Category Archives: Product Development

Naiveté Key to Starting any Project

At work I was recently asked, “Kevin, What’s was the secret to get your project funded?”

So I looked in the mirror, and quickly realized it wasn’t based on looks, and instead after much thought replied, “Naiveté, creativity, persistence & luck!” which frankly are the key ingredients for any successful project.

Why Naiveté?

In the beginning I thought it would take a few months to sell the project, and then someone told me it would most likely take six to 12 months, which both relieved me and frustrated me at the time. Ultimately it took more like 24-36 months before the project went from concept to funding

Honestly, I probably would have never tackled the project if I had known it would take two, almost three years before it was finally prioritized and funded. The reality is that you have to be naïve and overly optimistic about how long it will take otherwise you’d most likely give up before you start.

Why persistence?

Because while we all start out naively, success ultimately requires persistence, otherwise we’d give up before crossing the finish line, especially when the finish line seems to just keep moving further away. The challenge is to figure out the difference between persistence and stupidity, as success is never guaranteed.

Why creativity?

While persistence is critical, you need to keep coming up with different sales pitches and throwing them against the wall to see what sticks. And we came up with stories based on fear, greed, greatness, customer experience, you name it with all sorts of different charts that showing how we’d save money, save time, make money, grab new markets and so on and so forth as we drafted presentation after presentation. And each time our story became a little crisper, gained us new advocates and helped us slowly crawl up the prioritization list.

Just like any other types of sales, when you are asking for people to part with their money and resources, it’s rare that you create the perfect pitch the first time. Instead you need to view every pitch as an experiment, where you are making as many observations and potentially asking as many questions as you are answering, otherwise you are wasting time. So identify what went well and modify what didn’t – and keep selling until someone bites!

So what was the final ingredient required for funding?

Luck! Without luck, I don’t know that we ever would have gotten the required nor the desired funding, but part of luck is being ready at the right place and right time when the opportunity arises. And while most of us would love to credit our brilliance for success, and blame bad luck for our failures, the reality is that lady luck is equally present in both.

But without the naiveté to start, the persistence to keep going when it seems hopeless & the creativity to keep coming up with new pitches, you will rarely be in a position to enjoy lady luck’s sunshine.

So put on those rose-colored glasses, but with flexible titanium frames that will hold up to the abuse, and get started pitching!

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CA Investigation: Too Many Facts & Not Enough Design= Missed Opportunities

Hats off to the Commercial Appeal for a good solid piece of investigative journalism about how Shelby County General Sessions Court Judges are absent way more than they should be. http://bit.ly/CAJudgeInvestigation

Unfortunately, because they and most other news organizations are still stuck in a primarily narrative story mode, where text-based stories that disappear shortly after creation are the norm, they missed multiple opportunities to transform their work into more useful, usable and longer-lived content.

If the Commercial Appeal and other news organizations are going to succeed on the Web, they’re going to need to move beyond just writing stories to creating information products that maximize both the value of their work to the news organization and their audience.

So what do I mean by that?

So instead of just writing stories, think about the different challenges your audiences face and how if you structured the information differently, you can help them solve those challenges. And secondly, how could you leverage the information to drive ongoing engagement over time.

Below are a few thoughts that came to mind after I read the story.

Learn how the brain works

The brain has three types of memory:

  1. Iconic Memory: Where sights, sounds and other senses are first processed. Information stays in here for less than a second, but our mind is able to identify certain items instantaneously, even before our conscious mind is aware of them, e.g. length, movement, color, etc..
  2. Working Memory: The brains RAM. Unfortunately we humans can only hold small amounts of information in our working memory, e.g. names, dates, etc.. so as we learn new facts, we either forget what we learned previously or we need to move the information into our long term memory.
  3. Long-Term Memory: Where we store our information for later use.

The key takeaway is that our working memory only holds small amounts of information, so we need to design our information products in ways that make it easy for us to absorb and manage the content being presented, i.e. stories are great for communicating themes and conflict, but don’t work so well for delivering lots of facts and figures.

Just think about all the stories you’ve read where you’ve confused the various characters and have to constantly refer to earlier parts of the story to understand who’s who and what’s what.

Just as we no longer rely on just oral communication, we can’t rely on just text in a world with almost infinite design options if you want to maximize your story’s impact.

I highly recommend Stephen Few’s blog for more insights into the human brain and data visualization.

Help me understand my government

First, while the article was chock full of information, I still don’t understand how the different courts are structured or work. There was a paragraph or two buried in the article about the different courts, but since the article was so fact dense, the information was quickly pushed out of my working memory as I tried to absorb other details in the story.

The local court system in Shelby County is incredibly confusing, but there is nowhere you can go that explains how the different courts are structured and compare them with each other. The CA provided some limited explanation of the court structure in the article, but if they had created a table that explained the various courts and provided links to more in depth descriptions, they would have both provided better context – and created evergreen content that would be helpful to anyone who is trying to understand the Shelby County Court system.

While the investigations are great, developing rich base content about the people and institutions  that serve us would fill a giant information gap in the market and provide a better foundation for stories like this to build from.

