Get your users to tell you what they really want

We’re building a site that we want people to love using, so we want as much feedback on it as we can get. From the get-go, we’ve had a big red UserVoice ‘Feedback’ button on the lefthand site of every page. But only a tiny proportion of our users ever suggested, voted or commented on an idea.

I’m not surprised. When you click the UserVoice ‘Feedback’ button, it brings up a list of the top few existing ideas to vote on, plus a vague invitation to ‘go to our feedback forum’.

If the problem you’re having is on that list, then you’re in great shape. But if you have a particular suggestion to make, there is nowhere to do so. In this respect, the ‘submit an idea’ heading is misleading since this box doesn’t really let you do that.

My guess is that not many people really notice the link at the bottom of the box to the feedback forum. This is a shame, because the forum itself is well-designed. It has a nice big box to add a new suggestion. It does a good job of minimizing duplicates by pointing out ideas that have already been submitted as you type. And the idea of giving users 10 votes to spend is enticing, and a rich source of information.

But despite that, we’re scrapping the UserVoice Feedback button and disbanding the forum. Here’s why:

– For the reasons described above, only a vanishingly small proportion of people who have something to say end up submitting/voting/commenting on an idea through UserVoice.

– We’re trying to be thrifty, and our userbase is small. So we don’t want to pay for the much more expensive plans – this cheaper plan doesn’t allow us to transfer our users’ login status from Memrise to UserVoice. As a result, many ideas get submitted anonymously, which makes it harder for us to engage in a conversation with a user [1]. Of course, people can create an account on UserVoice, but that’s a huge pain.

– By emphasising the top ideas, there’s a rich-get-richer effect. People vote most often on the ideas presented at the top of the list, and don’t notice potentially more interesting ideas just below. UserVoice should hide how many votes each idea has already accrued until you’ve already voted – otherwise an idea’s future popularity will be largely determined by its existing popularity.

So what did we do instead?

– We wanted to bring the barrier to entry down to zero. So we just dropped in a plain textbox, asking plainly what we can do to improve things. [2]

– The red Feedback button was ubiquitous, but I bet that made it effectively invisible. Our feedback box gets presented opportunely and prominently at the end of every learning session, at a moment when people will be most likely to have something they want to tell us.

– We get an email every time someone drops in a suggestion, with the user’s email address, so we can respond quickly to them individually. We very much want to follow up with people that have made the effort to give us feedback.

I’d say we’re getting at least 5 times as many suggestions as we were.

On the downside, we don’t have a nice communal forum any more that allows people to vote or comment on one another’s ideas – we might do something about that in the future.

Here’s what I wish UserVoice would do:

– Make it much easier for people to suggest new ideas. Even if it were to bring down the overall quality, I think an increased volume of raw responses would be of greater value.

– Charge straightforwardly based on the number of new suggestions. This would set up the right incentives for UserVoice to make it really easy for users to make new suggestions. N.B. I don’t have a problem with paying – I just don’t want to be forced to start out with a $100/mo plan when we have a tiny userbase in order to get features that I consider essential to the user experience.

– Corollary: Don’t withhold important features like single sign-on and white labeling the design for the exorbitant options.

[1] We compared UserVoice and GetSatisfaction pretty closely, and they both hike the prices if you want to be able to transfer login status across. In fact, GetSatisfaction didn’t (at least at the time) allow anonymous suggestions, which felt like a huge barrier to entry to new submissions – this was what convinced me to try UserVoice in the first place.

[2] Hmm – perhaps this should be a command, e.g. ‘Tell us what we can do to improve things’?

The pain of forgetting

There’s an old adage that psychologists study their own deficiencies: I study the psychology of memory.

At times in the past, I was able to discourse fluidly on obscuranta ranging from the internals of software for text processing, Wildean views of suffering, or conspiracy theories behind the construction of the Egyptian pyramids… few wanted to listen, but at least I found my own thoughts interesting.

Painfully, painfully, I feel this rich arcana slowly seeping away. In my personal Hades, I would be doomed to fill a sieve with grains of sand by day, even as they pooled into a puddle of forgetting around my feet by night.

My frustration hardened into a hypergraphic compulsion to externalize everything I learned. I wrote notes on every article, lecture and conversation. I painstakingly heaped my newfound nuggets of knowledge into a gigantic paper haystack.

But then I had a new problem – I couldn’t find any of it. Like a millionaire without the numbers to his Swiss bank account, I was rich and poor at the same time.

Things came to a head when I desperately tried to assimilate a pillar of textbooks for my neuroscience qualifying exams. Every brain area goes by a dozen names, can be organized by location or by lesion, by experiment or experimenter, by projections or inputs, by effect or atrophy, or equally along a dozen other dimensions.

But in my paper prison, each piece of information was confined to a single cell – a place for everything and everything in its place. In order to allow the informational inmates to run free, I needed a way to allow any nugget of knowledge to abide simultaneously in a multitude of homes.

And so I sought to build software to help me. After many musings in the shower, I constructed an elaborate infrastructure that incorporated: dynamically-generated hyperlinks to highlight associations; transclusion to include the same text in multiple places; tags to break down the trammels of tree-based hierarchies; and aliases to allow for multiple names.

Things are better now. I feel mnemonically empowered, or at least less mnemasculated. By granting conjugal visits from my conscious to my unconscious mind, this index-on-steroids means I can find things more easily.

But maintaining this index requires effort whenever I add a new piece. And my memory mansion grows so fast that even if I slept in a different room every night, I’d never return to the same one twice. I simply don’t remember what’s in there to look for it.

So in truth, even this sophisticated system is just a crude ropes-and-pulleys facsimile of my mind. A fixed hyperlink lacks all of the deep isomorphism, insight and spontaneity of an analogy. The ideas trapped there are dead and inert – they don’t bump and bite and spark off one another like active, bustling, living thoughts. And the effort of exhuming them by typing laboriously into a laptop lacks all the rapid, happy spontaneity of immediate recollection.

I dream of distant-future neural prosthetics, a google gland hooked up to my hippocampus. But I am too impatient to wait.

This is the quest that led me to co-found Memrise. I have gone as far as I can efficiently *externalizing* my thoughts. Memrise’s mission is to improve *internalization* – learning faster, forgetting slower.

I know that there is no silver bullet that will fix my memory. But I’m compelled to continue looking for tools and techniques that can boost it and shore it up.

Memory, the persistent effect of experience, provides the tools with which we think. We are the sum of our memories. When we forget, we erode.