Photo: Lisa shares feedback during a PPB (pre-production batch) meeting.
There's several "Thoughts on...." posts like this one in various stages of completion. Topics include: authenticity, innovation, perfectionism, compassion, integrity, collaboration, mistakes, intention, intuition, playfulness and how all those things relate our work from bag design to running a company. We began collecting these thoughts on feedback a couple of years ago and are just now finally sharing it as a post with all of you. Why so many drafts and so few posts? A couple of reasons: we prefer to let our actions speak for themselves. We can also sometimes feel a little hesitant about putting our thoughts out there, whether it's because we've basically written a novel's worth of words or we're not sure if you're interested in reading about stuff beyond bags (which, let's face it, are the reason why we're all here!)
If you appreciate this post, let us know. If you don't appreciate it, let us know that too. After all, this one's all about feedback...
Thoughts on Feedback
Have you ever been to a talk at the end of which is an audience Q&A that leads to a fascinating progression of the discussion beyond what the original presenter intended? The ensuing discussions — a collaboration between presenter and audience — can transform the vibe from one-way and static to dynamic and evolving, opening up the possibility for curiosity, open-mindedness, sharing of additional information and, of course, feedback. That’s how we experience feedback — it informs us, builds our character, makes us think, and improves our work.
Before we dive into the topic of feedback, it’s important to share how we recognize who we are, our values, our experience and what’s most important to us. Without that, feedback could become a bewildering or overwhelming experience.
Collectively, we’ve been making bags since 1972 (formally a company in 1980.) We most often do things our own way. We have our own aesthetic. We are very choosy about the materials we use. We see value in honoring and integrating logic, rationality, intuition and emotion. We have taken on, as a small business, being three companies in one: design house, manufacturer, direct retailer. We have made it our goal to be world-class in all three of those companies. We accept that contraction, in addition to expansion, is part of business, as well as life. As a Certified B Corporation, we hold ourselves to the quadruple bottom line: financial success, the environment, making good jobs, and providing high quality bags to our customers. If it comes to it, we will choose a higher quality material over a lesser one and temporarily absorb that cost in an effort to offer the best bag we can to the customer. We believe that part of demonstrating respect is to provide the people who visit our website or use our bags the option of reading as much detailed information as we can provide. For us, competition is about competing with ourselves, not anyone else. We think it’s possible to do our best to be kind and fair in the world of business without sacrificing growth or success. We know that the path to real success begins with paying attention — to an employee who is showing skills we didn’t anticipate, to how someone is using a bag in the airport, and to really listen to what people are sharing with us.
We’re not saying we invented any of that, or that it will work for everyone, or that we do things better than anyone else. At the end of the day, we’re a collection of beautifully complex, flawed, and remarkable humans who don’t always live up to our own standards, though try we will. What we are saying is that these qualities are part of what makes up the ground of our business, its roots, if you will — it’s the matter through which we grow, evolve, and assess.
Simply put, constructive criticism is essential to the quality of our bags, our work, and how we show up in the world. When you tell us what doesn’t work for you, it informs us — one of our primary inspirations as designers is to problem solve, so when we’re presented with a potential problem, we immediately start thinking of what the solution could be. Whether the criticism is offered around a design feature, a bag with a flaw that slipped past our Quality Assurance department, or a customer service expectation that wasn’t met, we want to hear about it. We really do! Within the company, we strive to practice a no-blame, no-shame, embracing our humanness kind of style that makes it easier for each of us to receive criticism — it’s not about getting in trouble, it’s about an opportunity to do things differently next time. While we certainly don’t achieve that style in each and every interaction, that’s part of it — blaming ourselves for the instances in which we don’t live up to our standards isn’t motivating. What is motivating is accepting ourselves, experiencing self-compassion, taking responsibility, and resolving to do better next time.
When is criticism not constructive? We’d say it veers into unconstructive territory when it gets personal, whether a person receiving fair and constructive criticism takes it personally or when the criticism is being delivered in a manner or with an intent that makes it more of a dig than actionable, measured feedback.
An interesting thing we’ve learned is that just because criticism isn’t constructive doesn’t mean that there isn’t useful information in it somewhere. One of the best character building exercises we know of is to look past the mean stuff and look for the contribution in the criticism. That’s not always possible given we’re human, but when it is possible, it’s a kind of alchemy.
One might think listening to criticism creates a thicker skin. We’d argue that, if the goal here is to truly listen, look for the valuable information, use it for inquiry, appreciate each of us sees the world through their own filter/perspective, and leave behind and let go of what doesn’t fit or resonate — that process is often a mix of logic, intuition, emotion and rationality and requires more of an open heart than a thicker skin.
Sometimes criticism is conflated with modern cynicism — we personally believe that constructive criticism can be shared with the intention to uplift. Thinking on this, we’re reminded of something we wrote for the description of the Synik backpack —
“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”
To us, being a citizen of the world means we belong to our families, local communities and humanity as a whole. It means treating everyone with equal measures of respect, and to be comfortable in all settings and with all people: to not think of ourselves as separate for better or for worse and to maintain the ability to relate to one another. And as we think the Cynics would point out, this certainly leaves room for critical thinking, constructive criticism, meaningful debate and even satire: paired with genuine care for each other and the world around us, each can be a powerful tool for good.
“Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards.”
Acknowledging When It's Tough
To fully embrace our humanness and be able to experience self-compassion and the support of others, it is also necessary to acknowledge tough situations, situations in which we may simply need to say “No.” Though it’s extremely rare, there have been occasions on which our staff have, unfortunately, experienced personal attacks or coercion.
As we learned in our company self-defense training, an important skill we can practice is saying “No.” when something doesn’t feel right to us. It can be a surprisingly difficult skill to practice especially when our goal is mutual understanding and benefit — or when our goal is to offer excellent customer service. What we do is encourage our crew to reach out to a manager or co-worker for support if there’s an interaction that doesn’t feel okay to them. In some cases, the staff member may receive support so that they can continue the conversation, even if continuing the conversation is saying (sometimes for the second or third time) "No." We also give our crew the option to hand the conversation off to a manager or co-worker. Even as CEO, I reach out to folks for support, whether that’s asking Tom if he could take over a conversation or talking with Mike or Kim so I can better understand a situation by asking for their perspectives and receive their support.
Once, at the grocery store, as I was checking out, a customer approached the checkout operator and began yelling at him about a coupon — the customer was implying that the checkout operator had intentionally not scanned the coupon and had overcharged her. It was one of those situations in which the reaction didn’t seem proportionate to the perceived issue — perhaps the customer was just having a difficult day or had received some bad news. The situation was further inflamed by the customer presuming bad intent on the part of the checkout operator, who handled the situation expertly, though it seemed he was a little shaken. It occurred to me that I could offer the checkout operator the kind of support we try to offer within our own company, so I said: “That seemed like a really intense interaction, I don’t know if it was hard for you but it would’ve been hard for me. I’m sorry that happened but I am impressed by the way you handled it.” The reason I thought of saying that was because of the support I have received from Mike, Kim, Tom, Nik, and various other folks in the company — the example of their support and the impact it’s had on me helped me pay it forward.
In our book, positive feedback is just as important as constructive criticism. Let’s say there’s a design feature that is a significant part of why you love a certain bag — if we don’t know that you and other folks like that feature, we might be less inclined to ensure a new design also utilizes that feature, or that a future iteration of an existing design would keep that feature.
Hearing what folks appreciate about the bags (or website, customer service, shipping box, etc.) can also inspire what we do next. Say that someone shares feedback about the Daylight Backpack — they love how lightweight it is, and also that, instead of a foam back panel, the person using the Daylight can effectively create their own padded back panel by folding and stowing clothes in the open-top pockets against the back of the bag. That might be one of those eureka or aha moments that break the design stasis that Nik or Tom are currently lumbering through, helping them to create a solution that they also know folks would likely appreciate.
Don’t worry, we don’t get our egos too puffed up by positive feedback. We also don’t think there’s anything wrong about feeling good that someone appreciates our work — we share your kudos, compliments, and appreciations with the crew and it means a lot to all of us.
Taking in, Assessing, and Keeping Track of feedback
Each of us see and experience the world a little differently based on a very complicated collection of factors. Two terms that we thought described this well came from a textbook we read some years back: first-order reality and second-order reality. First order reality would be described as both of us looking at a backpack and agreeing that the object we’re looking at is a backpack; second order reality describes how both of us would agree it’s a backpack and then potentially diverge from there — you might say “That’s the best TOM BIHN backpack ever designed!” and we might say “We designed that years ago and if we had it to do over again… ugh, we don’t think that’s our best work.” The thing is, in that example, neither of us are incorrect and neither of us are correct: we’re expressing our opinions and experiences. If it’s not a matter of being correct or incorrect, does that mean it doesn’t matter? No! Of course it matters — all of our experiences matter a great deal. They shape our world, our work, our relationships, and how we experience what we do.
Recognizing the distinctions of first-order reality and second-order reality helps us see opinions and experiences as "both/and" instead of "either/or". It becomes less about who is right and who is wrong and more about being able to listen to multiple perspectives, opinions, and experiences. That, in turn, increases our ability to value the contributions of others and experience a more collaborative reality.
Back to that example above: let's say there's a retired bag design that we, as the designers, are rather embarrassed by at this point in our careers. We've learned so much more over the past decade and we see choices we made in that design that we wouldn't make now. A customer writes to us to tell us that design is the best design we've ever made: they still use it every day. And they want us to make it again so they can buy a backup and also gift it to the friends and family who are always borrowing the bag. If we take in that feedback in a "both/and" mindset, recognizing that our second-order realities are different but equally worth attention and inquiry, we may be more able to take in the customer's feedback about the design and realize that our own judgement of the design doesn't matter if folks do indeed like it. Or, perhaps we were just experiencing a designer's self-doubt and it really is a great design that's stood the test of time. On the other hand, we may disagree with the customer's feedback, glad that they appreciate the design but determining it's best not to offer another production run. Regardless, we've taken the time to consider the customer's perspective, experience, and opinion instead of focusing on our own.
