Working notes on feedback as a design tool

This week I ran a workshop with undergraduate students at Imperial College working in design teams at imperial. the aim was to show that it is much easier to give feedback when you a working from a common set of expectations. But this feedback approach can go much further than supporting good team dynamics – itself very important – it can be used as a tool for creative thinking and exploring new ground. Here is a summary of the ten most common points that came up during my conversations with students.

1 – Keep feedback light and regular rather than heavy and bureaucratic
What often seems to happen when we ask people to develop a system for giving feedback is that it becomes bureaucratic and therefore more of a drag to give. What we are aiming for here is a lighter approach. We achieve this by:
▪ making it normal to give feedback more regularly
▪ making sure we have clear expectations around what we are trying to do
▪ having a simple formula for how to give it – how are we getting on against what we agreed.

2 – Creating priorities in your contract
At the start of a new project, you may end up developing a long list of things around which you need to form a working contract. If this is a new team, or a new working circumstance, that’s fine: it gives you the chance to tease out different expectations and deal with any issues you can foresee.

But as well as a benchmark of expectations at the start of the project, a contract can also be a checklist to keep track of in progress through the project. For this to work you need to limit what you are monitoring – I suggest limiting it to five things. To select your five things, you could take a dotmocracy approach.

The idea is to help a group of people select together a shortlist from a long list.

It works on the utilitarian principle and the assumption that everyone is equally able to assess the merits of each thing on the list. Whilst this latter assumption may not be true, it is good enough to get you started with reasonable confidence on what matters. Once you have started, new things will emerge that render some of the other things on the list unimportant, and may promote other things on the list. At which time, you can re-cast the list.

3 – Getting feedback from the client – don’t justify
Feedback is an opportunity to get information from the client about the designs you are proposing. But if on receiving the feedback you spend time justifying your answer rather than listening to what they have to say, then you won’t get all the information you can from them. Therefore hold back your justification and show more interest in their point of view.

Use catalytic style to gather this information.

Afterwards, you can consider the validity and consequences of the feedback you have received.

4 – Using contracting and feedback as a way to understand how to collaborate
At the start of a project you may not know how you want to collaborate with other people. Because contracting and giving feedback is a dynamic process, you can use them as a tool for exploration. So at the start of the project, you can set out how you think collaboration should work. Then you can give each other feedback to see how it’s going. If it doesn’t feel good, you can share that information, and update on the basis of your findings.

It can be much richer in social systems to do and reflect rather than to predict. By starting with a set of expectations written down you have something to compare your experiences against. But if you don’t write down your expectations, you are flying blind.

5 – Using contracting and feedback as a way to explore new design space
When you are designing you are by definition exploring new ground. If it has been done before then it is not really design. As with any reconnaissance mission it is useful to have a set of expectations. You can then go out into the field, explore it, and then get feedback from the team about the validity of what you have discovered against your expectations.

This is how feedback needs to work in design teams. People need the freedom to explore options, and then they need to bring them back to the table and get feedback to assess how valid they are.

6 – Doing difficult things is how we learn – getting feedback helps
We need to do difficult things to learn. To support us, encourage us and find out how we are getting on, we need to get feedback. Feedback is an essential part of learning.

7 – From a what contract to a how contract
Lots of contracts are about what we are going to deliver. We often do think about how we are going to deliver it. In a collaborative team we might think about what things we will do, what deliverables. But we rarely start from a higher plane of how does it feel to be in the team.

Contracting is a left-brain activity. That in-the-moment feeling about how something is going is right-brain activity. Too much left-brain contracting can make the overall experience unattractive for the right brain.

8 – Divergence from the contract is not a failure – it is an opportunity to learn
If two people do work on the same thing and the outputs are quite different from each other, it is tempting to see this as a failure of the brief. But another way to look at it is that it is an opportunity for discovery. By giving each other feedback you can discover more about what everyone thinks about the project. You can then update the brief accordingly.

9 – Following the contract to the letter may be a sign of lack of room for creativity
If everyone follows it to the letter then maybe it is not loose enough to allow people to develop their own responses.

10 – Feedback as a creative tool
feedback is a creative tool – not just a tool for team dynamics. It allows us to explore difference. You thought this, but I thought that. Why is that? That’s what’s interesting.

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