Improving your site with user feedback

Paul Boag

Users can be invaluable when deciding how to move a website forward. We should always listen to what they say. However, sometimes that is easier said than done.

Whether you are a website owner or a web designer, listen to your users. Whether you are running a web application like GetSignOff or developing content driven websites, listen to your users.

We all know that user feedback can be invaluable for improving our sites. However, knowing something and putting it into practice are different things.

There are two problems with listening to users:

  • How to listen to them in the first place
  • How to decide what is valuable feedback and what is not

We will never pay more than lip service to the idea of users shaping our sites unless we overcome these obstacles.

Collecting user feedback

Everybody thinks they know their audience. However, in reality they probably do not. When was the last time you actually asked a user his opinion? You may think you know what they want but you can’t be sure unless you ask.

Fortunately there are a number of ways to collect feedback from users:

Face to face

From focus groups to usability sessions, meeting users in the flesh provides unparalleled feedback. Meeting users allow a level of interaction unavailable through other methods because they allow two way real-time interaction.

This creates a better empathy and connection with users. You can get inside their heads by watching their mannerisms, listening to their tone of voice and even observing the way they dress. All of these subtle elements help construct a picture of the type of person they are.

Admittedly face to face meetings can be difficult to arrange. However I would encourage you to settle for nothing less. You may not do it extensively, but make sure you do it at least once.

Web stats and search queries

In my post ‘use web stats for more‘ I explored what could be learnt from analysing web logs and search queries. I explained that web stats could be used to find and resolve problems with usability, accessibility and content. I also looked at how monitoring search queries reveal what users really want from your site and the mental model they use to find your content.

In short, web stats are an invaluable source for identifying trends in behaviour and expectations.

Questionnaires and surveys

Probably the most traditional and most favoured form of collecting user feedback is the ‘survey/questionairre’. One reason they are favoured is because they identify broad trends in much the same way as web stats.

Personally I am not a fan of this approach, especially when used in isolation. Tracking broad trends through statistical analysis does not encourage empathy with users. As is pointed out in the book Subject to change, empathy is an important aspect of successful web development. Without empathy you will not truly understand your users.

Also, in my experience there is a difference between what users say and what they actually want. Users often request features and functionality when in reality they value a simple user experience. Without a two way discussion with users it is hard to identify the underlying needs.

Finally, unless users feel strongly about a site they are unlikely to complete a survey. This polarises results suggesting extreme opinion where it does not exist.

I am not suggesting surveys are useless. The problem is how they are acted upon. Many treat survey results as absolute. In fact it is necessary to ignore some results and read between the lines of others.

Third party web applications

The final way of collecting user feedback is through a new generation of community tools. Sites like Get Satisfaction and User Voice allow two way interaction with users. Users can submit suggestions, questions and complaints online and you can respond in kind. This happens in an open forum allowing anybody to participate in the discussion.

This open format (when compared to the predefined questions of a survey) encourages a more personal discussion and provides opportunity for a deeper level of discussion.

As with surveys the people responding are likely to be more polarised in opinion. However, because of the interactive nature of these services it is possible to dig a little deeper and understand the underlying issues.

Personally, I have found these services an invaluable way of building a closer relationship with users and better understanding what they are looking for.

Of course, whatever method you use to collect feedback it must be assessed. You need to determine what must be acted upon and what can be safely ignored.

Assessing user feedback

Once you have engaged your users, you will be amazed at the quality and quantity of suggestions. The problem becomes deciding what to implement.

I have had this problem for some time with both Boagworld and more recently GetSignOff. I have established 4 criteria I use to judge whether I act on a suggestion or not. These are:

  • Level of feedback – How many people are making the suggestion? If it is a substantial number then you should seriously consider implementing the idea. However if it is just a vocal minority then you may wish to think twice.
  • Source of feedback – Who is making the suggestion? Are those people your core audience? It is easy to find yourself implementing functionality for a group of users who provide no value to your business or site.
  • Cost of implementation – Consider return on investment when deciding on whether to implement a suggestion or not. If it is time consuming to build and expensive to implement, then the benefit to your users and your business must be high.
  • Impact – Finally, consider the broader impact of adding new functionality or content. Will it introduce complexity into your site? Will it break another part of the site? Will it distract users from your call to action or undermine business objectives? Often implementing a suggestion can have surprising consequences.

There is no doubt that listening to users can be an invaluable way of improving your site. However, ask yourself how you intend to gather their feedback and respond to the results.