Author’s note: Thank you to Naomi Robbins, Eva Murray, Chris Love, Luke Stanke, & Steve Wexler for reviewing and providing helpful input to this blog post. That doesn’t necessarily mean they agree with everything in it. Just that they shared thoughts that helped shape what is shared here.

Tl;dr – If someone hasn’t asked you for feedback about something they’ve made, reach out in private first and ask them if they’re interested in hearing your thoughts. If they say ‘yes’, ask whether they’d prefer to hear your thoughts in public or in private. Then proceed with tact. If they say ‘no’, just keep it to yourself and move on. The world will keep turning.

I’ve been involved with the broader data visualization community for almost a decade now, and I feel that it has gotten stronger over the years. A few times every year a contentious debate surfaces. Often it revolves around a particular visualization or a technique that someone has put out there. That’s okay, and we need to have healthy debates and be able to disagree.

But it’s also important to be civil and considerate of one another. That doesn’t always happen in other online communities, and I think a big part of the reason why things get ugly is that people don’t go about giving constructive criticism with care. They just sit behind their keyboards and fire off their thoughts before taking time to think about how it will be received. I know I’ve been guilty of that on more than one occasion.

I have some thoughts on this, thoughts that have shifted recently, and I’d like to pose a question that I’ve seen discussed recently related to the topic of giving critique:

When, if ever, is it okay to give unsolicited, constructive feedback in public to someone who shares something they’ve made broadly online?

Before reading any further, think about how you’d answer this question. Try to put yourself in the shoes of both the giver and the receiver of feedback.

When Feedback Lands Well..

Now, I’d like to share a time this was modeled well for me.

About seven years ago, when I was just getting started in the data visualization community, I created a dashboard in Excel for a contest. It was an Excel contest run by Chandoo about visualizing salary data. I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could build something similar to a Tableau dashboard in Excel. It took me a long time to build my final submission, and it was like swimming in molasses for me. People like Chandoo or my friend Jorge Camoes could crank out this and ten times better in a fraction of the time that it took me to do it. Interactivity in Excel just wasn’t (still isn’t) my strong suit.

Here’s what I built:

My Excel salary survey dashboard from 2012

After blogging about my submission, I got an email in my inbox. It wasn’t from just anyone. It was from Naomi Robbins, author of ‘Creating More Effective Graphs‘, a book I had read and loved. She has a Ph.D. in mathematical statistics from Columbia University. She has served as chair of the Statistical Graphics Section of the American Statistical Association (ASA).

So to me, this was Naomi “effing” Robbins – a person I had never met, but someone who I admired greatly from afar. Just seeing her name in the From field was a thrill to me. It was exciting that someone of her experience and stature would be reaching out to me. That alone totally made my day.

She had seen my contest submission and blog post, and she was reaching out to give me feedback. Here’s the essence of her feedback to me:

  • She started the email by saying that she was reaching out privately because she didn’t want to affect the judging process of the contest, which at that point was still ongoing. A highly considerate start…
  • She then mentioned that she had no issue with how I was showing the data, but that she had an issue with what was being shown – averages (means) of salaries, and she explained why she had a problem with that – “incomes are not usually distributed symmetrically…”
  • She complimented me for using error bars, and she mentioned that she has noticed most data designers don’t.
  • She shared that she didn’t feel, however, that using +/- 1 standard deviations to create the error bars was the best approach.
  • She shared a reference to page 217 of William S. Cleveland’s ‘The Elements of Graphing Data‘ as further reading that could potentially help me.
  • She closed by stating that she hoped I was a person who’s open to receiving feedback.

What was my response to this? I felt honored that she would take the time, I felt respected that she cared enough not to affect the contest, and I felt educated by someone who knew more than me. I was elated.

Community Ideals…

Now, returning to the question I posed at the top of the blog post:

When, if ever, is it okay to give unsolicited, constructive feedback in public to someone who shares something they’ve made broadly online?

I have to admit, when I first thought about this question a few months ago, my immediate gut feeling was that a community where you can’t proactively give feedback would quickly become a “Love Fest”, which I wrote about a couple years ago. I feel as strongly now as I did then that this is something to avoid as much as the opposite extreme (the “Shark Tank”).

A 2016 diagram showing how communal growth happens when feedback is balanced

Notice that in my 2016 diagram above, what prevents the marble from falling from the top of the curve down into the “Love Fest” on the right is the barrier called “give constructive feedback.” We need to be able to give & receive feedback to help each other get better. How do we do that well, though?

