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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Getting feedback from users - having a process of early feedback gathering

In today's world, the field of software applications is increasingly complicated, since there are a number of competing products vying for the same set of customers. Margins are increasingly less and less, and even releasing a product with a killer feature only lasts for so long, before the competition copies the feature and incorporates it into their own product. Organizations have to have policies such that they have a very good understanding of the needs of the customer base, and keep on releasing / modifying features that have an impact on their customers. Such a policy is what is required to ensure that a software product remains ahead of its competitors, but it is not so easy to continue to do so. Here are some steps:
- Have an active set of pre-release customers and engage with them early. The team doing the software application needs to have a proper process to identify sets of users who represent their desired customers and engage them on a regular basis. Identifying such a customer set can be difficult by itself, since many of these people will not understand the need to sign legal documents in the nature of a Non Disclosure Agreement (when you want to ensure that your pre-release users do not release details of the feature in the software before it is released). Another problem is that it is an incredible challenge to get the profile of users who represent your customer base. In many cases, you will find users who want to get involved in the program to learn and try to influence what features you will implement (and these could be people such as those who write help books based on your software, those who provide training for your software, and those who use it for business). Need to understand that many of those volunteering have their own motives, and when you get feedback from them on features within the software, some of that feedback can be based on their own motivations rather than being a true portrayal of the desirability of the feature.
- You need to get more pre-release users that you need, since it is only a percentage of them who will actually be active; many of those who have volunteered do not do the active testing that you desire, or do testing only once in a while. A good ratio is that if you need around 100 active users, you should invite and accept into the program, around 250 people. And from time to time, you will need to remind those who are not participating to take part.

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