Feedback is More Than What Your Customers Say

Feedback on your products is valuable, but not always easy to get. Be bold but smart at the same time.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

The world is a mess.

In a perfect world, our customers would tell us what they want. More important: they would describe what they need. In the real world, however, customers do not always know what they want. Let alone that they would know what they need. And coming up with good ideas for what provides value and will be successful is not easy, either. Even the best ideas can fail in that messy world. Many ideas fail. Either they don’t solve the problem, or it takes too long before the solution provides value.

We have been aware of this for some time. It’s the reason why we embraced the idea of empiricism in the first place.

What if we can’t ask our customers for feedback? How do we get anything done? Are we lost without people speaking up their mind? We have to rely on our gut feeling and take the risk, right?

Wrong.

Feedback comes in various colors and shapes. Your precious new product is gathering dust on the shelf? That is feedback.

We cannot rely on what customers say alone. We need to come up with our own ideas. But to make the most out of empirical process control, we need feedback. We need it from various sources and in every phase of a product lifecycle. From ideation to delivery.

What is feedback exactly?

“One of the most critical lessons in product is knowing what we can’t know”
— Marty Cagan in “Inspired — How to create tech products customers love”

Put simply, we could describe feedback as an insight about the direction we are headed. It can be any response to our actions, which tells us that we are on the right track or that we have to change directions.

Feedback goes beyond what customers want. We also need to consider what’s possible and what customers would pay for. After all, what’s the point of building something that no one wants?

Many people consider feedback an opinion, but the Oxford Dictionary has a broader definition:

Information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement.
(Oxford Dictionary definition of feedback)

We have a variety of feedback sources at our disposal if we apply that definition. Even some good old KPIs can feed insights back into our process and allow us to pivot based on facts. Feedback can be loud. Like a customer yelling at you that your “damn product” is not worth a cent if it doesn’t have a touch screen. Feedback can be as silent as a customer not using your product. Finally, feedback can be technical. It could tell you that your idea is sound but not feasible. Your feedback can come from your customers, your Development Team, and the market. And let’s not forget your spouse.

Your job as a Product Owner is to gather all that feedback. It’s also part of the job to make sure it guides or at least influences the direction you head into.

Feedback can help answer the high-level questions: why we are doing something and what we need to build. Furthermore, it can help in the details by guiding how actually to build the thing.

The journey could start with a customer telling you about a problem they want you to solve. An unfulfilled need or something that annoys your customer. Or your customer is a bit more specific and tells you what a possible solution could look like. People are creative when they have to scratch an itch. You nod to acknowledge his efforts, but you don’t commit to that solution yet. Your customer is not the only one using the application, so you, as the Product Owner, develop an idea yourself.

To make the idea more actionable, you come up with a scribble of what it could look like. With that, you approach a colleague. Susan, your User Experience lead, tells you: “Nice idea, but I am afraid it won’t provide value to many of our customers. Our user research shows that many people wish for an entirely different feature.”

There you go, the first feedback about your idea.

A bit puzzled, you ponder what to do.

As a good Product Owner, you trust your guts, but you also know that most ideas don’t work in reality. Before spending too much effort, you decide to gain more feedback. You ask Susan to do a little mock-up, which you can show to your customer and other people. In parallel, you run a quick survey with the engineering team to determine what they think about the feature. The results are uneven, but most deem the feature to be valuable. One engineer doesn’t participate. When you ask him for a reason, he mumbles something about not being a Product Owner. He says he prefers to code instead of participating in stupid surveys.

This is feedback, too. Although more about the dynamics in your team and your work as a Product Owner.

A few Sprints later, you deliver something to the customers. It’s different from what the customer proposed at first. Entirely different from your initial idea. Nevertheless, the customer is happy.

Feedback can take you in an entirely different direction.

How to make use of feedback

In an ideal world, the feedback would be both specific and actionable.

In rare cases, it is. Most of the time, it’s up to us to make any sense of it. We have to qualify the feedback.

The problem is especially evident in some sources of feedback. Take your business KPIs, for example. If your engagement score goes down, how do you relate it to the feature you deployed? You can correlate it to the date you deployed the feature. But does it make your feedback more actionable?

What if your product gathers dust on the shelf? Like it was the case with Gillette razors at first, as Kunal Shah described in his article “Scrum, but Don’t Let Customer Feedback Hold You Back!”. Would you stop building razors the moment you realize that no one buys it?

No.

Instead, you could try to get more feedback. One way to achieve that is to iterate on your product and get feedback as you go.

Make it tangible

If you want to know what is valuable for customers, it usually helps to show them something.

It can take several iterations before you find the right solution for your customers. But here comes the thing. If you make the abstract tangible, it makes it easier for people to form an opinion and speak up their mind. The options for that range from scribbles and mock-ups over prototypes up to a minimum viable product.

They still won’t tell you exactly what to do. You have to read between the lines. Say your customer tells you that he cuts himself with the razor blade more often. Wouldn’t your next iteration feature something like a skin protector?

Use feedback from a variety of sources

It’s also helpful to take any input you can get and whenever you get it. First, not every form of feedback is available in all cases. Second, because a single feedback source is sometimes not conclusive enough.

Asking customers what they think is one source of feedback. It’s not always the most accessible, though. Remember that any person you work with could be a potential source of feedback. Show them a scribble, mock-up, or prototype and ask them what they think. Run surveys with your customers. Or give them a chance to rate a new feature. Talk to your significant other, what he or she thinks about your idea. Look at the usage data of your application. Take your existing KPIs into consideration, like your sales or the conversion rate. Those sometimes don’t provide actionable insights. But they can give a signal that you can further qualify.

A common method, especially in software engineering, to gain more insights is a method called A/B testing. Many big companies like Netflix and Google make use of that method.

In A/B testing, you carry out a controlled experiment. You build a variant of your product with and without a change. Then you make the changed version available to only a portion of your users. Checking your feedback signals will now be more helpful. This time you have something to compare it with: the group with the feature and the control group. You can now check how the results differ.

Consider your company goals

The healthiness of your organization is essential.

It can be tempting to jump for every feedback and request you get. But there is a cost involved with everything you do. Some of these costs hide beneath the surface. Like when adding a feature results in a rise in the number of support requests, for example. Or that it raises the efforts to maintain the code in the long run. Often your engineers can inform you about the price you’ll have to pay for realizing a particular idea. Talk to them. You may also find that your Ops guys have to fight more incidents after a feature is added to your product. In some cases, it will tell you that you need to invest efforts into the quality of your products. Sometimes you will have to reject a wish to keep the product maintenance sustainable.

As a company, it’s in your best interest to consider these feedback sources as well. For one, some of these aspects can affect customer satisfaction – even if they don’t tell you. Second, it can slow you down and make your product maintenance more expensive.

Conclusions

What customers say is not the only source for feedback.

It is also important what customers do and don’t do. Apart from your customers’ feedback, there is a variety of sources that you can utilize to get feedback. Even your existing KPIs can prove helpful. Make use of the different sources for feedback, if you want to be successful. Be creative in finding new feedback sources.

Make use of feedback early and often — qualify the feedback if it doesn’t provide actionable insights.

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Trying to improve the chaos called work - one article at a time. Blogging on Medium and on my blog chaosverbesserer.de.

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