There’s a wrong way to give plugin feedback on WordPress.org

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plugin-feedback-wordpressA lesson I learned a long time ago

Years ago I worked on a project that was specifically for the last group of scientists that had direct access to the President of the United States. It was a big deal to be working with these high energy physicists. So not only did we create a site to collect some key data from them, but I also offered to manage support on the project as well. My team would be the ones getting the emails and answering the phones.

I’m sure they didn’t love it, but I thought it was a critical enough project that we didn’t want anything to go wrong.

Now this was back in the early web days, somewhere around 1995 or 1996. So you can imagine the kinds of calls we got.

“My printer doesn’t work…”

But I recall one very clearly. The admin assistant for a high energy physicist on the East Coast called us to tell us that our web application wasn’t working. At the end of a multi-step data entry process, users were allowed to print the data they’d just submitted for their own records.

Well, according to her, the print button didn’t work. So we started going thru the normal steps.

  • Could she print another web page, like yahoo.com? No.
  • Could she print from another application, like from Word? Nope.
  • Had she ever been able to print? Never.

In fact, that’s why she had been calling – because we now had promised (via the “Print this document” button on the page) that her printer would finally work, and it wasn’t.

I remember this story because I learned on that day that developers of any product will often get feedback and complaints about things that fall outside the scope of their work. That’s the nature of the beast.

But that didn’t stop me from trying to help her out. And it doesn’t stop plugin developers (the good ones) from trying to help users even if it’s not their plugin that’s creating the problem.

Misaligned Support Costs

I wonder (often) how much time the developers behind Gravity Forms, Easy Digital Downloads, or MemberPress have to spend to deal with issues that actually aren’t their own product?

Don’t answer that, if you know, because the answer will just be depressing.

People buy cruddy themes, written poorly but with 23 different sliders embedded in them, and then get mad when a plugin doesn’t work. And instead of complaining about their beautiful theme (which looks nothing like it did on the site they bought it from), they head over to WordPress.org and complain about the plugin.

ugh.

Plugin Feedback, The Wrong Way

But it’s for that reason that I wanted to highlight a situation I often see on the WordPress.org plugin repository, where we can rate plugins. It turns out some people not only have unreasonable expectations, but don’t really understand how to best give plugin feedback.

So here are five ways to do it wrong.

  1. Rate the plugin poorly even if it does exactly what it says it will do.
  2. Rate the plugin poorly because it couldn’t predict your scenario.
  3. Rate the plugin poorly because you buy crappy hosting.
  4. Rate the plugin poorly because it conflicts with your other 74.
  5. Rate the plugin poorly because additional features cost money.

When you read them, they sound silly don’t they? And yet, I see it happen all the time.

That image, at the top of this post, is real. I didn’t make that up. A user decided that even though the plugin did exactly what it said it would do, it still deserved only a 3 – because they wanted something else beyond that.

Plugin Feedback the Right Way

Everyone knows that a plugin that works perfectly on a developer’s computer may still have an issue in your own environment. When something doesn’t work well, here are some simple steps you might follow before a rating entry.

  1. First, contact the plugin developer directly.
  2. Try to do this privately (email, ticket). Not on Twitter.
  3. Give them enough data for them to evaluate things.
  4. Offer to take screenshots or do a screen sharing session.
  5. Turn off plugins to eliminate cross-contamination.
  6. Check things with a simple theme, like TwentyEleven.
  7. Provide this data back to the developer. Share insights.
  8. Follow the directions (replies) from the developer.
  9. If things are fixed, thank them.
  10. If they’re not, and you plan to rate them, contextualize it.

See, if you do all of the above to try to mitigate an issue, you might discover that the issue was your plugin, or your theme, or your host. Then, if you want to give a plugin a rating record on WordPress.org, you can be specific.

“This plugin doesn’t work with my theme (xyz) and has a conflict with the infrastructure at my host (abc). The developer was helpful but couldn’t get it to work in my scenario. For that reason, this gets a 3 star rating.”

That’s a helpful review. Because it warns people with that theme or host, to be careful.

“This plugin does everything it says it does. For that I gave it a four star rating. I really wanted to give it five stars, but for me, a plugin that does xyz really should include abc in the core feature set and this one doesn’t do that (which they clearly state on their site).”

Now if someone reads that, they can determine if they agree that abc is needed or not.

More often than not, I’d hope we see high ratings that simply say things like this.

“I spent two hours testing different scenarios to find out that the plugin was right and my cruddy theme was causing the issues. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the theme developer who helped me with it, but instead was the plugin developer. I hate that I wasted their time, but five stars for great support and I’m waiting for their paypal email to send them cash.”

I mean, seriously, who wouldn’t want to read that review.

All that said, there’s a real art to writing a great review. I don’t have it. That’s why I stuck to the “what not to do” advice. If you want to talk about the master of positive review, Mark Jaquith is a member of the WordPress community and you should see his work.

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  • http://www.jennybeaumont.com Jenny Beaumont

    I know that the main thing I’m guilty of is not taking the time to give feedback. Most times if a plugin doesn’t work for me or creates conflicts, I’ll just move on. Especially because for most needs, there are always more than one out there. Only the biggies or those that really stand alone get me to stop and take the extra time. And I’m not proud of this. This is a great reminder that as a community we should give support and take responsibility for improving the quality of the work out there, and sharing information that can be helpful to others.

  • http://updraftplus.com David Anderson

    Yes, yes, yes.