There are two separate parts to it – the first part is figuring out whether or not a person is open to receiving constructive feedback from me. The second part, which is even more important, is to consider HOW to give the feedback. I want the feedback to be perceived as constructive rather than negative. The barrier on the left that prevents the marble from falling in the shark tank is titled “don’t be a bully.” How do I avoid being a bully when even well-intentioned advice or feedback can seem harsh to people? Getting the person’s green light upfront is a big part of it. Then it all comes down to choosing the right words.

A Shift in Thinking

The shift in my thinking happened when I recalled that first encounter with Naomi, who I’ve been lucky enough to become friends with since then. I asked myself how I would’ve felt if she tweeted her critique instead, or blogged about it without first reaching out to me. Or if she had approached me, even in private, with a measure of snark or arrogance. It would’ve been harder to receive that feedback well. I hate to think about it, but perhaps I would’ve become defensive or, heaven forbid, childishly critical in return. If you know Naomi and how simply wonderful she is, this is a scenario I just cringe to think about.

So I’m beyond grateful that she was as considerate as she was in that moment. And I’m glad that she modeled empathetic feedback for me, early in my time with the community. It’s a very effective way to interact with people who put their work in the public eye. It’s a nerve-wracking experience for people who make and share stuff, and each and every visualization has a very large number of opportunities for error, so it would be easy for the whole deal to become a shooting gallery of criticism.

A Possible Approach…

At the risk of over-thinking this, I’d like to put forward an approach that I’m going to try following in the coming year. I’m actually taking it one step further than Naomi did with me and, when the person hasn’t explicitly asked me for feedback, I plan on first asking them whether they’re interested hearing my thoughts. Then I’ll inquire as to how they’d prefer to receive it.

I’m happy to know if you agree or disagree with all or parts of this, and if you’d change it or add to it.

The scenario: I see something someone has created and published to the general public, and I either see an error, or an opportunity for improvement. What do I do?

A simple flow chart to determine whether and how to give feedback

I added the note about context at the top, “Context: a community of individuals sharing their own work”, because I believe the guidelines of engagement should be slightly different for news sites, governmental bodies, companies, non-profits, etc, that speak in a more official capacity than you or I as hobbyists or individuals with just our own voice. The rules might be actually more similar than different, by the way, and should still involve basic human decency and civility. But surely we should be able to call out grossly inaccurate reporting, outright propaganda, and heavily biased information put out by organizations without first getting their permission upfront.

Important Details…

Here are a few additional thoughts:

  • Be extremely careful about “subtweeting” or “sub-blogging” your critique – speaking in general terms about the issue you saw, but not referencing the specific work. This can work out, but it can also backfire. People have a way of sniffing out your true intention, and it creates a climate of hidden agendas and such.
  • If you’re an “influential” or a “leader” within a community (if you think you might be but you’re not sure, then you are), then approach these exchanges with great care and always err on the side of gentleness. Our words carry weight, and we can do a lot of harm or a lot of good with them.
  • If you make something and you ARE open to feedback in public, ask for it!! Just say “Hey, I made a thing, what do you think about it? Any ideas how to make it better?”
  • My friend Eva Murray, who provides lots of people feedback through the Makeover Monday project she helps to lead, gave me a further suggestion – be specific in requesting feedback.  What is it that you’d like people to give feedback on? Your use of color? The flow of the story? etc.

Open conversations about what works well and what works less well are amazing and many people benefit from them. So I encourage you, if you’re comfortable, to spark a debate about your own work from time to time. Know that some people will have ideas on how to improve it. You might agree with them, and you might not agree. That’s okay. You’ll learn a lot from the conversation because I know there are many smart people out there willing to share what they know and think. If you’re still new and not quite up for that sort of thing, that’s okay, too. You don’t need to feel like this is something you need to expose yourself to.

In Closing

So ultimately, after thinking all this through, I changed my original point of view on the lead-in question. At first, I would’ve said, “absolutely, we should be open to constructive criticism in public, and we should all be empowered to give it, with or without an invitation to do so.”

Now I’d say, be careful with constructive feedback, and only give it in public if the person has signaled that they want to receive it from you that way. Otherwise, reach out in private and ask whether they’re open to hearing your thoughts and having a conversation. Another great suggestion from Eva – “make sure to be very clear in your choice of words that you are critiquing their work/output/viz and not them as people or their choices to be part of a particular group.”

This comment really gets at HOW to give feedback well. People in general are shockingly willing to be harsh and unkind in their comments online, and to attack someone they’ve never met. We’d never treat a dinner guest that way. Why do we feel like we can talk to someone like that on the internet?

In a nutshell, let’s try to be a little more like Naomi by reaching out in private first, unless someone has made it clear that they’re inviting public feedback. We’ll continue to foster a safe and mutually beneficial space, and we’ll make some pretty cool friends in the process.