While I was studying creative writing in college, my work was constantly under review. Like many of my fellow students in writing workshops, I made the changes that my professor suggested, almost exactly as they were suggested whether I agreed or not, and I tended to dismiss the peer feedback that seemed too hard to implement, threatened my artistic prowess, or came from people whose opinions I didn’t value. I oscillated between robot and rebel reviser, and with this approach, writing workshops became a hurdle I jumped over to reach my degree.
Now, as an instructional designer, I am again in a position to receive frequent feedback, and despite seeing my work improve as a result, feedback still occasionally rankles. Here are a few reasons why:
- Effectively and seamlessly incorporating feedback takes too much time and effort.
- I’m emotionally attached to my design, and I don’t want to give up my ideas.
- I think I know what my course needs better than my reviewers do because
- …my reviewers do not represent my target audience.
- …my reviewers have limited content or design expertise.
- …my reviewers are unfamiliar with the project constraints.
As professionals, we can’t dismiss feedback the way I did in college, even when the above points are true. But I’m guessing that many of us know how to satisfy our obligation to our reviewers on the surface without really engaging with their feedback. Of course, none of us want to come to work and jump hurdles just for the sake of jumping, so how can we make the review process more valuable?
- Change our attitude. Every reviewer response is a meaningful response because it reflects the success of our communication. When we start believing this, we will treat our reviewers’ feedback differently and transform the review process into an opportunity to strengthen relationships. Next time our reviewers are confused, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and shift the responsibility of communication back to us instead of attributing failures to their shortcomings. It doesn’t matter whether we’re right or not if our audience can’t understand us. And even if our reviewers aren’t the primary audience of our courses, they are the primary audience of our work processes (especially when our reviewers are clients and employers.) Their satisfaction and trust is essential to our success.
- Give it space. When I taught freshman composition, I asked my students to wait a full day after receiving their papers before speaking to me about their grades, which made for more rational and respectful conversation from both sides. The principle applies to feedback of all kinds, and the more personal the feedback feels, the more space it needs. Clearly, budgets and timelines constrain the space we can give, but even a short walk around the office can tame a defensive first response.
- Get a second opinion. Sometimes we don’t have the distance necessary to determine if negative feedback demonstrates a legitimate usability issue or resistance to innovation. Rather than abandon our expertise at the first sign of trouble, let’s ask a trustworthy colleague (someone who will tell it like it is) to weigh in. Another pair of eyes on our work can help us see when to make the change and when to make our case.
- Be loyal to the learner. In college, I thought I was writing for my reader, but as my revision strategy suggests, I was writing for myself (and my grade). As instructional designers under a variety of pressures, we are also vulnerable of forgetting who we work for: the learners. We are their primary advocate, protecting them from the fact density of SMEs and from busy work that masquerades as learning. Sometimes, sticking up for the learner means standing our ground with our clients, especially if a second opinion agrees; and sometimes, sticking up for the learner means fighting against ourselves, cutting the stylish but superficial, or being willing to make structural changes instead of opting for a new layer of paint.
- Mine the feedback. As we’ve all experienced, the occasional comment lands in a discussion like it’s from outer space. A skilled facilitator can find the fleck of relevancy in this comment and move forward without being derailed or dismissing the speaker, and when managing feedback, we must practice the same skill. Mining feedback for relevancy might mean reading and responding to comments as symptoms of a bigger issue (confusion, lack of shared vision, etc.) rather than reading them simply as the issues themselves.
When we receive feedback, we have a spectrum of responses available to us, ranging between the robot and rebel extremes I perfected in college. The robot categorically submits to all feedback, and the rebel categorically resists all feedback. The most productive approach must fall somewhere in the middle, where our responses are not defined by submission or resistance but by thoughtfulness. Let’s embrace feedback as an opportunity to improve relationships and refine our design rather than see it as a hurdle to overcome.
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