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The Principles of Design: Iteration and Feedback

Seek and provide meaningful feedback.

Image via Startup Stock Photos

Hi bloggers! My name’s Kjell Reigstad, and I’m a designer at Automattic. This is part three in my monthly series on “The Principles of Design.” In this series, I share some of the basic tenets of design, and we explore how to apply them to your blog.

Previous installments:
Clarity
Visual Hierarchy
Color Harmony

In college, the majority of my design classes centered around critiques, or as we called them, crits. At the beginning of each class, we’d pin our work up on the wall. Then the entire class would walk around the room as a group, providing feedback on each other’s designs. At the end of class, we’d take our work down, and spend the next week refining based on the feedback we’d received. Then we’d start the process over again during the next class.

Participating in hundreds of crits was invaluable to my design education. Though crits are a stressful process (it’s scary to hear what people really think of your work!), there’s no doubt that they lead to better designs. That same flow — designing, receiving feedback, and refining — is the foundation of iterative design, and is absolutely key to what designers do every day.

Design-Test

Feedback can (and should!) play an instrumental role in your blog designs too. In each of my posts in this series, I’ve suggested that you share your design iterations and experiments with others. Understanding how others view your site can help you make decisions, spark new ideas, or just help you add the final layer of polish to your design.

To help the feedback process be more effective, I thought I’d share some tips on asking for, providing, and receiving feedback.

Seeking feedback

Before you ask anyone for feedback, it’s important to keep in mind who your audience is. If you write a blog for grandmas, it would be most helpful to get feedback from grandmas. Or if you have a cooking blog, talk to people who like to cook! People who actually read your blog will be the best people to provide feedback.

There are many ways to get people’s input on your design. Request some feedback in the Community Pool. Pair up with someone for a peer audit. You can also join (or start!) a blogging workshop to generate feedback from fellow bloggers, or just make a post on your blog asking for feedback from your readers directly.

Actually watching someone use your site can be extremely eye-opening. You can see their reactions in real-time and ask follow-up questions right then and there. For that reason, I try and get feedback in person first.

If you’d like to go the in-person route, ask your friends and family to pull out their phones and take a look at your site. See if the person next to you at Starbucks would take a quick look too. Whether online or in person, any feedback is better than no feedback. Don’t be shy!

Once you do ask for feedback, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Be specific. When initially asking for people’s thoughts, it sometimes helps to break things into small pieces first. Rather than ask “What do you think of my blog?”, you might want to say “What do you think of my header?” or “What are your thoughts on the color scheme here?” In general, this will help you receive more useful feedback.
  • Don’t over-explain. It’s good to provide a quick introduction so they have a little context, but be careful not to lead them through your entire thought process. Most readers won’t have the benefit of your background information, so you’ll want to make sure your design can stand on its own.
  • Remember to stay neutral. You’re interested in what people really think, so avoid asking leading questions like “Don’t you think my background is beautiful?” Instead, try more neutral, open ended questions like “What are your thoughts on the background?”
  • Ask follow-up questions. Don’t be afraid to get more information. If someone says they don’t like a color, it can help to understand why. Is it a personal preference? Or does the color melt people’s eyeballs?
  • Ask more than one person. The more people you get feedback from, the more insight you’ll get. This also helps you weed out meaningful responses from those that are purely personal opinion.
  • Don’t take negative responses personally. It’s tough, but remember that it’s part of the process. Hearing what’s not working will lead you to make the design stronger. Also, it often helps to ask people if they have a suggestion that would satisfy their criticism. If your font is hard to read, what would they recommend instead?

Processing feedback

Once you have feedback, get back to work refining your design! Sometimes you’ll have a clear task ahead: If everyone you asked prefers a green background to your purple one, then change the background out. Easy! But other times the answer won’t be as clear: If people didn’t like your current header, maybe you have to start over and design a new one. In either case, your design update will be stronger because it’s informed by your research. Once you’ve made your updates, keep the iterative loop going and get some more feedback!

For more on how feedback can impact designs, check “Design Criticism and the Creative Process” by Cassie McDaniel on A List Apart

That all being said, remember that you don’t have to act on every piece of feedback! Sometimes people are just crazy. You’re the designer after all, and it’s your blog. There’s a sweet spot between your designer’s intuition and feedback you receive. Over time you’ll find yours, and become a stronger designer in the process.

