Generally speaking, we are all really good at saying “this sucks”, “that needs work”, “this is old and outdated”, but, collectively speaking, we are not very good at actually providing meaningful criticism.

Everyone that works in software development, design, and implementation has personal opinions about what they love and don’t love about the software they use.

I love that Sublime Text 2 is exceptionally light weight and works really well for me. I hate that Windows servers still causes me more problems than Apache servers. I love that my iPhone is still my favorite piece of tech, even if I’m not absolutely in love with iOS 7.

This morning I read an opinion post on WPMU.org about how the major new improvements planned for WordPress 3.8 are boring and show a lack of innovation from WordPress, especially when put up against Ghost or Medium, both of which are relatively new platforms built around the idea of creating a better online writing experience.

Before going any further, I want it to be clear that I am not arguing for or against Ghost, WordPress, or Medium or any of the improvements (or lack of improvements) being made in any of the platforms.

I want to talk about criticism, that’s it.

When we break it down, there are two main types of criticism (actually many, many more):

  1. Constructive criticism
  2. Destructive criticism

To put it simply, constructive criticism is when you make a negative statement about something and then back it up with suggestions for how to improve the negative. And destructive criticism is when you simply state that something is bad.

As a developer of many different products, there is little that irritates me more than to hear someone make a statement like the following:

This plugin sucks, just use X, Y, or Z instead.

Obviously it hurts my ego a bit to hear things like that said of things I’ve built, but it bothers me more because I want to know the why.

Why did the plugin suck? Why should you use X or Y instead? Why did you find it difficult to use? All of these are questions that I, the developer, want to know the answer to when I hear destructive criticism like this.

Telling someone that their system is poor is worthless feedback if you do not also give at least one reason it is poor. Take the following for example:

The UI in X plugin is old and outdated.

What does that tell the developer or designer of the UI? One thing and one thing only: the UI maybe hasn’t been keeping up with trends. That doesn’t even mean that it is bad, just that it’s not trendy.

Is that a bad thing? Maybe. Could it be improved? Probably.

If you have taken the time to acknowledge that something is bad, you have already determined a minimum of one aspect that is poor (or does not fit with your personal taste).

Even though developers do not necessarily enjoy hearing about what is wrong with their product, it can be extremely useful information.

The UI of the edit screen is clunky and a bit difficult to use. Adding just a little space around the element would help a lot.

With this example, the person making the critique has told me what they don’t like and made a suggestion at how to improve it. Whether the suggestion is good or not is completely irrelevant. The point is simply that they have made an effort to provide an idea at how to improve it.

It’s that simple point that bothered me about the opinion piece on WPMU.org this morning: there was no effort put forth at all to suggest how WordPress could be made less boring or how it could better compete with more trendy products, such as Ghost or Medium.

Each person is absolutely entitled, with no exceptions, to their own opinions, but spouting your dislike for a product, or an aspect of the product, without also providing at least minimal suggestions for how to improve it is a pretty poor way to show dislike.

Cory Miller put it well this morning when he replied to my initial tweet:

I tend to think the world would be a better place w/ more constructive feedback, otherwise it’s just bitching, which anyone can do.

Even though it takes an exceptionally small amount of time to realize one reason you don’t like a product, it is monumentally more meaningful to the creators of that product when you include your suggestion in the criticism.

  1. Gregg

    Thank you Pippin for taking the time to write this post. I too read the post up on WPMU and just felt this writer does not know the WordPress Community I know. As a whole I have found most folks in the community to be giving sharing and from a positive direction. I have shared your post on several meetup groups Facebook pages. Hopefully many more folks will read it.

  2. Jason Tucker

    Pippin, I agree with Gregg, I do t know the writer but it does seem that they don’t know the same WP community I know and love. I’ve also have used Squarespace, tried installing ghost (and find a host that I already interact with that can support it) and have read content from medium. All of the have their flaws, unease of use in some regards and all have an ultra slick interface.

    I think the challenge for WordPress is to come up with new and innovative without changing so much at a time and fustrate the users or the deva working with it. I’m really interested in seeing and working with what comes up next.

  3. Ed

    Yeah man my first reaction to destructive criticism is “F YOU”. Then I consider the source and look into who that person is.

