I Don’t Like It

“I don’t like it”—The most dreaded of all design feedback from your client/boss/co-worker. This isn’t so much a matter of your ego being damaged, it’s just not useful or constructive criticism.

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In order to do better we need feedback grounded in understanding of user needs. And we need to be sure it’s not coming from solely the client’s aesthetic preferences, which may be impeccable but may not be effective for the product.

Aesthetics are a matter of taste. Design is not just aesthetics. I’m always saying it, but it’s worth repeating: there are aesthetic decisions in design, but they are meant to contribute to the design as a whole. The design as a whole is created for an audience, and with goals in mind, so objectivity is required and should be encouraged.

Is the client offering an opinion based on her own taste, trying to reflect the taste of the intended audience, or trying to solve a perceived problem for the user? Don’t take “I don’t like it” at face value and try to respond to it without more communication.

How do we elicit better feedback?#section2

To elicit the type of feedback we want from clients, we should encourage open-ended critiques that explain the reasons behind the negative feedback, critiques that make good use of conjunctions like “because.” “I don’t like it because…” is already becoming more valuable feedback.

Designer: Why don’t you like the new contact form design?

Client: I don’t like it because the text is too big.

Whether that audience can achieve their goals with our product is the primary factor in its success. We need clients to understand that they may not be the target audience. Sometimes this can be hard for anyone close to a product to understand. We may be one of the users of the products we’re designing, but the product is probably not being designed solely for users like us. The product has a specific audience, with specific goals. Once we’ve re-established the importance of the end user, we can then reframe the feedback by asking the question, “how might the users respond?”

Designer: Do you think the users will find the text too big?

Client: Yes. They’d rather see everything without having to scroll.

Designer: The text will have to be very small if we try to fit it all into the top of the page. It might be hard to read.

Client: That’s fine. All of our users are young people, so their eyesight is good.

Throughout the design process, we need to check our hidden assumptions about our users. We should also ensure any feedback we get isn’t based upon an unfounded assumption. If the client says the users won’t like it, ask why. Uncover the assumption—maybe it’s worth testing with real users?

Designer: Can we be certain that all your users are young people? And that all young people have good eyesight? We might risk losing potential customers unless the site is easy for everyone to read.

How do we best separate out assumptions from actual knowledge? Any sweeping generalizations about users, particularly those that assume users all share common traits, are likely to need testing. A thorough base of user research, with evidence to fall back on, will give you a much better chance at spotting these assumptions.

The design conversation#section3

As designers, we can’t expect other people to know the right language to describe exactly why they think something doesn’t work. We need to know the right questions that prompt a client to give constructive criticism and valuable feedback. I’ve written before on how we can pre-empt problems by explaining our design decisions when we share our work, but it’s impossible to cover every minute detail and the relationships between them. If a client can’t articulate why they don’t like the design as a whole, break the design into components and try to narrow down which part isn’t working for them.

Designer: Which bit of text looks particularly big to you?

Client: The form labels.

When you’ve zeroed in on a component, elicit some possible reasons that it might not be effective.

Designer: Is it because the size of the form labels leaves less space for the other elements, forcing the users to scroll more?

Client: Yes. We need to make the text smaller.

Reining it in#section4

Aesthetics are very much subject to taste. You know what colors you like to wear, and the people you find attractive, and you don’t expect everyone else to share those same tastes. Nishant wrote a fantastic column about how Good Taste Doesn’t Matter and summarized it best when he said:

good and virtuous taste, by its very nature, is exclusionary; it only exists relative to shallow, dull…tastes. And if good design is about finding the most appropriate solution to the problem at hand, you don’t want to start out with a solution set that has already excluded a majority of the possibilities compliments of the unicorn that is good taste.

Taste’s great#section5

Designer: But if we make the text smaller, we’ll make it harder to read. Most web pages require scrolling, so that shouldn’t be a problem for the user. Do you think the form is too long, and that it might put users off from filling it in?

Client: Yes, I want people to find it easy to contact us.

Designer: How about we take out all the form fields, except the email address and the message fields, as that’s all the information we really need?

Client: Yes, that’ll make the form much shorter.

If you’re making suggestions, don’t let a client say yes to your first one. These suggestions aren’t meant as an easy-out, allowing them to quickly get something changed to fit their taste. This is an opportunity to brainstorm potential alternatives on the spot. Working collaboratively is the important part here, so don’t just go away to work out the first alternative by yourself.

