Incorporate User Feedback Into Your Product Development Lifecycle

Introduction

Keeping your finger on the pulse means continually turning to your biggest fans and supporters - your users - to find out how you can serve them better. Opening the door of user communication can cause anxiety at companies that are only accustomed to dealing with complaints and headaches, but it is critical in creating usable, useful, and delightful products that users rave about. If you want your users to be your biggest fans and promoters, continuously think about more ways to listen to their stories in their voices, then repeat those stories all over the company, always in a spirit of gratitude and curiosity. Your whole company will find it easier to connect to their "Why" and be excited to go to work and participate in serving users. Just like a thermostat on a heater, a user voice feedback loop in the product development lifecycle makes sure you are always on the right track. Whatever stage your product development is currently in, here are some ideas for incorporating user feedback.

Before You Have A New Product Idea

Find out more about the people you want your business to serve and their needs.

  • Identify a population that you serve or would like to serve (for example moms who are working from home and juggling childcare).
  • Create a screening survey using Google Forms, Mailchimp, or whatever is readily available. Keep it as short as possible, and don't ask anything you can find out in other ways, or later at an interview. Use the screener to identify people who meet your target market and are available to talk to you on the phone or video call during a given timeframe.
  • Send the screener out to your email list and social media feed.
  • Schedule 15-30 minute conversations with each person who screened in.
  • Prepare for the interview calls by writing open-ended, non-leading questions to learn about each person's needs and pain points.
  • Interview from a position of gratitude and curiosity. Only record if you have permission. Respect the interviewee’s time by not going over the time box.
  • Listen deeply - never interrupt - interrupting tells people you don't care about what they have to say.
  • Share recordings or learnings from the calls with your team and identify the area your company is best positioned to help with.

To Validate Your Product Idea

You have an idea for the greatest thing since sliced bread, but saying "somebody's going to want this" is not the sign of a successful product. Before investing in developing anything, validate that there is a market for your product.

  • Take a similar approach to the user interviews described above. You can even call on the same set of people (but it's also great to check in with new folks as well).
  • Prepare a new set of non-leading questions, this time to validate the assumptions you made about the users’ needs when forming your product idea. Ask them to tell you a story, because people are much better at telling stories than giving generalized answers. "Tell me about getting the kids ready for school this morning."
  • You can introduce more leading questions after you have asked some non-leading questions (so your question list goes from most non-leading and open to most leading and closed). This makes sure that you don't set someone up to just tell you what you want to hear, at least not right away, which could anchor them.

During a Product Discovery

You're starting to get real and put some form around this product. This is a great time to find out what's most important to your users, and let that help inform the order of your backlog or roadmap, as well as your product designs, wireframes, or prototypes.

  • Observe people solving the problem you are developing a solution for with the tools they have at hand today.
  • Contextual inquiry, or watching people do things, will tell you what problem your product needs to solve, and the details of the steps someone takes to solve it. You'll uncover what would make your product worse, the same, better, or much better than the current solution.
  • Don't try to solve the users’ problems during the observational session, and don’t sell your solution - you're simply there to watch and take notes.

During Product Development

Research should be done continually to both validate proposed solutions as well as to validate done work.

  • Every sprint, test your previous sprint's increment with a real user to find out if your assumptions were valid.
  • Usability testing on done work should verify that the solution would work adequately for each user you test.
  • If usability testing with real users is not feasible every sprint, consider hallway usability testing with other staff members, especially those who work closely with users, like tech support or customer service.

Before Launch

Gathering a group of users willing to beta test your new solution is the best way to have a smaller population vet out some of the issues before releasing it to everyone.

  • Make a list of the types of users you want in your beta test. Do you want some iPhone users, some android users, some people with more or less technical experience?
  • Create a survey screener that will allow you to identify a group with the desired characteristics and send it to your user email list. Include a question about whether they’d be interested in joining a beta testing group in exchange for a discount or other incentive.
  • Give the beta testers access to the solution, and make sure they have an easy and direct way to provide feedback.

After Launch

Validate how the solution is serving users’ needs and what their struggles now are. Even if you have created a solution that helps people and solves a problem for them, there will still be opportunities to improve it. And if you are releasing a minimum viable product, you’ll want to know what missing features would be the most impactful for your users.

  • Surveys that ask people to choose from a set of 2-4 options are cognitively much easier than any kind of open-ended question, so save the open-ended questions for interviews and don't make people type in your surveys.
  • Send out a survey that asks people to rank how frequently they encounter a problem that a few of your potential new features would solve, and how much the problem impacts them.
  • The answers to your survey should help you order the backlog as you find out what users care about, and what features to tackle next.

Before (and After) Minor and Major Releases

Every time there's a change, continually validate how this impacts your users. In many cases, they will simply cancel your service and sign up with the competitor rather than jumping over hurdles to tell you what’s wrong. A user-centered company takes it upon itself to make it extremely easy for users to submit feedback, request features, and seek help.

  • Embed in-context surveys in your application for a temporary time to ask the user how satisfied they were with the new feature (services like Pendo can put these surveys into your application for you).
  • Net Promoter Scores can be useful, but Jared Spool recommends simply asking "Did you like this? Yes/No".
  • Provide an easy-to-find support link or phone number in your application, and make sure this feedback makes its way to the development team.
  • Don’t let complaints pile up in your inbox - each complaint is an opportunity to do better.

Incentives and Gifts

Every user contact is an opportunity to build trust and positive feelings toward your company. People generally want to help out, so don’t offer an incentive in compensation for their participation, but as a nice surprise afterward. Incentivize survey responses by entering respondents in a drawing for a single or a few gift cards, and offer a gift to any user who gives their time and feedback, even if you don’t have a budget for monetary compensation. Here are some ideas for thanking your users for helping you do your job:

  • A gift certificate or debit card, use your best judgment and what your budget can allow, but at least $1 per minute of their time ($50-$250 is common)
  • Some fun swag from your company, like a leather planner or branded thermos
  • A discount or a free month of your product
  • Some free tech support or expert assistance (outside of a user feedback session, not during it)
  • A nice thank you letter or card signed by the CEO
  • A sincere thank you video from the product team

Conclusion

Anytime is the best time to get user feedback, but not all feedback is actionable. Everyone has different needs and personal preferences, and just because you hear a user say she hates blue buttons doesn’t mean you have to go restyling your application. When it comes to user feedback, think much bigger than “look and feel”, think about how does it make the user feel? Making sure that your user base can access and use your application is the bare minimum you need to hit on the way to creating something that solves a problem for them, helps them achieve their personal goals, and makes them feel amazing. It’s ok to take baby steps and tackle one thing at a time. Just make sure you never sit back and say “yep, this is done”. Creating useful and usable products is a process of continuous improvement, sensing, and responding to user and market feedback every step of the way.

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