Customer Feedback is Gold

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The most humbling way to know whether you’re building a great product is to get direct feedback. Try whatever you’re doing from the customer’s point of view. Now, observe the customer doing it with your mouth closed and your ears open. In my experience, I never fail to learn something important when I listen to what customers have to say.

Ideas are awesome. And ideas usually don’t survive first contact with the customer. Iterating on prototypes lets you find out what the customer is thinking and how they react to the ideas that you have.

Usability sessions are an excellent way to get this feedback. Try a site like Usabilla to record a session remotely and walk a consumer through a process. This is a valuable because the feedback is not contingent on what you say – you only get to observe.

Building great products requires more than usability testing, of course. You need to have a great team focused tightly on a customer and relish the idea of solving her problem and taking away her pain and replacing it with delight. And you have to do that without the customer feeling like they’ve been manipulated.

When you talk to consumers in person, things are a bit different. When you deliver a 30 second demo or a longer demo, you share the key differentiators and benefits of your idea, and see immediate non-verbal feedback. This shows you when you’ve “got it” and when you’re missing the mark.

In email or chat, you don’t get the benefit of seeing the customer’s face. The customer will appreciate a quick and accurate response. Start by responding as fast as you can, and if you don’t know the answer, say so. If you can’t solve the problem and will let the customer know when it’s going to be solved, do so. And if it’s unlikely that you’ll ever solve the problem, please say so.

You can find 47 other ways to improve the customer experience here.

The Feedback Machine: How do you discover what people really want?


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This essay is written as part of the Startup Edition project – check out the other essays here.

How do you discover what people really want?

People are not effective at self-reporting, or letting you know what they will do with your product when you’re not there to help them. Often, customers will tell you that they are going to take action or that they “like” something. And then it doesn’t get done. It’s easier to appease and give positive feedback (“it’s great!”) than to tell you it’s awful or give you specific, constructive advice.

How do you discover what people – and in this case, your customers – really want? To understand what customers want, you need to put a feedback machine in motion and continue to test what you learn over time. As the flywheel for feedback begins to turn, you’ll get more data, which will allow you to test and change faster.

Here’s what one feedback machine looks like: Ask, Observe, and Track.

What are the different ways you can ask customers what they want?

You can talk to customers, give them surveys, and hold focus groups. And each of these methods have caveats. Asking customers what they want is the core way you can find out what they really want – because some of them will tell you. Because customers won’t always tell you directly what they want, it’s helpful to ask them in a few different ways and then correlate the results to see if you hear the same things in different places. And make sure you keep the number of questions low so that customers balk at your survey. You also need to ask them the right questions. Asking a leading question like “given a perfect situation that matches my product perfectly, would you use my product” doesn’t help you or your customers. Zero in on the “I need” and “I want” statements to get closer to the true customer needs.

Surveys are another good way to get feedback. You can ask for preference using a multiple-choice or free-text survey. You can ask people what they think in a group setting using a focus group – this often spurs new ideas and can also induce “groupthink” – and learn more about many people at once. You can also ask people “what others would like” to try to remove individual self-reporting bias.

Asking gets you one result and Observing gives you a rich picture

Asking customers what they want isn’t enough. Observing what customers do is another key way to learn what they really want. Customers may show you non-verbal cues in a focus group that give you new ideas. And you can also learn a lot from in-person or remote usability studies. The key is to observe what people do without being prompted or providing instructions.

Focus groups provide you with a natural place to observe non-verbal reactions, though you may get some false signals when the customer is not in their natural environment. That’s why in-person and remote usability studies are really valuable.

Tracking behavior over time is the gold standard

Even if customers tell you what they think they want at the moment, the best way of knowing what they want and value in your product is to track their behavior over time.

The best products create or augment habits – things that are done repetitively. They also create or react to triggers – natural behavior cues from their environment and emotions – to spur the customer to do something. And if they are easy enough to do the customer can learn how to do them with little effort until it becomes almost subconscious (thanks @bjfogg for your Behavior Model to describe these aspects of behavior.)

