How to Handle User Outrage
Reacting and incorporating negative feedback
Summary: Humans are wired to resist change. Designers and Engineers observe this resistance firsthand when building the future. This article discusses how to manage negative user feedback, and how impact bias distorts our perceptions to overestimate the severity of future states.
In Daily Life
Carlos’s last meeting of the day has run late. It’s placed him in the unfortunate position of arriving late to dinner with his partner and his partner’s manager.
Carlos’s mind starts jumping to conclusions. He thinks of how his tardiness will reflect poorly on his partner for months to come. He won’t be able to make up for it until the next time his partner’s boss invites them to dinner. It could be months, or not at all! Carlos’s mind has started to spiral. He assumes his tardiness will have a bigger impact than it truly will.
Users often assume that removing features, changing information architecture, or introducing new interaction flows will cause friction that is both more severe and longer lasting than it really will be. In psychology, we call this impact bias.
The anger from interaction changes has become commonplace: Facebook groups assembled to protest changes in the user interface, XKCD posted a comic about growing older and hating UI changes, and changes to app icons have become mainstream discussions.
Making the Most of Negative User Feedback
After any update, users will be frustrated with new features, design choices—or at the most basic level—the fact the product changed at all.
Your goal is to make the best product for your user’s longterm success. This means taking rash feedback with a grain of salt while continuing to prioritize next iterations.
Things to do when facing a wave of negative feedback:
Follow up with research sessions after 2–3 weeks have passed. Asking for opinions too quickly after launching a controversial feature often disrupts research because users may still be affected by the impact bias.
After a few weeks, sit down and conduct usability benchmarks, listen to feedback, and prioritize adjustments. The feedback will be less mired in their initial emotions surrounding the change.
Use quantitative data to review the use, engagement, and efficacy of any new design. Contrast the qualitative feedback with detailed metrics. Quantitative evidence is not to be used alone, but it can be extremely insightful to determine whether negative feedback is from a vocal minority or if it’s a wider sentiment (and if it changes over time).
Refer to user research and evidence first used to support your decisions. Large scale negative feedback may be a sign that there is a user type being ignored. Use negative feedback as a gateway to more user research sessions. Move quickly to address persistent problems with small changes and tweaks.
Have a Plan B
In some rare instances, a newly implemented feature prevents a user type from doing their job. Be prepared to rollback to a previous version of the product, or offer a way for users to opt-out of the update. Most importantly, be ready to communicate this course-change. These rollbacks may further disorient your user, and shouldn’t happen with regularity. If they do, it is a sign of a bigger problem.
Use Your Words
Talking to users around upcoming product changes is paramount. For enterprise or B2B users, communicate big changes with as much forewarning as possible. This communication helps ease the impact bias, and helps users focus on the long term benefits of these changes. Initial communications can also spark design validation sessions with concerned customers.
Clear communication during these changes will ease frustration. Have those who managed the release (designers, product managers, and engineers) staff the feedback channels immediately following launch. Not only will it build strong insight, the entire team will deepen their user empathy. It’s also essential to speak with user-facing teams (like support and account management) about upcoming changes.
If you have done your research and validated your designs, you should be confident in your product decisions. With any launch, be ready to listen, and remember to take off-the-cuff feedback with a grain of salt. React appropriately and with a mind to the longterm future of your product.
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