Creating a Feedback Loop for Users

Over the last few months, I've worked on several projects that started with good, solid user research efforts. We've sent out surveys, performed interviews, run usability tests, and worked with customer support teams. It's exciting to start a design project with good input from users, but the research we've been doing made me realize how often we have to work without the benefit of good user insights. This got me looking around at tools that companies can use to get started on gaining insight into their user's needs. I found two that looked particularly useful, and easy to use: Get Satisfaction and UserVoice.

Get Satisfaction

Get Satisfaction is a hosted service that provides companies with a forum for customers to post complaints, suggest and rate new ideas, help each other, and communicate with employees. It's simple enough to get up and running, in fact you may find that your customers have already done the job for you. Get Satisfaction is primarily a customer service tool, but if customer service is the new marketing, it's also a fundamental piece of a good user experience.

Get Satisfaction provides a number of tools companies can use to identify key user needs and pain points:

  • Users post and rate problems with your products
  • Users suggest new features and vote for their favorites
  • Users share their tips and tricks with each other

Get Satisfaction isn't alone, if these features sound useful, you can also check out:

UserVoice

Dell and Starbucks both received a lot of attention when they launched services specifically for giving customers a voice in developing their products via the Dell IdeaStorm and My Starbucks Idea websites respectively. Fortunately, UserVoice provides companies with the ability to create their own site modeled after Dell and Starbucks.

UserVoice doesn't provide as many tools as Get Satisfaction, but it does a better job of letting users provide insight into the improvements they want most:
  • Usrs can suggest new features and improvements
  • Users can vote for their favorite new ideas
  • The company can indicate which ideas they like, and which they don't
One of the most powerful features is the ability to mark ideas as "accepted" or "completed". This gives your customers a view into the ideas you like best, and which one's you've committed to implementing.

If you like UserVoice, but are looking for simpler, or free solution, check out FeatureList. If you know your way around a text editor, and would like to host your own solution, an open-source Digg clone like Pligg cound easily be turned into a UserVoice-like tool.

Making Good Use of Input

Regardless of the tools that you're using to connect with your customers, it's important to remember that they shouldn't be the only way site improvements are prioritized. Research and practice have made it pretty clear that users put their short term pains ahead of long term rewards, our job is to counter-act this tendency while taking their needs into account. Serendipitously, I ran across a great post by Tim Sabat on Particletree, "On Prioritizing Feature Development," that discusses just this problem. Tim's post is a reality check, reminding us of two classic usability maxims:
  • Build what people need, not what they want
  • Pay attention to what the user does, not what he says
We can't forget either of these when we engage users directly. One solution would be to use user input as part of an affinity diagramming exercise, such as the KJ technique.

In the end, I believe that utilizing tools like Get Satisfaction and UserVoice are great first steps in directly engaging users in design and product development. For companies, they can serve as a low-cost first step towards more in-depth research methods and tools. For users, they provide transparency and empowerment. My hope is that these tools can help build a sense of community ownership and participation in the design process.

Further Reading:

Other Tools

Several forum tools have plugins that can add Q&A and user voting functionality, if you're more interested in hosting your own tools:

Jackson is Viget's user experience director. He works from our Boulder, CO, office, where he helps startups and organizations turn ideas into usable, effective products.

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