User feedback: Coffee time talk

A couple of months ago, we spotted the following trend amongst some of the most innovative internet companies: feedback features, beta versions and sneak previews of new websites. Companies do anything to get feedback from the end-user.

A couple of months ago, we spotted the following trend amongst some of the most innovative internet companies: feedback features, beta versions and sneak previews of new websites. Companies do anything to get feedback from the end-user.


The whole story was translated from Dutch into English by Hidde de Vries. Hidde is a student cognitive artificial intelligence at Utrecht university.

In the influential cluetrain manifesto Doc Searls and David Weinberger wrote: “When you think of the Internet, don’t think of Mack trucks full of widgets destined for distributorships, whizzing by countless billboards. Think of a table for two. Markets Are Conversations”.

So Searls and Weinberger encourage conversation with customers. And that’s exactly what the companies want from feedback features, beta versions and sneak previews.

Starbucksʼ success

Starbucks, the worldwide coffeehouse chain, beautifully shows us how organizations should involve with customers using the internet.

Since Februari, 2007 Starbucks shares decreased with more than 50%. Certainly
something had to happen, so former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was called back.

Reasons for the share drop include an increase in operational costs, decrease of milk prices, consumers being more careful spending their money and the housing bubble.

Starbucks came to the stock market in 1992. Starbucks used to be a new kind of place, where people ordered coffee they never tasted before. Fresh coffee, mostly fresh ingredients and made with love. The coffee machine people had at work was obviously not as good, so Starbucksʼ sales were enormous. To keep up with the growth, the coffee chain decided to a couple of changes, slightly diminishing the allure of Starbucks.

All Starbucks branches used to be equipped with La Marcozzo espresso machines, hand made in Florence. Watching a barista prepare your drink with one of these is a special experience, it is like a theatre show. You have to wait a little while, but you know it is going to be a great cup of coffee. The barista loves preparing the most delicious beverages and the customers love the Starbucks baristas.

Still and all, when your business expands and your shop is full of customers, you do not want to have them wait too long. The La Marcozzo machines were therefore replaced by fully automatic machines. The theatre show was replaced by a machine and part of the Starbucks mystique disappeared. This might be an explanation for the share drop.

One of the first things Schultz did, was centralizing the ʻStarbucks experienceʼ again. People definitely want to pay for coffee, yet the experience needs to be outstanding. The new strategic direction focused on customer experience and innovation.

Unfortunately, in July 2008, Schultz couldnʼt prevent the closure of six hundred branches. The rapid expansion that had been taking place in the preceding years, wasnʼt very good for the company after all.

Despite that, Starbucks can confidentially look at the feature, since they have a loyal customer base, addicted to their coffee. So how can you engage those fans with your brand? How can you give them the idea that they can impact the ʻStarbucks experienceʼ?

Schultz came up with ʻMy Starbucks Ideaʼ, a website that allows Starbucks customers to come up with ideas for improvement. They can also vote for any ideas they like best.

Starbucks employees actively participate in the discussions and as a visitor of the website you can track the status of ideas.

ʻMy Starbucks Ideaʼ has been launched in March 2007 and visitors already submitted about five thousand ideas. Some random ideas: ʻgive everybody free coffee on his or her birthdayʼ, ʻcreate ice cubes from coffee, so that its taste is retained when the ice meltsʼ, ʻhave employees wear name badgesʼ.

In times of economic downturn, one should try to gain advantage from any constructive comments. With the ʻMy Starbucks Ideaʼ website, Starbucks found their way to let customers participate in creating the ʻStarbucks experienceʼ.

Providing feedback is a need: users are just like humans

Users visiting a website have one or more goal. The success of a website is determined by whether the website allows users to achieve those goals. The website needs to accommodate that — it needs to be effective, efficient and pleasant to use. Users are even so just like humans. Besides from the need to rationally achieve goals, users have social needs, too. Therefore users expect social behavior of websites.

The internet is not only used for the achievement of goals, it has also become a source of socials needs.

The Hawthorne-studies (1927–1932) researched the influence from outside on working group and discovered the value of social needs. They split up the workers of a General Electric-factory in two groups.

The first group had to endure constantly altering circumstances (e.g. different light conditions). The second group continued working under the same circumstances as before.

After a few days of testing and interviews, productivity of both groups appeared to increase. After asking the participants about working conditions and showing interest, the participants seemed to be more motivated to work, become more productive and show more commitment.

We can learn from the Hawthorne studies that paying attention to social needs of people, decreases involvement. Having an appropriate feedback function on a beta website can give us the same advantage.

It allows you to increase involvement, you can get to know your website visitors and youʼll get an understanding of their wishes and needs. With this knowledge you can then improve your website. That rewards the person who initially provided the feedback and it strengthens the relationship.

Four tool levels of quality feedback

There is all kinds of ways in which users can be asked to provide feedback. Handling feedback on a website can be done with a variety of tools. We distinguish four levels.

Simple feedback widget

A low level way of asking for feedback. This could be using a small poll, e.g. ʻDid you find what you were looking for on this page?ʼ, to be answered with a simple ʻyesʼ or ʻnoʼ. It can also be a simple contact form. The poll doesnʼt provide answers for the user, while the contact form is answered via email.

