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How to get started with user feedback

Steven Carr  |  June 16, 2021

User feedback allows you to understand user expectations and impressions throughout the design process—whatever design process you use. Whether it’s design thinking, human-centered design, or something completely different, user feedback helps you keep pace—and remain connected with your users—in a world that’s constantly changing.

As the saying goes, walk a mile in your customers’ shoes, and you’ll better understand their journey. Sometimes, getting close to your customers isn’t an option—at least not physically. And even when physical interaction is possible, getting your customers in the room can be time-consuming and expensive. Nonetheless, there’s a need for their perspective. In fact, customer needs, wants, and desires are proving to be more critical to understand than ever before. 

In this post, we’ll help you hit the ground running with user feedback so you’ll be prepared to meet your users’ needs in spite of a constantly changing world.

“Even if another person is like you in every obvious way, they’re unlike you in one very special way.” -Don Norman, Author, The Design of Everyday Things

What is user feedback?

For anyone familiar with the benefits of user feedback, it’s hard to imagine your development cycle without it. Whether you’re designing a new product or experience or improving on an existing one, you need to understand the people who use it. Why they use it. What they use it for. Where the moments of unnecessary friction are. Where the moments of absolute delight spring from. The list goes on.

You need to see your product from the user’s perspective. And the best way to do this is to gather feedback directly from them.

Definition of user feedback

Ultimately, user feedback is defined as a mixture of qualitative insights and quantitative data gleaned from actual users on their likes, dislikes, impressions, and desires about a product. Collecting and making sense of user feedback is critical for building new products or making improvements to existing ones based on user needs.

How and when to collect user feedback

Most people wouldn’t dream of launching a design without first getting feedback from their peers. While getting feedback from your peers is better than not getting any feedback at all, getting feedback directly from your users is even better.

By now, you might be wondering when’s the best time to collect user feedback. To put it simply, there’s never a bad time. But don't be overwhelmed. The opportunities are endless, and how you choose to prioritize is up to you. 

We'll share a useful framework for understanding what feedback to collect from your users and when. At the end of this section, you should be able to understand how to uncover what users need and leverage those insights to create compelling products and experiences that meet those needs.

We should be clear, every organization will function a little differently depending on its size, industry, and things of the like, but the general principle remains the same: user feedback will differentiate good designs from bad ones.

In this section, we’ll breakdown collecting user feedback into three main categories:

  • Discover and explore
  • Test and learn
  • Listen

Phase 1: discover and explore

Designing is fun. We don’t argue that, but diving straight into a design without collecting your user’s perspectives can lead you down a path of rework and missed expectations. An excellent designer’s job is more than hitting an experience with a pretty stick—it’s about meeting your user’s needs and exceeding them whenever possible. Before you even set out to build a new product or experience it’s important to understand the market, including your customer and competition.

At this moment, it’s important to start with generative research or a method of collecting user feedback that helps you develop a deeper understanding of your users in order to find opportunities for solutions and innovation. 

To get the information you need, focus on uncovering answers to questions like the following:

  • What do we know about our user and their needs/problems?
  • What is the competition doing?
  • What is the current state of a solution in the market?
  • What do stakeholders expect?

When it comes to discovery, more is more. Collect as much information about your users, competitors, and market landscape as you can so you can move into designing a product with eyes wide open.

Phase 2: test and learn

Now you have all the feedback you need to build a high-level solution for a user problem. Don’t get ahead of yourself, that doesn’t mean it’s time to start designing. After all, you don’t really know if your concept or idea is what your users really want. 

It’s time to define your concept and validate it with your users. This is often referred to as evaluation research or a tactic used for assessing a specific problem to ensure usability and ground it in wants, needs, and desires of real people. The goal here is to test your concept to see if it meets people’s needs, is easy to access and use, and is hopefully even enjoyable. 

Once you have a concept—like a sketch on a napkin or an idea on a page—test it with your users to gauge their reaction.

