Turning Subjective Feedback Into Objective


As a web developer – I constantly use feedback from clients to complete my projects. Unfortunately the quality of feedback varies greatly from client to client. Some clients know about the general layout of a website while others have no idea. Some clients clearly know how to describe what they want changed while others only give vague and arbitrary descriptions of what they would like. This post is all about the techniques I use to turn subjective feedback into objective feedback.

Objective vs Subjective

My definition of objective feedback (at least in regards to web development) is feedback that you can directly turn into a task. “I want the headings to be darker”, “Please remove the slideshow on mobile sized screens” and “It would be great if the banner could also have a Twitter icon and link” are all examples of objective feedback. The feedback can be directly translated into tasks that you need to do. In the examples above you would make the headings darker, add CSS to remove the slideshow on mobile devices and add a Twitter icon to the header.

Subjective feedback is feedback influenced by a person’s feelings, tastes and/or opinions. In the web development world, I like to think that subjective feedback is feedback that is arbitrary and does not translate direction into an action that you as a developer can take. “I would like the site to feel more welcoming”, “Can it have more of a wow factor” and “It just doesn’t feel right” are all examples of subjective feedback. There’s no real way to make these things happen without knowing more about the exactly what the person means by what they’re saying.

After reading these two definitions and examples – hopefully you see that objective feedback is important because it can be translated directly into actionable tasks that we can then perform. This means that the project will get closer to being done and the client will be closer to having the website they want. I’m not necessarily saying that you can’t get work out of subjective feedback, but it is much more difficult and prone to interpretation which increases the chances of the client asking for it to be changed later. I feel it’s much better to have objective feedback that can be translated into very clear-cut tasks you can then complete.

Moving From Subjective to Objective

Subjective Feeback Is Hard for DevelopersWhen I receive a piece of subjective feedback, I find the most valuable thing I can do to get objective feedback is to ask the client questions based on their feedback. Asking guided follow up questions will make everything move forward in such a way that you are the one moving the client in a productive direction and will result in the best chance of getting something objective from their subjective feedback. Asking the client to simply explain themselves more will most likely result in the same information in a lot more words, so I think it’s very important to be the one guiding the client on how to tell you what they want.

I like to lead my questions with some form of understanding why the client wants what they do. For example – if they ask me to make the site more “welcoming” I try to lead with something like “I think a more welcoming feel would be great – I think the visitors will be much more willing to reach out to you via the website if they feel comfortable”. Something as simple as this can show the client you have an understanding of the general idea/concept they are going for and shows them that you’re both on the same page.

Next I want to start asking questions to get more information from the client. I like to sort these questions into a two distinct groups of questions.

The first type of questions are for examples of what they described in their subjective feedback. If a client ask for a more welcoming feel, I ask them for other sites that give them that feeling. We can then talk about what it is that site is doing that gives the desired feeling. This is not a simple one-step process, there has to be some back and forth with the client since they aren’t trained to know that certain colors/techniques invoke certain feelings in most people. You have to work with them and tell them what it is that you think they are picking up on based on your training and expertise. It’s important to note that you’re the expert in situations like this and you are the one guiding the client as I’ve described above. If you prefer to use existing websites as your examples, then ask the clients for them. If you prefer to work from a picture then ask the client for pictures instead of websites. Guide the client so that you are able to understand what they want in the easiest way for you.

The second way of dealing with subjective feedback is to ask very leading questions that will subtly suggest what action should be done based on my own expertise. It’s important to note that I only really use this type of technique when asking for examples doesn’t yield any results. If a client asked me to increase the “wow factor” and didn’t have any examples of what they meant – they just wanted more wow – I would suggest to them that something such as “Based on my experience and training, pictures and more variation on color make certain elements pop out more – so maybe you would like to try making each of the headings a different color and adding a header image to each page?”. This still gives the client the ability to choose what happens to their website because I think that’s very important, but it also suggests your own version of objective feedback. If the client agrees to it then you have tasks to work on. If they don’t like your idea – they will most likely build upon it and the feedback they give will then be much more objective.

A Few Things to Remember

As I conclude this article, I want to go over a few things I thing are very important to remember about objective vs subjective feedback as a web developer:

  • Subjective feedback is still very important. Just because you can’t directly create tasks out of it and it often includes things we don’t like such as buzz words – it is clearly important to the client that they changes are made.
  • Try to ask for existing examples of the subjective feedback they gave to you. It doesn’t even have to be a website – it can be a book or a picture. Examples are always easier to work with in terms of making sure you and the client are on the same page.
  • Clients are almost never¬†antagonistic toward answering your questions when you want to understand more about their feedback. If you lead with an understanding of the client’s position they will be more than happy to answer any questions you may have.
  • Remember that you are the expert – not the client. You should be the one guiding the client and turning subjective feedback into objective. Don’t just say something like “I’m not sure what you meant by this” and try to make them explain themselves more. Chances are it won’t yield anything more substantial than the first time. You want to guide them towards things like examples of what they mean or suggest things that you expertise suggest could give the desired effect.

Please let me know if you like this kind of article that is a little less technical and more daily advice/work driven. If you like them then I will be sure to do more when an idea strikes me.

As always thank you for reading and please share it around as much as you can! Please feel free to put any suggestions or ideas for future tutorials in the comments section below.