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Writing Actionable Feedback


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Posted On: November 8th, 2009
Posted By: Tolero

I had a moment over the weekend that prompted me to write somewhat of a “guide” on a topic that a lot of people may not see as something one needs a guide for. I realized, as I was sending feedback to the manufacturer, that writing feedback is somewhat of a skill. Really it’s more of an instinct that you refine, because everyone can (and often does) write feedback, but do they do so in a way that actually helps them?

Feedback is  kind of like swinging a weapon in DDO - any character can do it, but it takes some effort to do it well or to do so in a way that gets the job done. The same is true with feedback: anyone can give it, but not all of it is actionable. By learning how to give “actionable” feedback, you increase the chances that the company/person/organization receiving your feedback can make changes in response - whether it’s Turbine, another software company, your local retailer, or beyond. It can apply to everything from bug reports to even just what you say to a store manager. If you’re the kind of person who likes to give feedback, or just wants to increase the likelyhood that your voice is heard, this is the guide for you!

What is “Actionable” Feedback?

Anyone can provide feedback about something. But what does “actionable feedback” mean? It’s when the feedback is given in a way that helps the person receiving it clearly identify a problem (or multiple problems) so they can react in a way that addresses the concerns. When you’re expressing yourself about a product, problem, or experience, it is easy to give feedback that is too organic, emotional, or not clear enough to the recipient, resulting in the problem persisting because well… what you meant to say and what was heard did not translate. People who gather feedback work hard to “translate” what is said when it’s not written in an actionable way, but they’re not mind readers and can only go by what you wrote. Writing actionable feedback makes it far more likely that your thoughts are heard and understood clearly, leading to improvements and changes!

Understanding Feedback Instincts

Everyone has an opinion about the things they interact with, whether it’s games or food or…whatever. There comes a time when you are motivated to not only express your opinion to your peers, but to the owner(s) of said product - whatever it happens to be. Usually this motivation that pushes you towards giving feedback comes from three emotions:

  • Anger - You’re upset by the thing and seek to change it so that it no longer upsets you.
  • Confusion - Something about the thing isn’t clear enough to you and seek to change it so it is easier for you to understand.
  • Joy - Something about the thing keeps you coming back for more, and you seek to make sure that it’s still available for you in the future.

There are also a couple subclasses of motivators like frustration (mix 1 part anger with 1 part confusion), curiosity (mix 1 part confusion into 1 part joy),  or trolling (1 part anger with 1 part joy, shaken, strain over ice and garnish with a twist of boredom). Whatever the emotional mix, these same emotions that drove you to giving feedback can also taint how that feedback comes out of you.  When you’re writing your feedback, try to extract as much emotion from it as you can. Otherwise it’s extremely likely that you’ll end up with a potent feedback cocktail that isn’t going to get the right message across.

Learning By Examples: Tolero’s Tale

I’ll not be using the company nor product’s name (to protect the innocent or something like that), but I bought a shaving razor from a company that I normally love. I’ve used their products many times over the years and have never been unhappy. Until now. I tried one of their products and was so put off by it that I sat down at the computer to start writing them some consumer feedback.

Last I knew, this particular company was very conscious of consumer feedback, especially constructive criticism. When you’re dealing with a company that pays close attention to consumer feedback, it is evenmore important that what you say is “actionable”.  There are a couple of ways I could approach writing to them. See if you can identify which of the three is actionable feedback on the shaving razor:

Sample A

Dear [Company],

Bought the [shaving razor]. This razor sucks. Fix it.

- Signed, Tolero

Sample B

Dear [Company].

I tried your product [shaving razor] and it was awful! I will not be buying more of them in the future. It didn’t work at all like it said and it was much worse than your other products that I’ve tried. I was so excited when I bought it but after using this razor my shave was terrible! Please do something to improve the quality of this product.

- Signed, Tolero

Sample C

Dear [Company],

What kind of moronic product is this? I bought your [shaving razor] I’m going to be going back to the store to get my money back and I’m not going to buy any more of your products if you keep putting out this crap. A monkey with a plastic bottle and some razor wire could have come up with something that gives a better shave than this piece of junk. You should be ashamed to put your name on this product.

- Signed, Tolero

So which of the samples is “actionable” feedback, A, B or C? The answer is: none of them are actionable (trick question, oh noes sneaky Tolero!!). Let’s take a look at them from the feedback aggregator’s point of view:

Sample A: The only thing a feedback aggregator would get out of this is: customer didn’t like. But I didn’t say WHY so how will they know what to change about the razor to make it not “suck”?

Sample B: While polite, it’s not the politeness that counts - they still need to know what the specific problems are. I say it didn’t work as described but the description is “shaving”. A field test would probably conclude that the razor does indeed shave. So how did it not do what was described? The only useful bits in my feedback are: something about the quality of the product is off… but did I mean it was flimsy, or the razor blades were cheap, or it broke when I dropped it, or it didn’t get as close of a shave as I wanted, or it cut me when I used it? The list goes on. I did mention that I normally like their products, but I didn’t say what about their products I like so even that leaves it way too open ended. What if this was their only razor, how are they supposed to compare their success with hair spray and nail polish to the razor blade?

