This sentence was what one former manager used to say as a faux response whenever I was perplexed/stressed/confused/devastated by “where the hell is that coming from?” feedback a colleague outside the UX department would often throw at my team at some critical milestone of a project. It was a reminder to me that this colleague probably didn’t understand an objective of the project, or my role/expertise, or he was an ego-inflated ass throwing his weight around. Regardless, it was also a reminder for me to both educate and sell my position better going forward, especially to non-creatives.
It is the constant curse of being a multi-skilled generalist – knowing where your role starts and stops on a new project or within a department. As a contractor, you can move on to company after company with incredibly different structures, skill sets, competencies and attitudes towards collaboration and/or consensus, so the first few days or weeks involve a lot of sussing out both the processes and political landscape – distinguishing what your “kitchen” entails and when/where you can expect “chefs” to come in.
No role, no business, is immune to cross-departmental over-reach; at best, everyone wants to create the most promising outcome for the company, at worst certain individuals are looking to put their stamp on anything they deem important or successful to advance their own goals. And when you work in design, copywriting and/or user experience, it is nearly impossible to get through any project without getting a LOT of opinions – a lot of chefs piping in.
Don’t get me wrong, getting different perspectives on work can be incredibly important and valuable; most creatives, at some point on a project, can go down the rabbit hole a bit too far on an idea or execution and lose site of either the company objectives or the end user/customer. And, when it comes to receiving feedback, on some level many people giving it will think (perhaps unconsciously so) that any “creative” discipline is ultimately subjective. This is where cross-departmental friction can start, especially if the people giving feedback consider themselves knowledgeable enough to give informed feedback with suggested solutions attached, but not enough to be experts. (Two past whopper justifications I’ve gotten from people who fall in this camp include: 1. “Having a design degree” from over 10 years ago despite not ever having worked in a job related to that degree OR 2. His/her partner is in an, ultimately unrelated, creative-like career, like an art teacher for 8-12 year olds.) And a little knowledge, as we all now, can be a dangerous thing…
BUT, there is difference between OPINION and proper FEEDBACK.
And knowing the difference as one who gives or receives this information can be one the best ways to ensure the least amount of friction between creative departments and non-creative departments.
A brief musical interlude (from minute 06:30 – 09:30)
We’ve all been there. Someone who intrinsically does not know the ins and outs of your job or your brief giving very specific solutions to some problem they see in what you have produced. And this is where we try to parse out views expressed into either opinions or actual usable feedback – by focusing on the problem to solve instead of jumping straight to a solution, or for some creative types, the perceived personal attack.
This can be tough to do in some situations, especially in meetings where executives/department heads start micro-analysing a particular feature and start a run-away “pontification of solutions” session that can ultimately derail both a meeting and a project. The sooner you can halt the train and get the room to focus on the problem, the more journalistic you can be in designating exactly which bit needs to be changed and why, the sooner you’ll start to sort out what is actually actionable vs someone’s personal view on how the project should continue.
Tips on how to sort out opinion from feedback:
1. Make sure you have answered the brief (or give solid reasons that can be backed up for going off the brief). If you have been briefed improperly or the brief has been changed outside of your knowledge, then everyone needs to stand down and sort out the new brief – all opinions and feedback gets shelved until the new brief is agreed upon by all relevant stakeholders.
2. Remind the room of who the audience and customer is. This is especially important if the audience is vastly different than the stakeholders approving the work. And be sure to point how the audience or customer differs from the stakeholders in the room so they keep that in mind when evaluating the work. You’re not trying to offend, just remind.
3. Remind the room of the overall brand position. Mostly relevant when you are or dealing with a 3rd party agency/vendor, but even internally it’s helpful as departments can become so consumed with their own business objectives that they forget how the customer facing aspects of those objectives can be executed in a way that doesn’t necessarily reinforce the overall brand perception and objectives (and can really tick off your marketing and PR departments!). This can also help take the air out of some subjective feedback if it doesn’t gel with the overall brand objectives.
Example: An internal client ask me to change the colour of a key secondary element on the website from red to yellow because “Amazon, Booking.com and
sites have theirs that colour!” – Yes, but yellow is a main colour of all of those brands’ colour palettes. Yellow doesn’t even exist in ours. In fact, because it doesn’t we use it for urgency and other non-error warnings because it stands out. So if you want to change that secondary, very prevalent element to something that is not in the brand guidelines, we need to reconsider the full brand visual articulation because that element is used beyond the website including merchandising, marketing, PR and loyalty. Do you want to consider how much time and money that will cost? Or can you better explain to me what problem you are trying to fix with this change?
4. Emphasise the scope / timeline / objectives of the project. This can be especially important to stem feedback that includes completely overhauling work, adding significantly more work or removing key pieces of the project without sufficient evidence/reason/cause to do so. Now you may still need to do all of those things, but everyone should be aware about how much money their potentially subjective feedback will cost the company or the client. If you can offer a phased approach and schedule to implement any of those larger changes and/or additional features, this can usually help reduce the urgency or at least prompt a discussion about project priorities.
5. MOST IMPORTANT – Ask what problem needs to be solved! The most common feedback given to creatives is exactly HOW to fix something without diagnosing the problem to be fixed. Especially if the person giving this feedback is NOT an expert on user experience or brand, this can lead to a lot of time, effort, money to change something that could fail because it wasn’t the right fix for a perceived, but unarticulated problem. Now what? Inquire about the problem, then ask why that problem needs to be fixed. Is there data to support the change? Is there some best practice rule being ignored? Can an alternate version not be tested? Are they aware how changing that one thing can impact other aspects of the product/campaign/business outside of that project?
6. Remember you are the expert. If you are still getting more opinions than actionable, knowledgeable feedback, especially from individuals, it’s probably a good idea that before you act on any questionable feedback, to pull those individuals aside and discuss where your role and expertise begins and ends and ask them how they see their role on the project. Also ask them what their fears are in regards to creative that they feel they need to solve all the problems instead of letting you take that work off their hands? Half the time, it really comes down to the other person not really understanding what it is you DO – polite education is always helpful. This can help create better boundaries for feedback in the future, or at least expose issues that might need to be elevated to management to tackle to ensure processes are in place to get the best creative product out of you for the benefit of the company.
7. But you are not the expert on everything. Just as not everyone who works outside the creative department may “get” what you do, there could also be a high likelihood you’re not fully aware of what other departments do day-to-day. Make sure you’re not dismissing potentially valuable feedback because you have not taken the time to understand their position and point of view from their business objectives. Do they know something about the product, client, audience, industry you don’t?
8. Remember to mind your own feedback. As Clapton sings, “before you accuse me, take a look at yourself.” It can be difficult as a creative not to want to look at someone else’s work through your own creative lens, especially if you work in the same discipline. Try your best to separate what are consistency, strategy execution or brand issues from your own personal creative tastes. We all know creatives put a bit of themselves into their own creative output, so make sure you’re helping to solve the problem and not make the design/idea/copy your own. *So hard to do!!*