Getting to Better

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How to Improve Any Project With Just 4 Questions

Posted by Dr. Linda Carson on March 13, 2019

We ask for feedback all the time:

  • How do I look?

  • Has this milk gone off?

  • Can you proofread my résumé for me?

  • Listen to the engine. What do you think that noise is?

Feedback helps you make everything better: your outfit, your breakfast, your job prospects, and your mileage. Feedback isn’t disapproval, it’s information.

“A critical component of pushing ideas forward is gathering feedback to refine the idea.”

Scott Belsky

What is good feedback?

Good feedback is any feedback that genuinely helps you improve. The best feedback is:

  • concrete,
  • actionable, and
  • limited.

Concrete feedback describes specific real-world details. “You fidgeted a lot with your glasses while you were speaking” is a concrete behaviour. “You seemed really nervous” isn’t. Concrete feedback pinpoints the symptoms without diagnosing them.

Actionable feedback describes things you can do something about. “You rushed a lot during the section on user testing” is something a speaker can improve. “That part where the projector bulb burnt out was distracting” isn’t. Actionable feedback concentrates on things that are within your control.

Limited feedback focuses on the most important information. Nobody can handle hearing about every single mistake. It’s overwhelming, discouraging, and impossible to ever fully address. Limited feedback sets priorities. It highlights a manageable handful of things you could improve that would make the biggest impact.

How to get good feedback

You get good feedback by asking for it. Provide just enough context, and no excuses. What type of feedback do you need, and by when? What’s the goal of the work, and who’s the audience? Listen actively, take notes visibly, and say “Thank you” sincerely.

“Feedback is a funny thing–most people say, “Yeah, that’s good,” and let a person walk through life producing less than their best work. Only the people who care will take the risk and say what needs to be said.”

Dawn Casey-Rowe

One of the biggest challenges when collecting feedback is that most people don’t want to be mean. If they’re sparing your feelings, they’re holding out on you. How might you ask for feedback in a way that encourages people to share even their negative experiences? We can help with that. Overlap is a Canadian design firm and you know the reputation Canadians have. If you step on my toe, I’ll apologize to you, but that’s not good feedback!

A feedback grid is designed to make it easy for people to offer useful feedback without feeling mean. This is how we collect feedback on prototypes and other activities at Overlap. It’s a constructive framework for feedback that also makes it quick, easy—and less icky—for people to do.

Download Feedback Grid here

You can improve a project in just ten minutes with these four questions. Show folks your prototype and ask:

  • What do you like? Give people a chance to start with a positive, so they don’t feel like they’re being mean. The answers to this question highlight the good stuff that you’ll generally hope to preserve and protect.

  • What questions do you have? The answers to this question identify places where your communication failed, not necessarily your project or idea.

  • How could this be improved? Now that you’ve got them talking, ask the hard-hitting question… but keep the feedback constructive and concrete by asking them to express problems as suggestions.

  • What new ideas do you have? If someone has taken the time to learn about your project, don’t let them go away without sharing whatever new ideas it brought to mind. This usually happens naturally after (or during) the third question but it’s also a way to capture unrelated new ideas or “that reminds me of this article I should send to you.”

Give everyone 10 minutes to jot down their notes on a four-panel feedback grid.

Want to level up? Ask folks to use sticky notes instead of writing directly on the feedback grid. Later, you can shuffle and cluster the feedback to spot themes.



Interested in learning more about our Feedback Grid?

Sign up for one of our individual courses! Details on our Individual Training page.


How to make the most of good feedback

Don’t debate feedback. Take it seriously but not personally. Their experience is valid, even when their feedback might be unclear (or unkind). Find the information embedded in the feedback.

Unless they’re dangerous, don’t fret about correcting misunderstandings. Instead, improve the work so no one else misunderstands it in the same way.

If everyone’s feedback focuses on something different, there’s no emergency. Choose improvements that align with the existing project priorities. If everyone’s feedback focuses on the same thing, you know that thing is an especially high priority, and that addressing it will be a big improvement to the project.

Improve any project in ten minutes with just four questions: What do you like? What questions do you have? How could this be improved? What new ideas do you have?

“The people that have the most confidence in themselves will ask for the most feedback.”

Jon Landau

Tags: Design, Human-centred Design, Tools, Design Thinking, Empathy, Collaboration