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Criticizing Our Colleagues: Tough, But Kind

by Chauncey E. Wilson
Chair, UPA Ethics Committee
chaunceywilson@verizon.net

I’m not used to writing editorials, but lately I’ve heard complaints from more than a few usability professionals about reviews of their work that were snide, hostile, and lacking in reasonable suggestions and this has moved me to speak out. These complaints deal with a primary activity of our profession: constructive criticism. We are often asked to uncover potential problems with products and processes and recommend design changes that could improve usability – using a tone that is firm and constructive. We are also asked to provide feedback to our usability colleagues in book, proposal, and presentation reviews. I have become concerned that feedback among usability professionals is not always as constructive as the feedback we routinely present to our clients. With the recent introduction of the UPA Code of Conduct, hostile reviews of the work of colleagues could be considered an ethical violation. More about that later.

Tone is a critical attribute of persuasive communications like the reviews that UPA members do for conferences, proposals, and speakers. In a 2001 AskTog essay entitled “How to Deliver a Report Without Getting Lynched”, Bruce Tognazzini describes how the tone of a report can affect the intended recipients. I think that the use of the word “lynched” is unfortunate, but the article points out that good reports don’t have to be filled with severe and threatening language to be taken seriously. Tog’s article focuses on usability reports to clients, but what he says is apropos to the reviews many of us do for authors, grant writers, and conference speakers. If you think of a professional review as a usability (and usefulness) report, then most of the advice Tog gives in his column applies with little modification.

Members of the UPA conference committee, among other groups of usability professionals, have noticed increasing numbers of online comments, and proposal and session reviews that contain snide comments masquerading as constructive criticism and attacks on the person rather than the work itself. As one senior UPA member noted:

“Sometimes a reviewer does not do a good job – that’s a problem with all conferences. The reviewer should not make snide comments. (I have to empathize; it happened to me a few years ago and kept me from putting a proposal in for a few years.)”

In this example, snide comments may have deprived UPA conference attendees of some useful information and soured a member on attending. It is possible, of course, for a junior or senior usability professional to submit a bad proposal and receive strong constructive criticism, but even rejections can be written in a manner that would provide the rejectee with sound advice and counsel.

Hostile or snide reviews violate the ethical principle “do no harm and if possible provide benefits” that is described in the UPA Code of Conduct for Usability Practitioners (http://www.upassoc.org/upa_projects/body_of_knowledge/upa-code-of-conduct-sept2004.pdf). Principle 3.1 states that “Usability practitioners shall take reasonable steps to avoid harming their clients or employers, study participants, and others with whom they work, and to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable.” In a professional society, the “others with whom they work” would apply to proposal writers and speakers at professional conferences. “Harm” could be defined as emotional or psychological distress from hostile, snide, or malicious attacks with little or no reasonable suggestions about how to improve a proposal, process, or presentation. Professional reputations, career prospects and client relationships can be harmed by hostile comments, often to a degree unanticipated by the reviewer. I would like to recommend that UPA professionals consider “do no harm and if possible provide benefits” as a guiding principle when reviewing the work of our colleagues.

The Code of Conduct principle that we should “do no harm” does not eliminate tough, constructive criticism. Here are some two examples of feedback that would be unacceptable and acceptable under the Code of Conduct. One example deals with whether the content has merit; the other example deals mostly with the organization of a presentation.

Unacceptable Acceptable
“This is really bad for the field.” (Sidebar on this type of comment) Sometimes events or activities that are labeled as “bad for the profession” are simply controversies in which the labeler disagrees. Consider a controversy over the teaching of usability. Is it bad to use short tutorials to teach our co-workers about usability? Does this create the belief that they don’t need us (or poorly done usability), or does it help them understand what we do and make them more open to our ideas? This is a great debate that has gone on since the 1980s (we had this debate at Digital Equipment Corporation around 1987), but if it’s couched in terms of “good or bad” it is not a constructive discussion. This proposal is based mostly on opinion. I would recommend that this proposal not be accepted The author has neglected many good sources related to this topic. Several of the best sources can be found in [names of several key articles]. The author might want to speak with [name] who has done work in this area and possibly consider a panel rather than a paper where opinions can be discussed and debated.
The panel discussion sucked big time. I didn’t learn anything from it. Two of the speakers said the same thing. This panel should never have been accepted!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The panel members did not seem to have any idea what the other panel members were going to say. The moderator let one panelist go on far too long. I would recommend that panel moderators be given guidance on keeping panelists to a schedule. The last panelist barely had time to introduce herself and was slighted by the poor time enforcement. The panel committee might recommend that panel moderators have a phone conference for each panelist to meet before the conference and go over their main points.

I worry that this editorial sounds preachy, but after 20 years in the field, I see the need for practitioners to deliver tough, but constructive professional reviews in a kind and ultimately, more persuasive manner.

References
UPA Code of Conduct.
http://www.upassoc.org/upa_projects/ body_of_knowledge/code_of_conduct.html.
Retrieved October 12, 2004.

Tognazzini, B. (April, 2001). “How to Deliver a Report Without Getting Lynched”
http://www.asktog.com/columns/ 047HowToWriteAReport.html.
Retrieved October 10, 2004.

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