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How Product Managers Should Give Product Designers Feedback

Product designers are essential collaborators for product managers and a core part of the team that delivers a product. A strong partnership between product managers and product designers yields a more efficient development process, more effective products, and improved business results.

“The physical manifestation of the user interface is the product. That is what the user is going to experience. It’s just like why a film director cares about the screenplay; it’s so fundamental to what the audience is going to see.”

— Bob Baxley, SVP of Design at ThoughtSpot

Giving feedback is core to the relationship between product management and product design—but when done incorrectly, it can strain the relationship and impede progress. Our experts, Anand Subramani and Bob Baxley, share why giving good feedback is so important and how you can do it effectively.

Meet The Contributors

Anand Subramani

Anand Subramani

Anand is the SVP of Product at Path and has been teaching Product Management at Stanford University for 6 years. Prior to Path, Anand was the VP of Product at Pilot and held product leadership roles at Gusto, Dropbox, and Zynga. He is also an investor/advisor in around ~50 startups.

Bob Baxley

Bob Baxley

Bob Baxley is a design executive, advisor, and advocate who has built, managed, and led UX teams at some of Silicon Valley’s most respected companies including Apple, Pinterest, Yahoo!, and elsewhere. Currently, Bob serves as the Senior Vice-President of Design at ThoughtSpot.

Continuous Feedback Ensures Better Results

During the product development process, product managers and product designers work together to ideate and iterate on solutions to user problems. One key activity that goes into this is giving continuous feedback on designs and prototypes.

When this goes well, it sets a strong relationship foundation that grows exponentially stronger over time.

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1. The product development process is faster.

When product managers and product designers have a strong feedback relationship, there are typically fewer misunderstandings and better alignment throughout the development process. Frequent check-ins provide more opportunities to ensure that everyone is headed toward the same finish line. In contrast, poor feedback relationships tend to lead to late-stage blow-ups, usually due to a lack of engagement early on in the development process.

“Large restarts or blowups are disastrous for both morale and timeline. Good feedback prevents this from happening”

— Anand Subramani

2. Solutions are better because they are built with continuous context.

No matter how strong the product brief is or how many questions the designer asks up front, it’s impossible for a product manager to offload all critical knowledge in a single handoff. There will always be gaps in what is shared about the problem space, the user persona, and the relative importance of each piece of information.

“As a product manager, you can’t hand someone context and then walk away. You need to make sure all the gaps are filled in and that context is given—and reinforced—when it’s most needed.”

— Anand Subramani

Continuous feedback allows product managers to fill in gaps or help reinforce the most important pieces of information at the moment when it is most relevant to the product designer. This enables the product designer to determine the set of best possible solutions.

The design process can also uncover new parts of the problem space that might not have been previously considered.

“The design process can be like writing a novel. You start with an outline, but you are likely to discover a lot of new ideas and possibilities as you actually start writing the book.”

— Bob Baxley

Continuous feedback provides an opportunity for designers and product managers to brainstorm together on how their understanding of the problem develops and changes throughout the design process. And each touchpoint provides an opportunity to shift and pivot as necessary.

3. The relationship between product designers and product managers gets stronger.

Without continuous feedback, product managers may feel like they’re dictating what to do to product designers, and waiting to see what happens. It might feel like just throwing things over to the other side of the fence; the nature of that work is transactional, and it’s difficult to combine your unique skillsets in a complementary way.

When you’re working together continuously, you shift that dynamic: you are now on the same side of the fence. This makes it easier to understand and leverage the strengths that product managers and product designers each bring to the table. Not only does this help for the immediate project, but the trust built between product managers and product designers will have a compounding positive impact that makes the next project even better.

4 Product Design Feedback Principles

Many product managers start on the wrong foot even before they have the opportunity to give feedback. Either they don’t provide enough context and the designer wastes time on a solution that won’t solve the problem, or they come to the designer with what they believe is the solution already.

“If a PM shows up to a designer and asks them to draw the picture in their head, no amount of feedback later will fix the problem because we started in the wrong place.”

— Anand Subramani

Reforge’s Product Management Foundations course dives deeply into how to set up the right context for product designers. But once you do that, it then becomes critical to give useful, relevant feedback that promotes the success of the product or feature. Because there is very little formal training on giving continuous feedback to product designers, it can take product managers years of trial and error to learn how to do this well.

Through their years of experience, Anand and Bob have distilled four principles that will enable product managers to give better feedback:

  1. Frame the problem
  2. Share the rationale
  3. Give the right feedback at the right stage
  4. Create rituals that require giving feedback often

Let’s break down each of these principles.

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1. Frame the Problem

A common mistake product managers make is offering solutions during feedback sessions. It’s easy to see how this happens; product managers think they are helping by being solution-oriented.But in the best-case scenario, jumping to solutions restricts creativity and limits designers’ ability to consider the full solution set, because they’re focused on the suggested solution rather than the problem that needs to be solved. In the worst-case scenario, this can be insulting and erode trust. When a product manager insists on a solution rather than framing the problem, the product designer is not able to leverage their unique skillset to offer the best way to adapt the design.

Instead, product managers should explain the user problem they are observing rather than offering a solution.

Framing the user problem leads to more—and better—solutions. For example, early in his career, Bob worked with a product manager who wanted to change the color of an element to blue, which did not fit into the company’s brand identity. Once the feature was live, Bob noticed the element was blue and found out that the product manager had told the engineers to change the color after the design was sent.

