Designers don’t always structure a design review to get the best feedback, or sometimes they end up over-ruled by bigger voices (or higher levels) so you -- the client -- can help them out by following some guidelines for giving good feedback. You’ll get a better design and everyone will win, especially your customers.
1. Clarify the objectives of what you’re reviewingIn the best case design review, the stage has been set by reviewing the objectives and tenets of the project, as well as where in the process the project is at now, and what kind of feedback is being asked for. If that’s not the case — ask for some clarity before everyone jumps in to the review/feedback loop. Make sure these are clear up front:
2. Start out with the positives
Start your feedback with what you think is working in the design. Firstly, you’re setting the stage for working as partners, and you’ll get a less defensive reception to other feedback. But also, you don’t want the designer to get rid of the parts that are working. Starting with positive feedback will also help you frame ‘problem' feedback more objectively. Start with the objectives that are being met by the design, like “This direction feels clean and professional” or “This page is really scannable and easy to read.” This can help the group focus on the direction you want the design to go.
3. State the problem, not the solution
It's your role to identify issues you see in the design. It's the designer's role to find the solutions.
Feedback like “It would be more clear if you change that link to a button” is designing a solution without clarifying the problem, and comments like that spur others in the review to jump to design solutions, which is just how you get to ‘design by committee,’ and not the best design result.
Allow the designer to explore solutions to the problem, rather than limiting their creativity. By iterating the problem, “The call to action isn’t immediately clear on this page” you are giving the designer the opportunity to solve the bigger problem. For example, replacing a link with a button might make the primary action more clear, but by taking another look at the problem, the designer may realize that the hierarchy of the information on the page isn’t leading to a clear action. This gives the designer the chance tocome up with another design approach that better conveys the value proposition and frames the call to action much more clearly than your prescriptive feedback would have.
"When design critiques are one-sided—for example, when commands are issued without explanation—the result is like playing telephone: the message arrives diluted and insensible because the message bearer has no context or ownership over ultimate design decisions." Design Criticism & the Creative Process, List Apart
4. Tie feedback back to a goal
When you have feedback, reference a specific objective, tenet or brand trait from the original brief that you feel is not being met. So rather than “This design looks really grey," it would be more helpful to say “I don’t see the brand personality of ‘Fun’ coming through this design.” This makes feedback much more actionable, and gives the group something to measure the next iterations against.
5. Use adjectives
Thinking about your feedback in terms of adjectives, rather than nouns or verbs, can help you focus on the customer experience rather than the solution. Using words that describe the desired experience, like “easy to understand” or “helpful and professional” rather than specific elements or images like “icon of a globe” or “image of a business person" to describe what you are looking for can help a designer find concepts that you might not have thought of.
6. Be specific (about the problem, not about the solution)
Describe why something isn't working for you by articulating the problem statement. ‘It's confusing' or 'this is too complicated' is not a problem statement. "I'm not sure what I’m supposed to do next on this page" is somewhat closer to a problem statement. "There isn't a clear 'call to action' or 'value proposition' for the user on this page" is a much clearer problem statement. Because it's very detailed, and focused on the problem, the designer can figure out a solution.
Another way of being specific is by giving examples. If you have another design in mind that you feel conveys what you're looking for, reference that, and describe (in adjectives) how that design meets the objectives.
7. Don’t rely on intuition (Provide Justification)
Whenever possible, back up your reasons with data or research, or competitive analysis. If you know that this user persona tends to read in-page help or looks for specific kinds of information more than most users, that is a justification for more helpful text in the page.
However, unless there are specific industry-wide 'best practices' that you know to be true, avoid saying that a design feature doesn't meet 'best practices.’ An example of 'best practices' is that generally text should have at least 40% contrast from the background it's on. This has been widely correlated with research so that's a legitimate . An example of a mis-used 'best practice' argument I've heard is 'You shouldn't mix different fonts together.’ There are definitely rules and best practices around the pairing of fonts, but unless you're a typography expert, chances are that you are giving your opinion (which is fine, see the next rule) but couched as a 'best practice'.
If there isn’t a measurable justification, try to bring it back to the goals. If a goal of the design is ‘easy to read on any device,’ then too many fonts, not enough contrast in black & white, or too small of a font, may not meet that criteria.
8. Own your opinion
If the feedback IS your intuition based on your experience -- great! Own it! Your expertise is likely why you were invited to this review — but frame it that way, as your opinion based on your experience or knowledge. Bring your own perspective to the design, not how you hypothesize other people might think about it. So rather than "That's not a font that 20-something women like" you might say "I don't see that font as 'young & trendy,' like our target audience."
In summary, how you give feedback has a direct effect on the quality of the outcome, and takes some effort to do it well. Make sure everyone in the review knows what the objectives are, start with positive feedback, and identify problems and not solutions (and use the guidelines above to keep the group on track with useful feedback). If you want to improve the effectiveness of your design reviews, and see your product quality improve, try some of these approaches.