If you can work out between you which solution is most likely to be successful, the client will be more committed to the iteration. You’ll both have ownership, and you’ll both understand why you’ve decided to make it that way.

About the Author

Laura Kalbag

Laura Kalbag is a designer working on Ind.ie. She was freelance for five years and still holds client work dear. She can be found via her personal site, Twitter, and out on long walks with her big fluffy dog.

19 Reader Comments

  1. There are two problems with getting worthy feedback from customers. One is that they – at most times – don’t know a thing about design/UX/aesthetics. And asking about customers? They will tell you what they “feel” but – although they will be arguing they are right – they don’t know a THING about their customers (I’m not talking about companies which do research, it’s more like let’s say up to 3-4 employees). Another problem is the lack of trust towards a designer. OK, maybe it’s not a problem but an issue. This trust must be built from the start. It’s ME who knows how to do “the magic”, not the customer. Let customers serve their customers, leave the design to designers. And one more: aesthetics is not about taste. We have too many hints on what is good and what is not good plus a lot of other rules and tips on design, marketing, colors, human brain, etc. to leave it to taste. Taste is all about ice cream. When it comes to design – trust designers they want to do good to you, dear customer. Funny how people don’t discuss teeth with their dentists. It’s only a matter of payment and pro job. I miss such attitude in design.

  2. I disagree with above, and mainly about the Dentist commment. Ofcourse I don’t question a detist, they have to have a very respected qualification, and it’s not opinion, it is science & biology.
    A better comparision would be for decorating & landscaping. You have to expect feedback based on the purpose and function of the project.
    If I was reworking my house for sale, I would trust more the opinion of who I hire as they would have the experience of what is best to sell property. However if i’m reworking my house for me to live in, then sod what the team I hire want to do, they aren’t going to be living there, and as soon as the paycheck goes through they move on.

    So if a client is building a site to advertise their business, then yeh we can recommend, but have to expect it needs to fit what they are comfortable with. Otherwise we are saturating the whole idea of the internet by refusing individuallity unless it matches our opinion. But if the site has a purpose, such as ecommerce, then the designer would need to direct what is best for conversion rates and should take on feedback and fight back.

    The other problem is based on the degree. As we all know design is not something that can be measured or certified. It is not a science (unless it is really specific – again ecommerce conversion rates), it is an art form which should be emotional and opinionated. These days anyone who goes freelance calls themselves Creative Director or other stupid titles that dont match their knowledge or ability. So how can clients trust our industry to tell them what to do, when for example 50% of the Uni class I was in several years ago, decided to give themselves these ridiculous titles for their own freelance “company”.

    I think their are bigger industry problems like above that puts us on the backfoot with clients from the start, allowing them to think they know better.

  3. We have to remember that clients hire us for our expertise—we have to expect that they don’t know the ins and outs of design, and their feedback often reflects that. It’s our job to communicate to the client the problems that the design solves. Finding the unspoken issues a client has with the design is critical, as your post outlines. I fear that too often designers adopt the ‘Client from Hell’ mentality and are unwilling or unable to effectively communicate with clients.

  4. This article shows the bad way to present a design to a client. Client hires us to solve a problem. Clients can argue anything about the proposal, but they will never argue results. If you provide them with evidence that proves your success, the client will shut their mouth and go with it.

    Another addendum: our responsibility is to design based on validated hypothesis trough experimentation, not on pure gut or past experiences. If you go to a client with “this is my gut on this matter” you’re just giving an opinion, and not a fact, and they will know you’re not providing a solution, just a “let’s see what it happens” that puts you on a lower position. A client will hang you without much problem if he sees that. A design must solve a problem, with higher ratios, it’s a science thing, no matter how much you want to dress it as subjective thing, like many things, with proper constraints. If a design hasn’t constraints, then its art, and people doesn’t need art to solve their problems, they need fucking good design.

  5. Why did you put so many fields on the form in the first place? Shouldn’t you have asked that question before you started designing?

    Seems to me like that was a fundamental flaw in this particular example.

  6. When our clients present us with statements like “I don’t like it”, we become detectives, looking to uncover what the root of their concerns are. This contact form is just an example, this could be stance that we don’t immediately understand.

    People are not inherently good at self-introspection, or communicating what is really on their mind. By “what’s on their mind”, I mean what their real motivators are for stating they don’t like a feature. Oftentimes, they still haven’t revealed what the most important goals of their project are, because we have not been able to draw that out of them yet.

