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ABC framework: How to give feedback

A better framework to give feedback and improve creative work

Ben Issen

The problem with feedback

Most feedback we get is just terrible. Empty affirmations, futile suggestions, demoralizing comments. If the path to improving is feedback, but feedback hurts, we just won't want to improve. As a freelance designer and creative, feedback is a big part of my work. So we need a way to guide feedback, to make sure it helps more than it hurts.

So to improve feedback, we should start with our emotions (what I call emotion-based feedback). Let me explain. We humans are constantly making judgements about things around us. We first have an emotional reaction and then we make up a reason for that reaction. Our first reactions are always.. reactions, not thoughts.

But when we give out feedback, we tend to suppress those initial reactions and jump directly into reasons and theories for why something should be improved. This is a mistake. We obstruct feedback by not revealing one crucial information: how we feel.

To guide feedback we should start with feelings. Every time we give or seek feedback we should ask: What is Awesome? What is Boring? What is Confusing? And finally, for the last missing letter, what is Missing? It's easy to remember: ABC.

What is awesome? 

So first question: What is awesome about that work? starting here, with the Awesome, just starts feedback on a positive note. Here you should share what you find exciting, what you think is worth doubling down on. The delivery of feedback is as important as its content. And great feedback is energizing, it gives us a renewed sense that our work is worthwhile, a feeling of improvement. When you share that enthusiasm by asking "what's awesome", you're making the other person an ally, not an opponent.

What is boring? 

When we ask this question, we get information about what to remove. The perceived objective of the creation is thus clarified: what's boring doesn't serve as much towards achieving that objective. The creator thus has to think about managing expectations, [being excited here]ù creating small moments of delight, or just cutting out the unnecessary.

What is confusing? 

Then, what is confusing? This question brings conversations about clarity. Clarity in our work should always be the priority. It's the designer's first job, and thinking about the information hierarchy - what's most and least important in our work - dissipates potential confusion. By asking about the confusing question, we'll get feedback to be more consistently clear. In my experience, asking what is confusing always brings me many great ideas to improve.

What is missing? 

As opposed to the boring question, which usually prompts us to remove the unnecessary, this question helps us feel the gaps. Ultimately, there are many more reactions that can be shared. But in my experience, focusing on the awesome, boring, confusing and missing reactions are sufficient.

But we shouldn't stop at these reactions. We should connect these reactions to specific parts of our creations. Pinpointing what in the work made us feel how is the key to then suggest improvements.  SO first we need to 1. react then 2. connect our reaction to the creation and then 3. suggest improvements. This makes feedback specific, practical and therefore useful.

Different levels of feedback

Finally when we seek or give feedback, we should clarify the perspective we need. Do we want 1. zoomed in feedback? 2. Zoomed out feedback or 3. Reframing feedback? Let me explain...

  1. Zoomed in: When we're giving zoomed in feedback, we're looking at the details, noticing small specificities... Typos, misalignments, rough edges. The devil is in the details. Here's an example: [need to record Yannick's voice] "Ben, in this video on the two first minutes, I was bored because you forgot to add sounds here and there, and so I wasn't as engaged".
  2. Zoomed out: this is the high level perspective, looking at the broader context and overall direction. High level doesn't mean it should be vague, it can (and should) be as specific as zoomed-in feedback. Here's another example [need to record Yannick's voice] "Ben, I'm excited because this video fits with your overall theme of becoming Supercreative, I think that's awesome".
  3. Reframing Finally, when we're reframing, we're switching perspectives entirely and looking at the creation from a new angle. This can lead to valuable insights. With reframing feedback, we can realize that the work we've created has value in entirely different fields. Here's a final example: [need to record Yannick's voice] "Ben, as an engineer, I can tell you I was a bit confused with your interpretation of feedback, perhaps explore the writings of Rosenblueth?"

SO stating which level of feedback we're giving or looking for - zoomed in, out or reframed - is useful to clarify the type of feedback we want.

Going further

To become feedback masters we should build a habit (or set reminders) to give and seek feedback frequently (maybe once every few days or weeks). There are tons of people you can ask feedback to: your friends, family, colleagues or on Fiverr. Preferably, by being in an environment where everyone is open with giving and seeking feedback, we improve more. This is what I'm trying to build right now with Supercreative challenges. In 1983, a study by Bandura and Cervones on cyclist show that when you couple frequent feedback with clear goals, you can expect your performance to improve by three times. [source]

Finally, there's that trap most creatives fall in. When we have more experience, we seek less feedback because of social pressures to appear confident and self-assured. But there's always room for improvements. And I believe that with ABC questions and the right perspective, we can keep growing.

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Last edit: 
Apr 26, 2022
Special thanks for feedback: 
Yannick Van Noy, Ulysse Demonio, Sophie Delattre
Image credits: 
Ben Issen

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