Unfortunately, by not thinking of themselves as a Wikipedia for local government, they missed out on the opportunity to:

  • Better serve their readers by providing insights into a confusing and opaque system.
  • Create evergreen/longtail content that will be relevant months and years after it was written.
  • Deliver a better user experience as the structural details of the various players, processes and systems get lost in traditional storyform.

Just ask yourself, where do you, your friends and family turn to when they have questions about their local government? Is it a local news site? And is it easy for them to find the information they want? Or is there an opportunity for you to fill?

Help me vote

Second, by not structuring the story as part of a larger voter-guide initiative, they lost the opportunity to make it easier for me to make decisions about the upcoming ballot.

The upcoming ballot in Shelby County will be huge – especially with all the various judgeships on the ballot. As someone who’s not involved in the legal community nor closely tied to the local political parties, I don’t have a clue who these people or what their duties.

If the Commercial Appeal created a ballot structure with links to the various articles/information – or that had the information in such a way that I could easily save as part of a voter guide, the stories would go from “Hmmm… this is interesting and potentially outrageous” to “Oh… this is great, they’re creating a comprehensive voter guide that I can easily use to help me make voting decisions.”

Instead I read the article, thought this is bad and I need to save this information for when I vote, then promptly lost the article and got lazy about copying the information to a form that I could use to decide and document my ballot choices. As a result, I may not ever use the information in the article as part of my voting decision-making process because of the additional work required by me to make it usable for me. (Okay, I will but only because I’m a nerd who invested so much time writing about the article.)

Don’t make me work

Stories are great for painting pictures of events and conflict, but they frankly suck for providing detailed minutiae as our brains can only hold so much detail in our working memory. Instead of forcing people to remember a bunch of facts and figures, news organizations need to focus on new ways to help people easily understand both the larger context and the details of who’s doing what – neither of which traditional text-based stories are very good at doing.

So considering how much time is invested in investigative work, in the future news organizations need to think how best to communicate that information to their audiences for their audiences’ benefit – and how best to transform that information into valuable longer-term assets.

 

Bad UX! Bad product management! Bad RIM! Or, why does my BlackBerry have a flashing light?

Want to know why the RIM management team should be fired and BlackBerry has gone from cool to crap?

The green flashing light!

Anyone who’s owned a BlackBerry knows what I’m talking about. In the top right corner there exists a mysterious flashing light – sometimes it’s green; sometimes it’s red. What it does and why it’s flashing no one knows and no one cares as far as I can tell.

Instead, it just irritates! At night if I want to use the alarm function or want to leave my phone next to my bed I have to cover it with a shirt or something else so it doesn’t bother me. I finally managed to figure out how to turn off the green light but now an orange one appears…. sigh 😦

I’m sure I can find out how to turn that one off as well but my point here is: How many tens of millions of dollars has RIM wasted on a feature that adds limited to no value – or even negative value over the years?

Just because a feature may have made sense in version 1.0 doesn’t mean it makes sense in version 2.0! As a product manager you have to be ruthless about what features to include and which you exclude.

Products are just like art – whether music, writing or photography – what you exclude is just as important as what you include. There’s a classic scene from the Movie Amadeus where the king tells Mozart, “It was good there are just too many notes. Just cut a few and it will be perfect!”

Take that too heart! It will save you money from developing drivel that few people use and frustrates even more users.  Even better, it will focus your efforts on polishing the key pieces your customers really care about.

Just imagine all the wasted engineering and design efforts that have gone into enabling the flashing lights. I can just imagine being in design reviews where they’re trying to increase their screen size but can’t because of the flashing light.

RIM wake up! Eliminate the flashing light and focus your efforts on what we really want: Touch screens, bigger screens and more apps! Until then I’ll wish I had an Android or iPhone.

Am I right? Let me know what you think.

Why I hate the term product manager

Product managers are supposed to be the voice of the customer and the market, but in most companies that’s a lie. Why? Because a product manager by definition is first and foremost responsible for their product – which is inherently internally focused. As a result, when they look at the outside world it’s almost always through the lens of their specific product.

Instead of looking at how their product fits into the customers’ ecosystem, processes, etc… they look at how their customers fit into their product – and then can’t figure out why adoption rates are so low.

And since in larger organizations each PM typically looks at the world through their product silo, it’s difficult to figure out how each of the pieces fits together.

So what can organizations do?

Create market, customer, persona or process advocates

Organizations need customer or persona advocates that aren’t tied to a specific product but instead responsible for becoming the subject matter expert on the markets, customers, personas or processes served by the company.

In some companies the UX department handles this but oftentimes the UX group is more focused on the screen design usability without understanding the larger context.

By making individual PMs responsible for being customer advocates it should help force the product managers to be more customer centric and drive collaboration across the organization.

Map the customers’ customers journey

I’ve read a lot about customer journey mapping but for the most part it’s always been in the context of the customer’s journey with your company. For B2B companies, mapping the customers’ customers journey may be even more helpful as it forces you to understand what your customers’ processes are and how you potentially fit or don’t fit into their processes as your number one goal is to help your customers be more successful.

