A beginner’s guide to feedback

July 5, 2011


Listening (or not). Image via Dyanna on flickr

I’m a huge fan of The Apprentice. (Don’t know if you get this outside the UK – reality TV show about would-be entrepreneurs, working on new money-making ‘tasks’ every week)

The Apprentice is highly instructive on many levels, but I’m particularly enthralled by the candidates’ approach to customer research. Every week, the candidates will usually talk to a small group of potential customers about their ideas. And each week I watch, slack-jawed, as the candidates utterly fail to listen to the customers. Ever.

People struggle with feedback

In the case of Apprentice candidates, they are so taken with their insane ideas that they seem incapable of absorbing any information that might result in a slight adjustment to their thinking.

‘Sure, they say it will never work but we can be the first to make it work!’ (‘Everydog: The one dog food for every dog!’)

Failing that, they just rubbish the research itself.

(On the men who hated their men’s magazine idea) “What we need to bear in mind is that our focus group was quite focused.”
(On the concept of Biscuits: The New Popcorn?) ‘What do 10 people in Cardiff really know anyway?’

(I’ve seen that one a lot)

Listening is hard.

Really, really hard.

Especially when all your hopes are pinned on one outcome.

How do you start to listen, when you’re so fearful of a negative response?

Untangle your ego from the process.

It needs a certain confidence to hold back from rushing to the answer, opening up the possibility of a different response.  Hearing the message and treating it properly.  Exploring the reaction and what drives it.

It is the hardest thing in the world to expose your precious ideas to scrutiny, and yet it has to be done.

We didn’t explain it properly.
The prop didn’t really give the flavour of the real thing.
They’re not really our target market.
Apparently Apple don’t do any research, and they’re the market leader.
People never respond well to innovative products.

All of these things have a degree of truth to them, and yet they’re not the whole of the matter.

You need to stop and listen, beyond the rabble of voices, the industry magazines and the Powerpoint analysis.  It’s not about blind reaction, it’s about thinking and sorting through the insights.  Listening creatively. And knowing your product. Placing your own strong emotions to one side.

Put some clear space around your idea.

Where is your idea, at its best? What are the strengths that could make it soar?  What are potential customers saying about it?  Do they care what it solves, how it’s used, when it’s delivered, whether it comes in blue, or whether they could really love it? How does it make people feel?

The clues are right there, if you listen carefully.


I’d love to know if you have any tricks for working through the feedback that you receive.  How do you decide what is meaningful and what is irrelevant or ephemeral?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

AnnMcM July 6, 2011 at 5:00 pm

As a former focus group facilitator… I love this post. It was easy in an academic environment when I was pretty impartial to findings, but when its more ‘personal’ feedback, its more difficult


Ali Mac July 6, 2011 at 9:58 pm

You were a facilitator? *high-fives* 

I spent years driving up and down the motorway and eating dodgy sandwiches.  When there were observers in the back room, it was fascinating to see that they often came to entirely different conclusions – it was genuinely very difficult for them to take on feedback and know what to do with it.


Nancy July 6, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Hi Alison, I love this post!  It is so hard to let go of a preconceived notion, whether it’s in favor of discovering something better or not.  Then there is the other layer about what filter to use, to sort feedback.

In my case I can say that it depends upon my goals for requesting the feedback, and also my goals for the project.  Usually I am hoping for honesty and to learn the customer experience as best they can articulate it, but there can be other filters as well.

No one wants space around anything to which they are deeply attached!  They want to cling forever, failing to realize that what they hold so closely might not be a life jacket after all — it could be a stone.

All that said, to deeply listen to another requires a truly open mind.  We are so trained to expect “instant everything” that the patience it takes just to listen fully and deeply to another is a skill we may be forgotten along the way.  Building relationships takes time; for those who are willing to invest there are deep rewards, but for those seeking instant gratification, only disappointment.


Ali Mac July 6, 2011 at 10:02 pm

What an interesting answer.  I think you’re right – we can be far more detached about other people but cling to our own world view. So often we want approval, yet the best thing to do might be to spin the idea a little and make it novel.

I think you can go a long way though by paying attention to your own wants and needs as (say) a customer.  We’re not usually so different. Except when we are ;-)


Loralee Hutton July 6, 2011 at 10:13 pm

I love being in focus groups & I embrace receiving feedback.  But you’re so right Ali, when it’s a critique of something your personally attached to it can be very hard to listen.  What I’ve been doing recently is taking the feedback that “feels like” it’s attacking my ego, and setting it aside for 48 hours.  I then print it off and look at it again with fresh eyes (away from a computer) and see what I can take away from it.  Imagine where this person was coming from when they provided this feedback, etc.  If I can step into their shoes for a moment, maybe I can find a way modify my approach. 
My career job was in the software industry and we lived and breathed based on customer feedback.  I don’t imagine they would have stayed in business very long with the approach taken on the Apprentice :)  ~ Loralee


Ali Mac July 11, 2011 at 9:51 am

I like that advice – taking away the negativity and leaving it for a while.

The best approach to feedback that I’ve seen was the approach taken by some folk I met once who ran science communication events for schools.  They saw feedback as a real gift, and I think it’s because they’d cultivated a kind of involved detachment that allowed them to weight the feedback appropriately.  They didn’t get too cast down by negative comments or buoyed up by positives – underneath, they had a strong sense of their own worth. I think that’s the key to being able to use feedback strongly.


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