Advanced feedback widget

The feedback function is positioned on the page more prominently. It can be made up of a contact form and perhaps a poll. The user will receive status updates about the submitted feedback via email. The website shows bugs that already have been solved and ideas that the team is working on.

External feedback partner

The owner of the website has an account at online services such as User Voice or Get Satisfaction. The feedback is technically dealt with by those services. The website owner has employees monitoring the feedback. Feedback within those web applications is public. That implies users can rate other usersʼ feedback, so that an opinion in terms of quantity emerges.

Dedicated feedback website

This is like having the user sit down right next to you in your office: the company built a dedicated website to collect feedback. The company manages the website and can therefore design the feedback process just like they want. Users can perhaps communicate with each other to come to even better ideas.

Rewarding feedback

One way to ask for feedback is to create involvement. People love coming up with ideas, as long as the company is open for feedback.

Itʼs cool to have your idea implemented. The person that makes Starbucks give everyone free coffee on their birthdays, will obviously get eternal fame. This is an important aspect of the success of user feedback. ʻMy Starbucks Ideaʼ is a modern adaptation of the old fashioned suggestion box, yet it can be way more effective.

Constructively explaining why the provided feedback isnʼt such a great idea, shows that the company is listening. Brightkite is a mobile social network, launched in beta in May last year. On this website, people can broadcast where they are, using their mobile phone.

My idea was to show a history, so that you can see where people were in the past. Within two hours, Brightkite answered: ʻBrightkite doesnʼt plan on using this idea. We are here for now, application such as are already implementing the past and the future in an appropriate way. This isnʼt within our concept.ʼ

Processing feedback

When processing feedback, the administrator will always keep the goals and mission statement of the website in mind. On that basis he will make sure the provided feedback adds value. Brightkite has clear goals and knows exactly where they want to be and what similar websites are doing.

Don’t just go with what the user says

Furthermore it is tempting to immediately draw conclusions. For instance, while setting up a questionnaire you should be careful. Closed questions can make consumers excited about a proposed suggestion.

If 50% of the respondents in an interview states they would buy more products if the products would be shown using 3D images rather than normal images, that might as well be because ʻ3D imagesʼ sounds more modern and innovative.

During speculative interviews, people guess how they would respond to a certain functionality in a certain situation. It does not say anything about how they would have responded in the actual situation.

Although the internet is a relatively anonymous medium, consumers will always come up with socially accepted answers.

From idea to problem

The consumer can come up with ideas that donʼt seem to help the company or website achieve its goals at first sight. But dealing with incoming ideas requires analytical skills.

Coming back to the Starbuck tale: a user proposed the idea of introducing a smart card that could be used in every Starbucks branch. On this card, your name and your usual order will be stored and you can use it to check out right away. Using this card, you are no longer required to wait in line, shortening waiting time for other people, too. Other people suggested placing orders from your mobile phone or the internet.

Did those people really want such a smart card or phone orders? Or were they just not fond of the waiting line? These suggestions came in as ideas, yet they expose an underlying problem. It has to be made sure that problems like this are identified and eventually solved. Never carry out a clientʼs idea without reviewing it first.

Sociocratical way of listening, every idea is important

A sociocratical way of listening assures that a single idea is as important as a single idea that has been submitted seven times. A single idea can be as important and it is not evident that the majority always wins. The idea of a single individual can change a whole company, as long as the company listens.

Gerard Endenburg (owner of a company with the same name) did this when he found out the shipbuilding business collapsed. He almost had to make sixty people redundant. The management agreed unanimously. Factory worker Jan de Groot put an alternative plan forward, Endenburg was forced to look at this plan and it worked out exceptionally.

It was accepted and within weeks the situation changed significantly. We can state that every idea should be treated equally. In every idea is some value. We need to realize this and use it in daily life. Sad to say, sometimes crisis situations are needed to finally move an organization. Closing down six hundred Starbucks branches is an example or such a crisis situation. Wouldnʼt it be nice to be able to help yourself using over five thousand ideas?

Once again: the advantages of requesting user feedback

We can state that we arrived in a new era of requesting feedback. Instead of being secretive, afraid of keeping every new idea as a secret, we let our customers publicly discuss with us and with each other, to get to even better ideas. With these new forms of requesting feedback, organizations seem to implement the ʻmarkets are conversationʼ idea.

So, once again, the advantages of asking users for feedback:

  • Collect ideas to improve the website;
  • identify problems faster;
  • know who your users are;
  • create an experience around the website: participation;
  • continuous development;
  • the website can be launched earlier, bugs can be solved;
  • valuable and useful method of co-creation.


First Rule of Usability? Don’t Listen to Users – Jakob Nielsen, Alertbox, August 5, 2001.
Hey Starbucks, how about coffee cubes – Jeff Jarvis, Businessweek.
Sociocratie: het organiseren van gelijkwaardigheid in een organisatie – Max Herold (Dutch).
The Hawthorne Studies