Feedback – Take it, but also rate it.

Something I’ve seen over the (several) years I’ve been working in tech is a lack of understanding that feedback has differing levels of value. Sometimes this goes to the extremes of feedback that’s ignored because it’s come from a person or group which has consistently provided low value feedback, or groups which don’t get a lot of feedback because people think it won’t be acted on. Both of these are very bad places to be in.

Getting feedback, good or bad, is always valuable. You should always aim to create an environment where others have few, if any, concerns about giving you feedback. If you have users/peers/managers who feel they can’t give you feedback, or have reservations about giving you feedback, somewhere along the line you’re going to hit problems with either features not matching user needs, your ability to deliver improvements being limited, or the representation of your work not being as good as it could be, so you should always work to create an environment where people feel free to be honest with you. That said, you should also be willing to rate feedback, assign a cost to acting on it, and not be afraid to prioritize other things over it.

If a user tells you that a feature doesn’t work, or a change to a feature could make that feature more relevant to them, that’s useful, but if making the feature more useful for one user also makes it less useful for a larger group, then that’s less valuable feedback. Similarly, if your peers or a manager are telling you that doing something is going to be useful, but you believe that there are other priorities or concerns, you need to rate that appropriately. When you identify low value feedback the most productive way forward is for both sides to openly communicate, listen, and be prepared to be wrong.

As long as you’re communicating with the other party honestly managing a low value feedback situation can be easy; If someone is accommodating to feedback themselves a simple explanation that they’re in a minority and you’ll look for ways to do what they want without impacting a larger group can be enough. Few people would expect to be taken seriously if they understand that feedback provided by them is not in line with feedback provided by a wider group who are similarly, or more, qualified to understand the situation, but, unfortunately, I’ve seen many cases where this happens. You should be able to back up your view with information; Saying “It’s like that because that’s the way it is” isn’t going to give the person who’s providing the feedback the feeling that their feedback is valued and it’s worth their time giving further feedback. Don’t be afraid to ask for relevant information from others; send out user surveys, ask other people who’ve been in a similar position, talk to people who you feel could understand the situation and offer valuable insights, and once you’ve done that feed that back to the source of the original feedback; that lets them know that you’ve spent time evaluating their request and gives them an idea of why you’re not treating it as a priority.

Problems can start when one side doesn’t want to, or just stops, listening to the other side. If you’ve been completely open about the situation, and the other party still can not understand why acting on their feedback is a low priority for you, then you need to make a decision about whether the cost of acting on that feedback is low enough to be offset by the value of the other party in either business terms or in terms of their willingness to interact with you. If a user has consistently provided useful feedback in the past and then they provide you with some low value feedback, then you may be willing to act on it if acting on it is a low-cost operation because the value of their other feedback makes this worthwhile. If, however, a user has consistently provided low-value feedback your willingness to act on new feedback from them may be tainted, but this is also where problems can occur; they may, this time, have some high value feedback, so be prepared to evaluate each piece of feedback independently and try not to be negatively tainted by past experience.

Problems can also arise when things scale up; If you have a piece of software with thousands of users you may not be able to reply to each piece of feedback individually. When you’re scaling up you need to look at aggregation feedback channels (e.g. surveys, check boxes on feedback forms) and track trends. If you’re seeing more feedback about feature X then pick a random sample of related feedback and see if there’s a common theme. If, via your app analytics, you’re seeing less users using feature Y see if there’s a trend in your support system which could explain it. Don’t try to respond to every tweet, blog post, or support ticket, instead create a blog post or FAQ entry and direct people to it.

At the end of the day you also shouldn’t be afraid to not act on feedback, but you should set that expectation with the person providing the feedback and try to ensure they understand why you’re not acting on it. If they choose to believe their priorities should take precedence over yours, and feel that you absolutely should act on it, that’s their choice, and you still shouldn’t feel obliged to act on it. You are you, you have to make decisions which you’re comfortable with, and you shouldn’t spend your time stressed due to someone who won’t accept your choices based on the information you have available over their opinions.

One final thing; If you’re the one giving the feedback, be understanding. The other person may not be able to express why they think your feedback isn’t as important to act on as you think it is if you put them on the spot, or they may have 1001 other pieces of feedback to asses, but they may come back to you with a more thought out argument after they’ve got some more information if you give them some time to gather facts. Above all; don’t be an asshole – everyone is someone, and if you give them feedback and they don’t act on it for reasons they believe in then respect their decision, after all if they’re truly missing a great opportunity then you may have found something which you can make into your next start-up.

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