    Seen various like the ones you’ve listed, and others.

    All-time memorable one: rate the plugin 1-star because it helpfully alerted the user that his WordPress setup had a problem, and the documentation page it sent him to to explain how to fix it was too long for the user to want to read.

  • http://gravatar.com/crplz Creativity Please

    Interesting way to put it, kind of a reverse psychology method? What not to do is easier told than a list of a few ways to do it well :)

    We think there’s a lot of scope for improvement, especially in the documentation and procedure for WordPress users (admins), wherein the procedure to use various different debugging and fault finding tools could add more value. There’re a lot of Hosts who provide Staging versions of a live site, which too could be utilised well.

    There could be a checklist, above all, on the WP.org website to confirm (psychological barrier) before rating a particular plugin/theme lower than say 3/5. It can stop people from rating 1/5 without having done proper evaluation of the performance. #JustAThought

  • http://boluda.com Joan

    Absolutely agreed. And try to avoid the “riddle with bugs” statement:

    http://pippinsplugins.com/plugin-really-riddled-bugs/

    Great post and great reminder, Chris!

  • https://www.facebook.com/mathetos Matt Cromwell

    Really good points. I have to say though, that providing support for issues outside of the scope of our plugin (FooBox), is not only costly, but sometimes it’s also not the best service to the customer. Anytime an issue comes up with NextGen Gallery (which FooBox integrates with), I can help them out if it’s just a setting, but if the plugin is not behaving correctly I find it always more expedient for the customer for me to point them to the NextGen forum.

    But your main point is the feedback and THAT is 100% spot on. We’re trying to educate our customers more and more through the support request process on how to give good feedback, Thanks!

  • http://webatix.com Larry Kokoszka

    There are a lot of problems with the feedback system. In addition to the feedback itself, the feedback system does not really account for time. What if a plugin is great for a while, gets good ratings, then falls off. Ratings are great, performance is poor. (NextGen).

    The reverse is true too…one bad release of a great plugin can make it seem, in the repo, like garbage when it is actually a great tool.

    That all said, I still think the WP Repo needs to allow sort or filter based on ratings.

  • http://iceblock.org.nz/ Ryan Hellyer

    Unfortunately, I suspect those who need to read this are not part of your audience.

    I try to review plugins whenever I can, although I have been criticised for giving very low ratings for plugins I could not use due to failures in the plugin code. Usually things like debug errors and lack of https support make me plummet my ratings quite substantially (usually 1 or 2 stars) since the problems often make the plugin utterly useless to me.

    • http://chrislema.com chrislema

      I hope it will reach a pretty broad audience. We’ll see.

      Keep writing your reviews!

      • http://gravatar.com/micahblu micahblu

        Great post, I hope it reaches that audience as well :)

  • http://wpuniversity.com Andy M.

    On the flipside, if you’re evaluating plugins, I find that it’s a good idea to actually read the reviews and not judge based solely on the average rating. Filter down to the one- or two-stars and look at what people are saying. Then do the same for the 4- and 5-star reviews. :)

  • http://twitter.com/_qstudio Q Studio (@_qstudio)

    as @Ryan Hellyer pointed out – the main issue with this post ( which is excellent – btw! ) is also the main problem with both the WP review system and the support forums themselves – the technical knowledge gap between the suppliers ( developers ) and the consumers ( plugin user ).

    In some cases, the consumers have little above zero knowledge of what they are doing – WP made it easy for them to find, install and then slam a plugin that did not do everything the hoped that it might.

    The WP.org forums and rating system need a number of important changes to become relevant and truly useful to both parties ( here are a few of the many… ):

    - Automatic notification of new forum support topics for plugin developers – so basic, it’s crazy it does not work this way – users might wait weeks for the dev to actually spot that they’re raised a support issue – any response at this point is likely to be of little value.
    - A reminder to users leaving a support request that if they do not check the tiny little box asking them if they want to receive reminders about replies they will never remember where they posted their question and this will become yet another start, no reply – dead-end support request.
    - A better way for users and developers to track and maintain support requests – built into WordPress itself.
    - A better way to encourage ( reward? ) developers to offer support and to continue to maintain their plugins
    - a pay wall / process / thing – to stop people giving one star and then having no responsibility to explain or justify

    P.S – Here is my latest 1 star review:

    http://wordpress.org/support/view/plugin-reviews/export-user-data
    “Only exports what developers chose for it to export.”

    Sorry if my answer trailed off at the end – I got distracted with support requests!

  • http://www.2rosenthals.net/wordpress LewisR

    Interesting to see that two of my beta testers for and contributors to WP Post to PDF Enhanced have already posted comments here . :-)

    Indeed, a bad review can be almost as big a time-waster as fluff reviews which make everything sound great, until one gets into the throes of trying to get something to work or asking for support (which is why, quite often, the best review process is to cull through the support threads to see how responsive the developer is and what types of issues have been reported – as well as the types of WP users reporting).

    I came upon this post after posting my first truly thumbs-down review (which I hated to do, BTW). I tried to be as constructive as possible, and avoided base sarcasm and needless opining (I hope). Still, it pained me to have to write a negative review for a plugin which was once so great but now – in the hands of a new development team – has been turned to the Dark Side.

    The review system does need some embellishment; I concur. One of my suggestions would be a way for a previous reviewer to go back and modify his rating (as suggested, when plugins change in quality and features from one revision to the next, often a review for a previous version carries little weight for the current one).

    Anyway, thanks for the post. Great read.