    For example not too long ago I got a terrible and damaging review of one of my plugins. I looked at other reviews this A hole left for other plugins and this was his pattern: If he had trouble figuring out how to use something in a plugin he bashed it. He did this consistently on a number of very high rated plugins. So this person leaves nasty reviews whenever he personally fails himself. I think that is pretty typical/standard behaviour for humans with low intelligence. Or humans that feel intimidated, threatened, scared, etc. It is a defensive reaction to the Inadequacy that they subconciously feel about themselves. And then you have the jealous and flat out mean folks – they are in essence just nasty people and get a sense of power by dumping on other folks.

    For all the other wonderful and great folks in the world there is this factor: If a wonderful and great person is having a bad day then the likelihood that that person will say or do something totally uncharacteristic of their true nature is much more possible. Been there done that, but in those rare occasions over the years where I was an idiot I am quick to follow up ASAP with an explanation, apology or whatever else is necessary to correct my momentary lapse into idiocy. Luckily this painful experience has only occurred a few times over the years.

    Anyway what I force myself to do now is wait before responding to an idiot or wait when I feel the need to be an idiot. Usually a few minutes or re-reading or re-thinking something results in clear thinking that then results in the appropriate response. It’s a bitch being human sometimes. ha ha ha.

    • Pippin

      There is definitely some truth to the idea that people that consistent leave destructive feedback are often “nasty” people, but often times they also simply do not know better, even though they are a perfectly fine human being.

      Realizing that when angry, frustrated, or even just annoyed, one of the best things you can do is take a step back is a lesson we all have to learn at some point or other. I definitely learned it the hard way :D

  4. Ed

    oops left out one more category: Intentional sabotage / intentional slander. These are easy to spot and I laugh at these now. ;)

  5. Devin Walker

    I read through the WPMU post this morning and also had mixed feelings about what he’s saying. I think he did make some good points, but did completely fail to back it up with constructive suggestions. This isn’t the first post like this on WPMU. I think they try to get their voice out there even if it means being very controversial. Good rebuttle.

  6. Ed

    Wow! I just read the WPMU article – holy #@$%. She falls into the category of low intelligence, lack of insight, surface level thinker, etc. Obviously not a coder and obviously does not have a clue about what happens in the background and is only aware of the “click here” button, but has no idea what makes everything work. ha ha ha.

  7. rick

    While I see your point and generally agree with it I think there’s a place for saying “Things are rotten in Denmark” without taking on the burden for delineating how everything should be fixed.

    WP *does* feel like it’s moving slowly. Some of that is due to how complex it is at this point. However, the admin publishing UI *is* old and could use an overhaul. The team seems to want to fix things as they are versus reimagining them (cf the proposal to redo Dashboard vs asking if Dashboard should even be a default thing anymore).

    Now that I’ve pointed that out as my opinion am I necessarily required to detail how I feel it should be fixed? I think not. It might be good if I did, but there can be value in saying “Hey everyone, there’s a problem here. I don’t know exactly how to fix it, but let’s not ignore it.”

    • Pippin

      There is a very large difference between explaining everything that is wrong and pointing out one example area that could use improvement.

      Are you required to explain what you think needs improved with the WP dashboard? No, most certainly not, but your feedback becomes much, much more valuable the moment you choose to do that.

      To me that’s the key.

      There’s nothing mandatory about leaving feedback or how the feedback is given, but if a person wants their feedback to be meaningful and to hopefully contribute to making a real improvement, some specifics are needed.

    • Rick

      But how many specifics? That’s the question. For example, clients find the posts/pages thing confusing and many find managing media confusing. The UI adapts minimally to differing roles, mainly by exposing or hiding menus. Do I need to provide detailed propsals as to how to fix this? Obviously it would help, but to me there’s a utility in saying “Hey, people are finding it confusing to… (manage media, etc)” even if the person raising the issue doesn’t have the expertise to know how it should best be fixed.

      Long ago I did tech support for software and we’d both aggregate feedback so there was data about what issues people were facing and we’d also write reports so there were more details. tech support obviously doesn’t fix the issues… but the product team found it valuable to have that information.

    • Pippin

      That’s entirely up to the person leaving the feedback.

      Simply put, my point is this: any feedback that includes some specifics is better than feedback that includes no specifics.

      A person does not need to know how to fix a problem to be able to identify there is a problem. If you can identify a problem or pain point, then you have already made a decision at what would make it better.