By mapping the customers’ customer journey you should be able to spot opportunities to develop new products or better position your existing products to meet your customers’ goals.

Tell me what you think.

Product Adoption: Lessons on how to maximize product adoption and avoid common pitfalls

Imagine developing a product that encapsulated the best practices from the best minds in the business. A product that could increase your customer’s revenue by anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000 annually for only a few hundred dollars a month?

And best of all, it only took a couple of additional steps to use and could save time in the long run.

Given that type of ROI and rave reviews from early adopters, I figured marketing and selling the product would be a “no brainer.” So envisioning myself semi-retired and swirling Mai Tais on the Mexican Riviera, I signed on the dotted line, taking equity and deferred compensation in lieu of salary.

Two years later, my bank account is now a blank account—but while certainly not wealthier, I’m much wiser. So what happened? Why didn’t a “proven” product with a great ROI spread like wildfire—and instead just smoldered? There are many reasons, but the biggest reason was that the product required extra work to receive the extra benefits—and most people won’t do extra work no matter how big the potential future benefit is.

In this article, I’ll explain how you can incorporate that fundamental tenet of human nature into your product planning and marketing to increase adoption and sales.

The problem: The road to hell is paved with good intentions

We all agree exercise is good. In fact, it’s critical to our health, yet the majority of us don’t exercise enough or at all. Why? Because for most of us, it requires taking additional time and effort.

However, given the right support structures, e.g. a personal trainer, child care to watch the kids, etc. the probabilities of us adopting and maintaining an exercise ritual will increase dramatically. And soon, what was considered the “extreme” soon becomes the norm.

So what does this have to do with software?

Simple, no matter how good a new product is, if it requires the user to change their routine, it may meet resistance. And if you expect the user to take extra steps to get the extra benefit, then you must expect a large percentage of users will be unwilling to do the extra work, no matter how big the end gain.

And even if they want to change, many won’t unless you provide additional, and often seemingly irrelevant, services. So it’s critical to incorporate this knowledge into the business plan, product design, marketing and implementation process in order to increase your probabilities of success.

Technology adoption

Technology moves blindingly fast. Adoption is another story altogether.

Every product manager is familiar with the product adoption lifecycle and crossing the chasm. While the steps are the same regardless of the product, what varies dramatically is the time frame. And since time is money, the most important thing is to figure out how to shorten the adoption lifecycle.

The Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) is a great first step to understand why people adopt (or not) new software. Wikipedia ® states:

“The Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) is an information systems theory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_systems ) that models how users come to accept and use a technology. The model suggests that when users are presented with a new software package, a number of factors influence their decision about how and when they will use it, notably:

  • Perceived usefulness (PU) – This was defined by Fred Davis as “the degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would enhance his or her job performance.”
  • Perceived ease-of-use (EOU) Davis defined this as “the degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would be free from effort” (Davis, 1989).”

In other words, what’s the benefit and how easy is it to use? Traditionally ease-of-use has always played second fiddle to more features, but per the TAM, ease of use is just as critical to adoption as usefulness—so the first lesson is keep it simple.

In fact, less is often more from a user’s perspective. While some will want all sorts of “cool” features, most people just want to get their job done quicker and more easily.

We don’t need no stinkin “Best Practices”!

Best practices can take decades to adopt. Invariably, best practices means doing things right, which usually requires more work up front, and since most of us are busy and are used to doing things the way we’ve always done them, consistently following best practices is a challenge at best.

For example, CRM/sales-force automation systems promise all sorts of benefits to the sales person and organization, but it has taken two decades and billions of dollars in failed implementations to get to a state where most sales people are comfortable with them and willing to enter their sales information into the system.

Management systems in the collision shop market are another example. Despite the proven benefits of using a management system, reducing cycle time, increasing productivity, profits, etc., it’s taken nearly two decades to achieve a 50% penetration rate.

Why? Because mass adoption has required dramatic economic and cultural/generational changes in the industry. The best practices encapsulated in the management systems had to move from the extreme into the mainstream. And for the most part, that meant people literally changing jobs and bringing the new tools and ideas with them.

In many cases, those new ideas and tools were rejected. But over time as more and more people were exposed to the new technologies and ideas, and a new generation of employees never knew that there was another way to do business, management systems have become standard equipment in the majority of the better shops.

On the other hand, think about the Web. In many cases it simplifies and eliminates the need to physically search for something, e.g. when was the last time you went to the library for a research project? As a result, the adoption curve has been incredibly dramatic.

So remember, if your solution requires significant extra work for extra benefits, know that the adoption lifecycle will most likely be long and arduous. Do anything possible to simplify the workflow and/or be absolutely indispensable.

Understand the market

How often have you heard or said “How can we go wrong, it’s a virtually untapped $X billion market?”

I know I’m guilty of that and have personally paid the price. The real question is, what percentage of the market is realistically likely to adopt your product? And are you automating the exceptions or the norm?

