On Feedback

This week, we've got some ideas for avoiding being hurtful when offering feedback.
Asking for feedback is hard. It's a moment of profound vulnerability, requiring the asker to expose the product of their loving labor to criticism—criticism that can easily feel like a direct reflection of their own self worth. Because of the fragile nature of criticism, it's the responsibility of the critiquer to give feedback in a caring, honest nature.

Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Ask questions. If you take nothing else away, take this. Much feedback can be posed in the form of questions: asking what led to the decision that you don't like. Give the creator a chance to explain the decision and you might not dislike it anymore, and even if you do, you have much more information for discussion.
  • Don't confuse the subjective (how you feel) with the objective (what is true). Categorical statements like "this is ugly," or "that's the wrong color," sound as if they are cold hard facts, but they're really reflections of your own emotions and judgments. Make their subjective nature clear with sentences like "I think..." and you'll avoid a lot of hurt.
  • Be measured in your emotions. Avoid using words that convey intense displeasure like "hate." That kind of language puts the creator on the defensive, and makes it hard to receive the criticism constructively.
  • Be specific about your criticism. "This doesn't work," doesn't give anything actionable, but "clicking the help icon doesn't open the menu" leads right to the problem.
  • Get metacognitive. Think about why you feel a certain way. It might be a gut reaction, but you probably have reasons that led you to that criticism, and sharing those reasons can be very enlightening. You might even discover that your feelings come from internal biases!
  • Don't overdo it. Regardless of how you offer your feedback, if you pile it on, it's going to overwhelm the creator. Instead, take the time for a thoughtful review, then choose the feedback you think will be most useful.
  • Bookend your negative criticism. The presence of any negative feedback is going to make the creator feel as if the entirety of the feedback is negative, but you can soften the blow. Start by telling the creator some things you like, then give the feedback about what you didn't, then end with more encouragement.

There's no magic recipe for giving feedback, but if you follow these guidelines, you're at least going to reduce the danger for misunderstandings and hurt feelings.