So tracking habits should be one part of your feedback machine to find out what people really want. You should also be tracking any changes in the Word of Mouth that surrounds your product. If your customers aren’t talking about you or your product, that’s probably a sign that you haven’t zeroed in on things that people want – and have not yet exceeded the threshold of what they expect. In an ideal world, everyone would be talking about your product in the right channel at the right time. Some products aren’t ideal for public sharing – but many are after you demo your product for the target customer and they “get it”.

In the real world, you need to find the people who like (or love) your product and then understand how to find more people like them. If you’d like to learn more about this, start by reading Kevin Kelly’s classic 1000 True Fans. You also need to learn how to extrapolate from the things those early adopters love to the things that later adopters will love, too.

The Feedback Machine of Ask, Observe, and Track will get you closer to the goal of learning what your customers want. But it won’t speak for itself – you’ll need to use the information you learn to have conversations with your customers and find out what they truly value.

This essay is written as part of the Startup Edition project – check out the other essays here.

Is Usability Feedback Free, as in Beer?

photo by (phil parker)
photo by (phil parker)

“Free as in beer” is an easy concept to understand: it’s a gift given to you at no cost with no expectations of you, and does not grant with it the way to change the production process (see HowToGeek for more discussion). Making a product free removes many of the barriers to entry for someone to try it, and doesn’t create an economic obligation to actually use the software (as in, “I bought this, so I should use it to get some utility out of it.” as a driver for use.)

Companies who rely on free customers also often ask them to test features, capability, or general usability as a way of taking a broad sample from the available user base. These companies are also relying on the concept of “Free as in Beer” (or giving the gift of swag – or sometimes actual beer, which confuses the metaphor) to trade some time (and perhaps, low expectations) for insights about the utility of their product and to find pesky bugs. In a perfect world, the feedback from this group would not only point out what we did wrong when designing a product, but also give us the finished blueprint for how to build a better mousetrap.

Yet that doesn’t always happen. As a product owner, we will often ask the customer for their opinion, and then not be able to execute that opinion (or in some cases, dismiss it out of hand because it’s not very similar to our product vision). It’s not very surprising for them that we might not do it because hey – it’s free (as in beer.) Yet there’s very real value in asking these customers (even if they are a skewed sample) because their feedback starts to form the outlines of new features (for an existing product).

The person who will buy what you sell (even if they turn out to be the “wrong customer”) is an important customer because that customer signals market demand. You might need to change your offering to target the market that’s there, or to change the customer to whom you’re actually selling.

And there is a paradox here (at least in the mind of the customer) that once they pay for the product and become paying customers. Many customers feel that the commercial arrangement (on signing a contract) then transforms to one that is Free As In Speech, e.g. the ability to run the software however you like, the right to see it, improve upon it, and run it whenever and however you like. The usability feedback that they provide is very real, yet may not be actionable – due to many different, completing forces.

Usability feedback is free, as in beer – on both sides of the equation. Although there is some cost in terms of compiling the feedback and giving the feedback, there’s no obligation to make the product better on either side. So how can you make the feedback process better, even when the feedback is free?

Don’t “boil the ocean”: focus on a small area where you can get meaningful feedback on a closed decision that will affect customers;

Pay for feedback, and expect deliverables: there are several web sites where you can pay a nominal fee to get usability feedback. The feedback you get is probably proportional to the money you pay – if you use Mechanical Turk, you might get more feedback from bots – and also has diminishing returns above a certain point.

Take the best feedback from what you get, and test againusability feedback may only hint at a larger issue that needs to be tested again, so take the best that you get and keep moving.

Running a “Friends of the Company” Usability Session

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One of the best ways to learn how real people view your product is to ask them to complete a set of tasks that you think all customers “should” be able to do. Think of this as a directional usability test, where you can get some feedback on the way “normal” folks use your product without sitting right next to them and telling them how to complete the task. Yet you can also learn a lot by sitting in the same room as someone who has tried your product and just having a conversation. Even if these people are not perfect examples of your persona definitions, setting up “Friends of the Company” sessions are a great way to make a tremendous leap in usability in a short period of time.