For example, you’ve created a great new window-washing tool that can clean windows 50% faster and 200% better than your standard squeegee!

Every house in America has windows so just imagine the incredible market! But how many Americans regularly clean their home windows? Not many. You really have two markets.

  1. The window washers of the world: They already believe in the virtue of clean windows and regularly spend time cleaning them. For this group, you’re subtracting from their work and therefore giving them the gift of time and delivering better results in the process.
  2. The rest of us: I know I should probably clean my windows more often but heck they’re going to get dirty anyway. (Yes I’m married and drive my wife nuts with this kind of logic.) First, you have to persuade me of the value of sparkling clean windows and then you’ve got to convince me your product is the best for the job. And finally, you’ll most likely need to cajole me into actually using the product since it will require “extra” work on my behalf.

And that was the problem we ran into with our product. For the 1% of the shops that regularly double-checked their work, the product both simplified and improved their processes.

For the other 99%, it was a much more challenging sales and implementation/adoption process. In some cases, the users took to it like fish to water and now can’t imagine not having the product. But for a large percentage it took endless cajoling and handholding, and then as soon as we left, they stopped using it.

Better versus good enough

Growing up, I thought whip cream only came out of a can. Then I tasted homemade. One creamy spoonful and I swore I’d never go back to the can.

Now, three kids later I still love fresh homemade whipped cream, but sadly 80% of the time I rely on the can because it’s quick and easy and lasts forever in the fridge. I know my pie or hot fudge sundae would taste better with the “real” stuff, but I usually don’t want to take the extra five or ten minutes to make it and clean up. Besides, my kids, the primary consumers, don’t even notice the difference.

Even though the stuff that comes out of the can is clearly inferior to the homemade, I use it because it’s good enough and requires virtually no effort to use. And, since it’s a should have (some would even claim a nice-to have) I’ll often skip the extra benefit altogether rather than take the extra time and effort.

The same is true with software. Users will often choose “sub-optimal” solutions because they’re easier or not use anything at all because they don’t like the extra work –even if it makes the difference between just okay and great.

Product design

The most successful software combines extra benefits and eliminates steps. The spellchecker in Microsoft ® Office Word is a great example. Why? Because the product highlights the errors as I’m writing so I don’t have to take the extra step to run the spellchecker.

The lesson is to eliminate as many steps as possible and provide the tightest, most seamless integration possible that delivers benefits sooner than later. One of the most common errors is the creation of yet another application that the user has to launch.

This is especially true in the business intelligence/management reporting space. All too often, these companies expect the users to launch the application and then spend their time querying the system to get the value they paid for.

What typically happens is that the software sits unused like countless pieces of gym equipment gathering dust in homes across America. As one user remarked after we showed him our reporting software:

“I’m busy. I’ve got ten things I absolutely need to do. Twenty I really should do – and at the end of the day, I’ve only done three or four of them. So just email me a report that tells me what’s on fire today and how to fix it. And if you can eventually tell me what’s going to catch fire tomorrow and what I can do to prevent it, great! If not, I don’t want it and I’m not going to use it.”

Whenever possible, push the information directly into an existing application so the user doesn’t have to actually do anything to receive the benefits, e.g. instead of forcing the user to launch a separate reporting application, deliver the reports right into their email.

Sometimes what people want is really a service rather than a product. So if you can convince people of the end value, but you can’t get them to actually do the work required, you may have more success bundling it into a service. After all, isn’t that why people hire window washers?

Piggyback marketing

Once you’ve built the product, focus your marketing and sales efforts on the most likely early adopters. The best way to do that is to find prospects that are already practicing what you preach. Otherwise, you’re going to waste a lot of money and time on unqualified prospects who even if they buy your product may actually never use it.

I recently had this challenge with a client that has a really great product for analyzing open-ended feedback. The company believed we should try to convince everybody of the value of collecting customer feedback and then why open-ended comments were more valuable than closed-ended structured data. Under that scenario, a sales person would spend a lot of valuable time convincing a prospect why they should implement best practices in customer feedback—and then how our tool could improve the process. Talk about a long and arduous sales cycle!

My recommendation was that the company should identify companies that had already adopted best practices and focus their efforts on selling how the solution could simplify and improve what they’re already doing. Instead of trying to create an entirely new initiative, the company could piggyback upon an existing corporate project that already has executive sponsorship, corporate buy in and committed resources.

So whenever possible, identify “hot” best practices methodologies that already have significant traction and integrate your product and marketing into that existing market. Now instead of competing for attention with Six Sigma ® or NetPromoter, you’re an enabler that can feed into the larger ecosystem.

It may take you years and decades to focus on marketing “best practices” to industry influencers and thought leaders in order to grow the potential market for your product.

Implementation

While it would be wonderful to sell only to incredibly motivated customers and users that don’t need any assistance, the reality is a large percentage of your customers will both be implementing your software and best practices for the first time.

It’s not enough to train users how to use the software—you need to show its value and get their buy in.

