Lack of feedback is one of the most difficult things about caring for a small child. You know they are unhappy because they are crying. But you don’t know if that unhappiness is due to: hunger, thirst, too hot, too cold, ear ache, stomach ache, wind, tiredness, boredom, teething or something else. They can’t tell you, so you can only guess. Creating software without feedback is tough for the same reasons. You know how well or badly you are doing by the number of sales, but without detailed feedback from your customers and prospective customers, it is difficult to know how you could do better.
The importance of feedback is amply illustrated by many of the stories of successful companies in the excellent book “Founders at work” by Jessica Livingston. For example, PayPal started out trying to sell a crypto library for the PalmPilot. They went through at least 5 changes of direction until they realised that what the market really wanted was a way to make payments via the web.
So good feedback is essential to creating successful software. But how do you get the feedback?
Meeting your customers face-to-face can give you some detailed feedback. But is time consuming and doesn’t scale when you have hundreds or thousands of customers. You can meet a lot of customers at a exhibitions, but it hardly an ideal venue for any sort of in-depth interaction. Also, they may be too polite to tell you what they really think to your face.
Technical support emails and phone calls are a gold-mine of information on how you can improve your product. If one customer has a particular problem, then they might be having a bad day. But if two or more customers have the same problem, then it is time to start thinking about how you can engineer out the problem. This will both improve the utility of your product and reduce your support burden.
In order to take advantage of this feedback the people taking the support calls need to be as close to the developers as possible. Ideally they should be the same people. Even if you have separate support and development staff you should seriously think about rotating developers through support to give them some appreciation of the issues real users have with their creation. Outsourcing your support to another company/country threatens to completely sever this feedback.
Monitoring forums and blogs
Your customers are probably polite when they think you are listening. To find out what they really think it can be useful to monitor blogs and relevant forums. Regularly monitoring more than one or two forums is very time-consuming, but you can use Google alerts to receive an alert email whenever a certain phrase (e.g. your product name) appears on a new web page. This feedback can be valuable, but it is likely to be too patchy to rely on.
A usability test is where you watch a user using your software for the first time. You instruct them to perform various typical tasks and watch to see any issues that occur. They will usually be asked to say out loud about what they are thinking to help give you more insight. There really isn’t much more to it than that. If you are being fancy you can video it for further analysis.
Usability tests can be incredibly useful, but it isn’t always easy to find willing ‘virgins’ with a similar background to your prospective users. Also the feedback from usability tests is likely to be mainly related to usability issues, it is unlikely to tell you if your product is missing important features or whether your price is right.
It is relatively easy to pop-up a feedback form in a browser when a user uninstalls your software. I tried this, but got very few responses. If they aren’t interested enough in your software to buy it, they probably aren’t interested enough to take the time to tell you why. Those that I did get were usually along the lines “make it free”.
Post purchase surveys
I email all my customers approximately 7 days after their purchase to ask whether there is anything they would like me to add/improve/fix in the next version of the software. The key points about this email are:
- I give them enough time to to use the software before I email them.
- I increase the likelihood of getting an answer by keeping it short.
- I make the question as open as possible. This results in much more useful information than, say, asking them to rate the software on a one to ten scale.
- I deliberately frame the question in such a way that the customer can make negative comments without feeling rude.
The responses fall into five categories:
- No response (approx 80%). They didn’t respond when given the opportunity, so I guess they must be reasonably happy.
- Your software is great (approx 10%). This really brightens up my day. I email them back to ask for permission to use their comment as a testimonial. Most people are only too happy to oblige.
- Your software is pretty good but it doesn’t do X (approx 10%). Many times my software actually does do X – I tell them how and they go from being a satisfied customer to a very happy customer. Also it gives me a pointer that I need to make it clearer how to do X in the next version. If my software doesn’t do X, then I have some useful feedback for a new feature.
- Your software sucks, I want my money back (rare). Thankfully I get very few of these, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Sometimes it is possible to address their problem and turn them from passionately negative to passionately positive. If not, I refund them after I get some detailed feedback about why it didn’t work for them.
- Stop spamming me (very rare). From memory this has happened once.
I consider them all positive outcomes, except for the last one. Even if I have to make a refund, I get some useful feedback. Anyway, if you didn’t find my software useful, I don’t really want your money.
Being pro-active like this does increase the number of support emails in the short-term. But it also gives you the feedback you need to improve your usability, which reduces the number of support emails in the longer term. I think the increased customer satisfaction is well worth the additional effort. Happy customers are the best possible form of marketing. Post-purchase emails are such a great way to get feedback, I don’t know why more people don’t use them. Try it.
If you make it clear that you are interested in what your customers have to say they will take more time to talk to you. If you act on this feedback it will improve your product (some of the best features in my software has come from customer suggestions). A better product means more customers. More customers means more feedback. It is a virtuous cycle.
All you have to do is ask.
 Only if you pay my mortgage. Hippy.
 The percentages are guesstimates. I haven’t counted them.
 My refund policy specifies that the customer has to say what they didn’t like about the software before I will issue a refund.