“I don’t like it”—The most dreaded of all design feedback from your client/boss/co-worker. This isn’t so much a matter of your ego is damaged, it’s just not useful or constructive criticism.
In order to do better, we need feedback grounded in an understanding of user needs. And we need to be sure it’s not coming from solely the client’s aesthetic preferences, which may be impeccable but may not be effective for the product.
Aesthetics are a matter of taste. Design is not just aesthetics. I’m always saying it, but it’s worth repeating: there are aesthetic decisions in design, but they are meant to contribute to the design as a whole. The design as a whole is created for an audience, and with goals in mind, so objectivity is required and should be encouraged.
Is the client offering an opinion based on her own taste, trying to reflect the taste of the intended audience, or trying to solve a perceived problem for the user? Don’t take “I don’t like it” at face value and try to respond to it without more communication.
How do we elicit better feedback?
To elicit the type of feedback we want from clients, we should encourage open-ended critiques that explain the reasons behind the negative feedback, critiques that make good use of conjunctions like “because.” “I don’t like it because…” is already becoming more valuable feedback.
Designer: Why don’t you like the new contact form design?
Client: I don’t like it because the text is too big.
Whether that audience can achieve their goals with our product is the primary factor in its success. We need clients to understand that they may not be the target audience. Sometimes this can be hard for anyone close to a product to understand. We may be one of the users of the products we’re designing, but the product is probably not being designed solely for users like us. The product has a specific audience, with specific goals. Once we’ve re-established the importance of the end-user, we can then reframe the feedback by asking the question, “how might the users respond?”
Designer: Do you think the users will find the text too big?
Client: Yes. They’d rather see everything without having to scroll.
Designer: The text will have to be very small if we try to fit it all into the top of the page. It might be hard to read.
Client: That’s fine. All of our users are young people, so their eyesight is good.
Throughout the design process, we need to check our hidden assumptions about our users. We should also ensure any feedback we get isn’t based upon an unfounded assumption. If the client says the users won’t like it, ask why. Uncover the assumption—maybe it’s worth testing with real users?
Designer: Can we be certain that all your users are young people? And that all young people have good eyesight? We might risk losing potential customers unless the site is easy for everyone to read.
How do we best separate out assumptions from actual knowledge? Any sweeping generalizations about users, particularly those that assume users all share common traits, are likely to need testing. A thorough base of user research, with evidence to fall back on, will give you a much better chance at spotting these assumptions.
The design conversation
As designers, we can’t expect other people to know the right language to describe exactly why they think something doesn’t work. We need to know the right questions that prompt a client to give constructive criticism and valuable feedback. I’ve written beforeon how we can pre-empt problems by explaining our design decisions when we share our work, but it’s impossible to cover every minute detail and the relationships between them. If a client can’t articulate why they don’t like the design as a whole, break the design into components and try to narrow down which part isn’t working for them.
Designer: Which bit of text looks particularly big to you?
Client: The form labels.
When you’ve zeroed in on a component, elicit some possible reasons that it might not be effective.
Designer: Is it because the size of the form labels leaves less space for the other elements, forcing the users to scroll more?
Client: Yes. We need to make the text smaller.
Reining it in
Aesthetics are very much subject to taste. You know what colors you like to wear, and the people you find attractive, and you don’t expect everyone else to share those same tastes. Nishant wrote a fantastic column about how Good Taste Doesn’t Matter and summarized it best when he said:
good and virtuous taste, by its very nature, is exclusionary; it only exists relative to shallow, dull…tastes. And if good design is about finding the most appropriate solution to the problem at hand, you don’t want to start out with a solution set that has already excluded a majority of the possibilities compliments of the unicorn that is good taste.
Designer: But if we make the text smaller, we’ll make it harder to read. Most web pages require scrolling, so that shouldn’t be a problem for the user. Do you think the form is too long, and that it might put users off from filling it in?
Client: Yes, I want people to find it easy to contact us.
Designer: How about we take out all the form fields, except the email address and the message fields, as that’s all the information we really need?
Client: Yes, that’ll make the form much shorter.
If you’re making suggestions, don’t let a client say yes to your first one. These suggestions aren’t meant as an easy-out, allowing them to quickly get something changed to fit their taste. This is an opportunity to brainstorm potential alternatives on the spot. Working collaboratively is the important part here, so don’t just go away to work out the first alternative by yourself.
If you can work out between you which solution is most likely to be successful, the client will be more committed to the iteration. You’ll both have ownership, and you’ll both understand why you’ve decided to make it that way.
Laura Kalbag is a freelance designer working with small and meaningful clients creating websites, apps, icons, illustrations, and the odd logo. She can be found via her personal site,