Once upon a time, in a company in a far off land, there was a User Experience team led by Alice.
Alice was mentoring Bob, a design researcher who was only a couple of years into the field. Bob had been working hard in preparation for a presentation of the latest round of research, and Bob had grown frustrated with what he felt was low interest from his audience in his previous presentations.
Bob knew from Alice’s mentoring that instead of responding to that frustration by blaming his audience, the professional response was to ask a good question.
Bob’s good question was, “How can I run the session in a way that draws more interest from the people in the meeting?”
After all, the research effort was a waste if in the end it failed to communicate.
So Bob updated his approach and ran it by Alice. The day of the presentation was approaching, and Bob decided he wanted to make the most of it.
So he made a request that Alice had taught him and all his teammates. He messaged Alice this question:
Alice, on Tuesday at 2 PM I’m going to present the latest research to the project team. Can you sit in so that you can give me feedback on how to improve next time? For this session, I’m particularly interested in how I can get more interest and engagement from the team during the presentation.
Knowing the game well, Alice happily agrees. She sits in on the presentation and barely says a word. She does, however, take copious notes — not on the content but on Bob’s execution and facilitation of the session.
An hour after the session, at 4 PM, Alice messages Bob, “Ready?”
They meet one-on-one and the feedback session begins.
Alice opens. “Bob, let’s get into it. Tell me how you think you did. What do you feel went well, what should’ve gone better, and how did you do at engaging your audience? Take all the time you need.”
Bob knew this was coming, and he had taken the time after the meeting to make his own performance notes. So, he walked through his observations and self-critique.
It took fifteen minutes for Bob to explain everything he was thinking. He felt a bit awkward saying what he did well, not wanting to pat himself on the back, but he knew he needed to deliver an honest reflection. And he admitted the portions that he felt he didn’t do as well as he wanted. As for engagement, he had both good and bad observations and an overall summary of how it went.
As Bob was reflecting on the experience, Alice was listening and occasionally circling or underling a section of her own notes. By the time he was finished, Bob had mentioned most of her observations, which took the pressure off of her to try to provide feedback in a way that Bob could understand.
Now it was Alice’s turn. “Bob, that was a great self critique. You touched on most of what I had jotted down, but let me tell you what I saw.”
Alice walks through her feedback, using this as an opportunity to agree and emphasize Bob’s own points. And Bob had one critique that she disagreed with, so she recast it for him as a non-issue. She didn’t see any evidence that it had backfired, and told him as much.
When it came time to share her remaining critical feedback, Bob accepted the observations with sincerity. After all, he had already put himself into a coachable mindset by coaching himself.
Alice closed the session, “Bob, how do you plan to improve for the next time you have a research presentation?”
They discussed this, and closed the session, both making notes about what it will take to improve.
And they all lived happily ever after.
The Feedback Method
Over many years of managing creative types, both designers and developers, including bringing people who had no experience into the field of user experience, I sorted out a particular method for providing feedback on most any demonstrable aspect of a job.
This pattern works in part because it nullifies the awkwardness of providing critical feedback.
To set this up for a team, the leader needs to express the need for everyone on the team to continue deepening their skillsets, and to teach everyone this basic method, which they can even use among each other.
Then any employee who want to improve looks for opportunities that a coach, such as a manager or expert colleague, can observe the employee performing the skill.
1. The invitation
The employee has been instructed to take the initiative.
The employee asks the coach for help. “Could you watch me do x and provide feedback after so I can improve?” The coach finds out what kind of feedback in particular the employee wants.
The employee schedules the time for the coach to attend.
2. The observation
The coach shows up and takes notes.
The event happens where the employee demonstrates the skill and the coach is in attendance watching carefully and taking notes. The coach does not intervene.
3. The feedback session
The self-evaluation first, then the coach’s feedback and summary.
That day or at latest the next day, the employee and coach get together for the feedback session.
The coach takes the initiative and asks, “Okay, let me hear your self evaluation. What do you think you did well and what do you think you should’ve done better?”
The employee expounds on the answer, and the coach listens actively, not adding anything beyond prompts for more.
When the employee has wrapped up the self evaluation, the coach speaks up, emphasizing or recasting the employee’s observations, and adding in any performance observations that the employee missed.
The coach wraps up with the question, “Between now and the next time, how are you going to improve?”
This works by placing the employee into a process of actively reflecting on experience in an interpersonal setting
This method works by putting the employee in the driver’s seat, and in so doing, the employee cannot help but become coachable. Plus, by the time the coach has a chance to provide feedback, more often than not the employee has already identified most of the areas of feedback, and the coach can simply agree and provide nuance.
The employee owns the feedback, which increases the odds that the employee will actually put the feedback to good use.
By practicing this method routinely, it also causes people to reflect on practice. To quote John Dewey, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” Here’s a bit more on that line of thought.
This method is easiest when the execution of the skill is plain to see. Examples include speeches or presentations, group facilitation, research interviews, customer service interactions, and so on.
For performance that is largely internal to the person or that produces minimal artifacts along the way, it is impractical for an observer to make useful observations.
Still, for performance that is largely internal (like designing revised interactions to solve a usability problem), the basic idea of finding an interpersonal way to facilitate a person to honestly reflect on their own performance can still be achieved and still be useful. It’s just not as obvious.