In fact, I learned a very painful but important lesson during my first product management job:

Success of product/project = quality of the product/plan x the % buy in

So if you’re going to force change on an organization or users, here are a few suggestions:

  • Get the buy in at both the top and the bottom. It’s not enough to think that getting the CEO to buy in will lead to user buy in. If enough users squawk and the CEO begins viewing your product as too disruptive, the product will usually be ejected.
  • Start slowly. Don’t overwhelm the users with too much in the beginning. Help them get comfortable with the basics. It’s important that they feel they’re getting as much pain-free value as possible.
  • Move the cheese. Talk is cheap, compensation is golden. If you want your users to do something different, compensate them for the perceived extra work. Nothing guarantees failure faster than when an employee is told to do one thing and rewarded for something entirely different.
  • Change the org chart. New technologies require new processes and positions to leverage and support the new infrastructure.
  • Create standard operating procedures. Work with the users to create new standard operating procedures that they agree to and can easily follow. Don’t expect them to magically figure out how best to incorporate the new technology into their organization.
  • Be there. People hire personal trainers because they know that particularly in the beginning, a little extra push and encouragement to overcome their inertia is needed.

Empathy

I’ve worked in seven different verticals at four different companies, and I always hear the same complaint from product managers and engineers. “Our users aren’t like other customers. They’re technologically unsophisticated laggards.”

As a result, I’ve come to the conclusion that our users aren’t the ones who are different, we just happen to be in love with computers and our products. So every time I hear complaints about our users’ IQ and how easy our product is to use, I ask, “Can you explain how to forward a phone call?”

In all my years, I’ve only met a handful of people who actually know how to forward a phone call. Most of us just tell the caller, “Uh, I’ll try, but if I lose you, call his direct line.” and then we press some buttons and hope the call went through.

So remember for product success, have empathy for your users and don’t expect them to be as enthusiastic as you are about your product and willing to go the extra mile (or inch) to make it work.

The bottom line

Just because something is good for you, doesn’t mean people will do it. Don’t get blinded by the potential ROI of your product. Get out from behind your spreadsheet and start thinking like a typical user who’s got a thousand things to do and just wants to get home to see their kids.

And remember:

  • The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions which is why people often say one thing and do something entirely different.
  • Understand whether you’re automating an existing standard or enabling a yet-to-be-widely-adopted process to accurately identify the size of your market.
  • Subtract, don’t add to your user’s work, otherwise you’ll increase your implementation costs and reduce your adoption rate.
  • Piggyback your marketing and sales efforts on existing methodologies and markets instead of trying to position your product as something entirely new.
  • Change takes effort above and beyond just teaching people what buttons to press, so be prepared to provide professional services.
  • Be empathetic. Try to imagine yourself in your customer’s shoes and ask yourself, “How can I make their life easier?”

And finally, while it’s hard to be dispassionate about the benefits of fresh whipped cream, realize that for most people “fresh” from the can is good enough–and as a result better generally loses to easier in the marketplace.

Check out the presentation for a few laughs and more tips!

Let me know what you think! Drop me an email at kevin@myrepresentatives dot com or a tweet @kevinjmireles
Thanks!
Kev

Eight steps to defining what goes into version 2.0 and beyond!

No matter whether you’re on version 1.0 or 10.0, the list of potential enhancements is always greater than the available resources.The challenge software companies and product managers face is to identify where they should invest their limited resources to maximize their return and minimize their risk – especially, since most software companies have a fairly limited understanding of what their customers want.So most companies use one or more of the following procedures to decide what to put in the next release.

  1. Make up stuff
  2. Collect list of known bugs
  3. Informally survey customer support and sales to get a better understanding of what customers are saying
  4. Survey actual customers
  5. Rely on user advisory board

Unfortunately, while all these processes are good starting points, they all have their problems, including:

  • Opinions are like elbows, everyone has one or more of them. Whoever is closest or has more power, can make decisions to their liking that may or may not be what customers really want.
  • Oftentimes it’s difficult to quantify what’s really important to customers. Major bugs in features people rarely use maybe less important than seemingly minor issues in frequently used components.
  • Items that irritate but don’t actually stop system from being used, e.g. software is slow, may never get reported to customer service.
  • Customer service is traditionally focused on solving not documenting the problem.
  • Difficult for visionary customers/ users with great ideas to give suggestions. As a result – may never receive many great ideas.
  • Without clear-cut information, i.e. quantitative data, it’s very difficult to identify where should invest resources.
  • Once software is built, hard to determine whether changes actually satisfied dissatisfied customers.
  • Advisory boards may not actually reflect your typical end users.

As a product manager, I too have struggled with many of the same issues. However, after having the good fortune to work at a company helping Microsoft, Yahoo! and others capture and analyze customer feedback I’ve put together an eight-step program designed to help you identify the most important issues, verify your enhancements and validate your decisions to senior management.

1. Make it easy for your users to give you feedback while they’re using the product!

Why not transform your entire user base into a focus group? IBM recently stated that over 30% of their best ideas came from customers – and since your users are the one you have to please why not make it easy for them to give you feedback from within your product?

