November 29, 2003

From Page Views to People

One of the ways in which doing business online is radically different than the real world is a remarkably simple fact that on the web you don’t see your customers. All you see is statistics: unique visits, page views, conversion etc. which say nothing about what your customers are experiencing on the site. Whether they’re smiling all the way through it or pulling their hair out.

Invisible customers

Unless you make a concentrated effort to find out, when you do business on the web your customers remain invisible. User research is the most obvious way to connect to them, to understand what they are doing, what they want and how they feel on the site. Of the several methods to conduct user research in the context of the web, I’d say the most reliable ones are: usability testing, user metrics and user feedback.

These are really simple tools and techniques to understand the user experience – usability testing shows you how customers might be using your site, a thorough analysis of user metrics gathered from log files and other tools help you understand how they are really using it and user feedback tells you what they have to say about it.

The most inexpensive and the most empowering [from a customer's standpoint] of these tools is user feedback.

Each one has its own limitations and advantages. But the most inexpensive and more importantly, the most empowering [from a customer’s standpoint] of these tools is user feedback. It is also the most direct. It doesn’t require finding test subjects, creating test conditions or interpreting the data - it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.

The Amazing Amazon

Most websites talk in monologue, there’s hardly any scope for a dialogue on them. This is particularly true of online retailers with product pages that look like right out of a machine. however, is a rare shopping site that recognised early on the importance of real interaction with the user – today, the most valuable information on their product pages are customer ratings and reviews.

It comes across as saying: "Would you like to change something here? Please let us know, we are listening."

Amazon never ceases to surprise me. After launching that remarkable search-inside-the-book feature few weeks ago, they quietly added a small feedback comment box on each product page of their site through which users can send a message to folks at Amazon. It comes across as saying, "Are there any problems with this page? Is anything broken? Would you like to change something? Please let us know, we are listening." This is tremendously empowering.

At the same time it is also a great way to save money. Consider how many places Amazon can cut costs. It fixes whatever's broken faster, it needs to scan lesser number of user comments as customers write in reporting violations and it generates invaluable feedback on whether users are having trouble in product selection. The best part is, it requires zero investment in an expensive technology.

Give Voice to Your Customers

I’m ending this post with a call to action by Seth Godin. The excerpt below is from a recent interview in which he discussed his upcoming book- Free Prize Inside - that will succeed the current best-seller - Purple Cow. The book will talk about how to implement those innovative ideas. When asked if there’s a common thread running across all his books - Amazon lists 110 of them - he gave a gem of an answer.

Number one is that treating people with respect always works better than not treating them with respect.

"Yes. If there are threads, number one is that treating people with respect always works better than not treating them with respect.

Then number two, I believe as a corollary of that, smart individuals always do things better than dumb organizations. And so if we can empower the smart individuals and organizations to move things forward -- especially if they can do it in a way that respects all the constituencies without kowtowing to them, but just respect them -- then everything works better. Our jobs are better, our companies are more productive, the products that get made are the products that should be made, and everything just turns out for the best.

The other thing is, there's a large class of people who want to read about ideas but don't want to do anything about them. So, my thought would be to say to those people: Look, you can read about this, but you can also try it for free.

So why don't you do that? Why don't you send an e-mail to a hundred people who do business with your company and ask them a question?

You can fire up Outlook Express and have an e-mail relationship with hundreds of your customers before the hour is up. So why don't you do that? Why don't you send an e-mail to a hundred people who do business with your company and ask them a question and see what they write back?

Then, have a dialogue with a hundred people for a week and see what you learn. Why don't you get your staff together for lunch and tell them that the last person who comes up with a crazy idea is fired and see what happens? There are lots of things you can do that don't cost anything, that aren't particularly frightening, that can start this process unfolding in a bunch of different directions.

But if you just keep reading about it, nothing's going to happen."

To begin treating your customers with respect start today by giving them a chance to interact with you by adding a feedback text box on every page of your site. It comes for free and it still provides enormous value. On a previous occasion, it has helped me make friends with my customers.

Related Links

Adaptive Path's Mike Kuniavsky's book: Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner's Guide to User Research
Story on Amazon's new search feature and how it's impacting sales
Don't misss the Seth Godin interview
His inspiring article in FastCompany: In Praise of The Purple Cow and his Blog
And of course, the book: Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable

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