Feedback is Only Helpful When It’s Useful

This is a true story.

At my favorite Farmer’s Market – which is located on an actual working farm - the local Garden Club often has a booth selling bulbs for the coming year as a fund raiser. I stopped by the last time I was there. From left to right sitting under a tent behind a table, were three elderly women and one man.


“Would you like to buy some bulbs?” Woman #3 asked.


“I bought bulbs from you last year and the chipmunks kept digging them up, so I lost a lot of them by the time Spring came around. Does anyone have a suggestion as to how to get rid of chipmunks?”


“A fox will take care of them,” said the Man.


“Where am I going to get a fox?” I replied. He shrugged.


“Mint! I’ve heard that they don’t like mint,” said Woman #3.


“A dog will work,” said the Man.


“Unfortunately, I can’t afford a dog,” I said. He shrugged.


“My son-in-law created a trap. Decapitates them,” said Women #2. “You could do something like that.”


“Ick,” I replied.


“Mint, I’ve heard that they don’t like mint,” said Woman #3.


“I know!” exclaimed the man, “Get a snake! A brown or black snake.”


“Mint, I’ve heard that they don’t like mint,” said Woman #3. You could try wintergreen or grow some mint in that flower bed, or something like that.”


“Your suggestions are very unhelpful! I said to the man. “I can’t get a fox, I can’t afford a dog and I’m deathly afraid of snakes!” He shrugged.


“I hear they don’t like talcum powder. You could spread your garden with baby powder,” Women #1 finally chimed in.


“Yes, but then we would have chipmunks with vaginal cancer and then what would we do?” said woman #2.


All of the women laughed.


Stunned, I stood there and thought to myself: “This is the most useless conversation I have ever had!


And yet, I couldn’t help myself. I had to chime in and correct something.


“Actually,” I said to Women #1 and 2, “It’s ovarian cancer.”


Then, to the four of them sitting under a tent behind a table, on a farm, I cried, “Well – that was not helpful at all. Thank you!”


And, I walked away.


As an instructional designer and developer, I can’t tell you how many times I have received comments on work that I have created that are akin to the conversation above.


Things like:


“This doesn’t work.” Or “We need something different here.”


Ok. I’m happy to make you happy, but what do I do with this feedback?? Why doesn’t it work? Define ‘different.’ Because if you don’t, I can’t help you!


One time when this happened, I asked my client if it was ok for us to ask that the company we were designing for, to pay closer attention to the feedback that was being given to make certain that it was specific and actionable. Doing so, would save time.

The answer was “No.” The company was the client, and they could do whatever they wanted.


But if time is money, and we are wasting time with feedback that is unactionable which then causes a back-and-forth dialogue. . .


For me, that is just as much of a headscratcher as putting a poisonous snake in my garden.


Although I’ll have to think about giving those pesky chipmunks ovarian cancer. There might be merit in that…

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