Code Health: Respectful Reviews == Useful Reviews

This is another post in our Code Health series. A version of this post originally appeared in Google bathrooms worldwide as a Google Testing on the Toilet episode. You can download a printer-friendly version to display in your office.

By Liz Kammer (Google), Maggie Hodges (UX research consultant), and Ambar Murillo (Google)

While code review is recognized as a valuable tool for improving the quality of software projects, code review comments that are perceived as being unclear or harsh can have unfavorable consequences: slow reviews, blocked dependent code reviews, negative emotions, or negative perceptions of other contributors or colleagues.

Consider these tips to resolve code review comments respectfully.

As a Reviewer or Author:
  • DO: Assume competence. An author’s implementation or a reviewer’s recommendation may be due to the other party having different context than you. Start by asking questions to gain understanding.
  • DO: Provide rationale or context, such as a best practices document, a style guide, or a design document. This can help others understand your decision or provide mentorship.
  • DO: Consider how comments may be interpreted. Be mindful of the differing ways hyperbole, jokes, and emojis may be perceived.
    Author Don’t:
    I prefer short names so I’d rather
    not change this. Unless you make
    me? :)
    Author Do:
    Best practice suggests omitting
    obvious/generic terms. I’m not
    sure how to reconcile that
    advice with this request.
  • DON’T: Criticize the person. Instead, discuss the code. Even the perception that a comment is about a person (e.g., due to using “you” or “your”) distracts from the goal of improving the code.
    Reviewer Don’t:
    Why are you using this approach?
    You’re adding unnecessary
    Reviewer Do:
    This concurrency model appears to
    be adding complexity to the
    system without any visible
    performance benefit.
  • DON’T: Use harsh language. Code review comments with a negative tone are less likely to be useful. For example, prior research found very negative comments were considered useful by authors 57% of the time, while more-neutral comments were useful 79% of the time.  

As a Reviewer:
  • DO: Provide specific and actionable feedback. If you don’t have specific advice, sometimes it’s helpful to ask for clarification on why the author made a decision.
    Reviewer Don’t:
    I don’t understand this.
    Reviewer Do:
    If this is an optimization, can you
    please add comments?
  • DO: Clearly mark nitpicks and optional comments by using prefixes such as ‘Nit’ or ‘Optional’. This allows the author to better gauge the reviewer’s expectations.

As an Author:
  • DO: Clarify code or reply to the reviewer’s comment in response to feedback. Failing to do so can signal a lack of receptiveness to implementing improvements to the code.
    Author Don’t:
    That makes sense in some cases but
    not here.
    Author Do:
    I added a comment about why
    it’s implemented that way.
  • DO: When disagreeing with feedback, explain the advantage of your approach. In cases where you can’t reach consensus, follow Google’s guidance for resolving conflicts in code review.