“What the product manager was trying to tell me was that the text was not prominent enough. Her solution was to change the color, but as a designer, I have 25 different ways I could make something more prominent. Color is just one solution, and it wasn’t the best one in this case.”

— Bob Baxley
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A strong product designer will ask questions to help uncover the problem a product manager is trying to solve. Especially while product managers are learning how to do this, they can pay attention to those questions to understand what sort of initial framing might be more effective.

2. Share the Rationale

Another mistake product managers often make is assuming feedback is the same as opinion. Often, this happens because the product manager does not know how to deliver feedback effectively, and the easiest option is to default to their own instincts and reactions.

But if you aren’t giving feedback with a clear rationale, you’ll likely see designers ignoring the feedback or asking a lot of questions to try and unpack the reasoning behind it.

“Opinions have no place in design discussions. Design is an analytical, rational decision-making methodology, and if arguments aren't made with logic and clear reasoning then they aren't useful or appropriate.”

— Bob Baxley

Product managers can get better at bringing their reasoning to the discussion by using a three-part formula: Feedback + “because” + rationale.

This will improve the quality of feedback product managers give, as it helps filter out unnecessary or subjective opinions, and prioritizes feedback with strong logical arguments. It also makes the feedback conversations more productive, because the product designer does not have to spend as much time trying to uncover the rationale.

3. Give the Right Feedback at the Right Stage

Knowing how to give feedback is just one piece of the puzzle. Knowing when to give feedback is also critical.

The challenge of giving the right feedback at the right time is universal. Most product managers have had the frustrating experience of presenting something to their leadership team in the early “idea phase” hoping to get strategic direction, only to walk away with a laundry list of copy edits.

This is the same challenge that happens between a product manager and a product designer. Anand and Bob have both observed that product managers don’t always realize there are multiple stages of design where feedback is needed.

Too many product managers skip right to giving feedback on things like color and typography—which are important, but are easy to change and don’t usually impact the usability of the feature. It is critical, as a product manager, to give the right feedback at the right time so that you can nurture your strategic partnership with design and prevent late-stage blow-ups.

Rather than enumerating all the things at once, big feedback comes early and small feedback comes late. Never mix up the order.

— Anand Subramani

Product managers should work with their product designers to help calibrate the type of feedback they are giving, but one clear signal is the fidelity of the output. At ThoughtSpot, Bob’s team uses two different deliverables to help product managers understand what point they are at in the process:

1. Low-fidelity output, such as a wireframe or paper sketch. This is the first stage and indicates they are working on the layout, information architecture, and core flows. Feedback here should be focused on the conceptual models of the user, the job to be done, and the correct flow of information.

If the conceptual models are not correct, there is a very low chance of the feature landing with the users, regardless of the presentation. And that is a very expensive negative outcome of the feedback cycle failing: the company will ship something but have to go back and redo it.

2. High-fidelity output. This now includes the final phase of design, the validated prototype or presentation layer. If you are at this stage, you should not be giving feedback on the conceptual model, you should be giving feedback on specific design choices such as copy, layout, or UX.

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Sharing the right feedback at the right time can have a huge positive impact on the trajectory of the product development process, and can greatly improve the features you ship.

4. Create Rituals That Require Giving Feedback Often

Beyond improving their feedback delivery, product managers can create a culture that makes it easy to give feedback. In an environment where communication is intermittent or kept to a few formal touchpoints, every interaction feels high-stakes. But when PMs and product designers exchange feedback more frequently, it creates a more low-stakes environment. More specifically, increasing the frequency of feedback does a few things:

  1. It forces multiple design cycles, which often improves the quality of the end output. Both Anand and Bob emphasize that the first solution is rarely the best solution. As a result, designers usually need multiple iteration cycles to get to the best possible solution for the context. Frequent feedback sessions act as a forcing function to focus on the speed of iteration rather than the quality of each iteration—and faster iteration often leads to higher quality in the end.
  2. It reduces the emotional impact of “bad” feedback. If a product manager has set the appropriate context at the beginning of the design phase, the product designer is starting to ideate solutions from scratch. No matter how tenured the designer is, presenting this work puts the designer in a position of vulnerability. If you’re giving feedback frequently, then one session where the designer needs to go back to the drawing board isn’t so demotivating; if that’s the only session that happens, it can be devastating.
  3. It helps the product manager engage in strategic design choices early on, instead of just the surface-level detail. We mentioned earlier that product managers often jump straight to giving feedback on colors and typography rather than wrestling with the information architecture choices. But this pitfall is exacerbated if product managers wait until too late in the product development cycle to give feedback, or have so few opportunities that they need to give all their feedback at once.

To help make this environment a reality, the product manager can tactically set up regular feedback checkpoints. For example, at ThoughtSpot, product designers do not go more than 48 hours without feedback.

Strengthening Your Ability To Give Feedback Pays Dividends

The value of improving how you give feedback to a product designer can’t be understated. By focusing on how you give a product designer feedback, you’ll also start to improve how you work and collaborate with product designers across other touchpoints. And with a product designer as a strong partner, you’ll make a noticeable impact on your users and on your company.

While framing the problem, sharing your rationale, giving the right feedback at the right time, and having a frequent feedback loop are best practices Bob and Anand have synthesized over many years, don’t forget that you have probably the best guidance on how to give feedback right next to you: the product designer themself. It is always a good idea to ask the product designer directly how they like to receive feedback so that they can help you learn how to help them.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to start off on the right foot with product designers, among other foundational parts of the product management role, check out Reforge’s Product Management Foundations program.

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Anand SubramaniBob Baxley