Our varying perspectives, experiences, assessments and opinions can make tracking and assessing feedback complicated. Because we ask for feedback, we receive a lot of it. And because you’re spending your valuable time providing it and we want to hear it, we don’t want it to get lost in the shuffle of the busyness of work. Several years back, we created threads within our project management app to track feedback. Whether the feedback is from social media, the Forums, email, factory visits, phone calls, family, friends, whoever, we can make note of it in the app — it’s noted, recorded, and also searchable thereafter. We have three primary threads for feedback and are currently expanding the project to better track and organize it all.
One of the more fascinating aspects of feedback that we’ve noticed is that there are different patterns of experience shared in different mediums — folks who email us may share different feedback than folks on Instagram, and that feedback might be different than what someone visiting the factory would share with us in-person. What’s great about collecting feedback in the app is that we can gather feedback from all sources and then assess it as a whole.
We feel it’s important to be up front about this: while responding to feedback is our preference, we aren’t always able to do so depending on how busy things are at the factory. We do read all of the feedback shared with us. If we ask for your feedback and don't personally respond, know that we read it. If it's bugging you that we didn't respond, let us know.
When we implement feedback (and when we don’t)
We assess the feedback we’ve collected and received through a wide range of criteria, including our experience and the resulting expertise, intuition, the pragmatic aspects of operating a design/manufacturing/online business in Seattle, and our own values and standards.
There’s a couple of clear examples of when we don’t accept or implement feedback that stand out — first, we don’t accept design submissions, whether it’s a concept, a cocktail napkin sketch or a fully patterned design that someone would like us to manufacture. In those instances, the best we can offer is perhaps some advice on where the person might be able to have their design made. It's not uncommon these days for folks to reach out to us and ask how they could become bag designers: Tom authored the post Some Thoughts for The Prospective Bag Designer to share a few pieces of advice in an effort to help those folks get started.
Second, we don’t take feedback when someone is asking us to make another company’s design — we’re only interested in making our own designs. Plus, we don’t feel that’s fair to the other company. In that case, we’d say — if you’re into another company’s designs, cool. In fact, we'd offer that it's good to support any company whose designs resonate with you by purchasing directly from them.
It’s important to note that while we listen to all of the feedback we receive, we don’t choose to act on or implement all of it. If we did, you might not recognize us anymore — we’d be heading in one direction one day and a completely opposite direction the next!
For us, listening to feedback isn't about trying to meet everyone's needs or making everyone happy — that'd be impossible and crazy-making to boot. Our style is never going to be everyone's style and our bags aren't ever going to be the right bags for all people. Listening to feedback is about being open to other perspectives and learning from them, respecting the different experiences of other folks, and appreciating it as tool with which we can assess our work.
And when we don't choose to implement feedback, it doesn't mean the feedback wasn't good feedback — it might just be that we're choosing to do things our own way.
We think the best way to describe when we do implement feedback is to share some actual examples of when that’s happened and why:
Folks had been asking for certain features — such as a laptop compartment — to be added to the Synapse for some time. When designing the Synik, Nik added features he’d been wishing for and we included most (but not all) of the features folks had been requesting over the years.
The Techonaut (coming soon!)
Same deal with the Techonaut: you’ve been asking for an Aeronaut with a laptop compartment for years! We, of course, added some features that you didn’t request, such as an Edgeless handle.
We made several design updates to the original Icon based on feedback from various folks; you can read about them in the blog post The (Original) Icon Available Now; (The Future) Icon Available Later This Year.
Tom made several design updates to the Luminary 12 based on feedback; you can read all about them in the blog post Update on the Luminary Backpack.
Nik and Fong worked together on the day the wallets debuted to make this version in response to feedback from members of the TOM BIHN Forums. Wallet #4 is exactly the same as Wallet #3 except for one key difference: a small webbing loop through which gives you the ability to securely and conveniently tether your Wallet #4 to any TOM BIHN bag with O-rings. (And we made Wallet #5 based on feedback from our Fulfillment department!)
Some folks don’t mind excess webbing from shoulder straps and others do. Those who do had been asking us to create a better solution for wrangling that excess webbing, and these are the solution we came up with.
Folks who use or assist folks with strollers or wheelchairs asked for a way to secure bags to the handles, and here’s what we came up with!
While many of our newer designs feature back panels that allow folks to slip a bag over the handle of rolling luggage, some of our older designs don’t — we created this strap for those who wanted to secure a beloved and older design to their rolling luggage.
RFID Passport Pouch
When a Forum member reported that the stated dimensions on the website were off, we looked into it and confirmed they did not match the dimensions of the actual Passport Pouch. Interestingly, the stated dimensions turned out to be perfect for carrying multiple passports, so we adjusted the Passport Pouch itself to match those dimensions!
Retired Designs & Colors
On occasion, we bring back previously retired designs (Field Journal, Yeoman, Guide’s Editions) or colors (Solar(is), Sitka) due to requests. It’s worth noting that we aren’t always able to bring back retired designs or materials given the changing world of materials suppliers, and that the timeline for bringing back a previously retired bag or color can be a long one, sometimes 6-12 months or even longer.