empathetic approach to identify how to best design meaningful experiences and encourage conversations that speak to users’ unique needs. Ideally, a conversation is collaborative, with a transfer of information back and forth giving the experience a natural progression.
In order to design for this ideal exchange we must identify some critical elements. One of those elements is feedback, and in this article, we’ll discuss and define the idea of feedback as it pertains not only to best user experience design practices but also to organizational practices.
“Grade me … look at me … evaluate and rank me! Oh, I’m good, good, good, and oh so smart! Grade me!”—Lisa Simpson
Mention the word “feedback,” and most of our minds go straight to the dreaded year-end review that exists in one form or another at all organizations. Whether it comes in the form of round-robin peer reviews, performance reviews, or 360-degree evaluations, I can’t think of anyone who waits in joyous anticipation of these feedback processes (other than Lisa Simpson, of course).
As contributing members of society, we tend to have a love-hate relationship with feedback. When we work hard and feel that our toil has gone unrecognized, we complain that we are not getting enough feedback. But when we receive feedback that is critical of our work, we often perceive it as an attack.
In order to get at the core of this charged association we have with the concept of feedback, it’s important to define ourselves as both givers and receivers of feedback, especially as it relates to the work we create as designers. What is feedback but a formalized acknowledgement of another person’s effort?
In even simpler terms, when someone does something, feedback is what is necessary to let the person know that his or her effort has been acknowledged. Within a more complex relationship, the person or system that is providing the feedback has not only listened to or accepted the person’s input, but has also carefully considered it and synthesized a response to the person’s contribution.
In the field of user experience design, feedback comes in many forms. Adaptive and responsive designs are built on the very principle of feedback, with the system seamlessly responding to the user’s device or display restrictions, taking into consideration layout, content, and progressive enhancement. Amazon’s smart recommendations provide another example of feedback: their algorithm takes in your purchasing history and spits out eerily accurate product recommendations—feedback designed to keep you coming back for more.
By its very nature, experience design must involve a user interacting with a system. The user will input information and the system will respond with confirmation, analysis, or a synthesis of the original input. For more complex syntheses, such as when the user is made to wait for more than a few seconds, the system provides a loading screen or a progress bar that acts as feedback to let the user know that the system is working on a response.
Users expect this type of feedback: a small, but necessary detail that helps keep them engaged and wanting to use the designed experience. The necessity of feedback works in this simple way: input should yield output. If a user puts something in, the user expects something to come out.
“If you treat an individual ... as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Feedback and its Application to Management Style
Given that we, as humans, innately desire acknowledgement when we have put forth effort, why do we dread year-end reviews?
There are two major culprits:
Fear of the unknown
This is a fairly common reason that people give for their negative association with year-end reviews. In particular, people fear that their managers will only remember the negative moments over the past year and will fail to acknowledge or even remember the positive ones. This fear is amplified if top-level management is in a position of significant distance from the employee and only sees them as a cog in the greater machine. As a manager, how can the “surprise factor” be minimized when providing feedback?
Another common reason for dreading an upcoming review is that employees may have a perception of powerlessness in responding to the feedback that they receive. This helplessness eventually breeds apathy, cynicism, and resentment when employees feel like they don’t have a voice to represent themselves to the reviewers. Ultimately, this can have serious effects on company morale, and even productivity. How can management find better ways to provide meaningful and effective feedback in a manner that allows employees to feel like they, too, have a voice?
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has spent her career observing people managing others in a wide range of organizations and has formulated the idea of the “growth mindset,” which seeks to help employees “welcome challenges because [they] believe [that they] can learn whatever is needed to overcome whatever obstacles arise.” In this ideal approach, managers are champions of the mindset that they will teach their employees whatever they need to succeed. Dweck recommends the following guidelines for managers when giving feedback to their employees:
Managers should emphasize that they value:
- Passion and dedication over just “natural talent”
- Employees’ challenging and stretching themselves to tackle new things, rather than staying within their comfort zones
- Teamwork above all else, particularly individual ambition
Keeping Dweck’s growth mindset in mind, let’s examine another major culprit of the “year-end review” dread. One of the most important factors in giving feedback, both in user experience design and as a manager in your organization, is the idea of cadence, i.e., the notion that feedback is most useful when it is provided in a timely and consistent manner. The idea of timeliness and consistency is critical to feedback being useful and actionable.
