You Won't Regret Positive Feedback

April 29, 2013 holman

Every product that has ever existed has had to deal with feedback.

The most interesting feedback happens before the product ever ships, in comments and discussion amongst your teammates. Should we leave this as-is? Does it look right? How can we improve this part of it?

It’s governed by taste and design. They’re subjective measurements, which means there’s inevitably going to be conflict.

I can’t think of a time I’ve ever regretted giving someone positive feedback on their work. But I still cringe years later when I think of the times I’ve been overly critical in past feedback.

“The products suck! There’s no sex in them anymore!”

While not the originator, Steve Jobs is the personification of this culture of cruelty-as-management-tactic. There are stories all over the Valley about directors berating their staff in an effort to motivate them to push harder. My friend worked at a startup that typified this: her boss would stand over her desk, tell her how the work she just did was shit and how she needed to redo it. I told her that her boss was an asshole; she said he was a genius.

Maybe that really is a motivator in the short term. It seemed to work for Apple. But it also led to a lot of burnt-out, unhappy employees, and a really hostile work environment.


There was this thing a few years ago.

It was something our company was going to launch, and it seemed like there were parts of it slipping through the cracks. I wanted to see this succeed, so I devised a sarcastic approach in an effort to drum up more attention to the launch’s deficiencies. I figured this would be an edgy way to help get more people involved in turning the ship around, so to speak.

It was the wrong way to handle it. It shed more negative light internally on the people involved in the launch, who in the end had great reasons as to why they made the choices they did. Sometimes circumstances are just shitty. Sometimes you don’t know the whole story. Or sometimes the shit you’re stressing out about just doesn’t matter that much.

Drive-by design

I think our industry does feedback really poorly. I sure as hell do. My first impulse whenever I see a comp is to shit on it. Honestly. Even if it looks great. Especially if it looks great. We instinctively want to pick apart any deficiencies as soon as possible because that’s how product is created. We build things incrementally, chipping away the rough edges until we have a clean polished surface underneath it all.

I think that leads to a feeling that being emotional or cruel is actually helpful during design or code reviews. That the approach cuts away the fat even quicker, which is a great thing since we can get to that finished product quicker, right? Because that’s really all that matters anyway, after everything is said and done: if The Product is unimpeachable, everything was worth it. Sleeping under your desk. Yelling at your coworkers. Pushing to make that final iteration. It’s all for The Sake Of The Product.

It’s really all bullshit though. Maybe it does produce good product, but I don’t really care about that directly anymore. I want to make good companies. Good, healthy, positive companies produce good products. And if things still go south, and your good company produces a product that just wasn’t good enough, well, at least you’re all still happy. Companies with hostile environments can fail just as easily, but the difference is that they leave depressed and angry people in their wake.

It doesn’t matter that much

It really doesn’t.

I’m still bad at giving feedback. I want to slam my mouse on that big submit button in the comment form as soon as I can. But I’ve found that’s almost always a reaction.

If I see a monumentally bad idea come across my inbox, I’ve been trying to first let it simmer for a few hours or days. It’s surprisingly made me a much happier human. You don’t get suckered into as many passionate debates because you’re able to come into the discussion with a much cooler head. Many times I end up seeing why the decision was made in the first place. There are always a myriad of tiny invisible decisions that go into building a product, and you can’t understand all of them three minutes into glancing at someone’s work.

In turn, you also avoid shitting on the work of people you care about: friends, colleagues, humans. You should still say what’s on your mind — disagreements will always happen, after all — but coming at it with a cooler head makes for less sarcasm and fewer lines drawn in the sand. And you can be proud about that.