Over the years I've noticed there are a few pieces of user feedback you can pretty much count on when you relaunch a website. Most developers are familiar with these comments and have learned to breathe deeply and not freak out.

However many of our clients have not seen it all before and do freak out. They'll read a few comments and start asking to change everything. It takes a lot of reassurance for them to leave the site alone for a while, to let users get a feel for the new site.

In any case, I thought it might be fun to run through the pearls of wisdom you will probably get once you open up for comments... and the people behind them :)

loyal fan: unconditional love

"New site is awesome!"

This is great, enjoy it. Just keep in mind that some people will love the new site purely because it has changed. You could produce something ten times worse and still get this feedback, since a change is as good as a holiday.

Should you pay attention? Well sure, since an improved site should attract nice comments. Just remember that it may not mean you've got everything right :)

curmudgeon: unconditional hate

"New site is shit! Why did you change? Put the old site back!"

No matter what you do, some people will hate the new site purely because it changed. They'll hate the colours, the fonts, the structure and navigation. They'll complain bitterly about people who don't know when to leave things alone and say 'if it ain't broke don't fix it'.

Sometimes they'll have a point about something which has actually changed for the worse. Other times they just fear change.

Should you pay attention? Not unless your entire user base complains. Otherwise just keep an eye out for any reasonable points which slipped in between the bile.

speed cop: has the stopwatch on the new colour scheme

"New site is so much faster!" and "New site is so much slower!"

You could produce a site which loads in precisely the same amount of time as the old one; and some users will still be convinced that it is faster or slower. I kid you not, this effect is amplified if the new site is red.

Should you pay attention? Yes and no. If users are reporting problems, you should investigate. But don't simply take their word for it - you should run some tests before and after launch and get some hard data. Load time can be measured, so measure it!

armchair expert: knows better than project staff

"You should use a serif font to make the body text more readable, duh! Don't you know anything about typography?"

"You are all morons. I could do better than this in my sleep. Send me a copy of the website and I'll rebuild it over dinner tonight."

This sort of feedback is a minefield. Sometimes they're spot on, other times they're miles off. When they're wrong it's really hard for staff to argue against it, since the user can sound so well informed. When they're right it can be embarrassing - someone missed something, or the client vetoed the developers who said the same thing.

Should you pay attention? You should definitely pay attention to the points they raise, but don't automatically assume their conclusions are right or think you are required to reinvestigate things you've already addressed. When it comes to the crunch you should trust the people who were actually hired to do the job. Plus, ideally you should also have user research and other data to back up the decisions that were made.

Remember: it's the net. You don't know who is on the other end. It might be a web professional giving you a little freebie consultation; but it might also be some freak reading Don't Make Me Think and smoking crack.

Evaluate carefully!

Comment spotters should keep their eyes peeled for the professor of irrelevant studies variation on this theme. Watch out for "I've been teaching programming/screen printing/comparative religion for fifteen years, so I am an expert on web design".

lazy navigator: can't find page x, didn't actually look

"I can't find the deciduous-tree-praising haiku section, I hate this site, you suck."

This feedback can mean one or more of several things. First, if you intentionally removed the content the user wants it back; no matter how obscure the page there was someone who adored it. Second, if it's still there, it might be hard to find. Third, the user may not have made any attempt to find it; and since it's not on the homepage they chose to complain instead of look. Fourth, the user may have simply looked at the old location; received a 404 and sent you a complaint. The list goes on.

Should you pay attention? Well if you misjudged the popularity of some removed content, you should evaluate the pros and cons of bringing it back. If there's a massive red button on every page, marked "deciduous-tree-praising haiku", then you might conclude the user hasn't really tried to get to grips with the new site. But if you get lots of people saying they can't find anything, you might need to change the site.

Just don't decide the entire navigation approach should be scrapped because one single user couldn't find something.

dismissive nitpicker: hates one detail, declares relaunch a failure

"The footer text should be one point larger. This entire site is terrible, what a waste of time."

Some people will hate your entire site because one specific feature ticks them off. There's not a lot you can do about this since you generally can't prompt them to comment on anything else.

Should you pay attention? Depends on the specific detail. If you only have one feature and everyone hates it, you've got a problem. If the detail is "I'm disabled and can't use this site" then you should find out where you went wrong. However if they're talking about the specific shade of blue you used for the bottom border of the navigation, you can probably let it go. Unless you get heaps of comments about the same thing.

how to deal with feedback

So anyway, you will get feedback. You'll like some comments and hate others; you'll find genuinely good ideas and totally ridiculous suggestions; you'll get warm glows and horrible lows. It is hard to read negative feedback.

Some thoughts to help you cope with user feedback:

  • You should seek user feedback! Put a call for feedback front and centre. This is a good thing to do.
  • For every person who comments, there are hundreds more who won't. Comments take time and people are busy.
  • People who are angry or don't like the site are far more likely to comment than people who are happy or unconcerned about the changes.
  • You can use the feedback point to gently point people towards the positive features of the site which address their concerns. But don't fall into angry rebuttals - save that for the pub afterwards, when users can't hear you.
  • You will get upset when you read the negative feedback. You've invested a lot of time/money/effort and it will feel very personal. So it's often a good idea to read it, say and do nothing, go for a walk and have another look tomorrow.
  • Look for common complaints, don't act on lone curmudgeon complaints.
  • Don't simply dismiss all complaints. We're not perfect, neither are our sites.
  • If you respond, don't do it when you're angry. Be calm and very plainly state your reasons for what you've done. If you do plan to take an idea on board and make a change, gracefully thank the user for their input.
  • Enjoy the praise! You've earned it.

We all have to deal with user feedback and the experience is a mixed bag. Take comments with a little dash of humility and humour, and a whole lot of grains of salt.