How to get better product feedback

Katie Cerar
Jul 26, 2018 · 4 min read

How often do you ask your coworkers for feedback on a product concept and fail to get what you need?

With a highly transparent culture at Shopify, we share a lot of our product concepts widely in Slack channels and in internal livestreams. Yet, I often hear product managers (and lots of other people, for that matter) complain that they don’t get the feedback they need.

If we keep doing the same thing, how can we expect different results?

Here are two questions and two skills that made a world of difference for me. These are simple ideas, but I think even a subtle shift can make a big difference in your ability to get the feedback you need at work.

Question 1: What kind of feedback do you want?

Sounds like a no-brainer, but many of us don’t go deep enough into this question. When I am asked for feedback, I usually hear “I’m looking for a gut check” or “just general feedback please”.

If that’s your typical answer, challenge yourself to think deeper next time.

One mental model I’ve used successfully is to be thoughtful about what “mode” I am in. (One lens you can apply to most products is the double diamond, I’d check it out if you’re not familiar). The type of feedback you’re looking for is different depending on your mode.

When you’re diverging or exploring broadly for potential problems or solutions, you need feedback on research methods and hypotheses, or on your approach to explore the space. But when you’re converging on the right choice, you probably want feedback on your prioritization methods and solutions.

Be explicit: do you want more ideas to help you explore more broadly? Are you looking for help narrowing your choices and prioritizing? Or, are you actually looking for feedback or buy-in on your decision?

Question 2: Why?

An even better question is: Why do you want that kind of feedback and what outcome are you looking for?

Fundamentally all of us are trying to make our product better.

But there are other reasons to ask for feedback. Are you looking to learn more about concepts and frameworks that you’re less familiar with? Are you trying to gather context from other parts of the organization? Are you hoping to establish a network of people in other areas of your company who can advocate for your ideas? Are you hoping for air cover for a controversial decision?

Be honest with yourself, because your different answers should shape how you ask for feedback and who you approach. If you know your why, you can also reflect later about whether your tactics worked and how to iterate on them.

Skill 1: Bring the right thing

Once you know what kind of feedback you’re looking for and why, be thoughtful about what you’ll bring to your feedback session.

At Shopify we use short, formatted “briefs” as a standard way to convey the purpose of products and to stimulate debate. However, just because you have a standardized document like that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to share to get feedback.

The thing you bring to the table will change the feedback you get in return.

For one, the fidelity of the thing dictates the fidelity of the feedback. If you bring something that seems done with a lot of details filled in, you will inevitably find that the feedback you get will be of similar levels of detail.

If you bring a list of prioritized features, you’ll get feedback on those features and probably less feedback on the problem you’re trying to solve.

You’ll also get different kinds of feedback depending on your artifact’s perceived “doneness”. If you look like you’re done, many people won’t feel it’s appropriate to challenge the problem you’re solving.

You can bring the exact same material as a conversation, whiteboard sketch, document, or polished prototype. Bring the level of doneness that allows people to feel comfortable challenging the thing you want them to challenge.

What does this mean, practically? Bring the artifact that’s at the level of detail and doneness for the feedback you want. Or, consider stripping out detail to create a new artifact that focusses on the things you care about most.

Skill 2: Ask for what you want

This may be the most critical thing you can do — be explicit about the answers to Questions 1&2. What kind of feedback are you looking for, and why?

No matter the medium, start every conversation with answers to these two questions. You may want to tailor how you frame them based on the experiences and biases of the person you’re talking to (consider your audience!) but at its core these questions will focus your conversation.

Track how you’re doing

Like any skill, you can purposefully get better about feedback. One way to do this is to keep simple notes about how feedback sessions have gone.

For each session, record:

  • What kind of feedback do you want?
  • Why?
  • What artifact(s) did you bring? (links or photos are good enough)
  • Who did I ask?
  • How did I ask?
  • What feedback did I get?

These notes are valuable for tracking feedback but also a great, lightweight way to consciously get better. Reflect early and often to find places to improve.

Good luck and happy feedbacking.

I work as a Sr. Product Manager at Shopify Plus. If you want to learn more about working in Product at Shopify (spoiler: I fucking love it) then please reach out on Linkedin. You can find our awesome career openings at https://www.shopify.com/careers/locations/waterloo

Katie Cerar

Written by

Senior Product Manager, automation @ Shopify Plus. Great hobbies like lifting heavy things, cat wrangling, and coffee drinking. Recovering UX Designer.