Why "the compliment sandwich" tastes pretty bad

Alyssa Mikev


feedbackContributions to this blog were made by David Pfeffer, UX Designer.

Feedback is crucial to the work we do at Solstice. Being designers, it’s all the more necessary to be able to express our thoughts. Why something is or isn’t working, what about it makes sense and what is a poor design decision. Through years of design training and business acumen we’ve all (read: not just designers) been taught that the best way to deliver feedback is through a method called "the compliment sandwich." The general idea of which is that you deliver positive feedback first, followed by negative, followed again by a positive. While this option may save some face, it typically fails to providing valuable, actionable comments.

A colleague once suggested that feedback be given without using the word “like.” Though it may seem trivial, removing this simple word from our vocabulary when delivering feedback forces us to focus on what we’re saying by taking a lot of the emotion out of our statements. In this way, we can’t simply say we like or dislike something. We have to carefully consider whether what we’re saying is practical and/or actionable.

Giving good feedback means providing quality information to the recipient that is actionable and genuine. Focusing on the compliment-critique-compliment connotation of a compliment sandwich not only causes the recipient to not absorb the content, but also is too focused on an unrealistic fear that peers/colleagues/clients won’t appreciate hearing what is & isn’t working.

A good resource that contained some great tips for giving and receiving feedback was a presentation given by Adam Connor at SXSW 2015 called “Discuss Design without Losing Your Mind.” Some of the points he discussed illustrated ways to avoid assumption and provide valuable thoughts which can help to drive a discussion forward.

So, with all of this in mind, let’s change the way we look at giving feedback. For more successful feedback, attempt to deliver it as an artist views a critique:

  1. Compliment as needed. Those objects, thoughts, experiences, designs that are worthy of praise, make known. There’s never a problem telling someone you think their ideas are good! There are many talented people you work with on a regular basis that have lots of great creative thoughts. You don’t want to loose those ideas as you move forward.
  2. Be forthright with your thoughts. Often, ideas don’t match with the business goal we’re trying to solve, or simply are unrealistic for the constraints we’re working within. Be sure to make that known as well. Don’t feel it necessary to frame up your disagreement as a compliment.
  3. Keep it actionable, not prescriptive. No one wants to be told how to do something. Telling your team that “this element needs to go there,” will only garner frustration. Instead, suggest that the element in question doesn’t seem to fit within the context, and open it up for discussion. You may find that there’s another option which better solves the problem! In his SXSW presentation, Connor suggested that another way to avoid be prescriptive is to avoid making assumptions. Ask questions to understand why certain choices were made, and why the solution is being presented this way. This will help the feedback giver to step outside of their own perspective and be more open to listening to other ideas.
  4. Point it back to the purpose. Why are you doing this? You certainly defined goals when you started this process. Make sure all your decisions and comments relate directly to how you’re hitting or missing those targets. In his discussion, Connor mentions that the foundation of critique is the intent. The wrong type of critique is one that is emotional and self focused. The right type of critique that is more successful is the one that is objective focused and driven by the goals of the project. Emotional feedback is difficult to action on, because it’s based on personal opinion. This also includes comments directed at individuals. When given an opinion (especially a targeted one), people are more apt to retaliate with other opinions or emotion. If that opinion is based on some goal or metric, it’s much more digestible. Critique is all about understanding and improvement, not judgment.

Structuring feedback in a specific way can also help lend itself to value. One methodology taught in design courses is described as the “Critical Friends” process. It follows a set structure, which helps to make sure the previous guidelines are given in a manner befitting them. View this structure as though you were telling your friend you didn’t appreciate their [insert something you dislike here (new pants, cats, taste in Tuvan throat singing, etc.)].

  1. Starts with an overview, in which the facilitator describes the focus of the session.
  2. Presentation of the artifact, observation, or issue by the presenter (who is different from the facilitator) in which the presenter explains what is to be “tuned” to the questions or concerns that should focus the feedback.
  3. Give an opportunity for participants to ask the presenter clarifying questions.
  4. Follow with a discussion of the artifact or issue during which the presenter remains silent, listening, and taking notes.
  5. The presenter reflects on the feedback, with a chance to ask follow-up questions and discuss rational.
  6. Facilitator debriefs the session.

This method aligns with research on how to maximize the positive effects of feedback. As stated in the research article, The Power of Feedback by John Hattie and Helen Timperley, feedback tends to generate positive learning when it is focused on the task (or artifact) as opposed to the person, there are clear goals in place, there are low threats to self-esteem, and the feedback includes specific suggestions for improvement.

Applying this structure can also avoid the dreaded trap of “solutioning.” This can be defined as trying to solve the problem hurriedly without truly considering the project objective or the users of the product. In his discussion, Connor touches on this idea as well. He explains that it’s best to gain perspective on whether the current design idea accomplishes the goals and if not, what objectives still need to be met. From there, the designer will then generate more ideas on their own time. It’s understandable that new concepts/suggestions may be pitched, but the designer should be allowed to iterate on them further and decide which option works best.

Like anything else in design, giving and receiving feedback should be considered a skill. It requires practice and training to become great at it. Everyone on a team can benefit from understanding the importance of good critique and how their role fits into a good feedback structure. Having this knowledge creates a positive domino effect on the entire group. It helps each member feel like their ideas are welcome and supported, and makes the designer feel empowered to create their best effort. All of this is possible without that old, crusty compliment sandwich.