Sample C: Again WHAT is it that didn’t work? How did it not work? How could it have been better? Not to mention the more insults feedback includes, the more likely that my feedback just ends up in the belly of their Cube. When feedback is negative with no details, the best they can do is mark it down in the “didn’t like” category. But this means when they make changes based on ambiguous “didn’t like” feedback, they could change it in a way that actually makes the problem worse because they were never told what the problem was in the first place. All they got from me was “didn’t like”.

Here is an example of actionable feedback about the shaving razor:

Dear [Company],

I recently tried your product [shaving razor] and was not happy with the results. I will be returning the product and not purchasing more of them in the future. Normally I’ve been very happy with [shaving razors] but I hated this product:

  • The angle of the razor is wrong or something, I had a hard time getting a good shave. I would either miss spots or have to press so hard I cut or razor burned myself.
  • It was harder to hold onto when wet (making the angle problem worse). Never had this problem with your brand before now.
  • When the built-in lotion pads wore down, they got a bumpy/scratchy texture that made it uncomfortable to use.
  • The blades dulled much more quickly than your other [shaving razors].

- Signed, Tolero

In this form, it’s much more clear what I was unhappy about with the razor. They can investigate their design of the lotion pads, the design of the handle, and the type of blades used/placement of them. They can even tell by my feedback that the design of previous razors for grip and durability of the blades was better to me, and explore that. To be honest my inclusion of the fact that I “hated” it or am returning it to the store is just extra fluff that gets chalked up as “didn’t like”, it’s the bullet points that contain the important details.

Other Actionable Feedback Tips

Cutting to the chase: Specific details are best, and require no real embelishment, positive or negative. While it might make you feel better to include extra adjectives that seem to “hammer your point home”, sometimes this can only serve to muddle your point.

This doesn’t mean you need to sound like a robot, but it does mean that it’s likely your feedback is “skimmed” if it becomes too full of flavor text. Feedback readers have more feedback than just yours to read. To be honest the first paragraph in my “actionable feedback” example above could have been cut entirely! They don’t need to know that I took it back or that I hated it, just tell them what the problems are.

Don’t Fight “The Man”: It’s very tempting when writing feedback to include attacks, insults, or other derogatory terms to give ‘em hell. After all, you mean for those insults to go to those “nameless suits up top” so they’ll “learn” not to invoke your anger with their decisions! Unfortunately, they aren’t the ones who read your feedback, it’s the feedback aggregator.

No one wants to read a letter laden with profanity, it’s just not healthy! Profanity is the fastest way to get your feedback in someone’s trashcan. Oh, but you didn’t meeean the feedback aggregator, you’re fighting “the company”. When you attack “the company”, remember that the feedback aggregator works for “the company” too. The “company” are their co-workers, bosses, employees, etc. - and they are part of them. You can’t distinguish the two, and the feedback aggregator isn’t going to either.

It’s best to just leave the personal nature of it (even when you’re trying to be impersonal and “fight the man!”) out of it all together. Telling someone their CEO is a moron, or that their staff are idiots, or that their product is the dumbest thing you’ve ever experienced is immaterial to getting your problem fixed. Just tell them what specifically is wrong.

Include Solutions: Don’t just tell them everything that’s wrong with it, tell them ways to make it better. Even my actionable feedback could use some notes on what I “expected” out of the razor. Or there could be other things I should say about the razor to make sure they don’t change it in a way that just creates a new problem. It couldn’t hurt for me to have included a section talking about how I would like to see better blades, but that I DON’T like 5 bladed razors. Otherwise their answer to my complaint about the way the blades shaved could have been to just add more blades!


Just say no to emotion: When you include emotionally loaded phrases, catch phrases, and adjectives, it sets the person reading it on the defensive. Once they enter that mode, they are less likely to appropriately act on your feedback, and may attribute your comments to just “matters of taste”. You’re not trying to convert them, you’re just trying to tell them what you experienced. Make sure it reads that way.

Avoid using words/phrases such as: rediculous, ignorant, anyone can see, everyone knows, pointless, worthless, stupid, or other overly insulting/generalized descriptors meant to incite emotional response from the reader. The only emotional response you’re likely to get from them is being ignored.

Praise where praise is due: If there is something about their other products that they did well, include that! Maybe there was a design that they had in an older product that they scrapped because they didn’t think it was that important to the customer’s enjoyment. When you call these details out, it lets them know that perhaps it mattered more than they thought!

But be careful to not turn your feedback into a love letter of how wonderful they are and everything they do is normally perfect. Again - such comments are not actionable and just get boiled down to “likes”. Be specific, give examples, and point out what works and what doesn’t work for you.

I hope these tips help with your future feedbacking endeavours! Anyone can write feedback, but it’s important to write feedback that the reader can act on!



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