    The longer I work with a client, the better I understand what their mindset is, because our communications have brought those facts out into the light. Our craft is often a lot more about listening and having open-ended conversations than we realize.

  7. A lot of times with less design-oriented clients, I will get feedback like “not enough animation” or “can we put an animated gif on this page?”. What would you suggest I do about that?

  8. This is a brilliant article. I am designer and I work on a regular basis with our art director and founder, who understands the target audience much better than anyone else in the team.

    The response when I get a generic “I don’t like it” is to prod. Clients tend to diss the entire concept because they find a single thing off. As you had brilliantly displayed here, they just don’t like the font sizes but they are trained to think in black or white.

    It takes a little bit of prodding and explanation. I look at this as an opportunity to educate clients and it has worked beautifully well. Exactly what don’t you like about this? What can be changed to make it better?

    A few CSS tweaks later, they are amazed and respond saying “It’s already looking better”. I love how our jobs make us feel like magicians 🙂

    Edit: Grammar

  9. I think there is a bit of a balance to be had here. At some point after I’ve presented all my strong arguments for making something bigger or smaller and the client still doesn’t budge, I have to consider the “happiness” of my client over my own -however informed- aesthetic sentiment. If they don’t like it, I haven’t done my job well enough. Its that simple. After all I was hired to solve their problem not mine. Of course I can fire the client but how many do I fire. We are in an age when every Tom, Dick and Harry is “creative” or used to draw when they were like 12.

    So I start with my informed research and facts and usually that works. But if it doesn’t, then I “give in” not because I am accepting they have made the best choice but because they have made the right choice for their business. That job however won’t make it into my portfolio. 🙂 Art may be about personality and sentiments but design isn’t. Its first and foremost about solving someone else’s problem and making them go away happy and confident in what has been done for them and how it can help them achieve their goals.

  10. Great article Laura. Here’s a tip I use with all my clients and it seems to work pretty well (most of the time). I ask my clients to not give me any immediate feedback (this helps dissolve the knee jerk reactions) and I ask them to take 2 days to look at the design or designs. I ask them to look at them often over the course of two days and to let friends and family look as well. Then once the 2 days is up I ask them to submit to me a constructive list of what they like and what they would like to see changed. ( notice I don’t use the words “don’t like”)

    This tactic has completely changed the way we now receive feedback from clients and it’s really helped to avoid creating animosity in the eye’s of the designer or design team.

    Hope this helps people 🙂

  11. Good article. And Aaron Hemmelgarn that’s a really great approach you describe there. Except unfortunately in many cases we cannot wait for 2 days for something to be approved. I’m sure there’s a way we could weave this method in though, somehow.

  12. Some good points here. I think the key here is to have a collaboration process in place to handle all your communication with the client and make him part of the process as soon as possible.

    We’ve developed an app (shameless plug http://www.viewflux.com ) that tries to solve these problems by involving the client in every step of the design process by providing a centralized place for design feedback.

    .. and there’s also some clients that you just need to fire. it can be hard but sometimes it’s the best thing to do.

  13. Totally have to toot my own horn here: Most communication issues in web design and development are easily solved when using TrackDuck.

  14. Great article. Encouraging clients to be as open as possible regarding feedback is vital. However there will always be those clients who provide feedback that is less than useless. If limits are not imposed some clients simply take the biscuit and will keep asking for changes whist providing nothing useful to work with.

  15. I’ve had these problems before, but interestingly it’s not always been an external client. Sometimes, as a developer, I work with designers who create in a purely design-centric manner. And when I say “design-centric”, I mean “aesthetic-centric”. It can feel like an uphill battle when you’re having to get actual designers to explain their decisions, before the design has even left the gates. Often, the designs are elaborate, hard to build and consist of many elements which are fundamentally pointless. So it’s interesting to see the rationale behind these, which is frequently nothing other than “it looks nice”. Laura – how much leniency would you give to the “it looks good” rationale?

  16. I have ran across this issue so many times. It is especially hard when a client does not know what they are looking for so they really do not have a lot of feedback. This is why I think it is very important to talk to your client before moving forward with the work. This will allow to the client and yourself, as the designer, to see if you can first complete the work in a way the client will like and it will let you know if you both can work together. Not everyone communicates the same way, so again I think it is equally important to ensure the developer/designer and client have what some would call good “chemistry”.


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