Enabling a Culture of Feedback: A Conversation with Talin Wadsworth, Lead Designer for Adobe XD
Gone are the days of the lone, creative genius designer. Today’s creative professionals work on complex projects, often in multi-disciplinary teams. Feedback – seeking input and guidance from our peers – is central to the creative process. It supports people to grow and improve, builds trust among team members, and ultimately results in better work.
Talin Wadsworth, Lead Designer for Adobe XD, is part of a centralized team at Adobe, and leads 7 designers directly. As the team has grown, one focus for him has been evolving a process that can continue to foster a culture of open feedback. We had a conversation about what he has learned along the way.
Creating the Right Environment and Team Psychology
The groundwork for a healthy and productive approach to feedback within a design team starts with the culture of the team. “If people don’t feel comfortable sharing, then we have a cultural problem. People coming from an honest place, and having familiarity with one another allows feedback to flourish,” said Wadsworth.
This psychological safety is foundational to successful teams, as studied by many academic researchers, including Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson. In one research paper, Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” This aligns exactly with the team culture Wadsworth is promoting.
For Wadsworth, one way to foster a sense of safety is to be supportive as a leader. “It’s really important to me that people see me as their advocate. My role is to set everyone up for success, and part of that means being tough with feedback and critique in order to help them feel really confident in the work that they are sharing,” said Wadsworth. “When the time comes for group feedback, I want people to feel I am in their corner promoting their work, because I know they put the work in.”
Supporting people to foster a sense of safety during feedback also aligns with Kim Scott’s idea of Radical Candour which notes that as a leader you need to care personally, as well as challenge directly. When people know that your feedback comes from a place of caring, they are more likely to be receptive and feel safe sharing. As Brene Brown wrote in her book Daring Greatly, “vulnerability is at the heart of the feedback process,” and so finding ways to support people in their vulnerability is crucial to fostering a culture of feedback.
Five Ways to Enable Feedback on a Team
Beyond the psychological and cultural conditions for productive feedback on a design team,
Wadsworth also shared some practical tips:
- Make feedback part of the process: “We’ve set ourselves a goal this year of a shared vision – being able to have enough context and exposure to pick up each other’s work if we needed to,” said Wadsworth. For the team this means sharing work early and often, throughout the daily process. “We share regularly via Slack, we share XD prototype links. We also provide feedback asynchronously through comments in XD prototypes.” This means the team has ongoing visibility into the work that is happening.
- Create dedicated space for feedback: While sharing on an ongoing basis is useful, it is also helpful to create space where the sole focus and intention is on feedback. On Wadsworth’s team, they have a weekly Friday critique session – a guaranteed day where the team is together for feedback purposes. Protecting this space, especially for busy design teams who can get pulled in many directions, is a great tactic to grow a culture of feedback. “For our team, these sessions have become one of the most important things we do,” said Wadsworth.
- Set it up right: Of course, it’s not enough to just get in a room once a week. For the feedback sessions to be successful they need to be set up carefully. Wadsworth elaborated, “These sessions go over better when people have context and familiarity – you don’t want people coming in cold to the work’s objectives and history. The beauty of being properly set up is that it clears the deck to get right into the weeds of the design challenge we are trying to solve.” This setup can include making sure people have seen the work before they get in the room, as well as giving context to the design show and tell.
- It’s always about the work: Some of the reasons that designers may dread feedback is experiences of feedback that have felt personally hurtful, or based on the giver’s personal opinion and preferences. Wadsworth’s technique for mitigating this is to keep the conversation really focused on the work, and also keeping it user centred. “We avoid critique of a one-off design, and instead look at a design within the context of a user flow. When we keep it focused on the problem we are solving for our users the feedback is always much more actionable.”
- Lead by example: Creating a culture of feedback as a design leader means walking the walk. In practice, this means modelling for the team by sharing your own work and being receptive to feedback. “I’ve had to be the example in a lot of ways, it’s had to start with me. Once I’m putting myself out there it’s a catalyst for the team to do the same. You can’t just put down rules or force a process, as a leader you have to follow through and be diligent about sharing your work too.“
Flex those feedback muscles
Of course, none of this matters if the feedback happens in a vacuum. There needs to be demonstrated accountability to iterating on the work. For Wadsworth, this is about “showing we’re all part of each other’s process of making the work better.” One of the goals for Adobe XD has been to integrate the feedback loop into the creative workflow itself, so this has been a fun process. “We give feedback on evolving the design of XD in XD, using the built-in feedback features – it’s all very meta!”
It’s also important to note that feedback is something you can practice and coach a team to improve. As Wadsworth says, “In design school, the instructor was always pushing you to show your work and put it up on the wall, it felt very stressful but you do it and the next time it’s easier! In a team context, we are constantly training each other to be able to use that feedback muscle – in both providing it and receiving it.”