Customer Feedback is Gold

photo by
photo by

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.

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.

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