Another tough aspect of the iterative cycle is knowing when to stop. Websites can be refined endlessly, so it’s important to know when to give it a rest for a while. There’s no generally accepted rule for how many times to keep the cycle going, but sometimes pausing for a bit will allow you to come back with fresh ideas. You’ll also find that after a round or two of feedback and refinement, you’ll start building up confidence in your design, which helps you know when it’s in a solid place.

Providing useful feedback for others

In my design crits, every student received feedback and offered up suggestions for the rest of the class. Similarly, I encourage you to help other bloggers looking for feedback! If given the opportunity, here are some tips:

  • Be specific. Don’t just say “I don’t like this.” Try to explain exactly why the design doesn’t agree with you.
  • Share your own personal reactions. This seems obvious, but we often tend to imagine what others might think. I’ve found myself saying things like “I think some people might not like this color,” which is really just speculation. Remember, you were asked for a reason!
  • Don’t be afraid to be critical. “This is beautiful!” is lovely to hear, but it’s actually not very helpful to the design process. You’re being asked for an opinion, so feel free to share it.
  • It’s okay to overshare. If something comes to mind, say it out loud! Feel free to walk through your entire thought process. Just because something might seem obvious to you, it might not be that way to the designer.
  • Don’t be dramatic. While it’s important to deliver critical opinions, make sure you do so in a helpful way. “This is the ugliest header I’ve ever seen” is never necessary. Be polite and offer constructive criticism.

Good luck! If you have any additional tips, please share!

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  1. maybe wordpress could create a tiny history box to view how users interact with user websites. The history box could show actual mouse movements. On my post days, I do seem to get a large user view, but the like button is always limited, and I question the reason for this, possibly no one actually clicks on the project but gets to see the general view.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I would add another tip: brush up on writing textbooks , no one wants to read bad writing. Do plenty of personal free flow writing on paper before you even type something for your blog.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I do not like writing on paper, but I always type it any posting into Word first. This provides grammar and spellchecking. Then I put it to one side and read it about a week later. After the pause it is easier to spot errors as I feel more removed from the work.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve reached the stage where the possessive “s” and the wandering apo’strophe has me clicking off what I’m reading very quickly, no matter how interesting it may be. Use your eyes to proofread, not spell check…=)

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I truly value critiques of my designs and I tend to ask artists for feedback especially on color, but yes, on everything else.

    I liked your advice on giving it a rest because time passing by gives us a fresher take on our designs.

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  4. I usually share my honest feedback to other bloggers for the content, format, blog settings. It helps them, and it helps me more in improving myself/my blog.

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  5. I always find it difficult to use Community Pool. When I ask for criticism, I get replies that I don’t understand. This could be because there are WP users across the globe who use different lingo from me or simply because they don’t know what I’m asking.
    Anywho – good advice, but I personally think that writing is more important than design. I used to think the opposite when I began blogging. But now, I realize that good grammar and story-telling go a long way. If you’re a great writer, I would want to read your blog no matter how weird your blog layout looks. Not to say that having a cool design doesn’t add to the blog awesomeness!

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  6. Thank you for sharing this. In a way, blogging tends to keep us ‘protected’ from a lot of direct ‘crits’ and on the other end, it offers direct feedback and criticism from key persons who we might not even know.

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  7. When I was in design school I had a senior project that took 3 weeks to develop. I order recycled paper from the manufacturer, resolved all the text for the poster, did sketches, got critiques and approval to proceed from the teacher. Two days before it was due I sat down in class to do the central drawing and the teacher came by and said “Oh no! That will never work.” I was mortified.

    I went skiing the rest of the day, but when I came back to the poster comp different teacher I worked for left me a note. “YES! YES! YES! You go girl!”

    I decided to stick with my concept, I was so nervous as we presented it to the jurors (it was a juried job to be awarded as our first four color print job for the university itself). After 30 other students got up and did their presentations (I cried in the hall because they were so good, and I wasn’t so certain). The next day my teacher stopped me in the hall. “You won! I knew you would,” he said, “It was brilliant.” Enough said.

    Follow your instincts and heart. 20 years later I’m a professional graphic/web designer in Washington DC and a practicing Tibetan Buddhist. I don’t cry in the hall anymore.

    Liked by 1 person