Microsoft, Yahoo! Intuit and Real Networks are already beginning to transform the concept into reality with significant results. They’ve all begun putting open-ended feedback forms right into their products – and as a result are receiving tens of thousands of comments each month about what customers love, like, dislike, absolutely hate, suggestions for enhancements, etc.

While in the past, the prospect of analyzing thousands of open-ended customer comments was overwhelming, new customer feedback solutions have transformed oceans of messy data into simple reports with powerful drill down features.

By giving the customers the ability to easily give feedback, Microsoft was able to quickly identify a seemingly minor issue was actually the number one source of customer complaints.

Customers couldn’t resize the reading pane in Microsoft’s new “Web-based” Live Mail product – as a result they complained loud and vociferously. The product team was then able to quickly escalate and fix the problem, which lead to a dramatic drop in the negative feedback.

Having sat through many discussions and arguments about what to fix and what not to – I can only imagine that a seemingly minor usability issue like this would have either been altogether ignored or downplayed in favor of a more quantifiable feature without the ability to capture and quantify open-ended feedback, but by having the hard data to show that it was indeed the number one complaint it eliminated any debate about the importance of validity of the enhancement request.

After working as a consultant at Island Data, which makes customer feedback solutions, and interviewing Microsoft, Yahoo! and others, here are a few recommendations to increase the quantity, quality and immediacy of your feedback.

Put a link to an open-ended feedback form directly in your Web site or application: That way customers can give you feedback when they want to – as they’re actually using the product so you’re able to capture immediate feedback.

Make the feedback link as visible as possible: The easier it is for people to give feedback the higher the probability of receiving feedback.

Encourage feedback: Don’t just rely on people remembering to give you feedback. Ask for feedback. Send out emails encouraging customers to give feedback. Offer rewards for best suggestion, etc.

Ask whether the user would recommend the product or service: Fred Reicheld’s ground breaking research on the use of the net promoter score to predict company earnings and profit should be used to help you predict both renewals and new sales. Visit www.netpromoter.com for more info.

Limit the use of closed-ended questions: If you survey users, keep the number of questions to less than 10 – while you may have specific questions you want answered – your end user may just want to give you a very specific suggestion and doesn’t want to be bothered with answering irrelevant questions – and just make sure you always include an open-ended question and a big open-ended text box.

2. Capture as much additional data as possible: If a person is logged in, you can capture all sorts of additional data about them, including their email address, company, industry vertical, demographics, etc…. Even if they’re not logged in, at the very least you can capture the browser, OS, and other information to use for further analysis.

3. Use new customer feedback tools to simplify and enhance the analysis: Depending upon the size of the customer base, you may require additional technology to simplify the process of capturing and analyzing feedback. There are hundreds of different survey companies – but there are very few companies that have good tools for analyzing open-ended feedback. Two examples are

Island Data: Uses artificial intelligence to categorize open ended feedback. Currently used by Yahoo! and Microsoft.

Informative: Used by Intuit, HP and others, gives customers the ability to rank other customers suggestions.

4. Analyze feedback to identify what customers are saying.

  • Who is saying what? Segment your customers/users appropriately so can weigh the value of the complaint, e.g. complaints from secondary markets may be less important than complaints from core market users.
  • Categorize the suggestions and complaints? Try to group the comments together so you can begin to rank issues based on both the number and strength of the complaint.
  • Combine the structured data with the qualitative feedback to identify trends/root causes: Are the customers complaining about the system being slow all using dial up, on older OSs or have some other commonality that may point to the underlying root cause.

5. Dig deeper: Follow up with customers that complained to understand how important issue is and get more details on the issue. Just knowing that an organization is listening – even if the problem hasn’t been resolved is enough to increase customer satisfaction and may prevent customers from straying (at least temporarily).

So whether you choose to call, send an email survey or invite the user to a focus group – it’s important to both recognize the feedback and ask for more details so you can more quickly identify the root cause, understand the seriousness of the issues, gather potential solution ideas.

6. Test: Once you’ve decided what to fix or add for the next release, share your prototype specifically with customers who complained.

After all, since these are the people who care most – the people who are giving you an F and making most noise – shouldn’t you make sure your proposed solution actually receives their stamp of approval before investing significant resources.

And as most of us can attest to and research shows, customers feel much more positive about companies and people that went the extra mile to fix a potentially bad experience, I can attest to the power of going the extra mile.

Shortly after I bought the laptop – it had problems. Instead of being told to take a number, wait x days, etc. they worked on it while I waited. And then when that fix didn’t work, they gave me a docking station for my trouble – and replaced another piece of hardware. Since then, I haven’t a problem – but if I do, I know they’ll be there for me. And as a result, I always recommend them to anyone looking for a computer.

Once your complainers have approved the enhancements, test the prototypes on other customers to validate whether your complainers feedback matches rest of your customers.

7. Validate enhancement/investment: Once the new version is in the marketplace it’s important to validate your decisions and close the feedback loop. Depending upon the resources and size of your customer base – you can have a series of survey questions for everyone – and then create a subset of questions addressing issues that were specific to certain users.

