Transparency is scary

03 October, 2017 6 minutes read

I was just reading a post on Ars Technica titled "Overwatch director says it’s “scary” to be open with players". The tl;dr on this one is that Jeff Kaplan, game director for Overwtach, posted a long replay on the game's official forums talking about the community backlash when developers post to the point they just holding back.

And if you'll allow me to speak openly for a moment -- it's scary. Overall, the community is awesome to us. But there are some pretty mean people out there. All of our developers are free to post on these forums. Very few of us actually do because it's extremely intimidating and/or time consuming. It's very easy to post the wrong thing and make a "promise" to the community that no one intended to make. Once we say we're working on something, we're not allowed to "take it back". It's set in stone.

As a product manager, I'm right there front and center; sitting on the meeting point of the people who use our product, the people who are actively building it and the business. I can tell you this first hand, there are some mean people out there. That said I feel like mean could be looked at through a very wide prism where some definitions of mean are actually beneficial, some even present opportunities.

50 shades of mean

First things first: Some people who use the product and leave negative feedback are downright trolls. In the daily effort to convert feedback to actionable items, with all the good will in the world, comments like "I hate everyone who has ever worked on this product, I hate every line of code in it" (true story 🙃) are something that is very hard to work with, so I keep a nice corner in my heart of those people, but that's about it.

But there are other types of "mean" I can definitely work with: I'm a great believer in the non-violent communication language\methodology\way-of-life so feedback like this is a gold mine to me -

JESUS BRING BACK THE OLD OOVOO. this is the only app i really used to use and now that it's gone i'm so mad and so is everyone else.

You could easily brush off this feedback as "mean" or "low priority since there's not a lot of information" but reading it now, even couple of days later I'm literally heartbroken. The first lens I'm going through when reading feedback is empathy. And this feedback makes it very easy for me - this person is upset and if he's upset, I am now upset.

With the latest update, we literally transformed years of habitual use and made simple actions this person used to doing and made them exponentially more complicated. Some to a point of confusing and being unusable! How dare those guys change something that was working perfectly well?!

I can so on a route of over explaining the business, the trends and the million and one reasons for the change (and I have, actually) but to this person who wrote the review, his life was changed and the first thing I could take in while reading this feedback is "this is really frustrating".

This form of feedback is the best way for people to assume some sort of control (even if perceived) over the course of the product's development and priorities

Now that I've put myself in this person's position and got a potential taste of his feelings, we can visualize and focus on his needs. He was used to another interface, perhaps is having a hard time to find functionality and that is actually feedback we can turn into actionable items. I wrote on this part briefly when I was talking about dealing with 1 start reviews, basically this type of feedback is one that enable us research, scale and act upon. It actually has the power to move the needle at scale, all out feedback that could be considered "mean".

Transparency is scary, but so worth it

Most great developers I know just love being head's down making or playing games. The "public speaking/posting" part of the job is downright scary and intimidating. It often feels like there is no winning.

I get it Jeff, transparency is hella scary. You start with the best of intentions of giving the community insight into the inner workings of the development team and outlook of things to come just to get a big ball of toxic goo thrown your way. And as a game director, you can handle it. But it's the team that is spending days, nights, weekends, holidays working and thinking about the game you are concerned about and rightfully so.

From my experience, negative community feedback doesn't have a direct effect on the development team. It's more of a cumulative effect that is slowly adding up to the daily grind of development and corroding through self confidence, sense of validation and overall faith in the (great) product.

And to that, my solution has always been - not only own it, double down on it.

What has always worked for me in a scenario where there in a large or rising amount of negative feedback is to be over communicative and over transparent. It's super scary path to take, especially in a negative environment.

When talking to users who left negative feedback about why they did it and what did they hope to achieve by doing that, I found out three major takeaways -

  • It's sometimes lack of trust or knowledge that leads people to leave negative feedback in hopes to get insight from the development team (pretty sure that was the case in the original post on the Overwatch Forums).
  • This form of feedback is the best way for people to assume some sort of control (even if perceived) over the course of the product's development and priorities.
  • More than actions, people who use the product needs to be listened to.

Out of those three, the third bullet is the one I struggle the most these days since "listened to" gave giving people the sense of security and trust is individual and is mostly around perception. The good news is that knowing my product's community, the channels they use to communicate and what they need, everything we have done on that have produced great results and feedback from the community.

I'll end with a product review we just got the other day that blew my mind -

I was about to rate 1 star and write a review about how ooVoo was lying about listening to us, but the first thing I saw was a fully thought out response on the first review. And many more replies on reviews. Now I realize what happened and that the team really are listening and trying to come up with a successful combination of old and new. I was so glad when I learned this. Thank you for really listening to us after all!! I can't wait for the result.

If that's not a reason to try hard every waking hour for the community, I don't know what is.