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February 18, 2021

Customer Feedback Software Doesn't Provide the Insight Your Product Team Needs. Here's Why.

Every product manager knows the value of understanding the customer. It’s been proven to increase revenue and drive growth.

But many product managers mistakenly think that listening to the customer is the best (or only) way to understand them. It’s why some product managers rely on customer feedback software as their main source of user research.

As the name implies, customer feedback software helps you collect customer feedback. But feedback isn’t the same as insight, and feedback alone won’t help you design great customer experiences. Feedback doesn’t give you the complete and balanced view of the customers you need to deeply understand and serve—insight does that.

All to say, customer feedback software isn’t an adequate substitute for a well-rounded, insight-driven approach to user research. Here’s why.

Feedback and insight aren’t synonymous

Feedback and insight are often used interchangeably, but it’s more of a rectangle-and-square situation: Feedback can give you insight, but not all insight comes from feedback.

Think of it like this: Feedback is an opinion. It’s an input, from customer to designer, about a product that’s sitting in front of them.

Insight, on the other hand, is your understanding as the designer. It’s the deep, intuitive knowledge about a customer and their problem that ultimately helps you solve it. Feedback can be one source of insight, but insights also come from observation, conversation, analysis, and other forms of user research. And insight is what makes good designers great.

Consider this famous quote (allegedly) spoken by Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The quote comes with plenty of ifs, ands, and buts, but it points to the difference between feedback and insight. Feedback is that people want faster horses. Insight goes a level deeper.

Ford’s insight, not the customer’s feedback, helped him realize what his customers didn’t think to articulate: I just want to get from point A to point B faster. If he had limited himself to direct feedback—even though he would still be “listening to the customer”—he might not have thought to build the car.

When it comes to designing products, insight, not just feedback, is the holy grail.

Customer feedback software only offers one source of insight

Traditional customer feedback software is great at delivering—yep, you guessed it—feedback.

These tools often focus on metrics like the Net Promoter Score (NPS), Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT), and Customer Effort Score (CES). They tell you how customers feel about an already-released product version.

To be clear, this is feedback, and it has definite value. You know you’re heading in the right direction when customers say they love your product and find it easy to use. And when they don’t, you know it’s time to make some changes. Sometimes, qualitative feedback sparks specific and actionable design insight, too.

When it comes to product development, insight is the holy grail.

But data shows that feedback alone isn’t enough to sustain a truly customer-centric design process. According to recent research, customer feedback is consistently “most valuable for identifying and fixing quick-hit operational issues and least valuable for identifying innovative product and service ideas.” Only 29% of companies claimed to be “Good” or “Very good” at designing solutions to problems based on customer feedback.

In the design room, knowing what customers think of your product is only one small piece of the puzzle. The central challenge of design is to flesh out the customer’s underlying needs, behavior, desires, and experiences—even when they aren’t aware of those inner workings themselves.

Christina Stahlkopf, the associate director of research and analytics at C Space, made a great analogy on this topic. She mentions NPS by name, but the idea extends to all of these broad feedback metrics used by customer feedback softwares. “NPS offers mostly broad strokes, akin to a compass pointing companies in the right direction,” she says. “But sometimes, you need a more detailed topographical map to navigate a rough or uncertain landscape. Sometimes, what the compass indicates is the best direction to follow actually isn’t once you take into account the on-the-ground terrain.”

For more on Net Promoter Score, check out our post, It’s Time to Move Beyond Net Promoter Score. Here’s How.

Insights require a more robust approach to user research

Customer-centric product teams owe it to themselves (and their users) to invest in user research that considers more than just customer feedback.

Here are a few user research methodologies that can help you get a peek under the hood of your customers:

These methods allow you to look directly at a problem rather than rely on a customer’s interpretation of it. “People have been conditioned to provide a laundry list of features without coupling those to real needs,” explains Brant Cooper, the author of The Lean Entrepreneur. In other words, the customer doesn’t always have the expertise or perspective it takes to see the whole picture.

As product designers, it’s our responsibility to take that work out of our customers’ hands. Research methods like the ones listed above help us spot issues the customer couldn’t, imagine creative solutions, and build helpful products that improve our users lives. Customer feedback can tell us if we’ve succeeded, but it can’t reliably tell us how to design great products.

Gaining insight through user research doesn’t have to be a chore

Customer feedback software is so appealing because it’s quick and largely automated.

That has long been a big advantage over more comprehensive user research methods. Traditional user research is slow and laborious: Tracking down customers can feel like herding cats, surveys often go unanswered, and analyzing all of that rich qualitative data by hand can take weeks.

Before, product teams were in a bind. Option one: Slow down product development cycles to conduct adequate user research. Option two: Forego deep insights and rely on feedback and assumptions.

That exact problem was the inspiration behind Continuous Research, a new method for product teams to understand their customers. Unlike customer feedback software, continuous research uses in-product surveys to gain targeted insights beyond basic product feedback. And unlike traditional user research, it collects, analyzes, and reports those qualitative user insights without as much human upkeep.

To read about the ways user research might not be as big of an undertaking as you thought, check out 5 Common Reasons PMs Skip User Research, Debunked.

About the author

Allison Dickin

Survey fanatic and customer experience advocate. Former Research Director at Yale School of Management and Senior Research Manager at Etsy. Bucknell and University of Chicago alum.

Allison Dickin Headshot

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