Brett van Zuiden

Reviews: Identify issues instead of providing solutions

Giving positive feedback is easy; it’s much trickier to provide critical feedback in a way that improves the end result without diminishing the sense of ownership of the person working on it. In situations with designers, engineers, and direct reports, I’ve found one technique that works well is to focus on identifying issues rather than offering solutions.

Take for example a situation where a designer has put together some intro screens for the mobile app you’re working on, and now the two of you are reviewing them. It’s very easy and natural for a reaction to be “hey these are great, but we need to make sure we talk about feature X on the first screen.” This is you offering a solution. Even if you explain the rationale and they are convinced, over time this develops a sense of the designer just being the implementor of your ideas. Worse, if the designer disagrees with you but is compelled to do it anyway, it will frustrate them and make them feel over-managed. In both cases, the person ends up with a decreased sense of ownership and pride in their work.

On the other hand, if you analyze why you think feature X needs to be on the first screen, you can present it as an issue: “hey these are great, but I feel like the importance of feature X is getting lost, and it’s a really important thing to highlight.” This still encourages them to be the owner of the design, and to come up with solutions for how to highlight feature X that will probably be even better than your idea. An even more effective approach is to take an additional step back and ask the designer what they felt were the most important things to cover in the intro. This offers a chance to make sure you’re aligned about the fundamentals of the design and pointed in the same direction (this is much easier if you already have agreed-upon product principles written down somewhere that you can point to).

By consistently framing critical feedback as issues rather than solutions, you avoid micromanaging and turn review times into opportunities to ensure alignment and push the individual to improve their craft. Even feedback as blunt as “I’m sorry, it just needs to be better” can be more effective than “Do it this way” in terms of empowering people to take ownership of their work and getting them excited about producing the best possible result. And if their response to an issue is “I just don’t know how to solve the issue, can you help?" then your suggestions can provide a constructive learning moment instead of being issued as a command.