Creating both general and more specific surveys will help you understand the impact of you changes on both the general population and the people who specifically complained about certina issues and about the product and company as a whole. Not only will this help you validate your investment, it’s giving you another chance to get more feedback and deepen your relationship with those customers.

8. Present analysis to senior management: What better way to establish your credibility than to be able to present the results of your before-and-after surveys. Since traditionally the enhancement decision-making process is pretty opaque to senior management – being able to show how and why the decisions were made and ultimately the results, higher customer satisfaction/net promoter scores will be huge for senior management.

And, if in the past, sales has always been skeptical about the value and viability of new features, being able to show customer feedback explaining the value of the enhancements will help you kick start the sales and marketing process.

Just remember, it all starts with making it easy for customers to give you feedback and actively encouraging feedback.

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I help companies successfully develop and market products. I have over 10 years of marketing and product development experience in a wide variety of industries and is currently available on a consulting or full-time basis.

Contact me at (858)337-2727 or kevin@kevinmireles.com to find out how I can help your organization.

User Experience 101: How to create a great online experience

User Experience: What is it?

“The overall experience, in general or specifics, a user, customer, or audience member has with a product, service, or event. In the Usability field, this experience is usually defined in terms of ease-of-use. However, the experience encompasses more than merely function and flow, but the understanding compiled through all of the senses.” – www.nathan.com/ed/glossary/

  • Look and feel: Does it reassure you or repel you? Do the images, colors and typography encourage the user to bond with your site?
  • Workflow/Information Architecture: How easily can you achieve the required task? Is the information arranged in a way that makes sense to the end user?
  • Interactivity: Does the system react appropriately? Does your site make use of technology to deliver the right information at the right moment?
  • How did you feel about your experience? Happy, frustrated, angry???

User Experience: Why it’s important?

Clothes cover you. Cars move you from place to place. Yet while we care that products have some basic features, all things being equal we choose the one that delivers, or at least appears, to deliver the user experience we desire.

Websites are no different. All else being equal, we’ll choose the Website that helps us achieve our desired experience. In more concrete terms, a good user experience will:

  • Increase conversions: Successful redesigns can increase conversions by up to 100% or more.
  • Increase adoption: Empirical research shows that perceived ease of use and usefulness are primary drivers of technology adoption.
  • Enhance customer satisfaction: A good user experience will increase customer satisfaction and therefore drive repeat and referral business.
  • Key differentiator: Apple elevated the user experience to a high art and look what it did for them.

How to create a Great Online User Experience

Creating a great online user experience requires the following ingredients:

  • Talent: Visual design, interaction design, information architecture, writing and engineering are just few of the different skill sets required to create a great online experience.
  • Focus: Trying to do everything for everyone is sure-fire recipe for failure. The tighter the focus, the easier it is to understand and deliver a great user experience – so be crystal clear about identifying your markets, users, and objectives.
  • User Intimacy: Once you’ve identified your users, the next step is to try to get inside their heads and figure out what drives them – so that you can be their advocate.
  • Process: Research. Design. Test. Then do it all over again as early and as often as possible.
  • Alignment: Make sure your organizations goals and Web site are aligned with your customers’ needs and expectations.

Talent: It takes a team to build a great user experience

Leonardo Da Vinci could write, paint, sculpt and engineer – but unfortunately he’s dead – so rather than try to find one person who can do everything – find the right team. It’s not fair to expect that any one person will have all the skill sets required to design and develop your Web site or even the user interface.

Just like the building profession features civil engineers, architects, interior designers and a multitude of other trades, interfaces require different skill sets. They include professionals skilled in: (Definitions courtesy of Sean Van Tyne and http://www.UXSIG.org)

Information Architecture: The art and science of organizing and labeling Web sites, intranets, online communities, and software to support usability and findability;

(http://iainstitute.org/pg/about_us.php)

Visual Design: The field of developing visual materials to create an experience. Visual Design spans the fields of Graphic Design, Illustration, Typography, Layout, Color Theory, Iconography, Signage, Photography, etc. and any medium, including online, broadcast, print, outdoor, etc. Visual Design is concerned with the elements of visual expression and style.

(http://www.nathan.com/ed/glossary)

Interaction Design: The field and approach to designing interactive experiences. These could be in any medium (such as live events or performances, products, services, etc.) and not only digital media. Interactive experiences, necessarily, require time as an organizing principle (though not exclusively) and Interactive Design is concerned with a user, customer, audience, or participant’s experience flow through time.

(http://www.nathan.com/ed/glossary)

Even more important than raw talent and skills, is attitude. I’ll trade someone with an advanced degree and 10-years experience for a virtual novice with an open attitude and a customer-centric approach.

Focus: Less is More

One of the most common problems I encounter in product and Web development is the lack of focus. “Our target user is everyone!” they say and then proceed to use very industry-specific terms and tools that require advanced programming skills.

While everyone is a big market, it’s much easier to develop a great online experience by focusing on one or two key segments and giving them exactly what they want – than trying to create a generic experience for everyone. So identify your target markets, users and business objectives first and you’ll save yourself time, money and headaches while enhancing your probability of actually creating a compelling experience.

