Sign by David Shrigley, seen in Glasgow

I noticed a weird thing recently about which kinds of interactions with companies and organizations are normal to have and talk about, and which are less so. If you tell people how you complained vehemently about some supposed wrong you were done or incompetence you suffered, they generally sympathize a lot (the exception being verbal abuse). If you tell people about how you made an unsolicited suggestion for improvement, they react like you're a bit of a weirdo — something about it seems unusual to many.

This is completely at odds with what things look like on the other side. At a former employer, I was in direct contact with many customers, and subsequently closely involved in product/software. Lots of loud complaints we got were unfounded, while many UX pitfalls and bugs went unnoticed for a long time because we never heard about them.

Complaints happened because people misread reasonably clear explanations, didn’t agree with openly stated company policies and standard procedures, or had made a mistake on their end and wanted you to fix it for them. On the other hand, those affected by bad UX or subtly wrong code either gave up, didn’t see anything wrong, or couldn’t imagine things being better than they were, and never reached out to us.

Every once in a while, you’d get to deal with a customer admitting their own mistakes, or a user carefully reporting some bug or thing they thought might be better and making concrete suggestions of what they thought was going on or how things might work better. Both were a breath of fresh air every single time they happened (even if you ended up disagreeing with them!).

What normally happens instead is that people, by default, avoid talking/writing to companies they are dealing with — until something goes so wrong panic and/or anger take the driver’s seat and something has to be done about it right then and there. As long as things are OK(-ish), they choose to mind their own business instead — there’s probably a good reason this is that way, there’s probably someone working on it anyway, they probably know about it already.

There’s a similar trope in teaching that comes up again and again: People in the audience will usually be confused by some nuance or not understand some concept, and keep silent because they think they’re the only one in the class who doesn’t get it. As soon as one person asks about it, it almost inevitably turns out a significant portion of students were having trouble with the same point, but didn’t want to be the one to ask and hold up everyone else.

While attention and time are scarce, dealing with a single message also doesn’t take too much time, and recipients are often happy to just forward something internally to be looked into by the right people. Companies that are smart about customer experience even go to great lengths to make sure feedback channels like this stay open as they scale up. Jeff Bezos would famously often forward emails from customers to him to the people in charge with a single question mark. Basecamp and Zapier have software engineers do rotations on customer support teams periodically.

So if you’re reading all this and are a somewhat thoughtful person reluctant about reaching out to the organizations you regularly deal with until things are urgent — chances are you should be a bit less so.

I’ll leave this with some specific examples of where I’ve done this in the past:

  • I often read the tech news aggregator site HackerNews. Their search feature is provided by an external company as a separate site, and it always tripped me up that clicking the logo on a search results page took you to a new, empty search instead of back to the HackerNews front page. I wrote them an email about this, and it got changed! You can see their response here.
  • I thought the check-in check-out train ticket app I regularly used calculated some fares wrong. Support brushed it off and the response didn’t make sense to me, so I tracked down their CTO on the company website and sent him an email about it. Turned out I was wrong after all: Their fare calculation was quite confusing b/c it was more sophisticated than how I would have booked the trip to get the cheapest “legal” fare, but I got a good explanation out of it!
  • The cafeteria at a fairly large office where I used to work had automatic water dispensers that were set to run a bit longer than it took to fill the glasses they had, so everyone ended up pulling the glass away while the water was still running. I figured this would cause considerable waste given how many people used them. I tracked down the manager of the cafeteria and wrote him an email. He called me two days later to say thanks and mention that a renovation of the cafeteria, including new dispensers, was imminent anyway and they’d solve it then.