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’?

Google, here’s some context

So often, when I’m searching on Google, I want to give it some context. For instance, I’m looking for pages about Django (the Python-based web framework). They’ll probably mention ‘python’, ‘web’, ‘database’ and ‘programming’. I could feed in this query:

  Django python web database programming

But I’d actually get a very restricted set of results back – just those that include *all* of those terms (give or take some Googley cleverness).

So I could instead do this:

  Django python OR web OR database OR programming

This would certainly be progress. As long as the page mentioned one of those terms, I’d be golden. But there are two issues with this:

  1. I want to be able to stipulate that it doesn’t need to mention those exact terms, but rather stuff related to them.
  2. I don’t think the page would get bonus points for mentioning more than one of those terms, as it should

It’s frustrating that I can’t type something like:

  Django context:(python web database programming)

Google Sets (or something sophisticated akin) should be able to fill in the rest.

Switching from linux to mac

So, I caved. I crumbled like a biscuit in a blender. I am now the smug owner of a MacBook Air, and it really is wonderful. I went 10 days without rebooting before needing a firmware upgrade, and both sleep and wireless work flawlessly.

Here are the bells and whistles that make my brain and fingers happy.

Spaces (OS X Leopard’s virtual desktops doodad) isn’t as good as KDE’s, but it turns out to be fine once you turn off the auto-swoosh by typing these two commands into a Terminal:

defaults write com.apple.dock workspaces-auto-swoosh -bool NO

killall Dock

Before, switching to an application (such as Firefox) that didn’t have a window open already on your current desktop would cause you to be whisked randomly to the first desktop which did have a Firefox/Terminal window open. Now, you can switch to Firefox, hit Cmd-N and a window pops up, ready to go with minimal context disruption.

MondoMouse makes it easy to move and resize windows. By default, moving a window involves awkward trips up to the title bar. The tiny resizing handle is even more awkward, and more awkwardly situated, and is often overpowered by an overeager Dock. Now, I just have to hold down Cmd and move the mouse to move the active window. Holding down Cmd and Alt resizes. Again, this doesn’t work quite as nicely as KDE – for instance, the windows don’t snap satisfyingly into place when they get close to other windows or the edge of the screen. MondoMouse is available for a trial period, after which it costs $15.

Various other niceties deserve a mention. I currently prefer the Carbon Emacs over Aquamacs, though there’s not much to separate the two. Quicksilver, Expose and hot corners are great. For Dashboard widgets, I’d recommend iStat Pro, Word of the Day and maybe Album Art. Adding cdto to Finder is handy. Skim is the way forward for reading PDFs in full screen. Alarm Clock for timers. Cyberduck for accessing other computers over SSH (along with MacFuse and SSHFS).

Some things are just broken on the mac, and will probably never be fixed. Steve Yegge has described his heroic failure to civilize the mac’s shiny silvery savagery with proper focus-follows-mouse behavior. In general, OS X’s switching behavior is wrong in a few respects. The application (rather than the window) is the wrong level at which to switch, and so Cmd-Tab is always jarringly confusing to use. There are still kinks with the way that windows activate and bring themselves to the fore, especially when multiple desktops are involved, and I seem to lose a modal dialog to this problem about once every few days. MacPorts and Fink are workable but still disappointing – having two package systems devalues both, downloading binaries is preferable to compiling every time, and the packages are generally patchier than Debian’s apt-get. Finally, X11 is very clearly a second-class citizen, but works tolerably well. Oh, and unbelievably, the regular expressions engine in Python 2.5 appears to be maddeningly sprained!

There were a few pleasant surprises. Two-finger two-dimensional scrolling is unutterably wonderful. The MacBook Air’s colossal touchpad is very pleasant to use, even for nipple-lovers. OS X applications are pretty consistent about keyboard shortcuts. You can re-learn most muscle memories without too much effort so long as you don’t have to switch back and forth between the old and the new too much in the first few weeks. Emacs is still Emacs.