Monthly Archives: April 2005

Imperfect Feedback Loops

In one of the comments on my Community Can Be Cruel entry, Karl said:

One of the problems with custom engagement in the forms of these blogs is that it makes the customer believe he or she might be able provide input which will ultimately have an effect on decisions taken. While this may be true in some cases, it certainly isn’t in others. This isn’t anything wrong on your part, and I certainly don’t want you to stop, it’s just hard sometimes for the community to accept that decisions have been made and that our arguments via feedback are, at best, good theoretical debates.

I think Karl’s right that people end up feeling this way, and it’s something that is partially unavoidable and partially due to the way this product cycle has run. On the unavoidable side of things, there’s no getting around the reality that when a complete consensus cannot be reached someone ultimately has to make the decision. To take the example of the default instances debate, we really did listen to all the comments that people made concerning the feature and discussed them seriously. And, belying our Borg reputation, there was a lively debate internally about the feature, with people on all sides of the issue. This included people who, I should say, voiced many of the same concerns and objections that community members did. In the end, though, a decision had to be made and one choice among the many chosen. I know that when a choice is made that doesn’t agree with your opinions, and especially when those opinions are shared among others in your particular network, it can seem very much like your opinion wasn’t listened to or valued even if was taken into full consideration. We do our best to try and let people know that we listened and be up front about our reasons for taking a different course, but some difficult feelings are probably inevitable.

That aside, though, I think that there has been an extra level of angst about feedback this time around due to factors that aren’t inherent in the development process. The nature of things is that many product design decisions are made well before a beta ever ships. While we always can and do make changes based on beta feedback, the truth is that some decisions are hard to change unless they are caught very early because of the size or the risk the change would entail. Similarly, by the time that a beta is out most of the new feature development time has been used up, so feedback on priorities (i.e. “I want feature x more than I want feature y.”) can be difficult to react to, especially if the features requiring significant development investment.

The problem with the Whidbey cycle is that many of the community engagements that we’re now using to gather feedback (forums, blogs, MSDN Product Feedback Center) didn’t come online until later in the product cycle. I believe the product feedback center came online during Beta1. The forums are coming online in Beta2. Even this blog didn’t really get going until the winter of 2003/spring of 2004. What this means is that a lot of the feedback mechanisms that many of you are participating in now didn’t exist early on in the product cycle when many of the critical decisions were being made. This isn’t to say that there was no feedback – we have lots of traditional feedback channels that were being consulted throughout the cycle – just that many of the communities that are now plugged directly into the feedback loop weren’t there. That’s the bad news. The good news, of course, is that as we approach the dénouement of this release and start gearing up to look beyond, you’re all going to be right there from the beginning.

And, finally, there have been some interesting rumblings from my management chain about moving towards an even more transparent development process in the future. How this will play out is unclear to me, but I think there may be some interesting experiments in community engagement coming…

Refactoring: For VB 2005!

As someone very wise once said, the problem with making confident predictions about the future is that time has a way of making a liar out of you despite your best intentions. The good news in this case, in case you haven’t heard it elsewhere, is that VB 2005 will have refactoring features! Both Brad and Cory have some good discussion on this and you can check out the official announcement on MSDN. Personally, I think this is just great and kudos to the VB folks and the Developer Express folks who made this happen.

I will also observe that the old debate appears to be settled for the moment, at least…

Community Can Be Cruel (or, If You Prick Us Do We Not Bleed?)

Something Josh Ledgard said struck me as he was talking about an angry email he got about the introduction of the new web-based MSDN Forums:

I’ve heard Scoble say it a lot… if you work at Microsoft… and you blog… you had better have think [sic] skin. My own experience suggests that having an active blog at Microsoft for any length of time pretty much guarantees you your share of mails like this and it does effect [sic] you… at least it effects [sic] me. Not to get too touchy-feely, but I’m not some Borg drone that doesn’t ever feel insulted. None of the MS Bloggers I’ve met are either. If you send us mail it ends up on the screen of a real person for better or worse. Please think about that before you press send. I’m not saying I’ve never offended anyone with my blog, IM, or e-mail but…

When I posted my latest entry on default instances (and I know I still need to respond to several of the comments left there), one of my coworkers sent me an email saying, more or less, “Ah, I see you’re the poor bastard who was elected to take the brunt of this.” By and large, though, I don’t have much of an issue with the responses that I got – as Josh/Scoble says, you have to have a pretty thick skin (or develop one really quickly) if you’re going to do anything that involves interacting with the community. Some people were definitely upset, but pretty much everyone was pretty reasonable about the whole thing.

But I think that sometimes there really is a dark side to customer engagement. While it’s easy to talk about how great it is to engage with the community, such engagement always comes at a human cost. Because ultimately one of the major features of the producer/consumer relationship is the power struggle that goes on between the two sides of the equation. The producers have generally free rein as to what they want to produce, but are dependent on the consumer to fork over their money for it. The consumers are free to spend their money however they like, but once they’ve bought into a particular product, they are dependent on the producer to give them what they want. Any relationship like this is bound to produce its fair share of unhappiness and anger at times for both parties. The problem is, where does that anger or unhappiness go?

As producers, we’re pretty much prohibited from taking out our anger or unhappiness on the consumer. Oh, sure, it happens, sometimes in a subtle or passive-aggressive way, but generally producers who treat their customers with disrespect like that are going to have a hard time finding customers. On the other hand, the consumer is pretty much free to vent their displeasure at the producer however they see fit because they know, generally, that the producer cannot return fire. This means that consumers are often free to treat producers (who are, after all, still human beings) with all manner of disrespect and contempt, safe in the knowledge that they will never be called on their behavior. Rare is the time when a producer is in the position to simply write off a customer due to their attitude (although, of course, there are limits).

So this is where being customer-facing (as you could call us Microsoft bloggers and newsgroup people and such) can turn nasty. There have definitely been customers who were just plain unpleasant to deal with – mean, nasty, totally unreasonable and completely without the basic respect that one should afford another simply on the basis of their shared humanity. I don’t mind admitting that they have caused more than a few episodes of anguish on my part, made worse by the fact that I was totally unable (and, I might add, personally unwilling) to express how I really felt about them. I doubt that they thought that I particularly liked them, but I doubt that they could know exactly what I was feeling as I was interacting with them.

Thankfully, though, those experiences have proven to be the exception rather than the rule. By and large our customers – even though who vehemently disagree with me on some issue or another – have been a pleasure to deal with. It’s never fun dealing with someone who’s upset or angry with some action that you or your company took, but as long as the conversation is held within the context of basic human respect for each other, it generally turns out to be nothing but a positive (if sometimes a difficult) experience. As for the jerks out there, well, what can you do? To use some pseduo-Latin (and hoping my high school Latin teacher never sees this!): Illegitimus non carborundum.

Answer their questions, win a LCD monitor!

So Devsource is running another trivia contest, this one to win a Dell LCD monitor. I don’t have any questions in the contest this time, but I thought I’d mention it because of the peculiar result my comment on the previous contest has had. Since the contest, I have gotten a steady stream of comments from people around the world who obviously Googled something like “win a laptop,” found my page, didn’t bother to read it, and just put in a plea for me to please, please, please send them a free laptop. Same goes for the entry that I wrote about an offer for a free VB book (at least that one’s slightly more plausible). So now I want to see how many comments I can collect here from people who want me to send them a free LCD monitor. Or maybe the Google competition’s going to be too fierce. (I’ve noticed my “win a laptop” entry has slowed down comment-wise, so I’m guessing I’m no longer high enough in the results.)