Constructive Criticism

The blog world is atwitter (pun intended) today over FriendFeed. TechCrunch’s Duncan Riley had the nerve to say, “I don’t get it” and the chorus of boos was swift. Louis Gray, an early adopter and rabid proponent of FriendFeed, said Riley missed the point by only giving the service the most cursory of glances.

I’ve written before of my love of FriendFeed and still stand by that. But I think the company and its faithful fan base should absorb opinions like Duncan’s rather than discard them as those of the lazy and/or uninformed. What got me thinking on this was a similar situation with Twine earlier in the week . A negative review of Twine by Marshall Kirkpatrick received all manner of response, both in the Twine app and in the comments to his post, one of which was mine. Marshall made some excellent points about the nascence of the app and how much needed to be improved upon, just as Duncan brought up very real issues with FriendFeed. What interests me is not the specific criticisms but the manner in which they were received. Fervent fans reacted quickly, in essence saying “how dare you” and “you just don’t get it” to the critics. The problem with such reactions is that they bypass the usability issues and tech hurdles that need to be addressed. Radar Networks’ Senior Architect Peter Royal had a smart reaction to Marshall:

He describes a user’s experience if they show up in twine with no hand-holding. it clearly illustrates things we need to focus on from a user point-of-view.

The word “beta” has lost much of its meaning in Web 2.0, but at its essence is user criticism and vitally necessary feedback. Resounding praise isn’t of much use to emerging technology. It’s nice to hear, of course, and validation confirms that the developers are on the right track. But companies should start responding to “I don’t get it” with “What are we doing wrong?” The ensuing conversations will likely be far more productive for both sides.



  1. Very good points Carla.

    Opening a “beta” to the press is also something of a strange phenomenon that didn’t happen as much in the old days before the Web. In the old days, a beta was more of a closed and highly managed process to solicit feedback and make improvements before showing the product to the press and the public.

    But today there is a shift in which the media is getting into products and reviewing them to users, during early beta, before the products are actually ready for users. The question is, who really benefits from this shift? Would it be better to do things the old way?

    I think there is an element of being critiqued in public, rather than in private, that adds more drama to the whole process, which isn’t alway as productive as it could be. In our reality-television world, we now have reality-beta-testing. The basic fact that the critique is in the public eye tends to put product teams and passionate users of products on the defensive, rather than making them receptive to hearing what is being said. This is why I think the reaction is often “how dare you” rather than “how can we improve?”

    Interestingly, when the same feedback is provided in private to the same people, the reception is usually much less defensive and the result is a more constructive impact on the direction of the product (and the relationship between the press and the product team). But is the role of the press to provide feedback to product teams, or to provide guidance to end-users? If it is the latter, then I wonder whether it even makes sense for the press to review early betas that are likely to be drastically different by the time they reach end-users.

    Since a closed beta product is not open the public yet (while in closed beta at least), the review doesn’t really benefit non-beta users (because the product is likely to change and fix whatever issues the review points out before going out to non-beta users, hopefully). But if it’s just feedback to the product team, why write an article instead of just emailing the team or meeting with them? This is a bit of a paradox that I see taking place in the industry these days.

    In a way the general press is starting to act more like analysts, but they are doing it in public. Are all Web journalists analysts now? What is the role of analyst compared to a journalist today? Is there still a difference? Analysts used to be the ones joining early betas and providing feedback, and private guidance to clients, on the direction of products and market segments. Now we see almost all online journalists doing this. But at the same time, the unwritten social contract that exists between analysts and product teams, does not exist between product teams and journalists. It’s a bit of a strange moment in the industry. Nobody knows how exactly to behave or what is expected or considered appropriate in these interactions anymore.

    I’m not advocating for keeping the press out of betas. But rather I’m suggesting that perhaps if the general press is taking on a role that now includes what analysts use to do then perhaps they might also need to operate in distinct “modes” depending on what hat they are wearing. When the press joins early beta’s they are essentially operating more as analysts than as journalists. Perhaps in that mode they don’t yet write “reviews” but instead they provide feedback to the teams and write reports which are not so public or at least are less sensationalized. Later, when the product is released they could then switch to “journalist” mode and write the more sensational stories for end-users.

    It’s probably wishful thinking but that seems more mutually beneficial all round. Hopefully by then whatever issues they found during the beta would have been resolved by the product teams (but if not…. then they would of course have a right to point them out). This would also result in articles for the eventual end-users.

  2. carlacthompson said

    The concept of journalists as analysts is an interesting one. I was just thinking this morning that bloggers, in most every sector and not just tech, have become reporters looking for a scoop. The blogging world has morphed into another news entity, albeit one with much more pointed opinions. I imagine your thinking is wishful, at least in the current climate, to ask writers to put on different hats. Until we figure out how to get off this merry-go-round news cycle that never ceases, the inclusion of most anyone in a private beta is assured to result in public reviews.

  3. Corvida said

    Thanks for this awesome and new perspective to the whole FriendFeed ordeal! A truly eye-opening read!

  4. […] The blog world is atwitter (pun intended) today over FriendFeed. (The Guidewire) […]

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