Make User Feedback a Real Conversation

Embracing a healthy user feedback community as you develop a product says you're serious about meeting user needs, and it can hands-down make the difference between a flourishing product and a mediocre one.

Ever since I beta tested GatherContent's system, I've been enamored with trying out new products and giving user feedback to the companies behind those creations. With GatherContent, I've basically become the definition of a brand champion.

The product is great (and it just keeps getting better all the time), but what really got me invested—what keeps it top of mind as something I regularly advocate for among other content strategists and designers—is that the team embraced me as a valuable contributor to their development.

Did they implement all of my ideas? Of course not. Hell, at some point I probably asked for a unicorn to dance across the screen.

What they did do is acknowledge all of them, giving me insight into how the product is being developed and why. I was invested and I loved it. I happily became a paying customer when they transitioned to a subscription model.

This month, I've been trying out another web app, Sprintly, for agile project management, and it's showing a lot of promise (besides being the best looking PM tool I've seen to date). And after my experience with GatherContent, the presence of a customer feedback community was part of my decision to try it out. While the app itself has a lot going for it, their user feedback community has left a lot to be desired.


Not all feedback engines are created equal.

First, let me say that having a customer community at all is a huge improvement over more traditional methods of customer service. That said, building a community around improving user experience should itself be a solid user experience.

GatherContent used Get Satisfaction as their customer feedback community, and while it’s not a perfect tool, it provided the features necessary to facilitate our productive dialog. Giving feedback comes in four forms:

  • Ask a question
  • Share an idea
  • Report a problem
  • Give praise

These are the most common ways I want to interact with a product I'm using, and keeping it all in one community—where employees and customers alike can respond and discuss items—is beautifully simple and effective.

I've never been a fan of being forced to search community-supported forums for answers because they're usually bloated and difficult to parse, but Get Satisfaction has provided thoughtful paths for getting exactly what I need out of an interaction.

UserVoice, on the other hand, differentiates between types of interactions, creating a disparate community in the process:

  • Contact support submits an email (moving a conversation about problems to individual inboxes instead of the community, where everyone could learn from a single conversation)
  • Give feedback is a way to submit ideas within the format of "I suggest you..." Most people ignore the prompt.
  • The Knowledge Base provides topics and FAQs that help you get up and running and troubleshoot. Unfortunately, several of these articles are repetitious (e.g., the categories FAQs and Getting Started cover many of the same issues in separate and slightly different documentation articles).
  • There's no encouragement to provide praise. Sad. There are lots of good things to be said about Sprintly so far!


Let your customers help you.

I first realized that my ability to communicate in Sprintly's UserVoice community was limited when I noticed that there wasn't a way to comment on documentation articles. These items allow only two responses: "This article was helpful" or "Flag this article as inaccurate." What I was reading was helpful and accurate, but most of the time I had more questions or knew I could add information that would be helpful to other users.

After several tweets, UserVoice eventually told me that clicking "flag this article as inaccurate" would allow me to provide feedback to the company (I tried this out and it did what I'd originally expected: marked it "flagged" but didn't provide a way to give more details. Oops.).

They also said that these options made dealing with comments easier to sort through on the support side (fair enough). But flagging has the connotation that you're sounding the alarm, so why would I anticipate using this to give comments (even if it did work)? Forcing a user to say something is inaccurate in order to add depth to the information seems completely counterintuitive.

Instead, providing a way to capture and embrace the knowledge, experience and time of your enthusiastic users is the best way to develop a vibrant and useful community (and customer base!).


Know exactly what to sell your customers, without even asking.

One day in Sprintly, I was adding new stories and trying out features, finding answers to my questions and happily voting for and creating ideas in the community… when I was cut off.

With UserVoice, participants have 10 points they can use to vote on existing ideas or add new ones. After you use them up, all you can do is view information and add written comments to existing items. Essentially it restricts users' voices to a certain volume, which makes me wonder if a volume knob would've been a better glyph than their megaphone.

But I get it. I can be overly talkative. I have a lot of thoughts, and they're not all diamonds. There's a need for balance in understanding what your user base wants as a whole. But really, you're completely cutting me off from adding ideas to the pool? Ideas that the builders behind this app might really want to tap into? You know, when I'm telling you exactly what to sell me?

I'm all for prioritizing the highest-value features before spending resources to create something that might just be a crazy idea that totally fails, so limiting how many votes a user can cast is fine by me.

But limiting user feedback, particularly if it has to do with new ideas, only serves to mute the conversation.

User feedback is a rich (and free) brainstorm that can make the difference between a decent product struggling to figure out how to improve and a fantastic product that gives users exactly what they want and need.

When all is (hopefully) said and done, companies are more than capable of prioritizing this feedback themselves, letting the weak ideas fall by the wayside and building upon the strong ones. Asking users in your feedback community to cull the pool is cutting potential off at the knees.


The outspoken will always find an outlet.

Before social media, customer service was primarily about managing angry customers, if not in person then by phone or possibly email. And to be fair, complaining on Twitter may be the fastest way to get resolution from a company.

But this doesn't have to be the whole conversation anymore, and we shouldn't limit ourselves to managing problems.

Stubborn vocalists like me will turn to mediums outside of the immediate customer community to connect to the people behind the product. I've been tweeting at Sprintly's founder since I was cut off by UserVoice, and to his credit, he's been super responsive. But he shouldn't have to manage feedback in so many places—it's not efficient and it's not collaborative.

I recently discovered that I could even work the system and create another user profile from which to start all over with points, but I don't want to hack it. I want it to be better. UserVoice may be more than a helpdesk, but it's less than a community.

The bottom line is that, as with anything, everyone will have opinions. The question is what you do with them. Your perspective on how to handle user feedback (and which user feedback community to choose) could be the difference between your product being loved by many or tolerated by few.