Get Feedback or Fail

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Feedback is the key to successful products. Get it early and get it often. Products are supposed to solve problems, but how can you be certain your product is the right solution without asking potential users? Think back a few months to Google Wave. It was one of the most technically impressive applications ever made for the browser, but after a short-life in the public the project was shut down. Google even admitted they "weren't quite sure how users would respond to this radically different kind of communication."' This could have been prevented by soliciting feedback from users throughout the design process well before they launched Wave.

Let's run through the facts of feedback, and learn the 5 W's of feedback.

What: Effective Feedback

It might seem obvious that the "what" is feedback, but the operative word here is effective. Feedback is easy to get...beneficial feedback takes practice to solicit. Seek feedback that is:

  • Targeted: Feedback should answer a question. Don't expect valuable feedback if you ask "how does this look?" Make sure to have intentional and directive questions about specifics.
  • Actionable: There must be a next step for feedback. There is no use in getting answers to questions that have no next logical step.
  • Valuable: Feedback can be both targeted and actionable, but ultimately will be a poor investment of time to address if it's not valuable. Feedback like "these 5 pixels should be a bit darker"' or "it would be awesome if this had a button to export this app to a Powerpoint document" are example of feedback that is targeted and actionable, but not valuable. Avoid these types of answers by keeping your questions focused.

Why: Successful Products

One of the top reasons products and startups fail is that companies don't actively seek customer feedback. Why would you start working on a product for customers, but never ask them what they thought of the concept? Or worse yet, invest precious time, energy and resources to create a product, but never validate with your customers if it was the right product? Be smart and listen to your end-user. Ultimately, they are going to be the ones who make or break your product.

Who: Customers, Clients & Your Team

Now you know what you're asking and why, but making sure you know who to approach is just as important.

  • Customers: These are the people that are going to be using and paying for your product, so be proactive about soliciting feedback. Make user-testing a part of your product development process and learn to iterate based on feedback. Products that react to customer needs win.
  • Clients: Not everyone is working on a product they own, but getting feedback as a consultant is just as important. Think of your client as your customer, and the end-user as their customer. Get your client excited and invested in your design through regular feedback and empower them to make decisions.
  • Your Team: If you have the good fortune to work on a team, get in the habit of sharing what you're working on and asking questions. Consciously seek feedback from multiple perspectives. Don't always ask designers for feedback on a design - open yourself up to thoughts from engineers, product managers or marketers.

Where & When: Here and Now!

Stop allowing feedback to take a back seat and make it a priority. No matter where you are in the product cycle, customer feedback is only going to help guide product direction. If you're in the concept phase, validate your ideas and make sure you're not creating a product no one wants. If you're mid-development, pull together some questions you have about the product, do a quick user test and ask your customers for answers. Stop waiting, do it now. Learn the value of feedback and start getting it early and often.

A Personal Note

Getting feedback is a tough practice to start, but once you do it will change how you work forever. When I started at ZURB I struggled to get feedback. As a designer, critiques felt like attacks on my talent and work and it was a blow to the ego almost every time. Now, a couple years later, I couldn't work without feedback. Strong emotional ties I felt with my designs have given way to an iterative process based on targeted feedback. I learned that designing without feedback is like working in a vacuum; no one is invested in your decisions or understands the value of your work. Take the leap, open up to feedback and train yourself to react and refine your work effectively.

Feedback is part of the culture at ZURB. We use our own tools like Notable and Verify to get feedback from our clients, users and each other. Make feedback a priority now or you product and work will ultimately fail.

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It has 3 comments.

godbout (ZURB) says

thx, nice article. I do have a question though: what's wrong with the 'how does it look?' question. I mean, what is an intentional and directive question about specific? do you mind giving some examples?

Eric Miller (ZURB) says


The way I interpret that is if you ask "how does this button look" you're going to get answers like "the blue is a little too dark." These questions can lead you down roads of revisions that are not aimed at improving a product. Instead, ask questions like "is it clear what the next action item is on this page to complete the sign up process?" Answers to this question would clearly tell you what to improve.

But, also keep in mind that when people say things like "the button is too dark" they might actually be saying "it's not clear what the next action item is to complete the sign up process." You can turn what appears to be unhelpful feedback into helpful feedback by digging deeper into why something doesn't "look good."

Dave (ZURB) says

Eric nailed it. Asking questions like "does this look good" is going to merit answers like "yeah," or "kinda, but that background isn't very good." A better question would be "is it clear what the primary objective of this page is? Why?" Not only will this result in feedback that addresses a real concern, it also will start to surface new insights into why the design is or is not effective.