To get the information you need, focus on uncovering answers to questions like the following:

  • Does a design approach resonate?
  • Do my users understand it?
  • What features or functions are critical? Nice to have?
  • How might you design a feature that’s needed?

Let’s pretend your concept is exactly what your users want. You’re ready to begin your iterative design process. Iterative, because as we said earlier, there’s never a wrong time to collect feedback and improve on your design.

To get the information you need from your prototype testing, you’ll need to uncover answers to questions like the following:

  • What elements of a design approach work and don’t work?
  • What can be improved about the design approach?

Phase 3: listen

You’ve had your fun now designing and testing concepts and prototypes. You’ve also determined that you’re meeting the needs of your users. So it’s time to build and launch your new product or experience. This is exciting, but the time for collecting user feedback is not over.

Once you’ve launched your product into the market, you’d be remiss not to continue following your users as they use it in their natural environment. The things you may uncover will be surprising and may even lead to room for improvement.

To get the information you need, focus on uncovering answers to questions like the following:

  • How can the flow be improved?
  • What areas of opportunity exist in the current experience?
  • What are the pain points in the current experience?

How to analyze user feedback

Gaining confidence in collecting user feedback effectively and at the right time is an important first step toward becoming a user-centric designer. However, one aspect of user feedback that’s often overlooked is the need for analyzing and synthesizing the data. And there’s a lot of data.

When it comes to user feedback, every word, pause, and nonverbal reaction is a data point that can help you build a better design for your user. But you can’t rely on your memory to inform effective design. Beyond that, you’ll likely need to share your findings in order to gain support for the decisions you’re proposing. 

Here are some tips for organizing your data that will make incorporating insights gained from user feedback more manageable.

1. Document your observations

Whether you’re sifting through hours of usability videos, interviews, or any other type of feedback, you’ll want to create a tagging system that aligns with your objectives. Don’t be afraid to adjust and make changes as you go based on what you observe—just aim for consistency as much as you can.

Some useful tags to consider include:

  • Mental models
  • Behaviors
  • Preferences
  • Task completions
  • Pain points
  • Emotional responses

You can keep track of these observations in a spreadsheet or whatever works best for you.

2. Develop unique categories of observation

Think of this as a similar step to the one before, but with a little more focus. Here you’ll want to group your observations in clusters that relate to one another. Here are some examples of observation clusters:

  • How many users did a certain thing
  • Assign severity: Minor, Moderate, Critical
  • Identify individual quotes or clips that are representative of the whole

3. Organize into broader themes

Once you’ve made your observations and categorized them, it’s time to organize them into broad themes. Commonly, user feedback is digested through thematic analysis. During thematic analysis, you aim to make sense of all the notes, observations, and discoveries you’ve documented across all your information sources, by creating themes to organize the information and build throughlines across every individual idea.

This can be done in a number of ways, but the goal is to identify areas of insight that can be transformed into opportunities for design. One popular method for synthesizing findings is affinity mapping.

Check out UserTesting’s affinity diagram template via InVision, and tips for affinity mapping.

Organizing user feedback with an affinity diagram

Once you’ve organized your feedback, you’ll be better able to identify areas that need to be addressed and have all the proof points you need for presenting (and justifying) your next steps.

A final word on user feedback

At the end of the day, you won’t be able to collect user feedback every time you hope to. Nonetheless, have an idea for how you plan to grow and flex your user feedback muscle inside your organization. It might start by simply meeting your deadlines—incorporating user feedback when it wasn’t asked for. The more you show the value of user feedback the better.

Becoming customer-obsessed doesn’t happen overnight. Take this as a personal challenge to change the way your organization thinks about approaching problems and designing solutions that meet them. If you’re able to make incremental changes to your design process that’s a major win that won’t go unnoticed.

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About the author:

Steven is a Content Strategist at UserTesting. When he’s not inserting oxford commas where they belong, you can find him shooting pool at a local dive or building killer playlists on Spotify.