User Intimacy: Know Your Users!

The more you know about your users the more likely you are to meet their needs. And remember don’t confuse the user with the buyer. Oftentimes, especially in big companies, the buyer, the big boss guy who signs the check, and the end user live in entirely different worlds.

    • Identify target users: Who are they? Go beyond demographics and try to understand what drives them to do what they do?
    • Describe their environment: While people have innate needs they may want to fulfill, their environment drives much of their decision making and habits – so don’t just focus on the user, learn about where they are when their interacting with you.
    • Define their business objectives and concerns: What do they want to achieve and what are they concerned about? Do they want to purchase something online and they’re concerned about not wasting time? Or do they just want to research a product for purchase later? And remember the same user may have entirely different objectives and concerns depending upon where they are in their purchasing lifecycle.
    • Create scenarios: Use your knowledge of the users to create a series of stories about them and their needs that your team can use to define the site’s requirements.

      Scenario 1 : The VP of marketing and sales has told the Marketing Manager he needs to increase site leads anyway he can – the budget for new Web marketing initiatives is pretty slim – but before they spend a penny, the VP wants to see a presentation why XYZ strategy is the right one – and he wants an answer by next Friday.

      Scenario 2 : The Marketing Manager is looking to switch marketing vendors because she is unsatisfied with service from existing pay per click firm. Based on her poor experience with her current vendor she is less concerned about price than service.

The two scenarios involved the same position – but the two users have entirely different needs based on their experience and environment.

Align your site to meet your users expectations

Inevitably there will be conflict between your organization’s desires and your customers’ requirements. The goal is to create a win/win process so that each party achieves their primary objectives as frequently as possible.

First, define and rank your business objectives. What are you trying to achieve, increase subscriptions, generate more sales leads, cut costs, etc.?

While you may have lots of business objectives, it’s critical to identify your primary objective – otherwise it’s easy to lose focus and let secondary desires get in the way of your primary mission. And at the end of the day, your success will be measured on your ability to deliver on the primary objective.

Second, what can you do that will help your users achieve both their goals and yours? Create potential solutions that solve key problems outlined in the scenarios.

Finally, use your primary objective as the decision-making filter: Does the task, information, technology and design help you achieve your primary objective or not?

A frequent conflict is the desire to collect as much information about the visitor as possible. While you may want to know more about your prospects, your prospect may not be ready to share that information with you. So how do you decide between the two desires?

If your primary goal is to increase sales and customer satisfaction, e.g. then the answer is simple: Do whatever will help you achieve that goal – and that typically means removing anything that reduces your conversion rates, such as filling out lengthy forms.

Process: Research. Design. Test. Then do it all over again.

Before you start redesigning your site willy nilly, it’s important to understand what already works and what needs work beforehand. The following are a few simple ways to understand where you need to focus your efforts

  • Design review: Ask a small group, 1 to 10 target users, to attempt a task and observe them. Goal is not to tell them how to do it – but identify issues.
  • Create score card: Rank issues in terms of criticality and frequency. Did the issue prevent the user from completing the task, decrease their desire or just annoy them?
  • Web Analytics: Where are customers abandoning your site? What are your current conversion rates?
  • Why?: Survey existing users. Can display a pop-under survey when leave site – asking why?

While Web development is fairly new, the architectural process is incredibly ancient – and worth copying. In a typical project, before the first block is laid – the following happens:

  • Architect identifies the target users,
  • Learns more about their needs, desires and budget
  • Sketches some sample designs,
  • Shows them to the client/users,
  • Client gives feedback,
  • Architect revises designs adding more and more detail to each revision
  • Repeat steps four through six until design passes muster with users

Once construction begins, making significant changes becomes very expensive – both in construction costs and time delays – so it’s critical to identify the right design as early in the process as possible.

And while it always seems tempting to shorten the design process, inevitably skipping this cycle of research, design and test inevitably extends the actual construction process and degrades the user experience.

The following are a few simple prototyping tips:

  1. Sketch out workflows: Use the written scenarios to create potential workflows and explain what the user will get in reward for their efforts.
  2. Create Wire frames: Very simple prototypes designed to just show workflow – can be on paper, in Powerpoint or HTML. The “rougher” the appearance – the more feedback you’ll receive, as users oftentimes don’t want to criticize something that already looks finished.
  3. Test: Use colleagues to test initial concepts on. Just someone not involved in the development process. Then test with target users. You don’t need a statistically valid sample – the most critical issues will rapidly be identified within the first few users.
  4. A/B Testing: Test different designs. There’s more than one way to skin a cat – so test different approaches to see which works best.

Once the site has been deployed, then it’s critical to track whether it’s living up to it’s stated objectives and to keep tweaking and testing to identify possibilities for improvement.

If you liked this article, I think you’ll like this presentation as well!

Send me an email kevin@myrepresentatives dot com or a tweet @kevinjmireles and let me know what you think!
Thanks!
Kev