    • Steven Bradley

      I don’t think you have to know how to fix the issue. I think this is just about saying why something is a problem or how it isn’t working instead of just saying there’s a problem. It’s like Pippin said, the more specific you can be about what’s wrong, the more you help whoever is going to be fixing the problem.

  8. Ed

    LOL I just noticed that “Colleen’s…” pic used on that WPMU article is just some random pic that was added to that article. That in itself is kind of strange and misleading. I guess the goal of the article is more along the lines of intentional slander or just a flame article to boost traffic or in other words – worthless and useless to the public.

  9. Kathleen

    Good one, Pippin!

  10. eric k

    What a douche post on WPMU. Considering WP pays their bills its kind of like biting the hand that feeds you.

    • Pippin

      I really have no issue with calling out faults or worrying about a lack of innovation. It’s the lack of constructive criticism that spurred me to write this.

  11. donnacha of WordSkill

    Nothing coming from wpmu.org is sincere criticism, guerilla marketing is deep in their company’s DNA, right back to their choice of domain.

    By launching constant broadsides against the WordPress community, and attempting to frame himself as David vs Goliath, James Farmer gains priceless publicity, your article included.

    It is interesting that no-one ever writes critical articles in the other direction, despite the fact that the WPMUdev product line is seriously troubled, they have problems retaining skilled coders and their planned switch in emphasis from plugins to themes, which was used to justify a doubling of subscription fees earlier this year, has not yet materialized.

    By continuing to “fight up” and fostering an us-vs-them atmosphere, Farmer distracts from his own problems and keeps his customers, and even his staff, on tilt. I don’t actually mean this as a criticism, if I was trying to juggle the same problems I would probably use the same tactics, I am just saying that it is important to recognize the agenda behind these articles and filter the attention you gift to them accordingly.

  12. Viktoria Michaelis

    I, too, have had my fill of negative and destructive criticism. It is one thing to speed through the Internet – short attention span, if it doesn’t work right now, move on – quite another to put a little thought behind a critical comment and, it seems, even harder to put constructive criticism into words.

    I disagree with the writer’s idea that the Dashboard is falling back. What we have is a utility which should be easy to use and not scare people away. It is the working base for each and every post we create and needs to be simple, easy to handle. The Dashboard has that at the moment. If the developers build every single possible plug in into the core it will become unwieldy and difficult to use, and that would be a bad thing, especially when integrated plug ins need to be updated.

    Perhaps it isn’t pretty enough? Again, it is a utility, and not a sign we hang out for all to see when they come visit us. Pretty is needed elsewhere, simplicity and good functionality is needed at the Dashboard level, and that is what we have.

  13. Steven Bradley

    Thanks for writing this Pippin. Years ago I took a course in fiction writing. We’d all pass around a short story or poem or whatever you were writing to be critiqued by the rest of the class. There was a specific way everyone was to critique each other. The key was that we’d list 3 things we particularly liked and 3 suggestions for improvement. Not 3 things we didn’t like, but 3 suggestions for how to make the story better.

    Most people in the course didn’t really put in the time, but I took the suggestion part seriously and put in a lot of time trying to figure out how to make everyone else’s work better.

    The best part was that in spending time trying to help others I learned more about writing than I did by having my own work critiqued. When you put in the time to solve any problem you get that much better. I realize much of this is about helping the person you’re critiquing, but most people miss how much they can benefit by putting in that extra effort.

  14. Johnny Akzam

    Pippin-

    This post really sucked!

    I have seen much better posts by other developers, talking about completely different things.

    Hey man, I’m just kidding. I thought you could use a good laugh, after all the serious comments. As developers at Jagged Edge Media, using some of your very useful plugins to help the experience along, I agree 100%.

    Of course we are just getting started out. But I decided to try and cut the criticizers at the knees, by offering Feature Request Rewards. It’s just a simple system I created to have people fill out a form with their suggestion for additions, features or even new plugins, and then offer rewards for Pro credits and others.

    As far as the complainers: with such global reach, in our industry, no matter how well written, no matter how nicely put, and no matter the sincerity of the appeal, some people just complain to complain to get a rise out of others or because they are miserable themselves.

    • Pippin

      I love that idea. I like to offer free license keys for commercial plugins to users that submitted bug fixes, or ones that heavily contributed to fixing a bug.