Building a Product via Customer Feedback
The MVP ("minimum viable product") method is a popular way to develop digital products. With this method, you create and release a simple version 1.0, then collect feedback from your customers to guide further development.
Even without customer feedback, you probably have dozens of ideas for improving your product. A few of these ideas are much more valuable than others. But which are the ones that customers actually want?
Using customer feedback can help you to determine which of your ideas are the most valuable ones. These are the ones that will make your product better than your competitors, increase your sales, and reduce your customer churn.
There are two main challenges when building a product via customer feedback:
- Obtaining customer feedback; and
- Prioritising customer feedback.
Obtaining customer feedback
Gathering customer feedback is achieved via "now" channels and “later” channels.
"Now" channels collect feedback at the time the customer encounters your product's shortcomings. These channels include customer support tickets and feedback forms built into your product.
"Later" channels collect feedback at a time of your choosing. These channels include surveys, customer interviews, and usability testing.
"Later" channels tend to give inferior feedback to "now" channels. That's because people tend not to be very good at detailed recall. When you ask a customer what limitations they encountered in your product, they'll need to cast their mind back to when they last used it, and then try to recall the experience.
Despite the feedback not being as accurate, "later" channels can be easier to fit into your business's workflow.
Tools like TypeForm make it easy to run a customer survey via email and a web page.
Few people respond to surveys. To maximise your response rate:
- follow up with a reminder after some days.
- keep the survey as simple as possible; the more questions you ask, the less likely people are to complete it.
- accept that most people won't respond.
- consider offering an incentive, such as an Amazon gift voucher or a month's free usage of your product. Do note that offering such an incentive will bias your results to customers who have more time on their hands.
Contact your customers directly and interview them about how they use your product.
You'll know which of your customers are the best to approach - they are the types of customers you'd like more of. Contact them and tell them you're trying to identify what features your product is missing. As with surveys, you should follow up with a reminder for best results.
A customer interview is better done via phone than email. This allows you to ask follow-up questions and find out if there is a deeper underlying need. In-person is even better than phone, but tends to be impractical.
Usability testing is a technique used to evaluate a product by testing it on users under supervision. It gives direct input on how real users use your product.
In a usability testing session, you bring a volunteer (ideally an existing user) into your office and give them a series of tasks to perform using your product. Your team watches silently while the user tries to complete the tasks. The volunteer is requested to think aloud the entire time.
Many product teams avoid usability testing because it is time-consuming and awkward to organise. This is unfortunate. Usability testing is an excellent way to identify your product's missing features and rough edges. It is especially important for newer products.
Your customer support team is likely to be your most active channel for capturing feature requests. Ensure your support team has a process for informing your product manager of these requests. Ideally you'll have an automated way to turn a customer support ticket into a feature request in your issue tracking system.
Customers will often go to your Support page or Help menu when they are frustrated by something missing from your product. If you have a clearly identifiable option to "Suggest an improvement" or "Submit feedback," customers will find and use it.
A secondary benefit of a "Submit feedback" link is that it makes a good impression on your customers. It tells them you are interested in what they have to say.
The means of gathering this feedback can be a 'mailto' email link, a simple feedback form, or a feature request management tool like my company's product, Feature Upvote.
Prioritising customer feedback
When you make it easy to track customer feedback, you'll soon have more suggestions than you could ever implement. How do you work out which are the best ones for your product?
A naive but acceptable starting point is to simply implement the most popular requests. Although a good first step, I recommend a more sophisticated approach.
Here are some criteria to take into account to determine the priority of a feature request:
Does this request identify a sales blocker?
Sometimes, potential customers are comparing several products and making sure your product ticks boxes on a checklist. If your prospects or trial customers are frequently requesting a similar feature, it could be that you are missing an important item in these comparisons.
Some of these sales blockers never get used, but their absence is costing you sales. To get through the purchasing process you need the features, even if the actual users of your product don't end up wanting or needing them.
Does this request come from important customers?
Whether for strategic or financial reasons, some customers are more important to your business than others. These are the customers you want to include in your client list, or who will use your product in a very public way. Perhaps they also have a large social media following, or a well-read newsletter.
It is sensible to give their requests higher priority.
Does this request fit with your vision for our product?
Perhaps your vision is to have a zero-configuration product inspired by the Nespresso coffee machine, but your customers want a range of configuration options akin to commercial espresso machine.
Perhaps your vision is for a low-maintenance, cloud-only SaaS (software-as-a-service) product, but your customers ask for a self-hosted version.
If a popular request fits well with your vision for your product, then you should raise the priority. Conversely, if it doesn't fit with your product vision, make it low priority or even mark it as "won't do."
It is difficult to keep saying no to customers when their requests conflict with your vision. But doing so makes your product stronger.
Is this feature easy to implement?
Regularly implementing simple features, even if they don't meet other criteria, helps your team feel they are making progress. It also shows your customers your product is being actively improved.
Beware the temptation, however, to only ever add easy-to-implement features. If you continuously avoid the more important issues facing your product, any progress in your product offering will only be an illusion.
How much ongoing maintenance or support will this feature require?
Will this feature require a lot of ongoing maintenance or support work? If so, I lower its priority. Conversely, a feature that is likely to be easy to support gets a higher priority.
Often you don't realise which features will be the time-sinks until after they are live. Features likely to require a lot of ongoing support include:
- Integration with third-party products, such as email servers;
- Features that rely on your customers to use specific technical knowledge; and
- Scripting of your product.
Avoid adding these types of features unless demand from your customer for them has reached the rioting stage.
When you build your product via customer feedback, you'll save a lot of effort by not building the features no one really wants. You'll know that the improvements you make are the ones that will give you high return on investment.
Your customers know better than you what improvements your product needs. Listen to them and you'll have a great product. Show them you are listening and you'll have satisfied customers.