by Leon Rosenshein

Design By Counter-Example

Every once in a while I come across a coworker who knows exactly what they don’t want. Whether it’s a design doc, slide deck, email, error message, icon, or whatever you’ve come up with isn’t it. They could tell you that you were close, but it's not what they're looking for. The level of detail wasn't right. or the constraints were at the wrong level. That the color or saturation was off. They could be very clear that there was a problem.

Unfortunately, they weren’t nearly as clear about the converse. They didn't know what the problem was. Now I understand that not everyone can describe colors, write the perfect error message, or come up with the exact sound bite that everyone will remember for years, but knowing that didn’t make my job easier. I wanted the right feedback at the right time. Unfortunately, all I got was “That’s not what I’m looking for.”

Which left me in the position of needing to do a binary search for the right answer. Pick a solution. Get mostly non-directional feedback, with just the tiniest amount of direction. Then I’d take a medium sized step in that direction. And get the same kind of feedback. And then take step N+1. Either further in the direction I was going, or half-way back to step N-1. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Until I got close enough to the solution, or we both got tired of trying and accepted where it was.

While it worked, after a fashion, it wasn’t efficient. Or fun. Or scaleable. So how can we do better? Even in the case where we don’t know the right answer. When you have to creep up on the right answer because you really don’t know where it is yourself, so you can’t describe it to anyone. You just know what it isn’t.

First, and foremost, when giving feedback, it’s ok to start with what needs to be changed. But instead of stopping at “That’s not it”, continue on with what it is like, or more like. And add why you want the change. Instead of saying “There are too many words on the slide” and leaving it at that, add the goal. Something like “I want the audience to be able to focus on the one important thing on the slide and not be distracted.” Now that’s the kind of actionable feedback I like.

Which, when you think about it, is the kind of goal/value oriented management you want in general.