While it may be standard practice to give an employee performance feedback at his or her end-of-year review, how is the employee supposed to respond to and incorporate the feedback, if it is given but once a year? More frequent check-ins with your employees and their teams will not only encourage the exchange of more effective and valuable feedback in both directions, it will also help your organization move towards Dweck’s “growth mindset” which encourages everyone to benefit from continuous learning and improvement, in an environment where dialogue is open and moves freely and frequently in all directions of the organization.
Alternative Year-End Review: ClearGears
Recently, some companies have been taking a more collaborative approach to feedback and employee reviews. Arshad Chowdhury developed a performance review tool, ClearGears, which approaches performance reviews with more adaptive methods in mind.
ClearGears, “parcels out the [review] process in bite-size chunks, democratizes it, and [makes it anonymous]. [Whereby it sends] out questions on a schedule [that the organization determines] most commonly a question or two per day. Employees then answer the questions, either evaluating colleagues on their team (“How actively does Betty support recruiting?”), or weighing in on the company as a whole (“Rate your manager’s ability to recognize excellence”). Everyone on a team evaluates each other, regardless of status, [it is not about] witch-hunting or exposing the weakest link for prompt firing. Used correctly, ClearGears should be about strengthening the team as a whole.”
ClearGears is designed to focus on two very important elements that we identified earlier to help alleviate employees’ year-end review dread: instilling a sense of frequency and timeliness (or cadence) of feedback, and allowing for a two-way style of feedback where all individuals, teams, and even the organization receive feedback that is weighted equally and democratically due to the anonymity of the feedback sources.
Putting Theory into Practice
“Negative feedback is better that none. I would rather have a man hate me than overlook me. As long as he hates me I make a difference.”—Hugh Prather
The good with the bad
Unfortunately, employees are often only noticed when mistakes are made or things go wrong. An attitude of “no news is good news” creates an environment where employees assume that any feedback is negative feedback. After all, who ever got called into the principal’s office for a pat on the back? Similarly, a user interface that only provides error messages would certainly make it an unpleasant experience.
- Give feedback on both the negatives and the positives. While the idea of a “compliment sandwich” may not be realistic, be sure to identify and acknowledge an employee’s strengths and weaknesses.
- Redefine “negative.” Constructive criticism means repurposing negative feedback as an opportunity for potential improvement; this implies that there’s a “next step,” allowing the negative feedback to actually serve a productive purpose. Think about it as a user: there’s nothing more frustrating than receiving an error message that fails to tell you how to resolve the error.
- Use encouragement. Behavioral psychologists have known for years that people tend to respond best when they are encouraged rather than nagged. Acknowledging employees when they perform well or show improvement will encourage their peers to strive to do the same.
We carefully design our experiences to include consistent and timely feedback. For example, when a user has moved through a process, we provide clear indicators (like progress bars) to communicate that their effort is being acknowledged. It is equally important that we set up the same dynamic when managing our project teams. Setting a balanced cadence in our feedback can be achieved by the following guidelines:
- Be proactive. Initiating regular but casual check-ins can help team members feel more at ease with expressing their needs. More frequent check-ins will not only strengthen your relationship with your team members but will also help you better anticipate potential hurdles in the project.
- No surprises. You will know you have found the right cadence if both you and the receiver are not surprised by the feedback that you exchange.
Conversation is a two-way street
Establishing proper expectations is essential in developing working relationships, both between designers and our users, and between our teammates. It is our duty to maintain a balanced give-and-take in the relationship as it plays out in the ongoing conversation and dialogue.
- Give and receive. When giving feedback, provide the recipient an opportunity to respond, allowing them the time to reflect and an appropriate channel through which to express their feedback to you.
- Avoid “top-down” feedback. Top-down feedback rarely benefits the organization as a whole, creating resentment, apathy, and poor morale. Lead with the mindset that every employee has the potential to contribute meaningful insight that could benefit the whole company.
When a digital experience successfully engages a user, a mutual “conversation” is formed based on two-way feedback, promoting a feeling of alliance between that user and the designed experience. Employees and managers should be encouraged to develop a similar alliance.
Recognizing employees for good work makes them feel valued, appreciated, and like they are a part of the larger team. Setting an example of careful and thoughtful feedback exchange will inspire others to do the same: slowly their initial dread will lessen and give way to a healthier, more productive association with the employee review, encouraging an open environment of collaboration, honesty, and sharing.
Image of feedback loop courtesty Shutterstock.