Making It Pop — 5 Ways to Combat Subjective Design Feedback

Andy Duke By Andy Duke  |  Feb. 20, 2018

“It looks great, but can you make it ‘pop’ more?”

We’ve all been there, the dreaded subjective design feedback, no use to anyone; let’s stop a moment and look at what led to this subjective nonsense, what chain of events instigated this horror show of unusable feedback? Actually, how clients receive your work and how you frame the feedback request is often just as much to blame as the person asking you to make your designs ‘pop’.

Ask yourself how often have you simply sent over an email to a client with a .jpg attached and the seemingly innocent request “let me know what you think”.

recognising how your own process often invites completely unhelpful feedback can help you change

The truth is there’s never a 100% right answer when it comes to web design, so everyone is likely to have a different personal opinion. If you really think about it every design is the result of hundreds of tiny decisions that could have gone any one of a thousand different ways (light blue buttons instead of dark blue, 10px padding instead of 14px etc etc).

Design, by its very nature, is perceived as a subjective exercise. So the truth is we don’t actually want to know if a client or stakeholder ‘likes’ our design or not, we want to know if it meets their business needs. We don’t want to know if the Legal Department gets a warm fuzzy feeling when they see our work, we want to know if they’re able to sign it off.

It’s also important to bear in mind that some subjectivity will always make its way through into the feedback you receive and that’s not always such a bad thing. Often at the heart of it is some really well meaning and useful insight but recognising how your own process often invites completely unhelpful feedback can help you change and weed it out.


1. Ask the Right Questions

The easiest way to start preventing subjective feedback on your project is to be clear on what you’re asking for. Instead of flinging over a completed design with a cheery “let me know what you think” email, try and steer the feedback conversation towards what you actually need.

Now this can take a little more effort and sometimes after finishing a super difficult project at 2am the only thing you want to do it get a design sent off and never look at it again, but believe me in the long run it’s worth it.

if you’re sending your design to a client you should be pleased with it, so don’t be afraid to sound positive

Take some time to think about who you’re sending your designs to and why. Is it a business owner reviewing a design for their new website? If so, be positive, tell them that you’re really pleased with how the design represents their brand and you’re ready to move onto to the next phase of the project, do they agree? If not, which specific elements would they like you to focus on changing. Don’t forget if you’re sending your design to a client you should be pleased with it, so don’t be afraid to sound positive and ready to move on.

Essentially what you’re doing here is trying to frame what you want from people in an objective way. Think ‘yes or no’ questions rather than ‘what do you think’.

This approach can be especially useful if your intended recipient is reviewing your design for a very specific single reason, for example if you need the legal team to sign off you should be asking if there are: “Any reasons the design would not be acceptable from a legal perspective,” rather than: “What do you think? Is this ok for you?”

…you’re actually helping people when you ask for this simple yes or no type feedback.

A lot of the time you’re actually helping people when you ask for this simple yes or no type feedback. You are, for a lot of people, removing the subconscious pressure for them to contribute something if asked. When presented with a blank canvas request for ‘their feedback’ most people will force themselves to think of something even if it’s just a random point that in reality they don’t care about—simply because the alternative feels like they’re saying “nope sorry…I can’t think of anything I’d change…I’m not required…I don’t need to be involved…I’m useless really.” Inviting a simpler yes or no answer is often enough to lift the pressure and gain a positive response.


2. Let Less Cooks Near the Broth

Another great way to avoid subjective feedback hell is to work hard on limiting the number of people you invite to feed back. Design feedback has a nasty habit of snowballing as more and more people are CC’d into an ever growing email chain of contradicting opinions. Instead, don’t be afraid to limit your feedback loop, you can even separate stakeholders off into groups if needed. For example if two stakeholders are brand and two are legal, why not reach out to the legal sign off team separately for specific legal feedback and vice versa for brand (it can save you the legal person’s often unwelcome brand feedback).

Now it’s not always that easy and there is the risk you can create even more problems for yourself if you exclude people (especially in large organisations). What you can do to combat this is to share design output with a wider group but be specific that it’s purely for their awareness and that feedback is not needed at this stage, thank you very much.


3. Position Your Design

Don’t just leave your design to stand on its own, this opens it up to misinterpretation—instead share it with context, easy to understand explanations around why certain decisions have been made. There’s plenty of ways you can do this, the simplest being to provide a version of the designs with easy to follow annotations, but ideally you want to actually talk people through it step by step in a design walk through.

A walk through of your designs moves away from the rather old school concept of sending designs over to clients or stakeholders for feedback like an exam paper being sent off to be marked. The actual best way to share designs and squash unwelcome subjective feedback is to present in person, walk your stakeholders through your design step by step answering any questions as you go. Obviously there’s a number of issues with this, logistically it can be difficult, it can be costly to find the time but not least of all…it can be quite frightening.

But if you’re up for the challenge there are definite rewards. Getting your clients or stakeholders together to walk them through your designs will give you the opportunity to remove even more subjectivity from feedback as you explain not only how the proposed design would work but also the reasoning behind your design decisions. Right off the bat this cuts out any questions in amongst your feedback about “How do you see component X working?” or “Why have you opted to use color Y here?”.

Getting everyone to attend a walk-through can feel like herding cats

Obviously design walk-throughs no longer need to be done face to face either, there are plenty of amazing tools out there to help you walk a client through design remotely. But the most useful tool in this scenario is you as the designer explaining your design decisions and answering questions—sharing your enthusiasm.

Getting everyone to attend a walk-through can feel like herding cats sometimes, getting all your stakeholders in one place at one time is certainly tricky but it’s worth persevering because it helps you out in another key area where subjective feedback often creeps in.


4. The Curse of Contradictory Feedback

This occurs when stakeholder no.1 loves the new header image but stakeholder no.2 hates it. Before you know it you’re playing stakeholder top trumps deciding who is more important and who you should to listen to. If you do find yourself in this situation it can be useful to ask your client or internal stakeholders for a single point of contact through whom any and all feedback is filtered (leaving it to them to have to battle to decide who’s top dog).

Another great way to keep people away from contradictory feedback is to be very upfront and honest around the number of amends that are available or the time impact of unnecessary feedback. This may feel uncomfortable to some but believe me it’s infinitely better in the long run to be honest and direct early on rather than let people down later after you’ve received 8 rounds of subjective feedback that’s delayed your project and pushed you way way over budget.


5. Too Late it’s Happened…

If after all this you still find yourself on the receiving end of some subjective feedback that you just don’t know how to proceed with with (maybe such classics as “Can you make it pop?”, “Can this page look more exciting please?”, “I’m just not sure about these colors”) don’t despair. A great way to bring your client back on track at this point is to politely ask them to send you some links to sites they’ve seen that do ‘pop’ or do look ‘exciting’. You’ll be surprised how often this works and a client will send you a couple of links to similar sites and you can decipher their meaning and implement something that… ‘pops’ :)


Some Key Things to Try

  • Be specific not general in what you ask for in feedback
  • Limit the number of people you ask for feedback
  • Walk through your design with stakeholders to give it context
  • Limit the number of rounds of feedback available
  • Ask for feedback to come through a single point of contact
  • Make it pop