“Friends of the Company” sessions might look like this: every two weeks, line up two or three people to visit your office and ask them to complete a common customer task (set up an account, use the product the way they “normally”, and talk through the progress as they do it.) You should have someone from your design team, your engineering team, and your executive team in attendance, and make sure to give the person some homework before they arrive so that you can capture their feedback.

When your F.O.C. session is running, you should use this focused time to listen, learn, and suggest. You can listen by hearing what a “typical” customer does when you’re not around and hear more about the features that people outside of your building think are pain-killers, not vitamins. You can learn by identifying “cringe” moments that show up during the session, and plan which of these items to address and which to log for later effort. And you can suggest by using this time with a customer to bring up ideas that need additional feedback.

It’s important to note that the feedback you receive in these sessions is just that: feedback. It’s not usually enough to make major changes in usability, and it is an amazing way, however, to note little items that trip customers up when you think they should be able to complete (what you consider to be) routine tasks. Friends of the Company sessions give you a temperature reading of customers and let you know what those people are thinking and whether your message matches their experience with the product.

And matching that message to the product is an important task that’s very easy to practice during the F.O.C. Session. Remember, some of the people who are coming to see you are very talented and want to help, and some are just there to see what you’re up to in building your product and culture. All of this feedback can be really useful if you use it as a opportunity to refine your pitch, your usability, and the real-world functionality of your product.

Your business people and developers need to talk – Agile Marketing Principle #6

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This is the 6th in a series of posts on Agile Marketing – the working definition of which is to “Create, communicate and deliver unique value to an always-changing consumer (or business) in an always-changing market with an always-changing product.” (here’s the original post.) Your product might be dead in the water if your developers don’t know what matters to customers. You can make this better by maintaining close, daily cooperation between the “business” people and the developers in your company.

But how do you actually do this? Developers and “business people” have different rhythms, styles of communications (and often, business hours.) There are a few things you can do to facilitate this conversation and help them to talk more – think of these as modest proposals to get all of your team members to talk more.

It’s called a standup for a reason

Three times a week (maybe on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday), you should consider having a standup meeting (yes, a literal standup meeting) for everyone on your team. If you have 20 or fewer people on your team you should be able to get through this process in 15-20 minutes. The goal of a “standup” is to state one or two things you’re working on that are your Most Important Tasks, and to ask for any help you need from the team. The goal of standing is to limit the time for the standup, focus everyone’s attention, and to give each team member a bit more familiarity with what’s going on elsewhere in the company.

Take Requests from your team and your customers

Some of your best ideas are going to come from your team. And you don’t know which team members are going to provide good ideas, so having an open-door method of taking requests is essential to build the lines of communication on your team. A simple organizational scheme is best (a 1-3 sentence story that demonstrates the idea, or a one sentence task that reinforces the story); and don’t forget to say Thank You to your team. It’s easy to forget it takes a little effort to share an idea, and acknowledging that idea is a great start.

Provide Weekly Feedback and a List of Things That Will Get Done

(I know – you read this and thought “after a while, isn’t it useless to just make a list of backlogged tasks that never get completed?”) Providing weekly feedback – e.g. a list of things that were suggested this week – gives some feedback and visibility to the team and also provides a running record of what was suggested. Adding necessary items to a short-term, medium-term, and long-term list can be really helpful. You should also make it clear that if the item isn’t on the short-term list (and that list should be limited in number) that it’s not going to get done for a while.

Bonus method: go to coffee

The best way to talk is … to get out of the office and talk. Don’t forget to take each other out for coffee and lunch once in a while – you’re both on the same team. And while you’re out to coffee or lunch – talk to each other about a few things that you think matter to your customers. More of those customer requests will make it into your product.

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